brad brace

6/12/2008

Soaring cost of living sparking protests across Thailand

Filed under: General,global islands,thailand — admin @ 8:32 am

Tens of thousands of heavy trucks are threatening to cause havoc in the Thai capital while fishermen have begun burning their boats in nationwide protests against soaring prices of fuel and other essentials, protesters said Thursday.

The government has until next Tuesday to subsidize fuel for truckers or face at least 100,000 vehicles rumbling into already traffic-clogged Bangkok, said Thongyoo Khongkhan, secretary-general of the Land Transport Federation of Thailand.

Also protesting or planning to stage demonstrations in this still heavily agricultural nation were garlic, cabbage and rice farmers, along with fishermen.

A government spokesman said money has been allocated to subsidize some costs of the farmers, fishermen and transport workers.

“The government is trying its best to reduce the immediate problem of the various groups of protesters,” said Natawut Saikau.

“The ongoing protests are not affecting the stability of the government but merely affecting the feelings of the people,” he said.

Prices for some commodities, such as rice, have risen because of greater worldwide demand, but farmers complain that these have been offset by skyrocketing inflation spurred by soaring fuel prices.

Thongyoo said a half-day strike Wednesday by truckers who parked their vehicles on highways across the country was only a prelude to next week’s possible push into Bangkok.

“Yesterday we merely showed our power by parking the trucks on the roads, but if the government fails to meet our demand, the federation has decided to make June 17 D-day when we will bring at least 100,000 trucks into Bangkok,” Thongyoo said.

The federation demands that the government sell diesel to them for 3 baht (9 U.S. cents) less than the market price per liter and allocate funds to the federation to convert truck engines from diesel to cheaper natural gas.

Finance Minister Suraphong Suebwonglee brushed aside the threat from truckers, saying authorities were working on a plan that would help reduce costs in the transport sector.

“I am not concerned about the truckers threat to strike because the government is seeking to subsidize the transport sectors as the whole,” Suraphong said without elaborating.

The president of the Fishing Federation of Thailand Mana Sripitak, meanwhile, said that more than half of the 50,000 fishing boats under its wing are being kept ashore because of the high cost of diesel.

Some fishermen have burned their boats in protest, he said, as the federation negotiated with the government for subsidies.

Farmers have in recent days staged protests in Bangkok asking the government to relieve their debts while rice and garlic farmers in northern Thailand have demonstrated against the high cost of living and the low prices for their crops.

Adding to the government’s woes is a threat by major labor unions to join up with pro-democracy demonstrations that have been occurring daily in Bangkok in recent weeks.

6/5/2008

Human trafficking list

Fiji and Papua New Guinea have been added to a United States blacklist of countries trafficking in people.

The Tier Three blacklist is contained in the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report.

The report analyses efforts in 170 countries to combat trafficking for forced labour, prostitution, military service and other purposes.

Pacific correspondent, Campbell Cooney, says the report claims Fiji is a source country for children trafficked for sexual exploitation, and a destination for women from China and India for forced labour and exploitation.

It also claims Papua New Guinea is the destination for women and children from Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and China for sexual exploitation in cities, towns and isolated logging and mining camps.

Remaining on the Tier Three list are Sudan, Syria, Algeria, Iran, Burma and Cuba, while Malaysia and Bahrain have been removed.

In introducing the report, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said human trafficking deprives people of their human rights and dignity, and “bankrolls the growth of organised crime”.

“The petty tyrants who exploit their labourers rarely receive serious punishment,” she said.

“We and our allies must remember that a robust law enforcement response is essential.”

Meanwhile, the Netherlands has allocated $US2.5 million for the elimination of child labour in Papua New Guinea.

The National newspaper reports the funding is part of a 36-month program that also covers Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

PNG acting deputy secretary for Labour and Industrial Relations, Martin Kase, says the program will help determine the extent of child labour in the country.

He says current data is inadequate.

4/28/2008

Hundreds of fake passports seized in Thailand

Filed under: government,intra-national,thailand — admin @ 4:12 am

Thai police arrested and charged a man from Bangladesh found in possession of hundreds of fake passports and visas, a senior police official said on Sunday.

Mohammed Karim, 56, was arrested in a rented house in Bangkok by police investigating a gang of foreign counterfeiters.

They found 90 real passports, 577 fake US and European passports, 680 counterfeit visas and 1,680 fake passport photo pages, mostly for American passports, said police Lieutenant Colonel Sophon Sarapat.

“Karim confessed and he was charged with conspiring to make counterfeit passports for sale, and making fake visas,” he said.

One Thai and one Myanmar citizen also alleged to be involved in the global counterfeiting ring escaped, Sophon added.

Karim could face a maximum of 20 years in jail if convicted.

Passport fraud is a common problem in Thailand. At the end of 2006, Thai and US police launched a joint sting operation which netted 500 fake US passports.

A Thai man and a Pakistani man were arrested on that occasion.

4/22/2008

Drought hits millions in Thai rice region

Filed under: global islands,resource,thailand,weather — admin @ 6:09 am

More than 10 million people in parts of Thailand’s rice bowl region have been hit by drought, the government said Monday, causing further concerns as prices of the staple grain soar.

Thailand’s Disaster Prevention and Mitigation department reported that 55 of the kingdom’s 76 provinces were struggling with drought, mostly in the central, north and northeastern regions.

More than 151,000 rai (60,000 acres) of farmland has been affected, they said in a statement, including half of the key central rice growing provinces.

Vichien Phantodee, a member of the Thai Farmers Association, said rice farmers have been trying to exploit soaring prices and an increased global demand for the grain.

“Farmers want to plant more rice because the price is so good,” Vichien told AFP. “But the drought does affect rice production, particularly for farmland outside the irrigation areas.”

The first rice harvest of the year in Thailand, the world’s biggest rice exporter, traditionally ends in late March or early April. Farmers then let the fields recover, before planting a second harvest in May.

But as export and domestic rice prices hit record highs, many farmers are trying to plant a third crop or move their second harvest forward to take advantage of the boom.

The benchmark Thai variety, Pathumthani fragrant rice, was priced on April 9 at 956 dollars per tonne for export, up about 50 percent from a month earlier, the Thai Rice Exporters Association said in its price survey.

4/20/2008

Suspected puffer fish poisons 140 in Thailand

Filed under: global islands,thailand — admin @ 3:04 pm

More than 140 people have been rushed to hospital in northern Thailand after snacking on fish balls thought to be made from the highly poisonous puffer fish, local media reported Sunday.

Villagers in Nan province were given a soup containing the fish balls at a funeral, the Bangkok Post newspaper reported, and soon began vomiting, complaining of numbness in the tongue and shortness of breath.

After being rushed to hospital, doctors deduced that the funeral-goers had symptoms in line with puffer fish poisoning, which can be deadly, the English-language daily said. They are being kept in hospital under observation.

The fish balls were bought at a local market, the paper said, adding that meat from the toxic fish is sometimes used illegally because it is cheap.

Puffer fish is valued as a delicacy known as fugu in Japan, where chefs are specially trained to prepare it so it does not endanger diners.

The fish contains a poison known as tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin which paralyses a person’s muscles and for which there is no antidote.

4/10/2008

Thai police find 54 dead Burmese workers in lorry

Filed under: burma,global islands,government,human rights,thailand — admin @ 6:51 am

Fifty-four illegal Burmese migrants who were being smuggled by traffickers in southern Thailand suffocated in the sweltering confines of a tiny seafood container lorry today after the air-conditioning system failed.

Some of the 67 survivors told how they were just 30 minutes into their journey to the resort island of Phuket, where they hoped to find work, when conditions became unbearably stifling.

But the driver warned those trying to alert him by banging on the container’s walls and calling him on his mobile phone to be quiet for fear of tipping off the police as they passed through check-points along the route.

He turned on the air-conditioning, but it failed and went off after a few minutes. When the driver finally stopped on a quiet road running along the Andaman Sea 90 minutes later, many of the migrants, mostly women, had already collapsed. After discovering the horrific scene, he ran away.

“I thought everyone was going to die,” said survivor, Saw Win, 30. “I thought I was going to die. If the truck had driven for 30 minutes more, I would have died for sure.”

It underscored the plight of Burmese migrants fleeing conflict and economic collapse in their homeland who flood into Thailand across the porous border desperately seeking work.

As many as 150,000 languish in refugee camps along the border. But another 1.5 million live and work in Thailand, often in the seafood processing, fishing and construction industries that Thais shun.

Just 482,925 have managed to secure work permits leaving at least a million working illegally, vulnerable to abuse from corrupt officials and exploited by unscrupulous employers. They are forced to work for as little as £1.15 a day, half what a Thai worker could expect.

The 121 migrants who found themselves crammed in the seafood container left Song Island in Burma last night for the short sea crossing by fishing boat, landing near Ranong.

They paid the traffickers £82 each to transport them to Phuket to work as day labourers, but were so tightly packed into the truck there was standing-room only in the air-tight container measuring just six metres long and 2.2 metres wide.

“It was hot when the truck started moving,” one 40-year-old survivor explained from his bed in Ranong hospital, where another 20 were treated. “We asked the driver to turn the air-conditioner on. The heat made me pass out and the next thing I knew I was in hospital.”

Police Colonel Kraithong Chanthongbai said: “The people said they tried to bang on the walls of the container to tell the driver they were dying, but he told them to shut up as police would hear them when they crossed through check-points inside Thailand.”

When police reached the scene in the early hours of this morning, tipped off by local villagers, they found 54 of the migrants already dead. Officers were seen lifting the bodies of the 37 women and 17 men, dressed in little more than T-shirts and shorts, from the truck’s rear where only rags of discarded clothing remained.

The bodies were taken to a shed where they were laid out in rows on plastic sheets. Police said they would be buried in temporary graves so that relatives could reclaim them in the future.

Tonight just two survivors remained in hospital while the other 65 were being detained by police who said they were likely to be deported as illegal immigrants.

Police were searching for the driver. The owner of the truck, part of the Rung Thip company’s fleet, was detained for questioning despite claiming to have no knowledge of the human cargo.

“We believe this must be part of a smuggling racket which has to be tracked down,” said Col Kraithong. “The large number of illegals represents a very brazen act.”

Food price riots

The UN’s most senior emergency relief co-ordinator has given warning that spectacular food price rises will trigger riots throughout the developing world. A year ago his remarks might have been prescient. Now they are a statement of fact: in Haiti, five people have died in the past week and thousands more have been reduced to eating biscuits made of soil and cooking oil as food riots drag the western hemisphere’s most fragile and impoverished democracy back to the brink of collapse. In Egypt, where wholesale rice prices have more than doubled since October, food price inflation has triggered the worst urban unrest for a generation. From Yemen to Uzbekistan, simple hunger has emboldened citizens to protest against regimes more used to cowed docility.

Public order is at risk in at least 33 countries, according to the World Bank. But the high food prices bringing misery to poor consumers offer the chance of transformative change to poor producers. These are, principally, the rice growers of India, China and South-East Asia, whose output would fetch twice what it commanded just six months ago if they had free access to world markets. Securing this access, and the investment in agricultural infrastructure that would follow, is the only long-term solution to an accelerating global crisis.

The factors bringing the age of cheap food to such a shuddering halt are well understood. Devastating droughts wrecked last year’s grain harvests in Australia and sub-Saharan Africa. The breakneck – and ill-advised – replanting of farmland for biofuels in the Americas helped to double world wheat and livestock feed prices between 2006 and 2007 alone, while high oil prices are transmitted to agriculture via the rising cost of planting, harvesting and distribution. Above all, soaring Indian and Chinese demand for land-intensive meat and dairy products are fuelling food price inflation with global impact and little sign of slowing.

The emerging economic superpowers account for more than a third of the world’s population but less than a quarter of global food output. India and China must, therefore, take urgent steps to modernise their farming sectors as fast as their export-led manufacturing. But no amount of investment in irrigation or high-yield crops will ease the current crisis unless developed as well as developing economies can agree to lift trade barriers instead of impose them.

The EU, on paper at least, has led the way with an undertaking to scrap large-scale food subsidies provided it can keep smaller ones for as-yet undefined “sensitive” commodities. The Philippines has followed by lifting rice import tariffs out of an urgent need to buy more on world markets. But the same emergency has led Vietnam, one of the world’s largest rice producers, to introduce new export tariffs.

Vietnam’s dilemma is acute and repeated across the developing world. Its people cannot go hungry for the sake of its exports, and its Government’s first duty is to craft safety nets for the most vulnerable. But beyond that, the solution is not to hoard food but to grow more of it, and to sell it on open markets that reward the most efficient farmers. That will take political courage and an unsqueamish approach to GM foods. Affordable food and social stability will require a greater openness to science and trade.

3/31/2008

Climate Refugees

Filed under: General,global islands,png,thailand,weather — admin @ 5:57 am

Three thousand islanders in Papua New Guinea are making preparations to
become the world’s first “climate refugees” and evacuate their home in the
Carteret islands. The UN’s Human Rights Council says the islands are being
eroded by sea waters that are rising due to global warming. Its report
predicts that people will have to abandon the islands over the next few
years and resettle on nearby Bougainville island. The document comes as
delegates from up to 190 nations meet in Bangkok today for UN climate
change talks.

Farmers fall prey to rice rustlers as price of staple crop rockets

Filed under: bangladesh,General,global islands,resource,thailand,weather — admin @ 5:38 am

Asian countries curb exports to avoid shortfalls as ‘perfect storm’ nearly doubles price in three months.

Knee-deep in muddy water, her face smeared with sandalwood paste and a broad-brimmed hat for protection against the broiling sun, Samniang Ketia grins broadly at her good fortune to be in the rice growing business as she replants shoots for the next harvest two months off.

The 37-year-old, who leases a small plot of land in Samblong, central Thailand, knows the price of rice has rocketed – in some cases nearly doubling in three months – and that she is about to reap the benefit when she sells what her family does not eat.

But the price rises have a downside and spawned a new phenomenon: rice rustling. One night, one of Samniang’s neighbour’s fields was stripped as it was about to be harvested. Local police have now banned harvesting machines from the roads at night while on the northern plains farmers are camping in their fields, shotguns at the ready.

“I’ve never heard of it happening before, that people have stolen rice,” said Lung Choop, 68, who grows rice on his smallholding. “But it’s happening now because rice is so expensive. I guess I’ll have to guard my own distant fields when they’re ready.”

Across Asia the suddenly stratospheric rice prices have prompted countries to ban exports amid fears that shortages could provoke food riots.

While prices of wheat, corn and other agricultural commodities have surged since the end of 2006, partly because of extra demand for biofuels to offset rising oil prices, rice held fairly steady.

However, prices for the staple food of about 2.5 billion Asian people rocketed two months ago. Thai rice, the global benchmark, which was quoted at just below $400 (£200) a tonne in January rose to $760 (£380) last week.

Aware that shortages of such a vital staple could spell trouble at home, Asian governments have moved to ensure their people get enough to eat at a price they could afford, an insurance policy which has in turn raised prices further.

Late last week, Cambodia banned all exports for two months to ensure “food security”, following the lead of Egypt, a major exporter. Vietnam, which ships 5m tonnes abroad each year, on Friday declared a 20% cut in exports.

India started the ball rolling late last year. With dwindling stocks, the large exporter introduced curbs that effectively banned exports, around 4m tonnes. Pakistan and China also introduced curbs.

Hopes that India would re-enter the market within the next few months were dashed on Thursday when it raised the minimum price for exports from $650 a tonne to $1,000, effectively maintaining the ban, which was escaped only by the foreign currency-earning premium basmati.

The Philippines is potentially among the biggest losers – with 91 million people, it cannot feed itself. After its farmers warned of a looming shortfall Manila’s fast-food outlets offered to serve “half portions” of rice to conserve stocks. The Philippines’ president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, has also pleaded with Vietnam to guarantee 1.5m tonnes of rice this year.

While Indonesians took to the streets of the capital, Jakarta, in protest at rising prices even Thailand, the world’s largest exporter, is bracing itself.

The country produces 30m tonnes of rice a year, and aims to export 8.5m tonnes. Last year 9.5m tonnes was sold abroad and more may be exported this year, prompting ministers to consider curbs. “A rice shortage in the local market is very likely,” said Prasert Kosalwit, director general of the Thai government’s rice department.

Rice shortfalls were reported in southern Thailand as traders from the northern rice belt bought up stocks at inflated prices.

With global rice stocks at their lowest level since 1976, analysts expect price rises to continue until the end of next year. Some analysts predict it could hit $1,000 (£500) a tonne before farmers, spurred by the high prices, plant more crops and increase supplies.

Demand outstripped supply by nearly 2m tonnes last year. The predicted shortfall this year is more than 3m tonnes on the 424m tonnes required.

Across Asia, with its vast and growing population, there is little if any extra land to bring into production, and it may take several years for any “supply response” to materialise.

Growing urbanisation over the longer term in countries such as China and India is cited as a key factor in the shortfall, where the increasingly affluent middle classes demand more meat and dairy products, with land turned over to growing feed for livestock.

Rising wealth in Africa has also become a factor. Oil-rich Nigeria is now the largest importer in Africa, a continent which takes the lion’s share of Thai exports, about 40%. Asia soaks up 35%.

Severe weather across Asia has also damaged production. Record icy temperatures were recorded in China and Vietnam, the latter of which also suffered a pest outbreak. Bangladesh endured a devastating cyclone while Australia suffered a prolonged drought.

“It’s been described as a ‘perfect storm’ of factors that have pushed prices to their highest levels since the 1970s,” said Adam Barclay, of the International Rice Research Institute.

The World Food Programme is also alarmed. The extra cost of feeding the 28 million “poorest of the poor” spread across 14 Asian countries will cost $160m a year and it has asked three dozen donor governments for the cash, part of a $500m global appeal to offset rising food prices.

“The real danger with rising rice prices is that the ‘working poor’ will simply be pushed into the category of ‘poor’ who will look to us to feed them,” said Paul Risley, spokesman for WFP Asia. “There are hundreds of millions living at, or just below, the poverty line of $1-a-day, spending 70% of their day-labour wages on food.

“If food costs double they’ve no opportunity to increase their earnings and no alternative but to reduce what they and their families eat.”

11/27/2007

Democracy, and vote buying, returning to Thailand

Filed under: General,global islands,government,thailand — admin @ 5:58 am

NAKHON RATCHASIMA, Thailand: There is an old story here in Thailand’s vast, rice-growing hinterland about politicians who handed out a pair of slippers at election time – one slipper before the vote and the other after they were successfully elected.

Since the earliest days of democracy in Thailand seven decades ago, candidates have used both creative and not-so-creative ways to buy votes. The eve of an election is still known here as the “night of the barking dogs” because canvassers traditionally go house to house handing out cash – rousing hounds along the way.

Fourteen months after the military took power in a bloodless coup, Thailand is returning to democracy. And this, say government officials preparing for the Dec. 23 elections, means the return of money politics.

Phones have started ringing in the offices of the country’s Election Commission, and 75 cases of alleged vote buying have been opened based on complaints and tip-offs, according to Suthiphon Thaveechaiygarn, the secretary general of the commission.

“Political parties will definitely try to buy votes,” Suthiphon said in a phone interview from Bangkok. “They are trying to develop new techniques.”

Vote buying in various forms exists in many countries, whether as last-minute road paving, “lunch money” for voters who attend rallies or the supply of food and provisions. But it is especially well entrenched in Thailand.

Economists have calculated that the economy swells by about 30 billion baht, or close to $1 billion, around election time. Supavud Saicheua, the managing director of Phatra Securities, which conducts research for Merrill Lynch in Thailand, called this estimate “not far-fetched.”

“People need to be incentivized to go to the polls,” said Supavud, who also serves on a government economic planning committee. He added that as a form of wealth distribution “it’s better than any government program.”

Typically, money or favors are handed out by canvassers from political parties and distributed to voters by village headmen. It is considered too crass and too risky for candidates to give out money themselves.

No one knows what the scale of vote buying will be in this election, but the government appears to expect the worst. Both the prime minister and the general who led the coup last year have been warning for weeks of widespread vote buying. The Election Commission has sent 2,200 investigators, some of them undercover, to zones where they believe the problem will be most common. And six police officers have been assigned to monitor each of the 400 constituencies.

A recently passed law makes it illegal, and punishable with prison, to receive money for votes. Previously, only those who paid could be prosecuted. But the law, which came into effect in October, also offers rewards of up to 100,000 baht for those who have received money and who report it before or within seven days of election day.

Yet many people, including government officials, are skeptical that the new law – especially the reward provision – can work.

“You have to compare the value of the money they are receiving to the value of their lives,” said Mehta Silapun, the director of the Election Commission in Nakhon Ratchasima, one of the main cities in northeast Thailand. “After they give the information, they still have to go back and live in the area with the people that they reported.”

Politically motivated murders are not uncommon during election time. “The person who reports vote buying must be very brave, a very good person or have friends who can protect them,” Mehta said.

Thavison Lownanuruck, the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce in Nakhon Ratchasima, says the law will discourage canvassers from handing out cash. But he predicts canvassers will provide voters with bus tickets and coupons for gasoline, as well as pay for things like school fees for children and payments on motorcycle loans.

“They will say, ‘You just give the receipt to me, I will take care of it,’ ” Thavison said.

The election will pit allies of Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire tycoon who was ousted as prime minister last year, against his longstanding opposition, the Democrat Party, and an array of smaller parties. The military is watching the outcome nervously for signs that Thaksin’s proxies will triumph.

“This is not just an ordinary election,” Thavison said. “The question is whether Thaksin can come back or not.”

At a government-sponsored seminar last Tuesday, Thavison asked an audience of village headmen from around northeast Thailand how many of them thought the election would be “fair.” No one raised his hand.

Thaksin has remained overseas since the coup, and his party has been disbanded. But his allies created the People Power Party, which according to some opinion polls is the front-runner in the elections.

Northeastern Thailand, populous and poor, is a leading battleground for Thaksin; 135 of the 400 constituencies in Parliament will be elected from Isaan, as the region is known. Bangkok, by contrast, elects only 36 seats.

Vote buying has long been most prevalent in Isaan, where the tradition is woven into village life. Gothom Arya, a former election commissioner, says handing out money and favors is only one part of a “neo-feudal” relationship between a villager and politician-cum-patron.

“It’s a setting where you exchange favors,” Gothom said. “You rely on me. I rely on you.”

Farmers and villagers offer their support in the expectation that their wealthy patrons will show their generosity and offer help when times get bad, Gothom said.

“Honestly speaking, this is normal,” said Somporn Trisak, owner of a small roadside restaurant in a rice-farming community near Nakhon Ratchasima city. “Every party hands out money. People take money from everyone, but who they vote for is up to them.”

Somporn said money had not yet been distributed to voters in her village, but said she had heard that local canvassers had already received money.

It remains possible that closer scrutiny by the authorities and tougher laws will deter vote buying. In 2001, when the Thai economy was still recovering from economic crisis, a popular and ironic phrase among villagers in the northeast was: “The money hasn’t come. I don’t know how to vote.”

Somphant Techa-atik, a specialist on vote buying and a newspaper columnist based in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen, says that because of high gasoline prices, the most popular form of vote buying in this election will be paying for people to return to their hometowns to vote. Many people from the northeast work hundreds of kilometers from their homes on construction sites, in resorts or in Bangkok as waiters, maids, salespeople or taxi drivers.

“If you have to spend 3,000 baht to make it back to your hometown, nobody will do it,” he said.

On Nov. 13, the police arrested the owner of a gasoline station in Nakhon Ratchasima Province and seized bank notes amounting to 10,700 baht that were stapled to a pamphlet carrying the names of candidates from the People Power Party. The Election Commission says it is investigating vote buying.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, Somphant said.

“It’s difficult to offer tangible evidence of vote buying,” Somphant said. “But everyone in Thailand knows it happens.”

Democracy, and vote buying, returning to Thailand

Filed under: General,global islands,government,thailand — admin @ 5:58 am

NAKHON RATCHASIMA, Thailand: There is an old story here in Thailand’s vast, rice-growing hinterland about politicians who handed out a pair of slippers at election time – one slipper before the vote and the other after they were successfully elected.

Since the earliest days of democracy in Thailand seven decades ago, candidates have used both creative and not-so-creative ways to buy votes. The eve of an election is still known here as the “night of the barking dogs” because canvassers traditionally go house to house handing out cash – rousing hounds along the way.

Fourteen months after the military took power in a bloodless coup, Thailand is returning to democracy. And this, say government officials preparing for the Dec. 23 elections, means the return of money politics.

Phones have started ringing in the offices of the country’s Election Commission, and 75 cases of alleged vote buying have been opened based on complaints and tip-offs, according to Suthiphon Thaveechaiygarn, the secretary general of the commission.

“Political parties will definitely try to buy votes,” Suthiphon said in a phone interview from Bangkok. “They are trying to develop new techniques.”

Vote buying in various forms exists in many countries, whether as last-minute road paving, “lunch money” for voters who attend rallies or the supply of food and provisions. But it is especially well entrenched in Thailand.

Economists have calculated that the economy swells by about 30 billion baht, or close to $1 billion, around election time. Supavud Saicheua, the managing director of Phatra Securities, which conducts research for Merrill Lynch in Thailand, called this estimate “not far-fetched.”

“People need to be incentivized to go to the polls,” said Supavud, who also serves on a government economic planning committee. He added that as a form of wealth distribution “it’s better than any government program.”

Typically, money or favors are handed out by canvassers from political parties and distributed to voters by village headmen. It is considered too crass and too risky for candidates to give out money themselves.

No one knows what the scale of vote buying will be in this election, but the government appears to expect the worst. Both the prime minister and the general who led the coup last year have been warning for weeks of widespread vote buying. The Election Commission has sent 2,200 investigators, some of them undercover, to zones where they believe the problem will be most common. And six police officers have been assigned to monitor each of the 400 constituencies.

A recently passed law makes it illegal, and punishable with prison, to receive money for votes. Previously, only those who paid could be prosecuted. But the law, which came into effect in October, also offers rewards of up to 100,000 baht for those who have received money and who report it before or within seven days of election day.

Yet many people, including government officials, are skeptical that the new law – especially the reward provision – can work.

“You have to compare the value of the money they are receiving to the value of their lives,” said Mehta Silapun, the director of the Election Commission in Nakhon Ratchasima, one of the main cities in northeast Thailand. “After they give the information, they still have to go back and live in the area with the people that they reported.”

Politically motivated murders are not uncommon during election time. “The person who reports vote buying must be very brave, a very good person or have friends who can protect them,” Mehta said.

Thavison Lownanuruck, the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce in Nakhon Ratchasima, says the law will discourage canvassers from handing out cash. But he predicts canvassers will provide voters with bus tickets and coupons for gasoline, as well as pay for things like school fees for children and payments on motorcycle loans.

“They will say, ‘You just give the receipt to me, I will take care of it,’ ” Thavison said.

The election will pit allies of Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire tycoon who was ousted as prime minister last year, against his longstanding opposition, the Democrat Party, and an array of smaller parties. The military is watching the outcome nervously for signs that Thaksin’s proxies will triumph.

“This is not just an ordinary election,” Thavison said. “The question is whether Thaksin can come back or not.”

At a government-sponsored seminar last Tuesday, Thavison asked an audience of village headmen from around northeast Thailand how many of them thought the election would be “fair.” No one raised his hand.

Thaksin has remained overseas since the coup, and his party has been disbanded. But his allies created the People Power Party, which according to some opinion polls is the front-runner in the elections.

Northeastern Thailand, populous and poor, is a leading battleground for Thaksin; 135 of the 400 constituencies in Parliament will be elected from Isaan, as the region is known. Bangkok, by contrast, elects only 36 seats.

Vote buying has long been most prevalent in Isaan, where the tradition is woven into village life. Gothom Arya, a former election commissioner, says handing out money and favors is only one part of a “neo-feudal” relationship between a villager and politician-cum-patron.

“It’s a setting where you exchange favors,” Gothom said. “You rely on me. I rely on you.”

Farmers and villagers offer their support in the expectation that their wealthy patrons will show their generosity and offer help when times get bad, Gothom said.

“Honestly speaking, this is normal,” said Somporn Trisak, owner of a small roadside restaurant in a rice-farming community near Nakhon Ratchasima city. “Every party hands out money. People take money from everyone, but who they vote for is up to them.”

Somporn said money had not yet been distributed to voters in her village, but said she had heard that local canvassers had already received money.

It remains possible that closer scrutiny by the authorities and tougher laws will deter vote buying. In 2001, when the Thai economy was still recovering from economic crisis, a popular and ironic phrase among villagers in the northeast was: “The money hasn’t come. I don’t know how to vote.”

Somphant Techa-atik, a specialist on vote buying and a newspaper columnist based in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen, says that because of high gasoline prices, the most popular form of vote buying in this election will be paying for people to return to their hometowns to vote. Many people from the northeast work hundreds of kilometers from their homes on construction sites, in resorts or in Bangkok as waiters, maids, salespeople or taxi drivers.

“If you have to spend 3,000 baht to make it back to your hometown, nobody will do it,” he said.

On Nov. 13, the police arrested the owner of a gasoline station in Nakhon Ratchasima Province and seized bank notes amounting to 10,700 baht that were stapled to a pamphlet carrying the names of candidates from the People Power Party. The Election Commission says it is investigating vote buying.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, Somphant said.

“It’s difficult to offer tangible evidence of vote buying,” Somphant said. “But everyone in Thailand knows it happens.”

11/25/2007

Thailand’s Patriotic Law to Stop Traffic

Filed under: General,global islands,military,thailand — admin @ 7:50 am

A group of retired and active duty generals in the army appointed to parliament in Thailand have proposed a law where traffic will be required to come to a stand still at the playing of the national anthem. The law is deemed to boost patriotism.

Parliament deferred the flag bill in an effort to study it’s chaotic affects on busy roads. It is already a requirement for all to stand still in parks, offices and stations, at the playing of the anthem on loud speakers, between 8a.m. and 6p.m.

“The national anthem lasts only one minute and eight seconds, so why can’t motorists stop their cars for the sake of the country? They already spend more time in traffic jams anyway,” stated retired General Pricha Rochanasena.

Thailand's Patriotic Law to Stop Traffic

Filed under: General,global islands,military,thailand — admin @ 7:50 am

A group of retired and active duty generals in the army appointed to parliament in Thailand have proposed a law where traffic will be required to come to a stand still at the playing of the national anthem. The law is deemed to boost patriotism.

Parliament deferred the flag bill in an effort to study it’s chaotic affects on busy roads. It is already a requirement for all to stand still in parks, offices and stations, at the playing of the anthem on loud speakers, between 8a.m. and 6p.m.

“The national anthem lasts only one minute and eight seconds, so why can’t motorists stop their cars for the sake of the country? They already spend more time in traffic jams anyway,” stated retired General Pricha Rochanasena.

11/20/2007

Smuggled Chinese Travel Circuitously to the U.S.

A canoe sits on the Rio Hondo River, which runs between Mexico and Belize. Villagers in a border town say goods and people – including many Chinese hoping to make it to America — are smuggled into Mexico from Belize.

Since the late 1980s, hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants from China’s Fujian province have been smuggled into the United States.

The business of human-smuggling has evolved as security has tightened in the U.S. And the smugglers, called by Chinese as “snakeheads,” have become more sophisticated.

In the summer of 1993, a rusty steamer ran aground off New York City. Nearly 300 passengers plunged into the chilly waters, desperate to touch American soil. Ten would die in the water, within sight of shore.

The boat was called the Golden Venture, and its passengers were immigrants smuggled from Fujian.

The capsize of the Golden Venture became national news. It was the first time many people had heard of people being smuggled from China. The incident was a source of embarrassment for both the Chinese and U.S. governments.

Changes in the Human-Smuggling Business

Fourteen years later, the flow of Fujianese to America continues, but the business of human smuggling has changed significantly. When the smuggling began two decades ago, the cost of coming to the United States was around $15,000. Now, immigrants pay $60,000 to $80,000 to be brought to America.

In one village in Fujian, people gather in the communal area. Old men play cards in the corner; others drink tea and talk. There are very few women and no young people.

Villagers say smuggling is an open business here. One of them says everyone knows how to find a snakehead —but that you need to have the money to go.

People who can go are aided by family, friends and former neighbors who have already prospered in the United States. Sometimes people living abroad lend money to pay for the snakehead.

For the most part, human smuggling is no longer about packing hundreds of people into dangerous ships. Nowadays, smuggling involves airports and cars and crisscrossing the globe on scheduled flights. Snakeheads use methods that mimic legal means of entry.

Getting a Fake ID

Smuggling people through legal points of entry — instead of skirting them — requires fake documents. And Bangkok is one place to get phony papers.

In Thailand’s capital, there is a closed-off street known as Kao Sarn Road. At night it lights up with bright signs advertising tattoo and massage parlors. The air smells of humidity, grilled meat, people and booze.

You can buy fake IDs, driver’s licenses, press cards and even fake degrees. The people who sell these documents set up shop among racks of knock-off Puma T-shirts and fake Chuck Taylors. They sit on cheap, plastic lawn chairs behind card tables.

You won’t find fake passports on these tables, but they’re available if you have the connections and the cash. At the end of Kao Sarn Road, a restaurant owner and part-time stolen passport dealer says the documents are in demand. The man didn’t want his name used.

“Most of them are foreigners. There’s a hotel called Malaysia Hotel at Lumpini that has some people who make fake passports. It is the biggest source of fake passports in Thailand,” he says. “At the hotel, they do everything for you.”

The restaurant owner started dealing passports about 10 years ago. He is a middleman, buying passports and selling them to the next middleman. He doesn’t know who ends up using the passports.

“It’s not that every passport has the same price. For example, the U.S. passport is almost worthless because everything is very strict. It’s the same with the U.K. passport,” he says. “You cannot fake it. There is high demand for passports from Israel and Japan.”

“People will use the same passport. They peel back the cover and switch the picture,” the dealer says. “They change the name, the signature — like how they do it with fake student IDs.”

Newer passports that use photos from digital cameras are made in Malaysia, he says.

Traveling Along the Smuggling Route

For the Chinese who are smuggled through Bangkok, the journey starts out legally. Many of them fly into Bangkok International Airport on legal tourist visas with their own Chinese passports — but these tourists never go home.

In Thailand they get fake documents and then move on to the next stop along the smuggling route.

Once they’re on the road, the Chinese travel a meandering route — through Russia, Europe, Africa, Latin America and Canada — before finally reaching the United States.

Good smugglers — the expensive ones — run a full-service operation. They escort the immigrants each step of the way, providing food, lodging and transportation.

Working through local operators with local nicknames, snakeheads in China work with the “pig daddies” in Thailand who hand off their charges to “coyotes” in Latin America.

On the Belize-Mexico Border

With Mexico to the north, Belize has become a stopover for smugglers traveling by land from Latin America to the United States.

Residents of Douglas in Belize know their village is a popular spot to smuggle goods and people into Mexico. The village lies next to the Rio Hondo River, which divides the two countries.

Belize has a surprisingly large Chinese population, making up more than 3 percent of the country’s total population of 300,000. Those familiar with the trade say the smugglers are local Chinese-Belizean businesspeople.

Two men with bikes and a gaggle of kids show up when they realize someone is at the banks of the Rio Hondo. The river’s edge is lined with trees and sugarcane. The water is still. Tied to the embankment are little canoes that locals say are used to shuttle contraband between Belize and Mexico.

The sun sets, and the light quickly slips into darkness. One of the men, in a white T-shirt and jeans, initially doesn’t seem surprised by the visitor. But after some questioning, he becomes suspicious and says the canoes are used for fishing.

Later that night, one of the men is still out by the water. He leans on his bike as if waiting for something or someone.

Reaching America

After the Chinese cross into Mexico, they travel north and are smuggled across the border into America. Every week, 50 to 100 Chinese nationals are caught trying to cross the U.S.-Mexican border.

Those who make it to the United States are taken to a safe house and handed cell phones. They call home to say they’ve arrived safely. The snakeheads immediately go to the relatives’ homes either in China or the United States to collect payment.

Once they’re released by the snakeheads, these new immigrants fan out across the country, boarding Chinatown buses that take them to every corner of the U.S.

They go to jobs offered by Chinese immigrants who’ve already made it. They seek prosperity — the same prosperity that others who have traveled a similar path before them have found.

11/10/2007

King Sparks Pink Shirt Fever in Thailand

Filed under: General,global islands,thailand — admin @ 6:20 am

Thailand is turning pink.

Some people in the Southeast Asian country have begun donning pink shirts as a tribute to their beloved 79-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The trend started when he checked out of a hospital Wednesday wearing a pale pink collar-less shirt and pink blazer.

For about two years, Thais have shown their respect for the monarch by wearing yellow — the color that in Buddhist tradition symbolizes Monday, the weekday he was born. That fashion statement began during the 2006 celebrations of Bhumibol’s 60th anniversary on the throne.

But it looks like pink is becoming the new yellow for Thais.

There was already a trend toward pink because astrologers had declared it an auspicious color for the king’s 80th year. A royal emblem, using pink among other colors, was specially designed for his birthday.

But Bhumibol’s appearance in pink attire has spurred interest in the new color.

The Commerce Ministry is preparing to produce 30,000 pink shirts in coming weeks to meet rising demand, said Yanyong Phuangrat, chief of the agency’s domestic trade department.

“There is a high demand for pink T-shirts because it’s an auspicious color for the king,” Yanyong said.

11/4/2007

Piracy carries jail threat in Thailand NEW!

Filed under: General,global islands,media,thailand — admin @ 6:33 am

MUMBAI: Thai authorities are tightening the noose on piracy by handing out jail sentences to pirates arrested during joint raids conducted by the Thai authorities and the Motion Picture Association (MPA).

In 2007 alone, 12 cases have resulted in distributors and retailers being sentenced to jail (without suspension) for up to two years and fines of up to $22,000 imposed. In one case, even possession of as little as 78 infringing CD-Rs gained the pirate a three month jail sentence.

This is unprecedented as the Central Intellectual Property and International Trade Court of Thailand has until 2006 only sentenced a Taiwanese national to jail for two years for owning a factory that produced pirated discs.

Mike Ellis, Senior Vice President and Regional Director, Asia-Pacific for the Motion Picture Association said: “We are encouraged by the Thai authorities’ tougher stance in meting out jail terms and stiff fines to pirates. We have found in our experience elsewhere that deterrent sentences are essential for effective enforcement. To the pirates, being fined is just a cost of doing business.”

“While this is a first step, we look forward to more deterrent sentences. After all, these are but only 12 out of the over 200 cases in which MPA are involved. I’m certain there are more cases that involve Thai films that deserve equally severe punishment,” Ellis continued.

Piracy carries jail threat in Thailand NEW!

Filed under: General,global islands,media,thailand — admin @ 6:33 am

MUMBAI: Thai authorities are tightening the noose on piracy by handing out jail sentences to pirates arrested during joint raids conducted by the Thai authorities and the Motion Picture Association (MPA).

In 2007 alone, 12 cases have resulted in distributors and retailers being sentenced to jail (without suspension) for up to two years and fines of up to $22,000 imposed. In one case, even possession of as little as 78 infringing CD-Rs gained the pirate a three month jail sentence.

This is unprecedented as the Central Intellectual Property and International Trade Court of Thailand has until 2006 only sentenced a Taiwanese national to jail for two years for owning a factory that produced pirated discs.

Mike Ellis, Senior Vice President and Regional Director, Asia-Pacific for the Motion Picture Association said: “We are encouraged by the Thai authorities’ tougher stance in meting out jail terms and stiff fines to pirates. We have found in our experience elsewhere that deterrent sentences are essential for effective enforcement. To the pirates, being fined is just a cost of doing business.”

“While this is a first step, we look forward to more deterrent sentences. After all, these are but only 12 out of the over 200 cases in which MPA are involved. I’m certain there are more cases that involve Thai films that deserve equally severe punishment,” Ellis continued.

10/30/2007

Bird’s nest industry conduit for money laundering

Filed under: General,global islands,thailand,wealth — admin @ 5:10 am

The bird’s nest industry in Thailand is a conduit for money laundering and could be funnelling more than Bt100 million a year, according a study by the Thailand Research Fund.

Kasem Jandam, who conducted a research project on the bird’s nest business in southern Thailand, found illegal collecting of bird’s nests at sites on 66 islands located off the Gulf of Thailand and in the Andaman Sea.

He said these areas were is outside the 104 islands that were deemed as legal concession areas for the collecting of bird’s nests in Thailand under the 1942 Swiftlet Bird’s Nest Tax Act.

The government could be losing tax revenue of more than Bt100 million baht per year per site in eight provinces in southern Thailand including Prachuap Khiri Khan, Chumphon, Surat Thani, Phatthalung, Phangnga, Krabi, Trang and Satun.

Bird's nest industry conduit for money laundering

Filed under: General,global islands,thailand,wealth — admin @ 5:10 am

The bird’s nest industry in Thailand is a conduit for money laundering and could be funnelling more than Bt100 million a year, according a study by the Thailand Research Fund.

Kasem Jandam, who conducted a research project on the bird’s nest business in southern Thailand, found illegal collecting of bird’s nests at sites on 66 islands located off the Gulf of Thailand and in the Andaman Sea.

He said these areas were is outside the 104 islands that were deemed as legal concession areas for the collecting of bird’s nests in Thailand under the 1942 Swiftlet Bird’s Nest Tax Act.

The government could be losing tax revenue of more than Bt100 million baht per year per site in eight provinces in southern Thailand including Prachuap Khiri Khan, Chumphon, Surat Thani, Phatthalung, Phangnga, Krabi, Trang and Satun.

10/22/2007

As Bangkok slowly sinks, Thailand hunts for solutions

Filed under: General,global islands,nicaragua,thailand,usa,weather — admin @ 4:35 am

KHUN SAMUT CHIN, Thailand — At Bangkok’s watery gates, Buddhist monks cling to a shrinking spit of land around their temple as they wage war against the relentlessly rising sea.

During the monsoons at high tide, waves hurdle the breakwater of concrete pillars and the inner rock wall around the temple on a promontory in the Gulf of Thailand. Jutting above the water line just ahead are remnants of a village that already has slipped beneath the sea.

Experts say these waters, aided by sinking land, threaten to submerge Thailand’s sprawling capital of more than 10 million people within this century. Bangkok is one of 13 of the world’s largest 20 cities at risk of being swamped as sea levels rise in coming decades, according to warnings at the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change held here.

The city, built on clay rather than bedrock, has been sinking as much as 4 inches annually as its teeming population and factories pump some 2.5 million cubic tons of cheaply priced water, legally and illegally, out of its aquifers. This compacts the layers of clay and causes the land to sink.

Everyone — the government, scientists and environmental groups — agrees Bangkok is headed for trouble, but there is some debate about when.

Once known as the “Venice of the East,” Bangkok was founded 225 years ago on a swampy floodplain along the Chao Phraya River. But beginning in the 1950s, on the advice of international development agencies, most of the canals were filled in to make roads and combat malaria. This fractured the natural drainage system that had helped control Bangkok’s annual monsoon season flooding.

Smith Dharmasaroja, chair of the government’s Committee of National Disaster Warning Administration, urges that work start now on a dike system of more than 60 miles — protective walls about 16 feet high, punctured by water gates and with roads on top, not unlike the dikes long used in low-lying Netherlands to ward off the sea. The dikes would run on both banks of the Chao Phraya River and then fork to the right and left at the mouth of the river.

Oceanographer Anond Snidvongs, a leading scientist in the field, says other options must also be explored, including water-diversion channels, more upcountry dams and the “monkey cheeks” idea of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The king, among the first to alert Bangkokians about the yearly flooding, has suggested diverting off-flow from the surges into reservoirs, the “cheeks,” for later release into the gulf.

As authorities ponder, communities like Khun Samut Chin, 12 miles from downtown Bangkok, are taking action.

The five monks at the temple and surrounding villagers are building the barriers from locally collected donations and planting mangrove trees to halt shoreline erosion.

The odds are against them. About half a mile of shoreline has already been lost over the past three decades, in large part due to the destruction of once-vast mangrove forests. The abbot, Somnuk Attipanyo, says about one-third of the village’s original population was forced to move.

Endangered cities

Cities around the world are facing the danger of rising seas and other disasters related to climate change. Thirty-three cities are predicted to have at least 8 million people by 2015. According to studies by the United Nations and others, these 18 are among those considered to be highly vulnerable:

City Country

Dhaka Bangladesh
Buenos Aires Argentina
Rio de Janeiro Brazil
Shanghai, Tianjin China
Alexandria, Cairo Egypt
Mumbai, Calcutta India
Jakarta Indonesia
Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe Japan
Lagos Nigeria
Karachi Pakistan
Bangkok Thailand
New York, Los Angeles U.S.

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