Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Asia Week Focus

East Asia

South Korea - An Unmitigated Disaster for Korea in Washington

The South Korean and U.S. defense chiefs in the Security Consultative Meeting in Washington on Friday agreed to complete the handover of wartime operational control of Korean forces to Seoul after Oct. 15, 2009 and no later than March 15, 2012. The two defense ministers in a joint communiqué urged North Korea to refrain from any further action that might aggravate tensions. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld offered assurances of a firm U.S. commitment and immediate support to South Korea, including “continuation of the extended deterrence offered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, consistent with the Mutual Defense Treaty.”

On the Proliferation Security Initiative we are so reluctant to join, Rumsfeld told reporters, "the (nuclear) programs of Iran and North Korea punctuate the importance of counter proliferations efforts of that type. And the Republic of Korea's an important country, and needless to say, we've expressed the hope that they will decide to participate (in the Proliferation Security Initiative)." In the background, a senior Pentagon official was denying reports from a South Korean briefing that Gen. Burwell Bell, the commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, was instructed to map out a detailed nuclear defense against nuclear threats from North Korea.

The SCM was so difficult this year that the joint communiqué had to be delayed by seven-and-a-half hours. The atmosphere was so serious, it is said, that the U.S. had to issue an ultimatum that if Seoul insisted any further, the meeting would end without a joint statement. It had a case. Seoul pestered Washington to concede on the timing of the transfer of wartime operational control of its forces and the offer of a nuclear umbrella, the main themes of the meeting, reversing its own demands of only a year or a few months ago. Seoul tried to shirk agreement on the timing of the troop control handover, after saying only recently, in the president’s words, that it could be done “any time.”

Faced with firm U.S. insistence on 2009, however, it kept putting it off, from Oct. 2010 to March 15, 2012. Had this administration and president not brought up the issue for propaganda purposes, pretending the joint exercise of wartime operational control infringed on our sovereignty and stoking anti-American sentiment by doing so, the U.S., for the sake of expanding the strategic flexibility of its forces the world over, would have asked for Korean cooperation and given additional security guarantees in return.

The same is the case with the issue of the U.S. providing South Korea with a more specific nuclear umbrella against North Korea. The government, goaded by the National Security Council under direct presidential jurisdiction, attempted to delete the phrase “nuclear umbrella” at last year’s SCM, but this year it asked for an even stronger guarantee. The U.S. said, what more do you want when you have the Korea-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty? Seoul deserved the rebuff.

The government boasted it would get a U.S. promise of additional security if we are to exercise sole operational control of our troops. But the joint communiqué mentions only a firm U.S. commitment under the treaty and “immediate support.” It got no more than that for dismantling Combined Forces Command, which in time of war firmly guarantees the reinforcement of five fleets of aircraft carriers, 160 vessels, 2,500 aircraft and 690,000 troops.

Source: The Chosun Ilbo & Digital Chosun Ilbo

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China - Shanghai scandal 'implicates 50'

More than 50 people have been detained in Shanghai's widening pension fund corruption scandal, a Beijing-funded Hong Kong newspaper has reported. Several senior Shanghai officials and businessmen have already been implicated in the alleged misuse of the multi-million dollar fund. One of the country's richest men, Zhang Rongkun, was arrested at the weekend.
On Sunday, President Hu Jintao said the Communist Party was determined to root out corruption.

"We are stepping up efforts to improve the rule of law and a culture for clean and honest government, and strengthen the checks and supervision on power," he said.
He also appealed for party unity at a rare joint public appearance with his predecessor Jiang Zemin.

The first high-profile head to roll in the pensions scandal was Chen Liangyu, an ally of Mr Jiang who was dismissed from his post as chief of the Communist Party in Shanghai last month.

Other leading figures tainted by the case include the head of Formula One in China, Yu Zhifei, who has been questioned by the authorities, and the country's chief statistician Qiu Xiaohua who was dismissed from his post.
Anti-corruption investigation.

Zhang Rongkun, believed to be the 16th richest man in China with a $600m fortune, was arrested by "relevant law enforcement authorities", his own firm Fuxi Investment said in a brief statement on Saturday.

Hong Kong's Ta Kung Pao newspaper reported on Monday that more than 50 other businessmen and government officials were being held over the scandal. It did not give any further details.

As the anti-corruption investigation continues, it seems likely the number of people involved will grow still further, the BBC's Quentin Sommerville in Shanghai says.
More than 100 central government investigators have been sent to Shanghai to investigate money that has disappeared from the city's 10 billion yuan ($1.25 billion) social security fund. The funds were allegedly used to make illegal loans and investments in real estate and other infrastructure deals.
The corruption scandal demonstrates the problems facing those who wish to end graft in China, our correspondent says.
The courts do not operate independently and almost all of those detained in Shanghai have not been seen or heard of since, he adds. There is little independent oversight. Auditors and corruption investigators are limited and the usual checks and balances that expose corruption - such as a free press and regular open elections - do not exist.

Shangai pensions scandal
- Labour and social security chief, Zhu Junyi, sacked
- District governor, Qin Yu, sacked
- City's top Communist Party official, Chen Liangyu sacked
- Municipal committee's vice-secretary general, Sun Luyi, sacked
- Head of city's F1 motor racing circuit, Yu Zhifei, questioned
- Head of China's National Bureau of Statistics, Qiu Xiaohua, (pictured) sacked
- One of China's richest men, Zhang Rongkun, arrested

Source: BBC News

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North Korea - The Internet Black Hole That Is North Korea

The tragically backward, sometimes absurdist hallmarks of North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong-il, are well known. There is Mr. Kim’s Elton John eyeglasses and strangely whipped, cotton-candy hairdo. And there is the North Korean “No! Yeeesssss ... No! O.K. Fear the tiger!” school of diplomacy.

A newer, more dangerous sort of North Korean eccentricity registered around 4.0 on the Richter scale earlier this month — a nuclear weapon test that has had the world’s major powers scrambling, right up through last week, to develop a policy script that would account for Mr. Kim’s new toy.

But whatever the threat — and however lush the celebrations broadcast on state-controlled television from the streets of Pyongyang in the days afterward — the stark realities of life in North Korea were perhaps most evident in a simple satellite image over the shoulder of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld during an Oct. 11 briefing. The image showed the two Koreas — North and South — photographed at night.

The South was illuminated from coast to coast, suggesting that not just lights, but that other, arguably more bedrock utility of the modern age — information — was pulsating through the population.

The North was black.
This is an impoverished country where televisions and radios are hard-wired to receive only government-controlled frequencies. Cellphones were banned outright in 2004. In May, the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York ranked North Korea No. 1 — over also-rans like Burma, Syria and Uzbekistan — on its list of the “10 Most Censored Countries.”

That would seem to leave the question of Internet access in North Korea moot.
At a time when much of the world takes for granted a fat and growing network of digitized human knowledge, art, history, thought and debate, it is easy to forget just how much is being denied the people who live under the veil of darkness revealed in that satellite photograph.

While other restrictive regimes have sought to find ways to limit the Internet — through filters and blocks and threats — North Korea has chosen to stay wholly off the grid.

Julien Pain, head of the Internet desk at Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based group which tracks censorship around the world, put it more bluntly. “It is by far the worst Internet black hole,” he said.

That is not to say that North Korean officials are not aware of the Internet.
As far back as 2000, at the conclusion of a visit to Pyongyang, Madeleine K. Albright, then secretary of state, bid Mr. Kim to “pick up the telephone any time,” to which the North Korean leader replied, “Please give me your e-mail address.” That signaled to everyone that at least he, if not the average North Korean, was cybersavvy. (It is unclear if Ms. Albright obliged.)
These days, the designated North Korean domain suffix, “.kp” remains dormant, but several “official” North Korean sites can be found delivering sweet nothings about the country and its leader to the global conversation (an example: www.kcckp.net/en/) — although these are typically hosted on servers in China or Japan.

Mr. Kim, embracing the concept of “distance learning,” has established the Kim Il-sung Open University Web site, http://www.ournation-school.com/ — aimed at educating the world on North Korea’s philosophy of “juche” or self-reliance. And the official North Korean news agency, at http://www.kcna.co.jp/, provides tea leaves that are required reading for anyone following the great Quixote in the current nuclear crisis.

But to the extent that students and researchers at universities and a few other lucky souls have access to computers, these are linked only to each other — that is, to a nationwide, closely-monitored Intranet — according to the OpenNet Initiative, a human rights project linking researchers from the University of Toronto, Harvard Law School and Cambridge and Oxford Universities in Britain.

A handful of elites have access to the wider Web — via a pipeline through China — but this is almost certainly filtered, monitored and logged.

Some small “information technology stores” — crude cybercafes — have also cropped up. But these, too, connect only to the country’s closed network. According to The Daily NK, a pro-democracy news site based in South Korea, computer classes at one such store cost more than six months wages for the average North Korean. The store, located in Chungjin, North Korea, has its own generator to keep the computers running if the power is cut, The Daily NK site said.
“It’s one thing for authoritarian regimes like China to try to blend the economic catalyst of access to the Internet with controls designed to sand off the rough edges, forcing citizens to make a little extra effort to see or create sensitive content,” said Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford.

The problem is much more vexing for North Korea, Professor Zittrain said, because its “comprehensive official fantasy worldview” must remain inviolate. “In such a situation, any information leakage from the outside world could be devastating,” he said, “and Internet access for the citizenry would have to be so controlled as to be useless. It couldn’t even resemble the Internet as we know it.”

But how long can North Korea’s leadership keep the country in the dark?
Writing in The International Herald Tribune last year, Rebecca MacKinnon, a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, suggested that North Korea’s ban on cellphones was being breached on the black market along China’s border. And as more and more cellphones there become Web-enabled, she suggested, that might mean that a growing number of North Koreans, in addition to talking to family in the South, would be quietly raising digital periscopes from the depths.

Of course, there are no polls indicating whether the average North Korean would prefer nuclear arms or Internet access (or food, or reliable power), but given Mr. Kim’s interest in weapons, it is a safe bet it would not matter.
“No doubt it’s harder to make nuclear warheads than to set up an Internet network,” Mr. Pain said. “It’s all a question of priority.”

By Tom Zeller Jr.

Source: NYTimes

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South Asia

Pakistan - Musharraf amends ‘bounty’ portion: Urdu translation of autobiography

President Gen Pervez Musharraf has made an amendment to his controversial autobiography In the Line of Fire dropping the portion relating to payment of millions of dollars to Pakistan by CIA for arresting and handing over Al Qaeda suspects to the United States.

The alteration has been included in the book’s Urdu edition titled Sub Sey Pehlay Pakistan that was launched here on Saturday.

The amendment has been made in the opening paragraph of chapter 23 titled Taaqub (Manhunt) that highlights the role Pakistan played in capturing Al Qaeda suspects after 9/11 attacks on the US.

Pointing to the fact that Pakistan had captured 689 Al Qaeda members and handed over 369 of them to the US, the president notes on page 237 of the first edition: “We have earned bounties totalling millions of dollars. Those who habitually accuse us of ‘not doing enough’ in the war on terror should simply ask the CIA how much prize money it has paid to the government of Pakistan.”

In the Urdu edition, the reference to having “earned bounties totalling millions of dollars” and prize money has been dropped.

Within two days of his book launch in New York President Musharraf had admitted having made a ‘mistake’ and indicated that an amendment was in order.

“That is my error. It doesn’t come to government of Pakistan. I should not have written that and I’m going to amend it in the future copy certainly,” he told journalists in New York on Sept 27.

His response to a question whether those dollars were staying in Pakistani economy was: “The money is certainly in Pakistan’s exchequer, in other words in Pakistan, its not anywhere.”

However, on being prompted by Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri, the president corrected himself, saying: “In our economy. Not in the exchequer.”

The Urdu version published by Ferozsons is a hard-bound edition containing 411 pages and priced at Rs495. Initially 20,000 copies have been published.

It is believed that Sehba Musharraf and president’s former deputy military secretary Brigadier Asim Saleem Bajwa, who now commands the 111 Brigade, played an active role in the publication of the Urdu edition.

The translation itself is the work of the president’s brother-in-law. Apparently, it was on their advice that the president changed the title which according to him made more sense in the Pakistan context and as he put it: “Pakistan always remains foremost in mind.”

President Musharraf has repeatedly appreciated the ‘hard work and loyalty’ of Brigadier Bajwa, the man without whom he says his book would not have been possible.

While expressing his gratitude for Mr Bajwa again on Saturday at the book launch, the president said: “He has just been promoted.” However, he hastened to add: “But that’s not because of the book!”

By Qudssia Akhlaque

Source: DAWN Group of Newspapers

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Nepal - UN makes Nepal Maoist food pledge

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has proposed to feed Nepal's Maoist rebels and their families once a peace deal has been signed with the government.
The WFP said it would begin implementing the program as soon as the two sides reach an agreement.

The multi-party government has been negotiating with the rebels since a ceasefire came into force in April.

In recent years, the WFP has been active in impoverished, food-deficit districts in remote areas of the west.

Emergency food
"We are eagerly waiting for the outcome of the ongoing peace process before we begin the operation," WFP Resident Representative Richard Ragan told the Kantipur newspaper.

He said that the package would benefit thousands of rebel fighters and their families, as well as tens of thousands of other people who have been displaced by the insurgency.

Mr Ragan said the UN has already made a policy decision to put the plans into effect.
The UN secretary general has appointed a special representative to oversee the nascent peace process.

UN officials say that over 225,000 people from 10 western districts have benefited from a recent emergency food aid programme in western Nepal.

The BBC's Surendra Phuyal in Kathmandu says that peace talks between the Maoists and the government are now at a crucial stage.

Our correspondent says that the two sides are expected to address the issue of integrating 15,000 to 20,000 armed rebel fighters into the national army and police forces.

They also have to find a solution to the rebels' insistence that they should have the right to bear arms.

More than 13,000 people have been killed and tens of thousands of people have been displaced - mainly from the insurgency-hit districts of western and eastern hills - throughout the 10-year-old insurgency.

Source: BBC News

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Sri Lanka - Sri Lanka parties in talks pact

The Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapakse, has signed an agreement with the main opposition party for a common policy in relation to the Tamil Tigers. The deal comes ahead of talks with the rebels next weekend in Geneva. The two main parties have historically been on differing ends of the political spectrum, but have now agreed to work together on key issues.

Mr Rajapakse's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led governing coalition needs opposition support.

Independent homeland
It has held discussions with the hardline anti-Tamil Tiger opposition but failed to come to a deal. The priority issue is the conflict with Tamil Tiger rebels. The main opposition United National Party (UNP) has in the past supported talks with the rebels as well as a devolution of power. The Tigers have been fighting for an independent homeland for more than two decades. At least 2,000 people - troops, rebels and Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim civilians - have been killed in Sri Lanka since late last year, military and truce monitors say.

By Dumeetha Luthra

Source: BBC News, Colombo

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India - Why Afzal shouldn't hang

For centuries, criminals in most countries used to be publicly executed to the applause of mobs drunk with revenge. It's only in the 20th century that capital punishment stopped being a spectacle.

The death penalty revolted many citizens and stands abolished in nearly 130 countries. However, as we move into the age of terrorism and counter-terrorism, revenge and retribution are coming back.

The Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano says: "In a world that prefers security to justice, there is loud applause whenever justice is sacrificed at the altar of security." Galeano believes executions have "a pharmaceutical effect" on the elite. Pharmacy is derived from the Greek pharmakos - "humans sacrificed to the Gods in times of crises."

A section of Indian society wants just such pharmaceutical relief through the hanging of Mohammed Afzal for the Parliament House attack of 2001.

A medieval lynch mob is being mobilised through lurid media stories which say the families of the victims of the attack cannot get justice unless Afzal is hanged. There must be no clemency for a traitor. He must die.

It is unspeakably sad that rank blood-thirst and chauvinist ultra-nationalism are disguised as an innocuous demand for justice. All manner of arguments are cited to claim that the president has no power to pardon Afzal.

However, former Solicitor General TR Andhyarujina has clarified that the power of pardon is not an individual act of grace, but is an integral part of the criminal justice system and India's constitutional scheme. It doesn't interfere with the courts.

The president is entitled to re-appraise a case, and come to a conclusion different from the court's. The purpose of the clemency power is to ensure that "the public welfare would be better served by inflicting less punishment than what the judgment has fixed."

President Kalam, acting on the cabinet's advice, should take a fresh look at Afzal's case. It is his constitutional and moral duty to ensure that there are no grey areas in the evidence on which Afzal was convicted.

Consider the facts. Afzal was not the mastermind or chief conspirator in the Parliament attack. He didn't commit murder or participate in the attack. Yet, he was sentenced to death for murder (Sec 302 of the Indian Penal Code), waging war against the state (Sec 121 and 121A), and criminal conspiracy (Sec 120A & B).

The punishment is, prima facie, excessive and disproportionate.

The investigation was completed in just 17 days by Assistant Commissioner Rajbir Singh of the Delhi police's anti-terrorism "Special Cell." A self-confessed "encounter specialist," Singh stands disgraced for extortion and corruption.

Huge gaps remain in the sequence of events, links between Afzal and the claimed masterminds (Jaish-e-Mohammed's Masood Azhar and Ghazi Baba), and the attackers' identity.

The biggest gaps pertain to the role of the J&K police's Special Task Force to whom Afzal, a former JKLF militant, surrendered. Afzal claims - without being contradicted - that he met Tariq Ahmad at an STF camp. Tariq took him to a police officer, Dravinder Singh, who introduced him to Mohammad alias Burger, named as the leader of the attackers.

Afzal brought Mohammad to Delhi, and helped him buy the car used in the attack. But he says Dravinder and Tariq ordered him to do this. Here, the investigation goes cold. There's no trace of Tariq or Dravinder. In the murky world of Kashmir's insurgency-counter-insurgency, it is hard to pinpoint crime and complicity. And it's a mystery why the police knew nothing about the activities of a closely-monitored surrendered militant. Circumstantial evidence of Afzal's involvement in conspiracy hinges on the recovery of explosives, and crucially, on records of cell phone calls to the five attackers.

However, the police couldn't explain why they broke into Afzal's house to recover explosives during his absence - when the landlord had the key. The cell phone record traced several calls from the five men to number 98114.89429 - allegedly belonging to an instrument seized from Afzal. The instrument had no SIM card. The only identity mark was its IMEI number, unique to each instrument. How did the police discover the IMEI number? There are only two ways: open the instrument, or dial a code and have the number displayed. But the officer certifying the recovery swore that he neither opened nor operated the instrument.

Besides, the claimed dates of purchase of the phone (December 4) and its first recorded operation (November 6) don't match! This large grey area in the evidence puts a big question-mark over the conclusion that Afzal must be awarded the severest punishment.

Afzal's personal deposition describes how he was drawn into secessionist militancy, but got disillusioned. After surrendering he was harassed and subjected to extortion by the STF. The picture that emerges is that of a person who isn't beyond reform.

Afzal's death sentence violates the Supreme Court's guidelines, which say that sentence should be awarded in "the rarest of rare cases" - when a murder is extremely brutal, grotesque or diabolical, or targets a community or caste. This doesn't apply to Afzal.

The judiciary has often distinguished between an act's commission and conspiracy to commit it. Nathuram Godse was hanged for Gandhiji's assassination, but not his fellow-conspirator Gopal.

In the Purulia arms-drop case - India's worst-ever security breach - the state commuted the life sentence of six men. Five ethnic-Russian Latvians were freed at the Russian government's request. Peter Bleach was freed in 2004 at the urgings of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The reasons for releasing them involved political relations with foreign governments.
In Afzal's case there are more persuasive reasons. The government must apply the "public welfare" test and take a statesman-like view based on a compassionate and humane vision.

Finally, we must recall the all-important moral argument against capital punishment. It violates a principle at the heart of any civilised society - prohibiting the planned killing of a person. Capital punishment does not deter heinous crime. All legal systems are fallible. It's immoral to extinguish a human life by assuming the opposite.

By Praful Bidwai is an eminent Indian columnist.

Source: The Daily Star

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Southeast Asia

Burma - Burma discusses version of democracy

Burma has been ruled by the military for 44 years, but that could be about to change if the lofty goals set by the country's National Convention are met. Delegates to the convention, which has been meeting for most of this month, said they expected it to finish its work on a new constitution by next year - thereby completing the first stage of the military's so-called "seven stage path to democracy".

This year foreign journalists were given rare access to the opening stages of the meeting.

To get to the Nyaung Hna Pin camp, where the convention is taking place, we drove through flat, flooded fields, a landscape akin to a tropical Holland.
Armed soldiers guarded the entrance, and gave our bus a cursory check for possible bombs.

This might be where Burma's political future is being mapped out, but ordinary Burmese have not been invited.

Only the 1,086 delegates, and their military guards, get to see the process first hand. The delegates are confined to the camp for weeks at a time, with only a karaoke bar and a small outdoor cinema for entertainment.
Unusual 'democracy'

The delegates arrived at the opening session of the convention in full ethnic finery - a requirement to give the impression that the meeting represents all of Burma's people. Inside the hall, I saw crudely printed signs for other groups, labelled Peasants, Workers, Intellectuals and Intelligentsia.

But almost every one of the delegates has been hand-picked by the military, and none felt comfortable talking to foreign journalists.

"It might not produce a democracy that you are used to," Professor Tun Aung Chain told me. "It could be quite different, according to the present situation in the country".

Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan, the information minister, was less equivocal.
"There are 30 countries that still have unelected members of parliament," he said, "Even in Britain, your upper house has unelected members".

I pointed out that in Britain, these were not serving officers in an army that has run the country for nearly half a century, but he brushed that point aside.
The military is running the National Convention, and intends to keep a deciding role over any future government. One clause in the new constitution which is not negotiable is that the president must have had at least 15 years of military service.
A thorn in the side of the military's plans is the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, which won more than 80% of the seats in the last election 16 years ago.

It has boycotted the National Convention since 1995, saying it does not want to take part in a process so dominated by the armed forces. In the opening speech at the meeting - against a monumental backdrop reminiscent of party congresses from the old Soviet Union - the NLD got no mention from General Thein Sein, the fourth-ranking officer in Burma who is running the convention.

He merely referred to "destructive elements" whom, he claimed, were using terrorist methods to undermine the convention.

His speech was peppered with claims of dramatic improvements that the country has supposedly enjoyed under military rule. Dialogue with the NLD is ruled out by the generals. They accuse the party of being stubborn, confrontational and under the influence of "foreign powers".

'Accelerating impoverishment'
There is a very different reality away from the remote world of the convention. Rangoon is a dilapidated city, its once magnificent colonial buildings crumbling, and even more recent concrete towers showing signs of neglect. The city feels several decades behind those in neighbouring countries. If there has been any economic progress over the past decade, it is impossible to see.

"The situation is one of accelerating impoverishment for a significant proportion of the population," I was told by Charles Petrie, who heads the UN assistance operations in Burma.

The NLD headquarters in Rangoon seems afflicted by the same decay that you see elsewhere in the city.

The building is dark and quiet. Going there requires some nerve, even as a journalist on an officially-approved visa, as there are military spooks watching and taking note of everyone going in and out.

How much more intimidating it must be for Burmese citizens to go there.
But there are always groups of people gathered at the office, either for political discussions or other classes, surrounded by piled up chairs, bundles of fading documents, and walls covered in portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi - who is just a stone's throw away, kept in isolation in her house by the military.
I have to remind myself that people have been jailed, tortured and killed just for supporting the NLD.

"We are still functioning," said NLD spokesman Henthe Myint. "You can see by the military's anxiety to discredit us that we are still a political force in this country."

It is all too obvious that the years of harassment have ground the NLD down, limiting it to just a token presence in most of the country.

But that shabby office in Rangoon still felt more real than the stage-managed performance we were shown at the National Convention.
The military is confident it will have a new constitution within a year - but it will be a document over which the Burmese people will have no say.

By Jonathan Head BBC South East Asia correspondent

Source: BBC News

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Timor LoroSae - Outbreak of violence halted in East Timor

Dili, East Timor United Nations peacekeepers were brought in Sunday to restore order to the capital of East Timor when fighting broke out between rival ethnic gangs after the discovery of two mutilated bodies.

The fighting - mostly stone-throwing - took place at the Comoro market but was halted by the arrival of about 100 peacekeeping troops. No arrests were made.

A group from the eastern part of the country became incensed after bodies of two men from the Baucau and Lautém districts were found with their arms, legs and heads removed and placed in sacks.

The two were believed to have been killed after approaching a checkpoint set up by a group of western youths in the Aimutin area of Dili.

"We just cannot accept that our friends were killed like animals, like dogs," said João da Costa, 21, a member of the eastern district group, which had set up a checkpoint of its own near the market.

A UN peacekeeper, Emir Bilget, speaking through an interpreter, asked the eastern group to take down the blockade of stones and wood and allow the police to investigate.

"I hope you calm down. The police already know who killed your friends, and now we are seeking testimony from you so that the perpetrators can be taken to court," Bilget said.

Australian soldiers, who lead the UN contingent, arrived and immediately combed the area.

They aborted an attempt to detain one man there after protests from youths shouting, "Australia go out, Australian no good, not neutral."

The peacekeeping force, which also includes soldiers from New Zealand and Malaysia, was deployed in East Timor in May after large sections of the military deserted, but it has struggled to contain sporadic eruptions of violence. The latest fighting follows tit-for-tat murders this month that claimed the lives of two young men - one each from the eastern and western parts of the country.

Source: Agence France - Presse

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Vietnam - Warning on Viet corals

Vietnamese marine scientists warn that one of the country's premier coral reefs has been nearly destroyed by fishing practices using explosives and poison. Up to 85 percent of corals had died around Co To Island, near the World Heritage-listed island seascape of Halong Bay, warned the National Agency of Aquatic Resources Protection and a group of oceanographers.

Besides dynamite and cyanide fishing, corals were also being crushed by ship anchors and smothered by seaweed that has proliferated due to overfishing, said Chu Tien Vinh, head of the agency.

The group of researchers proposed the Quang Ninh provincial fisheries department ban fishing and prevent ships from anchoring around the Co To archipelago.
Vietnam, with a 3,200-kilometer coastline, has boasted a rich and diverse marine ecology with 1,100 square kilometers of reefs, but the World Resources Institute has warned that over 95 percent of it is severely threatened.

Destructive human activities include overfishing, coastal developments for tourism and industry, pollution and sedimentation, and fishing practices such as drift net fishing that scours the ocean floor. Vietnamese scientists last week also called for the setting up of a marine reserve around southern Phu Quoc island, to save the coral and marine life around the island that is now being rapidly developed for tourism.

Source: Agence France – Press

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Central Asia

Iran - Iran invites West to return to nuclear talks

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki on Saturday invited the major Western powers to return to the negotiating table to resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.
“We advise them to return to negotiations and not to retry the path that they have already tried,” Mottaki told reporters at a joint press conference after a meeting with Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov.

Mottaki stated that Tehran sees no reason for suspending uranium enrichment.
“Enrichment of uranium by the Islamic Republic is legal and one of its rights under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT),” he said.

All the inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities indicate no deviation toward weaponization, he added.

Despite intensive talks between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the European Union on October 17 referred Iran’s nuclear dossier back to the UN Security Council, which is now working on a resolution that would impose economic sanctions against Tehran.

Measures like the Security Council action are tools used to deprive the Iranian people of their rights, Mottaki observed.

“We regard comparing our peaceful nuclear activities with any kind of nuclear weapons test as unacceptable and unrealistic,” he added.

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana held a series of talks last month to find a solution to the crisis.

Mottaki expressed regret that the West did not handle the Larijani-Solana talks constructively but added that Iran still believes that the negotiations can continue.
“We hope the Security Council comes to its senses and lives up to its responsibilities. Unfortunately, the council’s record over the past year has not been satisfactory,” he said.

“However, we hope the issue returns to the International Atomic Energy Agency.” Accusations that Iran’s nuclear program is a threat to peace are only being made by the United States to help it reach its political goals, but Tehran expects the Europeans to pursue the issue logically and independently, the Iranian foreign minister said.

Mottaki stated that he and the Belarusian foreign minister discussed issues of mutual interest and prepared the documents for bilateral agreements which are to be finalized during President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s next visit to Belarus.

He also thanked Belarusian officials for supporting Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear technology. Martynov called his negotiations with Iranian officials positive, saying, “During the talks we discussed international and regional issues and economic, financial, and trade cooperation.”

Tehran and Minsk are in consensus on many international issues, especially on the idea that the world should be multilateral and not unilateral, he said.
Belarus also believes that Iran, as an NPT signatory, has the right to conduct any nuclear activity authorized by the treaty, Martynov noted.

Source: Tehran Times

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Afghanistan - UN warns of Afghan food shortage

Nearly two million people in southern Afghanistan will need food aid this winter because of drought, the UN and Afghan government have warned. They have appealed for more than $40m in emergency funds, in addition to an earlier appeal for $76m. Afghanistan is facing a shortfall in its wheat harvest just after beginning to recover from an earlier drought. The crop failure comes as fighting continues in the south between Nato-led troops and the Taleban.

The food shortage is being blamed on intensified fighting against Taleban insurgents in the troubled southern provinces and expanding cultivation of opium poppies instead of food.

In July, UK charity Christian Aid warned that millions of people in Afghanistan faced starvation after a drought destroyed crops. A survey of 66 villages suggested farmers in the worst affected areas had lost all their produce. Less than half of the $76m in emergency funds sought in July have been received so far.

Source: BBC News

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Australia – Telstra stake purchased by Japanese investors

The Australian government sold a 435 million Australian dollar, or $330 million, stake in Telstra, the nation's biggest telephone company, to individual Japanese investors, Finance Minister Nick Minchin of Australia, said Monday.

A minimum of 120 million shares will be allocated to Japanese investors, Minchin said. The government said Sunday that it had sold half of a planned 8 billion dollar offering in Telstra through stockbrokers and financial planners.

"This is another pleasing indication of the level of interest by the investing community," Minchin said in a statement released in Canberra. "Japanese investors like stocks that offer a good yield."

The government, which owns more than half of Telstra, pitched an offer with inducements like a discount and free shares as it tries to sell a stock that has plunged more than 50 percent since 1999. Investors in the share sale, dubbed T3, get a dividend yield of 14 percent in the first year, more than 10 times the yield of Japanese five-year government bonds.

Overseas investors own 7 percent of shares in Telstra, compared with 73 percent for Telecom Corporation, the largest New Zealand telephone company.

Prime Minister John Howard of Australia on Aug. 25 retreated from plans to sell the government's entire 51.8 percent stake in Telstra, currently worth 23.4 billion dollars, after a slump in earnings and a yearlong clash with management over regulations.

The rest of the government's stake will go into the Future Fund, an investment pool to cover pension liabilities for politicians, defense workers and bureaucrats.

The government has left open the option of increasing the share sale by 1.2 billion dollars through an over-allotment option, known as a greenshoe.

The public offering may be increased to 12 billion dollars if demand is sufficient, the Financial Times reported last month, citing unidentified people close to the sales team.

ABN AMRO Holding, Goldman Sachs JBWere and UBS were hired last year to manage the share sale.

The chief executive of Telstra, Sol Trujillo, cut his earnings forecasts earlier this month, due to rules that allow rivals cheaper access to his network.

Annual growth in earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization are expected to be about 2.5 percent, down from a previous forecast of 5 percent.

Telstra stock has fallen 28 percent since Trujillo took over in July 2005 as he clashed with the government and regulators and cut earnings forecasts. At the same time, customers have shifted from high-margin landline phones to less profitable wireless and Internet services.

By Fergus Maguire

Source: Bloomberg News

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Written: by LuisB