Archive | March, 2006

U.N. Chastises Thai Male Dominance

In a report issued just days before national elections, the United Nations has urged Thailand to raise the number of women in politics and civil service, chastising the country’s “cultural and traditional prejudices of a male-dominated society.” Thailand will fail to meet its own ambitious goal to double the proportion of women in government. The report blames unflinching attitudes of men for the lack of progress. Gender equality is third on the list of U.N. Millennium Development Goals. In some places, however, married women are just now being allowed to own land, female fetuses are aborted and women do not get maternity leave.
Thai women make up only 10 percent of the outgoing parliament, placing the country 113th out of 185 countries. Only Cambodia, Malaysia and Japan rank below Thailand in East and Southeast Asia, the report said. Dr. Juree Vichit-Vadakarn, the report’s lead author, was quoted as saying that a major shift in attitude among men are needed for gender equality in politics. Other than urging the country to set a timeline for recruiting more women, the report was short on how to effect that change.

[The report will likely receive little attention despite an article about it in the Bangkok Post especially during an unprecedented mobilization to oust deeply entrenched Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.]

  • In the Philippines, married women are finally allowed to apply for land ownership given that she is estranged from her husband, he is incapacitated or he is in prison.
  • In India, female infanticide, the selective abortion of female fetuses, accounted for about 10 million missing female fetuses in the past two decades. An Indian physician has been sentenced to two years in prison for violating a 1994 law that bans disclosing the sex of a fetus. The law aimed at stopping the widespread selective abortion of girls is largely ignored.
  • Egypt still shows little respect toward women especially when it comes to the judiciary. There is only one woman, Judge Tehany al-Gebaly, in the executive judiciary.
  • Taiwanese companies still get away with refusing to provide maternity leave which is illegal under the 2002 Gender Equality in Employment Law. A majority of companies have also refused to offer menstrual leave, miscarriage leave or paternity leave.
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Got Insurgency? Buy a U.S.-Made Brigade!

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It’s not a proposition for anyone. But if you are a country suffering from insurgency, call Blackwater USA for help. The rising star in the private military industry wants to sell its services at a fraction of the cost of operating NATO or U.N. peacekeepers. Blackwater officials have hinted at this type of future operations by insisting that a private army would not only be cheaper, but also provide real security instead of simply watching massacres in the next village. Private armies may very well be efficient and cost effective, but the dangers of using them are easy to spot.

Blackwater Vice Chairman J. Cofer Black told Special Operations Forces Exhibition [Sofex] in Jordan that his company could send a private army for counter-insurgency missions to any country on short notice, according to Middle East Newsline. Ambassador Black joined Blackwater in February 2005 after a distinguished but dangerous C.I.A. career, which included capturing “Carlos the Jackal.”

Blackwater USA would dispatch a brigade to any low-intensity conflict zones for security operations. While Amb. Cofer did not cite any figures, the contracting cost would be a fraction of what either the U.N. or NATO might spend on such work.

In January 2005, Chris Taylor, Blackwater’s vice president for strategic review, argued at George Washington University Law School that there is an “emergent and compelling need” for efficient, professional soldiers in today’s counterterrorism environment. Peacekeeping operations also fall under the capacity of professional soldiers. Mr. Taylor said:

Send 10,000 UN troops to Darfur? A colossal waste of money. You do not create security and peace by throwing more mediocre, uncommitted people into the fray.

A 2,000-strong contract army could perform security duties and eventually turn over the operation to the United Nations for post-conflict management, he said, stressing that is what non-governmental groups do best. He cited an example of African Union [AU] troops in the Darfur region of Sudan, saying they were powerless to stop the horrific violence being committed just 300 yards (meters) away.

Mr. Taylor’s speech reminds multinational forces of deadly failures in former Yugoslavia, Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, the post-Mobutu mayhem in the Congo, Somalia and Darfur. Such security forces have been so bound by bureaucracy and public image that they often provide little security even in large numbers. Can highly trained professional soldiers perform better than a poorly paid ragtag army? Probably.

But these private armies remain largely unaccountable. In 2003, Blackwater started posting classified ads in El Mercurio, a Chilean daily published in Santiago. Blackwater’s local recruiter had suspicious backgrounds, and many applicants were in former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s commando units.

While Blackwater USA does not appear to be in the coup d’etat business, Executive Outcomes [EO] was involved in the very African business of rebel warfare and coups. Like South Africa’s infamous “32 Buffalo Battalion,” highly trained commandos have been out of job worldwide when peace broke out. Blackwater, like others, seem to be in a recruiting war without conscience.

Blackwater USA is not alone. A more famous private army is that of DynCorp International. Despite its checkered past and negative publicity in recent years, DynCorp survived nearly 60 years as a key U.S. defense contractor. It has provided military training in countries where the U.S. did not want to go. It even gets paid to guard Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president.

As for Blackwater, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been highly profitable. The company wants to build a 6,000-foot airstrip, a 2,550-foot airstrip, a 5,000-square-foot building and a 20,000-square-foot hangar in North Carolina. Last month, the company moved into a brand new, 66,600-square-foot headquarter in North Carolina.

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U.S. Military Returns to Lebanon, Quietly

A quarter-century after the U.S. military’s failed Lebanese Army Modernization Program, and the humiliating withdrawal in 1984, the Pentagon is quietly laying the groundwork for re-establishing close ties with the Lebanese military. The United States now has an opportunity to rebuild Lebanon’s weak military and intelligence apparatus and help contain Syria, which is now under late President Hafez al-Assad’s “less gifted son Bashar,” and subdue radical elements in the south.

The U.S. military dispatched about a dozen officers to Beirut in November and December to review the country’s armed forces, its mostly U.S.-made hardware and come up with suggestions for reform, the Chicago Tribune reported from Cairo. The Lebanese request for military assessment was made through the U.S. embassy in Beirut. Britain, France, Egypt and Jordan are also involved in the apparent efforts to modernize the Lebanese Armed Forces. Brigadier General Mark T. Kimmitt, deputy director of plans and policy at U.S. Central Command [CENTCOM], confirmed the review but declined to comment further.

Much of the military hardware in Lebanon came from the United States in the 1980s under President Reagan’s Lebanese Army Modernization Program that included reorganization, training, tanks, armored personnel carriers and other equipment. That program eventually crumbled after more than 300 U.S. soldiers and diplomats were killed in multiple bombings in 1983 Beirut.

The Tribune, citing unnamed sources, said three U.S. teams surveyed the aviation, naval and army equipment, reviewed personnel and found them inadequate. British military officers also visited Lebanon to discuss strategic policy, while French experts went there to survey police and security forces.

The U.S. State Department has asked for US$40 million in FY 2007 to spend on scholarships and educational institutions in Lebanon. Also for Lebanon, State has asked for US$5 million in grants for U.S. military hardware and services and another US$1 million for training military personnel.

Syria has historical claim to Lebanon as well as strategic and economic interests in the country. Lebanon was part of the Syria Province, administered from Damascus, during the Ottoman rule from 1516 to 1918 and was part of an independent Syrian republic for two years. Under the League of Nations Mandate in 1920, the French came in and carved out Lebanon.

While Syria has always exerted influence in Lebanon, it was Lebanese President Suleiman Franjieh, a Maronite Christian as required by the 1943 National Pact, who invited the Syrian army in 1976 to help deal with the civil war. A combination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination, a weak Syrian head of state (Bashar al-Assad) and mounting international pressure led to the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon on April 27, 2005.

Nearly 30 years of Syrian dominance left the Lebanese Armed Forces weak although the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center believes the “army remains a source of continuity and stability.” The overbearing Syrian mukhabarat co-opted pro-Damascus agents, many of whom have fled the country, and terrorized dissenters.

Now, Lebanon is without an effective intelligence apparatus — a void the U.S., Britain and France can help fill. The U.S. has been moving aggressively to support currently anti-Syrian politicians, including Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has purposely been snubbing the pro-Damascus president, General Emile Lahoud, and instead meeting with Prime Minister Siniora. In an interview with Future Television, a pro-Lebanon network in Beirut, President Bush, too, encouraged the Lebanese to be “courageous” and demand a democratic society.

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Chicken Thighs Out; MP3 Players In

To compile a representative a consumer price index, Britain’s Office for National Statistics [ONS] added MP3 players, flat-screen television, music downloads, digital camcorders, and a bottle of lager at nightclubs to its “shopping basket” of more than 650 consumer goods and services.

Some changes, like the replacement of sparkling wine with imported champagne, simply represent evolving palate. The addition of cold and flu drink powder and liquid foundation for makeup represents products where consumer spending has become significant but had not been on the list.

The Office has finally realized that people do drink significant amounts in nightclubs. They used to survey prices of lager at only restaurants, pubs and wine bars. Nightclubs have been added to the list of survey locations.

This is bad news for the music industry already shaken by piracy and plummeting sales of grossly overpriced CDs. CD players have been replaced with MP3 players “to represent the personal audio market,” O.N.S. said in its report on the changes. While music CDs and cassettes have not been completely dropped from the list, the addition of online music downloads “to represent an emerging market not covered by existing items” foreshadows the slow death of the corporate music industry.

O.N.S. announcement on 2006 changes to the “shopping basket.”

Full O.N.S. report on the 2006 changes (PDF).

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Most Wanted: Bird Flu Suspects

The U.S. government has launched massive surveillance efforts using not just spy satellites but also state and federal scientists to begin culling and testing key suspects for the potentially deadly avian flu virus.

Federal scientists have conducted a study to analyze dozens of migratory birds and picked out a handful that would be useful to test the moment they cross into the United States, according to ABC News. The sampling will begin in April in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, in Cold Bay, Alaska.

In recent weeks, scientists have expressed concern that bird flu may be arriving from the north rather than the south, like the Bahamas.

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Al-Qaeda Uses PayPal, Orkut, MySpace

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These popular sites double as terrorist networking sites and allow Osama bin Laden’s operatives to not only hide in plain sight but also spread propaganda, recruit new members, find fund-raisers and coordinate their activities. Terrorists also use electronic dead drops to avoid their e-mail from getting intercepted during transit and PayPal to raise funds easily. Shutting down these operations is nearly impossible.

Terrorist networks have moved from relying on “fixed” private Web sites to free Internet e-mail and social networking sites that are nearly impossible to shut down, ABC News reports.

News Corporation’s MySpace, Google’s Orkut and Friendster all provide free member-to-member messaging, photo storage space, bulletin boards, blogs and personal profiles. All these features make the sites attractive to terrorists who are promoting terrorism and recruiting non-Arabic-speaking Westerners, USA Today reports.

Orkut has at least 10 groups devoted to supporting Osama bin Laden or jihad against the U.S., according to the newspaper. The biggest community has over 2,000 members, links to the Islamic Army in Iraq and shows videos and pictures of attacks on U.S. soldiers.

In recent years, terrorists have developed their own encryption tools and started using the 21st-Century version of the classic “dead dropping,” which allows two people to exchange information at a location without the need to be there at the same time, writes Eben Kaplan, of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Free e-mail services, like Yahoo! and Hotmail, allows terrorists to save their e-mail in the draft box for others to retrieve it using the same password. Since the e-mail does not leave the server, the only ways for intelligence agencies to see them are to hack the account and monitor the servers.

Media-savvy terrorist supporters have used the Internet to accept PayPal donations. “Irhabi 007,” now in Scotland Yard’s custody after eluding the authorities for years, used his hacking abilities to securely disseminate training manuals and propaganda videos and shared his skills with others. His work was crucial in uploading and distributing a 45-minute propaganda video made by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq.

“Juba” the Baghdad sniper has struck fear in U.S. soldiers who have no idea whether they will be the next victim of this highly trained gunman. The unidentified sniper and his associates claim they killed 143 U.S. soldiers and wounded 54 in just one year. He videotapes his shootings and uploads them to the Web.

The horrifying irony in these examples is how the terrorists have successfully used our way of life — whether checking Gmail or keeping friends up to date on MySpace — against us. And there is little we can do to stop them.

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U.S. Military Has Chikungunya Vaccine

At its top secret medical facility, the U.S. military developed a safe and effective vaccine against the debilitating chikungunya [CHIK] virus, which infected 186,000 people, or 20 percent of Réunion’s population, 15,000 km (9,350 miles) away fromFort Detrick, Maryland. After several successful trials, the vaccine against this “potential bioterrorist agent” is stuck somewhere in the U.S. for military personnel only and has yet to see the light of day.

The military’s active interest in this disease dates back to the early 1960s when Thailand was overrun by simultaneous outbreaks of cholera, dengue and chikungunya. It is rarely lethal but has the potential to disable civilians and soldiers for weeks if not months.

Since World War II, the U.S. military scientists have been scouting the world for infectious diseases, studying them, investigating their potential for offensive biological weapons, finding cures, and planting research centers around the globe. It was epidemic cholera in Thailand that paved the way for the U.S. military to study the chikungunya virus and eventually create a live attenuated vaccine.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Thailand became ground zero for many prominent U.S. researchers who studied highly pathogenic, hemorrhagic forms of dengue fever, cholera and chikungunya. Dr. William McD. Hammon, Dr. Scott B. Halstead, Dr. E.J. “Gene” Gangarosa and others all ended up in Bangkok. Today the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research [WRAIR] still maintains a facility in the country.

In 1958, the U.S Naval Medical Research Unit II [NAMRU-2] based in Taipei was deployed to Bangkok, where a cholera epidemic offered them another chance to study it and refine treatment techniques explored by NAMRU-3 during the 1947 epidemic in Egypt. The team invented the “Watten cholera cot,” an Army cot that has a hole with a funnel under the rectum to collect choleraic stools. (It is gross to picture this cot, but it helped them get an accurate measurement of the stool in liters.)

In 1959, researchers from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Walter Reed arrived to the study the cholera patients. Dr. Halstead arrived in 1961 just as dengue started sweeping Bangkok again and chikungunya turned out to be in the mix of the sometimes deadly coinfection of the two nasty bugs.

In 1962 alone, 357,000 people were infected with Dengue, Chikungunya or both, Dr. Halstead wrote in 1969 in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and HygieneChikungunya [CHIK] strain 15561 came from this outbreak and ended up in the United States, where it was used to manufacture a weakened version of the virus for use as vaccine.

“This promising live vaccine was safe, produced well-tolerated side effects, and was highly immunogenic,” wrote Dr. Robert Edelman in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in 2000. In the Phase II safety and immunogenicity study by Dr. Edelman and others, 98 percent of vaccine recipients developed chikungunya antibodies by day 28, and 85 percent of the recipients remained seropositive after a year. Only a few volunteers experienced transient arthralgia. This vaccine was labeled “TSI-GSD-218.”

The U.S. Army Medical Institute for Infectious Diseases [USAMRIID] at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, conducted several Phase I trials, but efforts to find a cure began much earlier. Published studies about CHIK vaccine experiments began appearing in 1967 (Harrison, Am. J. Trop. Med. Hyg.), and in 1969 AMRIID, which had just been created out of the Army Medical Unit, submitted an experimental vaccine using the killed chikungunya virus. Walter Reed also tested a version of the vaccine in 1969.

The U.S. military considers chikungunya a threat to its forces and lists it as a “potential bioterrorist agent.” The vaccine was designed for soldiers deploying to CENTCOM, PACOM, SOCOM and EUCOM, according to the Federation of American Scientists, but it is unknown whether current soldiers are being given the vaccine. The U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine tells American soldiers that there is no cure for the disease in a bulletin updated last month and recommends mosquito repellent.

Chikungunya is believed to have been documented as early as in 1779 Batavia, now Jakarta, Indonesia. The virus was isolated for the first time during the 1952-1953 outbreak in southern Tanganyika, now Tanzania. The name means “stooped walk” or “one that bends/folds up” in Swahili/Makonde and describes a key symptom of the disease — arthralgia, excruciating joint and muscle pain that can last weeks or months into convalescence.

Symptoms are generally similar to dengue fever which makes diagnosing a pain and could lead to misclassification. CHIK is mosquito-borne and sustained by human-to-mosquito-to-human transmission, making vector control, short of a vaccine, the most critical component of fighting the disease. In the latest outbreak, the vicious Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus), not the usual Aedes aegypti and others, is believed to be the primary vector, according to journal Science. (Vol. 311. no. 5764, p. 1085, 24 Feb. 2006)

According to the journal, the U.S. military blames funding shortage for the limbo in turning the vaccine loose for public use. In the meantime, chikungunya, which arrived in Le Réunion from the Comoro Islands in March 2005, has now spread to Mauritius where 2,553 cases have been reported. The number of reported cases in Mayotte was 924 and in the Seychelles 4,650.

Worse, in Réunion, 93 people died directly or indirectly from chikungunya infection.

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