Archive | June, 2006

L.R.A.: Uhm, We’re Done. Let’s Talk Peace?

Photo of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, by Sam Farmar.
Joseph Kony, the kooky and brutal leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army [LRA], claims he wants peace and Ten Commandmants. (Photo: Sam Farmar via The Times)

When was the last time Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony gave an interview or allowed himself to be videotaped for a news program or offered to talk about peace?


This cult leader, who says spirits talk to him, is accused of slaughtering and mutilating more than 10,000 people, abducting 25,000 to 30,000 children and forcing a million people to flee. His arch-enemy, Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni has already rejected any offer of talks.
It took freelance reporter Sam Farmar 12 days to get to Mr. Kony’s hideout in the thick jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Belgian Congo). He was escorted there by Riek Machar, vice president of southern Sudan, and 40 of his security personnel.

In the interview to be broadcast tonight by Newsnight on BBC2, the rebel leader says:

If Museveni can agree to talk with me it is only a very good thing, which I know will bring peace to the people of Uganda.

Mr. Museveni, a former rebel leader himself, is also accused of countless human rights violations and rolling back democracy even though his transgressions are considered less serious than those of Idi Amin, the dictator he ousted. Still, Mr. Museveni had a clear hand in laying the groundwork for what would snowball into the Rwandan genocide.

The president with a checkered past has ruled out any peace negotiations with the L.R.A., but he has offered Mr. Kony to stop his rebellion by the end of July in exchange for his safety. That could be a tough sell to the cautious rebel leader when Mr. Museveni has persecuted his own friends and allies.

When asked by Mr. Farmar about village massacres and cutting off lips and limbs, Mr. Kony denied the charges and accused Mr. Museveni’s own forces of committing the atrocities and blaming him.

If Mr. Kony ends up at the International Criminal Court [ICC] to respond to indictments against him, there is a possibility that other Ugandans, like Mr. Museveni himself, may be indicted on crimes against humanity. But Mr. Museveni has friends, like President George W. Bush of the United States, which is not a signatory to the I.C.C. charter.

Mr. Kony said he was fighting for a “free” Uganda and for “Ten Commandments.” Of course, the spirits are still talking to him.


Children Suffer From English Fatigue Syndrome

Overzealous Korean parents are driving their children insane by forcing English down their throats, Chosun Ilbo reports. While this craze is not new, there is now a medical term associated with the nervous breakdown the kids suffer as a result.

English Fatigue Syndrome! Yes, really. And this starts at a very early age. And the parents are to blame.
The Korean education system and parents have two goals: 1) getting into a top university; and 2) showing off.

Even middle school students would start their day at 6:00 a.m., come home around 4:00 p.m., and then hit the library or private tutoring classes until late in the evening. Then come homework and studying until exhaustion overtakes concentration.

To get into either the Seoul National University, Korea University or Yonsei University (collectively known as SKY), Korean teenagers start studying in middle school to get into a reputable high school, which they hope will give them a better shot at the dreaded College Scholastic Ability Test [CSAT].

The importance of English, the world’s de facto official tongue, is stressed on these kids starting in elementary school, if not earlier. Most parents would do almost anything to give their children an edge in English. Some pay for expensive tutors and classes. Scolding their kids to be more like their friends who are better at English comes naturally.

The sometimes violent explosion as a response to the pressure to learn English is called “English Fatigue Syndrome,” Chosun Ilbo said. And a growing number children are boycotting English, screaming “I want to kill English!”

The English education business is a US$10 billion industry, according to Chosun. It would be hard to escape or avoid such a big phenomenon. What, isn’t your child taking extra English classes?

All this stress and pressure lead to frequent suicides. South Korea is already well known for its high suicide rates. One survey showed that about 63 percent of students have thought about suicides. Why? It’s because they are drilled to believe they are a failure unless they get into a top university to make the family proud. Granted, there are far fewer alternatives in Korea than in the U.S., for example, for those who do not make it to college.

The Korea Times talked about a government program to curb suicides in both adults and children, but it failed to mention poor grades and pressure to get into the top schools as common reasons. There are no immediate signs that suicide rates among teenagers are dropping.

As this 2004 Education Ministry chart shows, there are only about half as many seats available in regular universities as there are students taking the CSAT. The enormous emphasis placed on this one exam, has led to an annual anti-CSAT festival.

Then again, school pressure is not the only reason Korean students commit suicide.


Kim Jong-Il: Help! I’m Going Ballistic!

Photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Pyongyang
How fast can a glimmer of hope disappear? (Photo: U.S. Department of State)

Iran has been receiving much attention, including a proposal for détente, from the Europeans and the U.S. Envious of that kind of play, “Dear Leader” declared he was going ballistic!

After decades of practice, North Korea is skilled at producing statements that are sure to ruffle feathers and grab attention. To an untrained ear, these belligerent words sound like air raid sirens. But he is not suicidal. And all he wants is some T.L.C., phone calls and peace and quiet in his backyard.

There are some things the U.S. can do to overcome this largely political hurdle.
It would not be surprising if Iran has taken a chapter or two out of North Korea’s playbook on effective propaganda and war-mongering in order to raise its bargaining position.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to have adapted North Korea’s tactics to his own needs. Instead of the overplayed “Great Satan,” he took a swipe at Israel. When the U.S. largely ignored it, Iran pressed further.

The most bizarre part about the new tactics was literally the song and dance that accompanied the celebration of its Uranium enrichment program.

The photo below shows men in traditional clothing dancing against the backdrop of doves tugging on an Iranian flag with the universal nuclear symbol. The two men are holding metal canisters of enriched Uranium (maybe). Even by North Korean standards, this seems over the top.

Photo of Iranians dancing for enriched Uranium

What does Kim Jong-Il want?

North Korea’s announcement about the possibility of a long-range missile test is rooted in five key reasons.

  1. Kim Jong-Il would like some tender loving care from the Bush administration and have some of its phone calls returned.
  2. “Dear Leader” may be under intense pressure from the military to get on with testing and improving its Tae-Po-Dong II series long-range missiles. When was the last test? Exactly! Plus, not all factions in the military support him.
  3. Pyongyang knows how to manipulates the world press and the Bush administration into giving it more leverage at negotiating tables.
  4. Kim Jong-Il needs to appear strong to survive a possible coup against him. Rumored assassination attempts and public protest against him follow reports of increasing instability there.
  5. North Korea is desperate for food, money and stability, which they will never receive or achieve with their black-market economy.

What the U.S. Should Do

The Bush administration’s playbook on North Korea has been very inconsistent and dictated more by political considerations than by strategic needs. That approach follows precedents set by this group of policymakers.

  1. Stop playing into Pyongyang’s propaganda machine. North Korea may very well test a long-range missile, but it is not suicidal. By responding instantly to the North Korean threat, the U.S. ceded control of the play and credence to Pyongyang.
  2. Remember that much like President Bush, Kim Jong-Il is under intense political, social and military pressure. Mr. Kim is most likely the lesser of two, possibly three or more, evils.
  3. Waste little time, as the succession struggle intensifies in Pyongyang, and bear in mind the inconvenient timing (Israeli elections) of the progress made by Arafat, Barak and Clinton in 1998.
  4. North Korea’s greatest advantage is its insular nature. Exclusionary policies rarely work. (e.g. Cuba and the Oil for Food program) Be the first to break down the wall and catch them off guard.
  5. Prevent the North Korean economy from going further underground, as seen in smuggling and counterfeiting. Force them to make money off of transparent trade, which will also quiet hard-liners in the military and weaken the post-Kim Il-Sung, neo-conservative elite.
  6. Do not use this as an opportunity to test the missile defense system. As the Pentagon is painfully aware, the chance of a successful intercept is very low. If it fails, then it could undermine (or expose) the uncertain technology and impact funding.
  7. To maintain (or build) strategic advantage, do all this before the Chinese, Europeans or Russians are forced to step in. One advantage now is that Pyongyang still wants the U.S. and no one else to be its patron. Use it.
  8. Other issues? Get over it! I got over the Koreagate, the Iran-Contra Affairs and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The Cold War is over. Woolsey and Wolfowitz lost.

The Bush administration should also not be tempted to create a theoretically manageable skirmish to divert attention from problems plaguing it. U.S. troops in Okinawa cannot reach safety that fast.


Development Stats for World Cup

Graphics for Who Should I Cheer For?

Visual presentation of global development data has become an art form. To a lay person, mounds of data compiled by a graduate student have little meaning. Gapminder helps us “visualize human development,” turning complex data into easy-to-use tools.

Similarly, if you are struggling to pick a national football (soccer) team to cheer for, and have little idea about, say, Ghana or Côte d’Ivoire, then you should seek help from the “Who Should I Cheer For?” tool.

The U.K.-based World Development Movement is drawing attention to the conditions of World Cup-qualifying countries by ranking the 32 states from “the most supportable” to the least supportable in a virtual match-up.

The game uses life expectancy, poverty, military, aid and health spending, Carbon dioxide emission, income disparity, external debt, Transparency International’s Corruption Index, the number of multinational companies and Amnesty International’s human rights reports.

Gapminder, on the other hand, uses more complex data. Professor Hans Rosling and others, who started the nonprofit group last year, definitely made world development statistics much less boring.

A critical part of Gapminder’s visualization software is the moving graph. Child mortality rate, for example, can be compared with contraceptive use, per capita income, the availability of doctors or a dozen other data. The actual dots where these two data intersect can be colored by geographic regions or income groups. And the best part is that you can see how this graph changes over time.

Who hosts Gapminder’s online tools? Yes, Google.


Bloated FIFA ‘Occupies’ Germany

Namibia recently took orders from Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Now Germany is taking orders from FIFA, the “occupying power” Germans and others are beginning to hate.

Cash-hungry FIFA and its Executive Committee (“Excomm”) have turned the organization into a business machine that will earn US$2.35 billion, a lot more than dozens of countries around the world make in a year.
Namibia recently took orders from Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Now Germany is taking orders from FIFA, the “occupying power” Germans and others are beginning to hate.

Cash-hungry FIFA and its Executive Committee (“Excomm”) have turned the organization into a business machine that will earn US$2.35 billion, a lot more than dozens of countries around the world make in a year.
Every team is treated equally in the field, making World Cup tournaments a great equalizer for poorer countries that are ignored by the rest of the world. Images of distraught fans convey how much pride rides on these games. Yet FIFA has given a red card to sportsmanship and friendship and substituted cold hard cash.

Deutsche Welle reports that FIFA is pocketing millions from ticket sales instead of sharing it with the German Organization Committee which has spent, along with the government, some US$4.6 billion for the tournament.

FIFA ordered Germany to take down the corporate names from the AOL Arena in Hamburg and Allianz Arena in Munich and to cover up the Nike logo in Frankfurt. It tried and failed to copyright the phrases “World Cup 2006” and “Football World Cup 2006” — thanks to a wise judge and a lawsuit by the Ferrero Group, maker of the yummy duplo chocolate bar.

FIFA Excomm’s insatiable appetite for money has been criticized by German football officials, who demanded the World Cup be “cleaned.”

FIFA President Joseph “Sepp” Blatter is under investigation in Switzerland in connection with a bribery and corruption scandal. And German President Horst Köhler is reportedly reconsidering a plan to award Mr. Blatter the country’s highest civilian honor, the Bundesverdienstkreuz.

If FIFA were a country, its total revenue from this year’s tournament would put it somewhere between Guam and Aruba if ranked by GDP. But I would not choose to live in FIFA land.


Globalization and FIFA World Cup 2006®

Graphic of World Cup Logo and the Earth

From loss of productivity in Australia to imported turf, the international sporting event that comes around every four years has direct and indirect economic consequences worldwide.

Corruption and bribery scandals also show that FIFA officials may have manipulated where the money went and how it was spent to benefit certain companies in specific countries.

  • Most of the grass for the 12 World Cup stadiums comes from a secret farm in the Netherlands. A changing economy in the 1970s forced that farm to abandon cows and pigs for grass.
  • The official “Teamgeist” (Team Spirit) football is outsourced by German firm Adidas to Japanese polymer specialist Molten, which has a joint venture with a Thai firm to make the ball. The Thai women who make these thermal-bonded balls earn US$130 a month, also the retail price for one of the balls.
  • In Australia, the loss of productivity from watching a match that starts at 2:00 in the morning and recovering afterward was estimated at US$187 million.
  • The collective value of the Brazilian national team is about US$530 million with such popular players as Ronaldhino, has-been Ronaldo, up-and-coming Kaka, Adriano and Robinho. Ronaldhino, who plays for Barcelona, is one of 5,000 highly paid Brazilians who play for foreign teams.
  • A similar exodus of expensive players is painful to Africa. A Nigerian columnist documents how Europe hates to release African players during the Cup.
  • If Spain wins the cup, each player will receive US$718,000 in bonuses. If they lose in the final, they still get US$360,000. The Iran Football Association will give each player US$63,000 and a Peugeot 206 if they win. Prince Sultan Fahad bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia will give the players a little stipend land or new homes.
  • The Panini Group, an Italian collectibles giant and the victim of multiple takeovers, is printing 75 million collectible football stickers a day to meet consumer demands worldwide.
  • South African-based Gold Fields Ltd., was told to cut back its mining operations in Ghana to conserve enough electricity for Ghanaians to watch the football match without blackouts.
  • In Bangladesh, where the opposition laid siege to the electoral commission’s office, the parliament is considering shorter sessions to allow enough time for lawmakers to watch the matches.
  • The World Cup has forced the nascent mobile TV technology out of the labs and into the real world. Expect to watch the 2008 Olympics on your mobile phones.
  • The official World Cup Web site had 1.2 billion page views in the first week and 226 million page views on June 12 alone. That’s a lot of exposure and cash for California-based Yahoo!
  • Trading volume in the Mexican market was way down this morning, as the country faced Portugal and lost. Mexico is not alone. Brazilian markets close early for games. Latin American trade overall has slowed.
  • FIFA and its president are mired in bribery and corruption scandals that span decades. This year, hard-to-get tickets were rerouted to FIFA VP Jack Warner, who sold them through his family-owned Simpaul Travel Agency in Trinidad and Tobago.
  • Above all, the World Cup can have adverse health effects as seen in this Thai construction worker who died of a heart attack during the Sweden-England match.

‘Noah’s Ark’ for Seeds Launched

In case of extinction, a “doomsday vault” for three million seeds will be built on Svalbard, a very cold island about 966 kilometres (604 miles) south of the North Pole. The seed vault will be guarded by polar bears.

Five Nordic prime ministers attended the ground-breaking ceremony today, three decades after the idea was born. Far from wars and not a terrorist favorite, the underground vault is supposed to preserve our crop diversity for hundreds of years.
In case of extinction, a “doomsday vault” for three million seeds will be built on Svalbard, a very cold island about 966 kilometres (604 miles) south of the North Pole. The seed vault will be guarded by polar bears.

Five Nordic prime ministers attended the ground-breaking ceremony today, three decades after the idea was born. Far from wars and not a terrorist favorite, the underground vault is supposed to preserve our crop diversity for hundreds of years.
It took almost 30 years. Scientists broached the idea in the 1980s. Seven years of negotiations at the Food & Agriculture Organisation [FAO] produced the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in 2001. Three years later, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research [CGIAR] asked Norway to study the feasibility of a seed bank on Svalbard.

The CGIAR and FAO set up the Global Crop Diversity Trust to ensure the future availability of seeds and run the Svalbard International Seed Vault [SISV]. It will serve as the last resort for some 1,400 seed banks. Many of them, in war-prone regions, could go up in flames at any time.

An underground chamber will be carved out in Spitsbergen, deep inside the permafrost of Svalbard. Planners say its remote location, inhospitable weather, Norwegian authorities and the “ubiquitous presence of polar bears” (yes, polar bears!) will enhance the facility’s security.

The cave would naturally prevent the temperature from rising above -3.5 Celsius (27 Fahrenheit) even if the refrigeration system fails or climate change accelerates.

The most chilling aspect of this project is the international consensus on the need for this type of Noah’s Ark. The loss of crop diversity as a result of climate change, diseases and funding shortage threatens our food security as the planet’s population inches toward nine billion.

Even for such common crops as wheat, apple and potato, diminishing diversity would make it more difficult to engineer disease or climate resistant versions, the Trust said.


Hugo Chávez Helps Needy Americans

Photo: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the U.N.
Hugo Chávez offers poor Americans free eye care, bus passes and discounted heating oil. (Photo: UNDPI)

Hugo Chávez, the irascible president of Venezuela, is sticking it to the Bush administration in a big way by offering free eye surgery, bus passes and heating oil discounts to needy Americans.

Mr. Chávez is exporting his “Bolivarian revolution” to Chicago and Milwaukee, as the White House grapples with how to tackle his increasing appetite for military hardware and his love for Fidel Castro.

It’s an awkward situation for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett who appeared ready to sidestep the White House’s intense dislike for the leftist leader and accept the offer in some way, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Mr. Chávez plans to fly needy Chicago and Milwaukee residents to Carora, in Lara state, for free eye surgeries to be done by Cuban doctors. Patients from two dozen countries, mostly in South America, will also participate.

Citgo Petroleum Corp. has already given 16 million gallons of heating oil at a steep 40 percent discount to 181,204 low-income households in Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New York City, Philadelphia, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

When city or state governments refused to deal with Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil firm PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A.), the company worked with community groups. In Chicago, Citgo offered free bus passes to low-income residents, the Journal-Sentinel said.

For an administration that has trouble ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of Iraqis, Mr. Chávez’s approach is more annoying than anything else. During the abortive 2002 coup to topple the former paratrooper, the U.S. openly endorsed the coup plotters.

Then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich, member of a dying generation of anti-Castro Cubans, even floated rumours that Cuban troops were trying to reverse the short-lived coup, The New York Times reported at the time.

Shopping List

Publicly the White House points its finger at Mr. Chávez’s shopping list that includes 100,000 AK-103 assault rifles, 24 brand-new Sukhoi-30 [SU-30] fighter jets and 15 helicopters (6 MI-17, 8 MI-35 and 1 MI-26) from Russia. Moscow is also negotiating a deal to build a Kalashnikov factory in Venezuela.

An earlier deal with Spain included 10 C-295 transport planes, 2 CN-235 patrol planes, four coast guard patrol boats and four frigates.

A cause for concern? Not really. The U.S. used to sell Venezuela arms, but it has now decided that the anti-Bush, pro-Castro president no longer deserves to buy parts for its aging fleet of Made-in-USA jets.

Colombia? Venezuela has been accused of supporting and sheltering different rebels groups fleeing Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s crackdown. The strength of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC] and the smaller National Liberation Army [ELN] has been waning. And the days of 19th and 20th Century open warfare in South America are also over.


For Bolivia, Socialism Is a Coca-Leaf Cake

Photo of Fidel Castro (Courtesy Library of Congress)

What would you give Fidel Castro for his 80th birthday? “A cake made from coca leaves,” said Bolivian President Evo Morales who wants to be just like “Che” Guevara.

Mr. Castro, who used to speak at Wagnerian length with a stogie in hand, is an aging man with signs of a degenerative neurological disease. And he won’t make it to 140.
The days of a Socialist revolution in South America died with Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez’s own “Bolivarian revolution” manifests itself more as solidarity against the United States than as a movement for the people.

Mr. Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous leader since the white men came from Spain 450 years ago. His electoral propaganda consisted of leading uneducated cocaleros to protest coca eradication and demand the nationalization of the energy industry and of a poster campaign mocking the inept U.S. ambassador Manuel Rocha. The U.S. envoy had threatened Bolivians to vote against Morales or lose U.S. aid, ensuring Mr. Morales’ victory.

As seen in the demise of Peru’s Alejandro Toledo, being an indigenous leader does not guarantee political success. Mr. Morales’ decision to nationalize the natural gas industry has done little so far to benefit the poor directly.

Mr. Morales copies his “revolutionary” rhetoric from the South American edition of the handbook for neo-Socialist leaders. “Che” Guevara is the “immortal leader.” He verbally accosts the “imperial United States. He vows to defend both Cuba and Venezuela, and their natural resources, from military attacks by “the empire (the U.S.).” His admiration for Mr. Castro is unending.

Cuba, too, has been shouting anti-U.S. diatribes, pointing to the so-called “War of All the People” doctrine that will be used against a U.S. attack. Rául Castro, the first vice president and defense minister, is leading the outdated Communist propaganda in the run-up to his brother’s August 13 birthday. (Rául himself is getting old.)

On that day, I expect a vow of solidarity against the ‘imperial forces,’ a pledge by Messrs. Morales and Chávez to export Commandant Castro’s revolution, a parade Á  la North Korea, a speech that makes me want to like Wagner and a Mr. Castro under the influence of Mr. Morales’ coca cake.

I’ll be drinking Cuba Libre!


Timor-Leste: Trouble in Paradise

View of East Timor Photo by East Timor Government
This paradise could go up in flames again without long-term international help. (Photo: Courtesy Timor-Leste Tourism Ministry)

East Timor is another lesson for the United Nations as well as Australia that stability and democracy do not develop overnight — even in this paradise.

Kofi Annan wants U.N. peacekeepers to get back in there at East Timor’s request. But Australia, like the United States, told the world body to stay out of its backyard and to concentrate on only humanitarian and development projects.
Some 600 West Timorese soldiers bolted from the military in March (and they were promptly “dismissed”), citing discrimination against West Timorese by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. Their rebellion, led by Lieutenant Commander Alfredo Reinado, triggered gang violence, riots and looting in the streets and uprooted about 100,000 East Timorese.

Australia had to ship in 1,300 troops. Malaysia, New Zealand and Portugal’s troops make up the rest of more than 2,000 troops patrolling East Timor. There is hope today that Lt. Comm. Reinado is going to disarm soon if ordered to do so by President Xanana Gusmão.

After three decades of conflict, East Timor is not going to wake up one morning and say ‘I love all my neighbors.’ Australia and the United States forced the U.N. to cut short its peacekeeping mission in 2002 and to left the island’s 800,000 inhabitants to the mercy of potential violence.

An Indonesian lawmaker is taking the “I told you so” attitude toward Australia’s intervention in East Timor. Indonesia is the one to talk. Days after the former Portuguese colony declared independence in 1975, Indonesia walked in with a brutal army and killed an estimated quarter-million people.

East Timor is ready for sovereignty, but it is not ready for complete self-rule. Australia and the U.N. must make a long-term commitment to foster a culture that supports democracy. Its police forces must be placed under U.N. mandate and various factions inside the military integrated by international advisors. Else, this paradise could go up in flames again.

East Timor is no longer the world’s newest country.


WHO: Stop Female Genital Mutilation


A new study calls for an end to this horrible practice that puts young girls women and their babies at risk. The World Health Organization-sponsored study on Female Genital Mutilation [FGM] deplores the “medicalization” (when done by trained physicians) of this ritual.

Amnesty International estimates that 135 million women and girls worldwide have been subjected one of three levels of genital mutilation. It is practiced in at least 28 countries in Africa; in Egypt, Oman, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East and North Africa; and by some Muslims in Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. But it has also been reported in industrialized countries like Britain and the United States primarily among immigrants from countries where it is still common practice.

Sexual, sociological, hygienic, health and religious reasons are cited commonly. Still it harms women physically and emotionally and places them at increased risk of complications during childbirth.

Unicef estimates that more than two million girls are at risk each year of having their genitals cut or mutilated. (WHO calls it “FGM,” but Unicef calls it “FGM/C” to include cutting.) WHO defines three levels of genital mutilation:

  • Type I (FGM 1) – excision of the prepuce, with or without excision of part or all of the clitoris
  • Type II (FGM II) – excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora;
  • Type III (FGM III) – excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching/narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation).

The study appears in the June issue of The Lancet.


Beloved Thai King Marks 60th Anniversary

Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej celebrates the 60th anniversary of his rule. (Photo: Courtesy Royal Thai Government)

Few world leaders are as loved and respected as the 78-year-old Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej who celebrated his 60th year on the throne. One million Thais wearing yellow in honor of the king flooded Bangkok to see the monarch, who is largely a figurehead but definitely the defining symbol of the country. To mark the diamond jubilee, Thai fishermen pledged not to catch the endangered the giant Mekong catfish anymore. It sounds like North Korea except it wasn’t stage-managed and no one was hanged. Imagine this much love for Tony Blair, George Bush or Queen Elizabeth!

The party that began Friday continues this week in Bangkok where King Bhumibol receives royal visitors from 25 countries. The king is also giving out exquisite party favors to those who make it.

BBC’s slide show is evidence of Thais’ genuine adoration. The king ascended to the throne at age 18 when his brother died. Since then he has seen 17 military coups, 20 prime ministers and 15 constitutions. He rarely intervenes in the day-to-day political scuffles. He has, however, jumped into the fray when politicians get nasty and can’t seem to find a way out of an impasse.

Photo of Giant Catfish in Mekon River
Giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas) caught in the Mekong River in Thailand. (Photo: Courtesy WWF)

Even in his old age, King Bhumibol tours the country’s poorest areas and initiates projects to cut poverty. The king is also a good friend of the environment. In his honor, the fishermen along the Mekong River have pledged to stop catching the giant catfish. The 294-kilogram (646 pounds) catfish caught in the same river last year was the largest freshwater fish ever recorded. These gigantic catfish have been the basis for a few Sci-Fi films.

Learn more about Thailand.


Playboy vs. JI’s Abu Bakar Bashir


Under attack from hard-line Islamic groups, Playboy Indonesia shows more skin in its second edition, but its advertising pages were bare in protest. The same religious groups, who did little to help recent quake victims, could become the target of a government crackdown in a country where resurgent fundamentalism has been destabilizing. But there is proof that these religious hard-liners are reading the sexy magazine. And President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is siding with Playboy.

After Muslim protestors burned the first edition and attacked its advertisers, Playboy picked up and moved to Bali. Balinese are more “open,” the editor in chief says. In the latest edition, several blank pages where ads should appear read: “We dedicate this empty page to our loyal clients who were threatened for putting their ad in this magazine.”

The hard-line Muslim protestors are opening the magazine to glance at the advertisers. They probably do glance at the sultry women (none of them are naked) between the ad pages. They are hard to miss.

The move to Bali, a predominantly Hindu island, gives the editorial staff some added security, but it skipped last month’s edition.

The rancor over Playboy highlights a deeper issue in Indonesia — the growing popularity and strength of radical Islam. It was largely ignored during Indonesia’s transition to democracy until the 2002 Bali bombings. The president, who was security minister under his predecessor Megawati Sukarnopoutri, has decided to crack down on these group. To obtain legal powers to shut down radical movements, he will introduce a legislation to revise a 1985 law that gave Indonesians the freedom to organize.

Among the groups under government scrutiny are the Islam Defenders Front [FPI], which led the protest against Playboy, the Betawi Brotherhood Forum [FBR] and Hizbut Tahrir, The Jakarta Post said.

The pending release of cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who was held indirectly responsible for the Bali bombings, could set the stage for a showdown between radical Islam and the government.


Party at Saddam’s! B.Y.O.Bikinis! Tuesdays!


Female U.S. embassy staffers in bikinis were partying it up by the pool, karaoke singers were rocking and Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root was serving up roast beef, pasta and crab dishes all at the Iraq Republican Palace, Soma reports from Baghdad. Saddam Hussein probably wouldn’t mind the scantily clad women running through his palace, although he might cringe at hearing American rock music. Soma, a newly minted newspaper out of Suleimanieh, had a few more insights to share, including the identity of the embassy guards.

Soma launched recently as a bi-weekly “digest” of news from the Kurdish enclave and some from the rest of Iraq. Funded by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani‘s wife, Hiro Ibrahim Ahmad, the paper enjoys high-level access. In its latest issue, Soma revealed what really goes on at the Iraq Republican Palace inside the heavily fortified Green Zone.

According to correspondent Iason Athanadiasis who crashed the party:

  • Some guards at the embassy were Peruvian, not American.
  • The Halliburton subsidiary treats the embassy employees well.
  • U.S. Foreign Service Officers starting out their career are eager to get the plush three-month assignment for career advancement.
  • There is also poolside volleyball!
  • Tuesdays are karaoke and bikini days at the temporary U.S. embassy.

While the party is raging, U.S. troops are still taking bullets and getting injured. The State Department-hosted pool party seems insensitive to the coalition soldiers who are helping them enjoy Halliburton food and embassy staffers in bikinis inside the comfort of the Green Zone.


Psyop: Barry Manilow vs. Car ‘Hoons’

Barry Manilow’s music is being enlisted as the weapon of choice in a psychological warfare against Australian youths who are revving the engines of their souped-up cars and playing ground-thumping music at a neighborhood parking lot. Officials are hoping the crooner’s tunes are just as repulsive to them as Bing Crosby’s “My Heart Is Taking Lessons” was to mall-going teenagers. General Noriega and the Vatican might appreciate the effects of music from loudspeakers.
The City of Rockdale, just south of Sydney, will install loudspeakers at Hasham parking lot and pump Barry Manilow songs and some classical music to drive out the car “hoons” (hooligans). The city made the decision after owners of the Cyprus Hellene Club complained to the city council, claiming these “hoons” are deterring customers who are too afraid to park there.

In 1999, the Warrawong Shopping Center in Wallongong, further south of Sydney, said it
successfully used the 1938 Bing Crosby song to keep teenagers at bay. The mall also used pink fluorescent lights, believing that the color makes pimples stand out more.

One of the more famous use of music in psychological operations was during the 1989 U.S. Operation Just Cause to remove and arrest General Manuel Noriega from Panama. When the quirky general was holed up at the Apostolic Nunciature (of The Holy See), the U.S. military blasted rock music through loudspeakers for days. A Vatican complaint ended that tactic around Christmas. And the general surrendered a few days later. The music also helped shield the U.S.-Vatican talks from the media at the embassy gate.

Back in Rockdale, Barry Manilow may be able to chase these “hoons” from that specific parking lot. But the city councilors, who may have hung out only at adult-approved spots in their youths, should think twice before they make the policy permanent. The “hoons” could as easily move to a new part of town as they can hang out at the parking lot.


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