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By throttling democracy, the military hurts not just the nation but all of Southeast Asia
Each april, Thailand celebrates its New Year, marking the onset of the monsoon rains and the bounty of the rice harvest. The festival is not just the playful dousing of family and friends with water, signifying the cleansing of sins and bad luck. It is also a period of reflection, including the symbolic asking for forgiveness by young Thais for their youthful indiscretions.
Some 30,000 people fled their homes each day in 2014. Among them were many Rohingya
Just a stone’s throw from where Western tourists sip cocktails and bronze themselves on beaches in Thailand’s southern state of Songkhla, a macabre discovery has been made: skeletons buried in the jungle.
At least 26 of the human remains are believed to be those of Rohingya Muslims. They were murdered, it is assumed, by people smugglers after fleeing pogroms in western Burma (now officially known as Myanmar) for a new life in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
While thousands of members of this much persecuted community successfully make the perilous voyage on rickety boats, hundreds die en route and many more are held captive in jungle camps, often with the collusion of local law enforcement, until their friends or relatives cough up enough cash to buy their freedom.
As with the 18 mutilated bodies that washed up on Malaysia’s historic port island of Penang late last year, it seems likely that those recently exhumed didn’t have sufficiently affluent connections.
“Those who can pay the money are released within a few days, those who cannot pay must stay and every day they are beaten and traumatized,” Abdul Hamid, president of the Rohingya Society of Malaysia, told TIME in Kuala Lumpur last month. “Witnesses from the camps say that every week there are three or four people who die from the torture.”
The recent discovery comes as a new report reveals that a record-breaking 38 million people around the world today have been displaced within their own countries by conflict or violence. The number is the equivalent to the combined populations of London, New York City and Beijing, and signals “our complete failure to protect innocent civilians,” says Jan Egeland, secretary general at the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Among them are Burma’s 1.3 million Rohingya, described by the U.N. as “virtually friendless.” They are denied citizenship in both Burma and neighboring Bangladesh and consequently struggle on both sides of this shared frontier, many in squalid displacement camps, where food, shelter and medical care are in scandalously short supply.
Their plight has worsened since dozens were killed and thousands of homes destroyed in sectarian violence unleashed by Burma’s Buddhist majority, which first erupted in October 2012.
But the Rohingya’s problems do not end even if they are able to leave Burma. The supposedly lucky 100,000 who have reached Malaysia face a difficult time on arrival. Only around 45,000 have UNHCR cards, as registration has been closed for over six months to all but newborn babies or dependents of existing refugees and newly arrived children. They receive no government handouts nor are they allowed to work, and so must make do with irregular construction jobs, where they are liable to further exploitation.
While state-sponsored violence is an aggravating factor in the plight of the Rohingya, their real curse is a lack of citizenship and thus constitutional protection in the land of their birth. Burma may have shrugged off a half-century of brutal junta rule, but the military still maintains tight control, and the Rohingya remain pawns of a slew of generals, who see inculcating antipathy towards the Rohingya minority — they are portrayed as Bangladeshi interlopers — as their best hope of retaining power in elections slated for October.
Even Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the opposition National League for Democracy party, refuses to unequivocally speak up for the Rohingya, calling their plight an “immigration matter,” despite that fact that many Rohingya families have histories in Burma for longer or as long as hers.
And so, as the U.S. re-engages with the Burmese government, and hails this impoverished nation’s significant strides toward democracy, those anonymous jungle graves are a grim reminder of the formidable challenges that remain, as well as of the vulnerability of all those forced from their homes.
It lives on only in the collective memory of aging beatniks
Though the 7.9-magnitude earthquake that struck last Saturday has now claimed more than 7,000 lives, modern, workaday Kathmandu — the Kathmandu of ring roads and malls — has come through.
Fabled Kathmandu, however — that mystical waypoint on the Himalayan hippie trail with its promise of enlightenment and cheap, potent hash — has been devastated.
Anyone who has been to the Nepali capital will know the red brick color of the old city. Today, those bricks are dust, and their trademark red coats the arms and faces of workers digging through rubble in the mournful search for bodies.
According to Nepal’s UNESCO chief Christian Manhart, who has just completed a thorough assessment of the city, 60% of all heritage buildings were “badly damaged” in the quake. With them, a whole way of life has finally vanished.
The Kathmandu valley lies at an ethereal altitude of 4,600 ft. (1,400 m), and, besides the natural beauty of the encircling Himalayas, boasts some 130 monuments, including several Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage sites, and seven UNESCO World Heritage sites. Or perhaps we should say “boasted.”
It was “like the Shire from Lord of the Rings,” says James Giambrone, who moved to Nepal in 1970 after dropping out and leaving his home in New York City. “All the clichés you’ve heard — wonderful people, art abounding, a living museum — I got to experience.”
The 1975 Bob Seger classic “Katmandu” immortalized the escapist allure of Kathmandu. “I’m tired of looking at the TV news,” sang Seger. “I’m tired of driving hard and paying dues/ I figure, baby, I’ve got nothing to lose/ I’m tired of being blue/ That’s why I’m going to Kathmandu.”
Those who took their lead from Seger’s jaded protagonist snaked halfway across the globe from London to Bangkok via Istanbul, Tehran and Kabul. They were sandaled beatniks, shunning Western trappings for a life of self-medication and self-reflection, plumes of ganja smoke billowing in their wake.
In this heady heyday, cannabis (which continues to grow wild over much of Nepal) was peddled from government-run hash houses. Most pilgrims “were so blasted on temple balls that they couldn’t get their tongues around the word Swayambhunath, so this ancient Buddhist shrine became known in freak-speak as The Monkey Temple,” reminisced Jonathan Gregson for the U.K. newspaper Independent in 2001.
For the same reason, Jhochhen lane, in the old Palast and Temple area by Durbar Square, became known as Freak Street. The hippie contingent liked to congregate on its worn paving slabs, but many of the ancient temples they would have known in the vicinity collapsed in the April 25 quake.
Cannabis was made illegal in the mid-1970s, but its use was tolerated and the hippies kept coming. “The hippies didn’t get arrested for hanging around smoking joints on the temple steps,” Jim Goodman, who spent a decade around the Kathmandu Valley from 1977, tells TIME. “Smoking was part of Nepali culture and they were pretty lenient about it.”
Goodman, a 67-year-old Ohio native, describes his time in the ancient Newar city of Bhaktapur, just 8 miles (13 km) outside Kathmandu, and where at least 270 people were killed in the most recent quake, as like “living in medieval Europe in the 13th century.” (Dramatic footage shows tourists at this UNESCO World Heritage site as it crumbled.)
“I used to wake up around 7 a.m. to the sound of birds at the window, distant temple bells and giggling girls at the water tap by my house,” says Goodman. “I’ve never woken to a nicer sound in my life.”
According to Goodman, who made and sold traditional textiles and wrote books (he has written five about Nepal), there were very few tourists at this time and electricity only reached villages just outside the capital by the mid-1980s.
“It was a pretty laid-back place, as you didn’t need much money — I could get by on a dollar or two a day — and it was an interesting city,” he says. “Eight-year-old girls would be carrying around their little brothers on their backs and have the keys to the house while their families worked in the fields.”
Those halcyon days began to fade towards the end of the 1980s. The government made visas harder to obtain, and many long-term expatriates, like Goodman, were strong-armed into departing. The Iranian Revolution and civil war in Lebanon made the old overland route to Nepal far more difficult. New arrivals had to come by air, and thus needed deeper pockets. Later, Nepal’s own civil war, which raged from 1996 to 2006, deterred many visitors.
Kathmandu also began to modernize. Large swaths of farmland were converted into sooty industrial estates, with the resultant smog hanging low in the valley, obscuring the once fabulous view of the mountains.
Today, income inequality has soared and land values within the Kathmandu ring road rival those of New York City, according to Giambrone, who now runs the city’s Indigo Art Gallery. The flophouses of yore have migrated from Freak Street to the tourist-friendly Thamel region and morphed into high-end hotels, with Berghaus-attired European families replacing wastrels in kaftans and bell-bottoms. While the trickle down of tourist dollars has helped some, particularly the Sherpas, “marginalized groups who are not in the trekking areas do not receive any of the benefits,” says Giambrone.
Modernization was already contributing to the degradation of traditional architecture, with historic houses and gardens being turned into modern concrete buildings. This trend will only accelerate after the quake. Giambrone has been watching with trepidation as bulldozers and cranes lurch through the rubble, damaging fixtures like intricately carved doors and wooden balconies and who knows what hidden artifacts.
“Construction people are moving idols, but why are they moving them? Where are they moving them to?” asks Giambrone. “There is so much around now in the rubble that people can just pick up and carry them off.”
And once all the rubble has been cleared (or looted), there seems almost no chance that the traditional but vulnerable red brick and timber structures will return. The old city will be rebuilt in reinforced concrete and hippie Kathmandu will become merely a memory. The Kathmandu of an even earlier era may not return either.
“The government of Nepal and UNESCO does not have enough funding to pay for the reconstruction of the heritage sites,” says UNESCO’s Manhart. There will be money, however, for new roads and tower blocks.
A nation prays he's not the last survivor found alive
A 18-year-old man was miraculously rescued in Kathmandu on Thursday, five days after the house where he was sheltering collapsed during Nepal’s devastating earthquake.
Bystanders roared as Pemba Tamang, caked in thick red dust, was ferried out of harm’s way on a stretcher with an intravenous drip in his arm, blinking at the midday light.
American medic Dennis Bautista administered drugs to Tamang to guard against any potential crush syndrome. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like,” Bautista tells TIME, “he was incredibly brave.”
An army of volunteers had swarmed on the narrow, multi-colored residential and commercial neighborhood of the capital where the young victim was discovered under layers of pancaked floors of reinforced concrete that had once been a seven-story building.
Lying flat with a corrugated iron sheet above, Tamang could be seen squirming with his arms pinned by his sides. “I’m cold,” he murmured, and a bystander immediately ripped off his scarf and passed it forward. Others scrambled to find him a jacket and locate flat pieces of wood to secure and widen the opening to the hole.
Nepali rescue workers — wearing camouflage uniforms, knee pads and red helmets — struggled for what seemed an eternity to remove a motorbike that was crushed between the floors and blocked the opening of a 10-ft-deep pit where Tamang lay.
American and French aid workers loitered at the periphery offering equipment and preparing medical care for when he was cut free, dolling out pink and red glowsticks to arriving Nepalese officials.
“This is your site, I’m here to help and assist you,” Andrew Olvera, a urban search and rescue member of AUSAID’s DART team, who had been leading a team of search dogs five blocks away when the boy was spotted, told his Nepali counterpart.
“We’ll ask you if we need something,” came the reply, as a throng of around 40 local police hung around snapping photos on their mobile phones. A rotatable camera on a telescopic pole was also deployed to see how best Tamang could be freed.
More than 5,500 people have been confirmed dead in Saturday’s 7.9-magnitude earthquake, and as many feared the trickle of survivors dragged from the rubble had finally stopped, there was a renewed determination to save this young victim.
A generator was fired up and an array of Makita saws and jackhammers whirred into action, kicking up a choking mix of dust and smoke. First, the back wheel of the prone motorcycle had to be surgically removed to improve access.
A hot stick checked for live wires at the opening of the pit, which was a twisted mess of rebar stripped of their outer concrete shell. Eventually jacks were used to pry apart the concrete slabs and allow rescuers to squirm inside.
As rescuers descended into the void, the fear of more aftershocks unsettling the tumbledown buildings was upmost in everyone’s mind. Thankfully, Tamang was carried out into the seasonal drizzle as a symbolic triumph amid a city drenched in loss.
Tourism and rural infrastructure have taken a big hit+ READ ARTICLE
Even as the death toll from the Nepal earthquake nears 5,000 — and it looks set to rise much further if reports trickling in from devastated rural areas are anything to go by — experts are warning that the economic aftershocks will be felt for years after the last victims have been buried and rubble cleared.
Nepal is one of Asia’s poorest nations with unemployment over 40% and per capita GDP of just $1,000. Some 59 out of 75 districts have been affected by Saturday’s 7.8-magnitude quake — 11 of them severely. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that reconstruction costs could exceed $10 billion, or half of national GDP.
“With housing construction standards in Nepal being extremely low due to the poverty of the general population, the impact of the earthquake has been devastating,” says Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist for IHS analysis group.
The tourism sector, accounting for around 10% of GDP and a similar percentage of all jobs, looks gutted in the short-term.
Nepal boasts eight of the ten highest mountains in the world, with spectacular scenery to match. The fact that it only receives around 600,000 visitors each year makes hospitality a key area of potential growth.
Yet most major hotels have now been shuttered for at least a fortnight while structural assessments are completed, and Kathmandu airport has been thronged by shell-shocked vacationers clamoring to escape the bedlam. Airplanes have been held on the tarmac for hours as the besieged terminal struggles to cope with the increased traffic alongside vital aid deliveries.
Compounding matters, four of this mountain nation’s seven UNESCO World Heritage sites — such as the 100-foot Dharahara Tower in the capital — have been severely damaged. At least 18 climbers at the Everest Base Camp died during an avalanche, while the popular hiking hamlet of Langtang has likely been wiped out by a landslide, according to the New York Times.
“Rebuilding efforts and hopefully recovery can be quick,” Kenichi Yokoyama, Nepal director for the Asian Development Bank, tells TIME. But they will also be uneven.
The service sector and manufacturing — Nepal boasts industrial plants for many Asian and international firms, including Coca-Cola — face disruption, as factories have been evacuated indefinitely until structural reports can be compiled. Damage to infrastructure in rural areas could also be significant.
On the other hand, the farming sector appears to have escaped relatively unscathed. Agriculture remains Nepal’s principal economic activity, employing 80% of the population and providing a third of GDP.
“Unless land is affected by landslides, or farmers are injured, the agriculture sector may not necessarily suffer major damage,” explains Yokoyama.
Then there is hydropower — the other great hope for Nepal besides tourism. The nation has about 6,000 rivers stretching some 28,000 miles, ranking the nation the second richest globally for inland water resources.
Hydropower is a major source of investment from energy-hungry neighboring superpowers India and China. Nepal is estimated to boast hydropower potential of 80,000MW — enough to power the whole of Germany — but only around 700MW has so far been exploited.
Due to poor infrastructure and extreme conditions, and with construction impossible during most ferocious weather, such schemes are exorbitantly expensive; a new India-backed 900-megawatt dam on the upper Karnali River is slated to cost $1.4 billion.
Nevertheless, Yokoyama says the latest quake is unlikely to affect investor confidence in this sector, especially as no major damage has been reported in existing hydropower stations.
“Everybody would know that Nepal has a high earthquake risk and normally these [hydropower projects] are built to take into account geological and earthquake risks,” he says.
Nepal’s growth was already much slower than most of its South Asian neighbors, and the ABD forecast for this year has been dropped from 4.6% to around 4.2% in light of the quake, says Yokoyama. However, from next year and beyond, reconstruction activity could support faster GDP growth, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. The remittances sent by Nepalis working overseas, which make up about a third of GDP, will also become even more vital.
At the same time, a fraught political scene adds unpredictability to the equation. Nepal has not had a fully functioning government since the monarchy was abolished in 2008, with a disparate hodgepodge of bickering Maoist and communist splinter groups creating political inertia. Nepal is also ranked 126 out of 175 nations for corruption by Transparency International. Both of these are going to have to change if Nepalis are to truly rise from the rubble.
One aviation expert tells TIME that resources would be better spent elsewhere
On Thursday, officials announced that the search area for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 would be doubled to 120,000 sq km (46,000 sq. mi.) if the errant aircraft is not discovered in the southern Indian Ocean by May.
Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai told reporters that he was “committed to the search,” while his Australian counterpart Warren Truss said, “We are confident we are searching in the right area.” (Australia is coordinating efforts as the nearest nation to the presume crash site.)
However, it has been over 13 months since the Boeing 777 vanished on March 8 last year soon after leaving Kuala Lumpur for Beijing with 239 people on board. The subsequent search operation is by far the most expensive ever attempted, already costing Australia and Malaysia over $90 million, yet not a scrap of debris has been found.
Extending the search is thought to entail spending an additional $40 million.
Jason Middleton, an aviation professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, tells TIME that it is hard to justify expanded efforts.
“I’m not in the position of being one of the relatives, and I deeply sympathize with their situation,” he stressed. “However, once the areas of highest priority have been searched there are diminishing returns when increasing the area.
“This means there’s a huge amount of money being spent, and if you’re looking at saving lives through improving future safety outcomes, then the money is arguably much better spent in a whole variety of other areas rather than just ‘mowing the lawn’ in the ocean trying to find something.”
For families of passengers, two-thirds of whom were Chinese, finding out what happened to their loved ones is naturally of paramount importance. But there is also a feeling that their loss will not have been in vain if the safety of future flights can be improved.
“It’s necessary to find the plane, not only for the lives that have been lost, but also for the safety of future passengers and crews,” Jennifer Chong, whose husband Chong Ling Tan was on board MH370, tells TIME. “The money will not be wasted.”
Jennifer Chong says she hopes that officials will also consider going back to the drawing board and consider other theories that suggest the plane might have gone down somewhere other than the current search site.
“We do hope that they will explore other areas,” says Chong.
Middleton is of the opinion that “this was most probably some kind of suicide [similar to Germanwings].” He explains that “it’s very unlikely it was a totally mechanical set of failures. We’ll never know what’s behind the brain of the person who caused the crash, so in terms of ongoing safety ramifications, the search seems likely to yield very little.”
The sudden decision to increase the search also seems curious, given that officials had earlier dropped hints about scaling back efforts. Despite Truss’s “confidence” on Thursday, only last month he conceded, “We clearly cannot keep searching forever,” amid rumors that the operation was to be called off within weeks.
“It’s been highly politicized from the start, as seen by the dribbling of information from the Malaysian government,” says Middleton. “Had the correct information been released earlier, it might well have resulted in a much smaller search area, as the question of whether the aircraft flew low or high early on has an impact on fuel consumption, hence how far the airplane may have been able to fly into the southern [Indian] Ocean.”
Compounding matters, the current search area is based almost entirely on satellite-data analysis from British telecommunications firm Inmarsat. This tracked a series of maintenance pings using groundbreaking analysis techniques as MH370’s own secondary radar was disabled in the cockpit. However, corroborating the Inmarsat data is impossible, meaning the search could be taking place in entirely the wrong place.
“The total lack of debris is a puzzle,” says Middleton. “And the Inmarsat information cannot be tested by intelligent and capable people because they do not have access to the proprietary information from Inmarsat.”
He adds: “The Inmarsat stuff is untestable. And although I’m not suggesting they’ve done anything improper, the search area relies very much on their calculations, and if they have made errors, we are not able to replicate their calculations. And there’s a chance they’ve stuffed up and the plane is not there at all.”
— With reporting by David Stout / Hong Kong
The Land of Smiles appears to be sinking further into dictatorship
Martial law has been lifted in Thailand, but replaced with a sweeping new security decree that grants virtually identical powers to the junta.
On Wednesday, King Bhumibol Adulyadej gave his much-expected rubber stamp to General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s decision to invoke Article 44 of the nation’s interim constitution, by which “acts deemed harmful to national peace and stability” may be curbed.
Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams decried the Southeast Asian nation’s “deepening descent into dictatorship” since the May 22 coup d’état.
“Thailand’s friends abroad should not be fooled by this obvious sleight of hand by the junta leader to replace martial law with a constitutional provision that effectively provides unlimited and unaccountable powers,” he said in a statement.
The new order grants powers to the military to arrest anyone for suspected crimes against Thailand’s powerful royal family, as well as those who are deemed to be jeopardizing national stability or violating the orders of the junta. The military has also been granted powers to seize assets, censor the media, and detain suspects for up to seven days without charge.
Anyone found guilty of flouting the order faces a year imprisonment.
Since seizing power, the military has also used — under the guise of protecting the royal family — the nation’s draconian lèse majesté law to target critics and political opponents.
On Tuesday, businessman Theinsutham Suthijittaseranee, 58, was jailed for 25 years for allegedly posting defamatory comments on Facebook concerning the monarchy.
“Thailand’s return to democracy remains uncertain as the junta retains tight grip amid the unending climate of fear,” says Verapat Pariyawong, a Harvard-trained Thai lawyer and visiting scholar at the University of London. “Martial law may be lifted today, but Thailand remains deeply sunk in unchecked military rule.”
The battle for survival just got airborne
An amateur photographer in the U.K. captured the snap of his lifetime on Monday when he witnessed a weasel clinging onto a woodpecker’s back mid-flight.
Martin Le-May from Essex near London said he was first alerted to the bird’s “distressed squawking” at Hornchurch Country Park after the tiny carnivore apparently pounced on it in search of a meal.
“The bird flew across us and slightly in our direction,” he told ITV News. “Suddenly it was obvious it had a small mammal on its back and this was a struggle for life.”
The woodpecker landed in front of Le-May and his wife, at which point the weasel seemed to get distracted and momentarily let go of its quarry.
“Quickly the bird gathered its self respect and flew up into the trees and away from our sight,” adds Le-May. “The woodpecker left with its life, the weasel just disappeared into the long grass, hungry.”
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Just like Kevin Costner in Robin Hood. Only for real+ READ ARTICLE
When Kevin Costner split an arrow in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, cynics everywhere rolled their eyes. But now a Danish archer has matched that feat and much more besides — even splitting an arrow fired directly at him at high velocity.
Lars Andersen has spent a decade honing his archery skills to levels seen only on medieval battlefields, using ancient texts and tapestries for guidance. This video shows the 50-year-old firing at moving targets, from moving targets, using his feet, spearing soft-drink cans, hitting the ring-pulls from soft-drink cans, and much more besides. He can even catch an arrow fired at him and shoot it back in one swift movement.
To capture his grand finale — splitting a moving arrow — took years of preparation and 14 takes. The trick, he says, is to hit the target arrow just behind the head so that the shafts fluctuate against each other, splitting the bamboo (while not flinching at the thought of impending death, of course).
“The arrow fired at me was not fired with a very powerful bow, though it was definitely dangerous enough,” says Lars in a statement. “I hope to try it again using a proper high-speed camera.”
Give it your best shot, Lars!