March 25, 2013
Cameron Pledges Tighter Rules for Immigrants
By STEPHEN CASTLE and ALAN COWELL
LONDON — Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain promised more stringent rules Monday to reduce outsiders’ access to social, health and housing benefits, reflecting a debate over the potential impact of increased immigration from southeast Europe that could fuel a rightist challenge to his dominant Conservative Party.
The prospect that citizens from Bulgaria and Romania could gain unfettered access to the British labor market under European rules has raised alarms among some Britons about competition for jobs, strengthening anti-immigrant sentiment and helping fuel the insurgent United Kingdom Independence Party.
Romanians and Bulgarians gain full access to Britain’s job market next January. The debate in Britain is particularly vociferous because officials hugely underestimated the number of immigrants who would arrive after eight other formerly Communist nations joined the European Union in 2004.
Mr. Cameron pledged changes in British immigration rules that will ensure that “everyone who comes here pays their way and gives something back” and prevent outsiders from using British benefits as a “soft touch,” according to excerpts from a speech released in advance by his office at 10 Downing Street.
“While I have always believed in the benefits of immigration, I have also always believed that immigration has to be properly controlled,” Mr. Cameron said. “Net migration needs to come down radically from hundreds of thousands a year to just tens of thousands.
“And as we bring net migration down so we must also make sure that Britain continues to benefit from it. That means ensuring that those who do come here are the brightest and the best the people we really need with the skills and entrepreneurial talent to create the British jobs and growth that will help us to win in the global race.”
As specific measures, Mr. Cameron proposed limiting the period in which foreign job-seekers could claim state benefits to six months “unless they can demonstrate they have actively sought work throughout that period and have a genuine chance of finding work.”
He also said benefits would be withheld from outsiders who were not entitled to work in Britain.
“Ending the something-for-nothing culture needs to apply to immigration as well as welfare,” Mr. Cameron said, drawing a parallel between measures to be imposed on immigrants and huge cuts in welfare spending on Britons themselves that the government has devised under its austerity program to counter its debts. European migrants, he said, would be given “a very clear message: Just like British citizens, there is no absolute right to unemployment benefit.”
The curbs, he said, will extend to social housing. “We will introduce an expectation on councils to introduce a local residency test in determining who should qualify for social housing,” Mr. Cameron said. “This would mean someone would have to live in an area for say two or five years before they could even go on the waiting list.”
On Britain’s creaking state health service, Mr. Cameron said: “We want to stop the expectation that our health service is free to the entire world and we will take new steps to ensure the National Health Service can claim back money that is owed for National Health Service treatment provided to those not entitled to it.
“We should be clear that what we have is a free National Health Service, not a free International Health Service."
The British leader also promised a crackdown on illegal immigration, doubling fines for employers hiring illegal immigrants to a maximum 20,000 pounds, or $30,000, and introducing biometric residency permits.
The debate in Britain has changed sharply over the past decade. In 2004, when Poland and seven other East European nations joined the European Union, Britain opened its job market to them immediately. A study commissioned by the government at the time suggested that 5,000 to 13,000 people from the new member states combined would arrive annually through 2010. In fact, the 2011 census showed 521,000 Polish-born people listed as residents in Britain, with the vast majority having arrived after 2004.
Because of that miscalculation, Britain exercised its right to impose temporary work restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians after their nations joined the E.U. in 2007. Those restrictions expire at the end of this year.
Critics of Mr. Cameron’s approach point out that, since Romanians and Bulgarians have been permitted to enter Britain freely since 2007, and to work if they can secure permits, many of those who wish to come are already there.
Some academics argue, moreover, that immigrants from Eastern Europe are mainly young people, eager to work, who can contribute more to the economy than they take in social benefits.
Stephen Castle reported from London and Alan Cowell from Venice.
U.S. cedes full control of Bagram military prison to Afghan forces
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, March 25, 2013 7:14 EDT
Afghanistan on Monday took full control of Bagram military prison from the United States, healing one running sore in their testy relationship as US-led forces wind down more than a decade of war.
President Hamid Karzai had made the fate of the detention centre north of Kabul part of his ill-tempered push to regain sovereignty over key matters from the Americans, ahead of next year’s pullout of foreign combat troops.
The United States was long concerned that a total handover to Afghanistan’s weak and corruption-prone security forces would allow suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants housed at Bagram to return to the battlefield.
But US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel clinched an agreement with Karzai in a telephone call on Saturday, and the handover ceremony took place on Monday.
“The transfer of the detention facility is an important part of the overall transition of security,” General Joseph Dunford, commander of the international coalition in Afghanistan, said in a statement.
“This ceremony highlights an increasingly confident, capable and sovereign Afghanistan.”
Dunford and Defence Minister Bismillah Mohammadi signed a deal guaranteeing “the lawful and humane treatment of detainees and their intention to protect the people of Afghanistan and coalition forces”, the statement said.
Bagram was due to be turned over to Afghan forces on March 9, but the transfer was postponed at the last minute after Karzai indicated that “innocent” prisoners held there would be released.
In September the United States gave Afghan authorities control over more than 3,000 detainees at Bagram, once dubbed the Guantanamo Bay of Afghanistan because some inmates are detained without trial or knowledge of any charges.
But the Americans continued to guard 50 foreigners not covered by the agreement, as well as hundreds of Afghans arrested since a transfer deal was first signed in March 2012.
Their extended control sparked angry comments from Karzai and a warning from Afghanistan’s top Islamic body that the US military was coming to be seen as an “occupation” force as it battles a long-running Taliban insurgency.
“US control of Bagram was a rallying cry for the Taliban and an important issue for much of the Afghan public,” said Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
“This looks like a victory for Karzai as he has got what he wanted. Bagram was a huge stumbling block before they get onto a long list of other issues to sort out — and time is of the essence.”
Karzai, who leaves office next year, has also been chafing at the activities of US special forces and at civilian casualties. He recently triggered outrage by accusing the US of colluding with the Taliban to justify the presence of foreign troops.
Last week he won a limited agreement for Afghan forces to take charge of one district of Wardak province, a key front in the insurgency pitting militants against the US-led International Security Assistance Force.
Afghan troops and police are gradually taking on responsibility for battling the Taliban as most of the 100,000 foreign troops prepare to exit by the end of 2014.
Karzai is due to step down at elections next year, 13 years after he came to power with US backing when the hardline Taliban regime was ousted in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks of 2001.
The military and political calendars are lending added urgency to the search for a negotiated settlement to resolve Afghanistan’s decades of conflict.
Karzai plans to visit Qatar “within weeks” to discuss the proposed opening of a Taliban office in the Gulf emirate as a prelude to possible peace talks, the Afghan foreign ministry said Sunday.
Until earlier this year, Karzai rejected the idea of a Taliban office in Qatar because of fears that his government would be frozen out of any deal between the US and the militants.
The Taliban have refused to negotiate directly with Karzai, and the foreign ministry stressed that it would only start negotiations if the militants “break all relations with Al-Qaeda and give up terrorism”.
Burma communal violence spreads
Fighting that led to dozens of deaths in Meikhtila is repeated in nearby towns as security forces struggle to exert control
Associated Press in Meikhtila
guardian.co.uk, Monday 25 March 2013 05.25 GMT
A UN envoy has called for calm after visiting the Burmese city of Meikhtila, the seat of a bloody wave of fighting between Buddhists and Muslims that spread over the weekend into neighbouring communities.
Burma's president, Thein Sein, has declared a state of emergency in the region and deployed army troops to Meikhtila. But even as soldiers were able to impose order there after several days of anarchy that saw armed Buddhists torch the city's Muslim quarters, unrest was reported in two other towns to the south.
State television said mobs had burned down a mosque and 50 homes on Saturday in Yamethin, about 40 miles (64km) from Meikhtila, while another mosque and several buildings were set ablaze in Lewei, further south near the capital, Naypyitaw. The clashes have killed dozens of people and displaced 10,000.
The government has put the total death toll at 32 and authorities say they have detained at least 35 people allegedly involved in arson and violence in the region.
On Sunday Vijay Nambiar, the UN secretary general's special adviser on Burma, toured Meikhtila and visited some of the displaced. He called on the government to punish those responsible.
Myanma Ahlin, a state-run newspaper, carried a statement from Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Hindu leaders expressing sorrow for the loss of life and property and calling on Buddhist monks to help ease tensions. "We would like to call upon the government to provide sufficient security and to protect the displaced people and to investigate and take legal measures as urgently as possible," the statement from the Interfaith Friendship Organisation said.
The rioting began on Wednesday after a deadly argument between a Muslim gold shop owner and his Buddhist customers in Meikhtila. Once news spread that a Muslim man had killed a Buddhist monk, Buddhist mobs rampaged through a Muslim neighbourhood and the situation quickly spiralled out of control.
The spread of violence is posing a major challenge to stability as Thein Sein's administration, led by retired military officers, struggles to reform the country after half a century of army rule nominally ended two years ago.
There were two similar episodes in western Rakhine state last year, pitting ethnic Rakhine Buddhists against Rohingya Muslims who are widely denigrated as illegal migrants from Bangladesh and are denied passports as a result. The Muslim population of central Burma, by contrast, is mostly of Indian origin and does not face the same questions over nationality.
In Meikthila at least five mosques were set ablaze from Wednesday to Friday. The majority of homes and shops burned in the city also belonged to Muslims and most of the displaced are Muslim. Dozens of corpses were piled in the streets, some of them charred beyond recognition.
Residents and activists said the police did little to stop the rioters or reacted too slowly, allowing the violence to escalate.
Australia and Burma open defence talks
Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister, announces 'first steps' in military relationship as President Thein Sein visits
Reuters in Canberra
guardian.co.uk, Monday 18 March 2013 05.23 GMT
Australia is to ease restrictions on military engagement with Burma following democratic reforms carried out since the country's ruling generals relinquished their half-century grip on power in 2011.
The Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, said restrictions would be lifted on military humanitarian aid and peacekeeping but an arms sales embargo would stay in place.
Gillard met in Canberra with Burma's president, Thein Sein, on Monday. Thein Sein is the first leader of Burma to visit the Australian capital since 1974.
"What we've done today is taken a first step on defence relations between our two countries. It is not fully normalising defence relationships," Gillard said.
Myanmar's military junta let in a quasi-civilian government in 2011, triggering political and economic reforms. Western governments have cautiously dropped or eased sanctions against the country.
Burma still has a constitution drafted by the generals and reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for military personnel, while barring the Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency.
The United Nations's special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar last week warned that progress had been erratic in Myanmar, with around 250 political prisoners still behind bars and 120,000 people internally displaced.
Gillard said Australia, a rotating UN security council member and close ally of the US, would soon post a defence attaché to its embassy in Myanmar and would provide additional aid worth A$20m (£13.7m) to train the government in human rights.
Thein Sein, a former junta general, said his government was looking to Australia to provide investment and expertise in Burma's fledgling resource sector. Burma is Asia's poorest country "We have to make sure that the extraction and exploitation of these resources is done properly," Thein Sein said.
Gillard's government in 2012 lifted targeted travel and financial sanctions on Burma excluding military assistance. Australian aid to Burma is set to double to $100m a year by 2015.
Julia Gillard reshuffles cabinet and rebukes Labor over leadership crisis
Australian prime minister rearranges frontbench after senior members exit over failed bid to replace her with Kevin Rudd
Alison Rourke in Sydney
guardian.co.uk, Monday 25 March 2013 02.40 GMT
Australia's prime minister, Julia Gillard, has announced a reshuffled cabinet while describing as "appalling", "self-indulgent" and "unseemly" the bungled attempt by Labor heavyweights to replace her with Kevin Rudd.
The failed coup – in which Rudd waited until 10 minutes before the ballot to declare he would not stand and Gillard was re-elected unopposed – has claimed the scalps of three senior cabinet members as well as several other ministers and parliamentary secretaries.
Announcing her new team, Gillard said her government's eyes would now be on the nation and not internal wranglings of her party. "Like Australians around the nation I was appalled by events of last week," she said.
"My political party, the Labor party, which I love very dearly, was self-indulgent. Our eyes were on ourselves rather than [being] ... focused on the nation. It was an unseemly display. But out of that has come clarity."
Gillard reiterated that the leadership contest for her job was over. "It is now very clear that I have the confidence of my colleagues to lead the Labor party and to remain as prime minister. It is also clear that Kevin Rudd has acknowledged he will never lead the Labor party again."
There were few surprises in the new cabinet team, except for the promotion of Anthony Albanese, a key Rudd supporter, to the portfolio of regional development and local government, adding to his current portfolios of infrastructure and transport. Regional development is the role vacated by former minister Simon Crean, who sparked the crisis last Friday by calling for Gillard to either throw her job open to contest or be forced to do so. Crean, who said he would have voted for Rudd, was sacked by Gillard and sent to the backbench.
Defending her promotion of Albanese, a long-time Rudd supporter, Gillard acknowledged his public declaration amid the dramatic caucus vote that he would never support a leadership ballot to unseat a sitting prime minister.
Other winners from the cabinet reshuffle were Gary Gray who enters cabinet, taking over the mining and resources portfolio from the outgoing Rudd loyalist Martin Ferguson. Gillard acknowledged the personal experience Gray would bring to the portfolio, having previously worked as a senior executive at the resources company Woodside Energy. Gray is from Western Australia, one of the country's two resource-richest states.
This is the fifth reshuffle since Gillard won the 2010 election.
Gillard has been dogged by leadership speculation virtually ever since she ousted Kevin Rudd as prime minister in June 2010. In February 2012 Rudd lost an attempt to unseat her by 71 votes to 31.
The constant speculation over whether he would attempt another comeback has contributed to her government's weak standing in the polls. A recent poll by the Nielsen group for the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspapers showed Labor trailing the conservative Liberal-National opposition coalition by a margin of 47% to 31%.
Rudd remains the more popular leader, outpolling Gillard as preferred party leader by a margin of two to one.
Other cabinet changes include Craig Emerson, currently minster for trade, taking over the portolios of tertiary education, skills, science and research vacated by the resignation of Rudd supporter Chris Bowen.
Jason Clare, currently minister for justice, enters cabinet keeping that portfolio. The sustainability and environment minister, Tony Burke, adds the arts ministry to his portfolio.
Indonesia denies its female circumcision practices are female genital mutilation
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, March 24, 2013 16:14 EDT
Thrashing wildly, five-year-old Reta wails as she is hoisted onto a bed during a circumcision ceremony in a school-hall-turned-clinic on Indonesia’s island of Java.
“No, no, no,” she cries, punching and kicking as her mother cups her tear-soaked face to soothe her.
Doctors clap and cheer encouragingly. One of them gently swipes her genital area with antiseptic and then swiftly pricks the hood of her clitoris with a fresh sewing needle, drawing no blood.
The ordeal is over in seconds as other girls and babies waiting for their turn shriek in fear.
Doctors say the procedure will have no effect on the girl, her sexual pleasure in later life or ability to bear a child.
“I’m happy. My daughter is now clean,” Yuli, a 27-year-old seamstress, told AFP at a mass circumcision of 120 girls and babies at the Assalaam Foundation’s Islamic school, in the western Javanese city of Bandung.
She believes the ritual will nevertheless have an effect.
“Many girls are getting pregnant out of wedlock these days. Circumcision hopefully will prevent my daughter from becoming oversexed, and will make her less amorous when she grows up.”
Indonesia, home to the world’s biggest Muslim population, argues that this form of circumcision is largely symbolic, not harmful and should not be seen as mutilation.
The United Nations thinks otherwise. In December it passed a resolution banning female genital mutilation (FGM), which extends to the circumcision practised in Indonesia, home to the world’s biggest Muslim population.
Procedures such as pricking, piercing, incising, scraping, cauterisation, or burning that are carried out for non-medical purposes are classed by the World Health Organization as mutilation along with practices that alter or remove any part of the genitals.
The more extreme practices can lead to severe bleeding, urination problems and complications during childbirth, according to the WHO.
A ritual dating back thousands of years and typically seen in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, its most brutal forms require stitching together the inner and outer labia, or excising all or part of the clitoris.
Indonesia says that genital cutting does not take place and that it has worked to eradicate other more severe circumcisions as it seeks compromise between conforming to international standards and placating cultural and religious traditions.
It banned female circumcision in 2006 but backtracked in 2010, arguing that many parents were still having their daughters circumcised but often by unskilled traditional doctors who often botched the procedure.
“It’s impossible to ban a longtime tradition,” Health Ministry official Budi Sampurno said.
“When we banned it in 2006, people turned to untrained traditional healers instead. We had to regulate it to ensure the safety of women and children.”
In response to the ban, The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the country’s top Islamic clerical body, issued a fatwa in 2008 allowing the practice but did not make it compulsory.
Religious leaders and adherents say they are following the practices of Prophet Mohammed.
However, “Islam does not force girls to be circumcised,” MUI chairman Amidhan said.
While no official data is available to measure the extent of the practice in Indonesia, it is common in the country of 240 million people, according to aid agencies.
A 2003 study by the Population Council found that 22 percent of 1,307 female circumcision cases were excisions, meaning part of the clitoris or labia was removed. Of the rest, 49 percent involved incisions while 28 percent were “symbolic”.
Researchers say the situation has improved in the past ten years.
A 2009 study led by Jurnalis Uddin, a doctor and lecturer from Jakarta-based Yarsi University showed that 18 percent of health institutions still performed female circumcisions but that these did not extend to cutting the genital area.
“The situation now in 2013 is certainly different from 2003. People are now more educated about safe circumcision procedures and they also know that they can report harmful methods to the authorities,” Artha Budi Susila Duarsa, a lecturer also at Yarsi who helped devise the 2009 study, told AFP.
“If there is excision, the number must be significantly lower (than in 2003),” he added.
Jakarta issued a 2010 regulation allowing “scraping the clitoral hood, without injuring the clitoris”, while criminalising more severe procedures — a regulation that is nevertheless defined by the WHO as mutilation.
Islamic foundations like the Assalaam Foundation in Bandung say they ditched the scissor-snipping for pin-pricking.
“In the past, we had used one or two doctors and more traditional healers and they used scissors to snip a bit on the hood. We abandoned that method many years ago,” Assalaam’s coordinator Eulis Sri Karyati said, adding that certified doctors carried out procedures at the school.
Sampurno said Indonesia wants to replace scraping with swiping “with a cotton bud”, hoping that the UN would not see this as mutilation. Jakarta has not indicated how it would enforce it in such a populous nation.
Some reports allude to more severe forms of female circumcision still being carried out in Indonesia, especially in remote areas where the belief is strong that the practice would cleanse girls.
“The effectiveness of government regulations is questionable,” Martha Santoso Ismail, who is overlooking harmful traditional practices at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), told AFP.
“Circumcision is still taking place and I can’t rule out that more severe forms of circumcision other than pin-pricking could be done by untrained non-medical persons,” she added.
In Aceh province, Indonesia’s Islamic stronghold where partial sharia law is implemented, people are so indoctrinated into the practice that opting out is considered immoral, rights activists say.
“Almost every girl in Aceh is circumcised. Parents see it as a religious obligation and turn a deaf ear to any opposing view and look down on those who don’t circumcise their children,” provincial National Commission on Violence Against Women official Azriana said.
Despite the UN resolution, the custom still has deep meaning for Indonesian Muslims and will likely remain, officials say.
Housewife Tita Lishaini Jamilah, 28, who also took her baby to the clinic for a circumcision ceremony, said Indonesia should not bow to the UN’s ban on the practice, insisting that the ritual was safe.
“Why would any parent hurt her child? If any doctor were to mutilate my daughter, I’d be the first to protest,” she said.
March 24, 2013
China’s First Lady Strikes Glamorous Note on Her First Trip in New Role
By JANE PERLEZ and BREE FENG
BEIJING — Peng Liyuan, China’s new first lady, is glamorous, fashionable and one of her nation’s best-known singers, a startling contrast to her dour-looking predecessors. As she accompanies her husband, President Xi Jinping, on his first trip abroad as China’s leader, Ms. Peng appears ready to carve out a new role for herself.
China’s fashion editors were scrutinizing the first sightings of her wardrobe — a dark trench coat and a handsome handbag — as she descended onto the tarmac at the Moscow airport on the first stop of the couple’s trip, which also includes visits to Tanzania and South Africa. Music aficionados are waiting to see whether she offers any performances. (Unlikely.) Policy advisers hope she gives a speech on AIDS on the sidelines of a summit meeting Mr. Xi is attending in South Africa. (Possible, because she is a United Nations ambassador for health.)
At a time when China’s Foreign Ministry is struggling to improve China’s international image, Ms. Peng, 50, who has dazzled audiences at home and abroad with her bravura soprano voice, comes as a welcome gift.
“Because of her performer’s background and presence, I think she will definitely add points for her husband,” said Tian Yimiao, an associate professor at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. “It could make her into a diplomatic idol.”
Concerned about China’s difficulties in projecting a global soft power presence, the government recently established a Public Diplomacy Association made up of former ambassadors and other notable figures.
The association’s task is to make the “voice of China and the story of China more engaging and more convincing,” said Yang Jiechi, the new state councilor in charge of foreign affairs. Officials now talk publicly about the need for Chinese companies, especially mining and construction conglomerates, to be more sensitive to local needs in Africa and Asia.
It could be that Ms. Peng’s star power will push the diplomats into the background. Although Mr. Xi may not like the comparison, some see her as a figure akin to Raisa Gorbachev, the wife of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who helped humanize the Soviet leader as the Soviet Union fell apart. Mr. Xi has singled out Mr. Gorbachev as a man who let down the cause of Communism.
Others see her as roughly equivalent to Michelle Obama: modern, outgoing, intrigued by fashion. They await the moment when Ms. Peng and Mrs. Obama stand with their husbands at a state visit, either in Washington or Beijing, a lineup that is likely to happen in the next four years. The couples share some common ground. The Obamas have two daughters; Mr. Xi and Ms. Peng have one daughter, Xi Mingze, who is registered under a pseudonym as an undergraduate at Harvard.
Ms. Peng became a household name in China well before her husband. She joined the People’s Liberation Army as a civilian when she was 18.
She soon emerged as a talented singer with a voice suited to folk tales and operatic scores that heralded the bravery of China’s soldiers. For several decades, she starred in the nation’s annual New Year’s television extravaganza, where she wore boldly hued gowns with well-fitted bodices and flouncy skirts.
In 2004, Ms. Peng took the role of Mulan, the heroine of a Chinese folk tale depicted in “Mulan Psalm,” an opera about a young woman who disguises herself as a man to take the place of her ailing father in the army. The virtues of peace, the hard times of war and the glory of victory, assured by Mulan, make for a stirring spectacle.
The work combines musical theater, drama and dance with elements of Western opera, according to the composer of the score, Guan Xia. Ms. Peng performed the central role with a full orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York in 2005, and at the Vienna State Opera House in 2008.
“She has deep technical roots, and very good technique,” Ms. Tian said. “In the folk singer category, no one can surpass her.”
When Mr. Xi became vice president in 2007, Ms. Peng began cutting back her performances, in step with the traditional secondary role played by the wives of Chinese leaders. Still, the Chinese news media have reported that she remains the leader of the Chinese Song and Dance Ensemble in the General Political Department of the People’s Liberation Army.
In 2011, the World Health Organization selected her as a good-will ambassador for AIDS and tuberculosis, a position that lasts for two years.
Ms. Peng will join Mr. Xi at the annual meeting of the emerging markets group, known as the BRICS, in Durban, South Africa, an appropriate place for her to talk about health, according to speculation in the Chinese news media.
As for her fashion taste, a Chinese fashion blog, Jing Daily, reported that the trench coat Ms. Peng wore for her arrival in Moscow was from Exception de Mixmind, a domestic ready-to-wear brand that she favors. The clothes sell for $300 to $400. In brand-crazy China, her handbag, a Tod lookalike, stood out for being “no brand,” the blog said.
“Many people online are saying, ‘Finally we have a beautiful first lady,’ ” Ms. Tian said.
March 25, 2013
U.S. and South Korea Sign Plan to Counter North
By CHOE SANG-HUN
SEOUL, South Korea — Throwing its weight behind an ally, the United States military said Monday that it had signed an agreement two and a half years in the making to support South Korea in countering North Korean provocations.
Washington’s mutual defense treaty with South Korea obligates the American military to fight to defend its ally if a war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula. The deal, signed Friday, defines what role the United States would play in dealing with what South Korean military officials called “local” provocations from the North, such as its shelling of a border island in 2010, which killed four South Koreans. The two allies said they had been working to improve their contingency plans ever since.
They called the contingency plan “South Korean-led, U.S.-supported.” It laid out various types of localized North Korean provocations and a joint South Korean-American response to each of them, South Korean officials said. By putting the allies’ combined commitment on paper, the agreement will help serve as a deterrent against North Korean provocations, they said.
But the two allies refused to disclose more details on such sensitive and potentially volatile questions as how far the United States would go in its supporting role, especially at what point American troops would directly join a South Korean counterattack against a North Korean provocation.
In recent weeks, South Korea has said that if provoked, it would attack not only the origin of the North Korean provocation but also “its supporting forces and its commanding post.”
“By completing this plan, we improved our combined readiness posture to allow us to immediately and decisively respond to any North Korean provocation,” a joint statement from the two allies said.
The plan was signed by Gen. James D. Thurman, the top American commander in South Korea, and Gen. Jung Seung-jo, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the South Korean military. The signing followed a recent series of North Korean threats after the United States and South Korea supported sanctions the United Nations imposed on the North for its launching of a three-stage rocket in December and its third nuclear test last month. Although analysts in South Korea said there was little chance for North Korea to follow through on its threat to strike Washington and Seoul with nuclear weapons, they warned that it might attempt a limited military provocation against the South.
South Korea was unsettled last week when hacking attacks paralyzed the computer networks of three broadcasters and three banks. Many here suspected North Korean involvement in the synchronized attacks, although the government has not assigned any blame, pending its investigation.
The new contingency plan comes at a sensitive time in the 60-year-old military alliance. The wartime operational control of the South Korean military, which has belonged to an American general since the beginning of the 1950-53 Korean War, is scheduled to return to South Korea in 2015. Ahead of the planned transfer, an annual military drill that ended last week was led for the first time by the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, not by their Combined Forces Command, which is headed by an American general.
March 24, 2013
Arms Airlift to Syria Rebels Expands, With C.I.A. Aid
By C. J. CHIVERS and ERIC SCHMITT
With help from the C.I.A., Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters in recent months, expanding a secret airlift of arms and equipment for the uprising against PresidentBashar al-Assad, according to air traffic data, interviews with officials in several countries and the accounts of rebel commanders.
The airlift, which began on a small scale in early 2012 and continued intermittently through last fall, expanded into a steady and much heavier flow late last year, the data shows. It has grown to include more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari military-style cargo planes landing at Esenboga Airport near Ankara, and, to a lesser degree, at other Turkish and Jordanian airports.
As it evolved, the airlift correlated with shifts in the war within Syria, as rebels drove Syria’s army from territory by the middle of last year. And even as the Obama administration has publicly refused to give more than “nonlethal” aid to the rebels, the involvement of the C.I.A. in the arms shipments — albeit mostly in a consultative role, American officials say — has shown that the United States is more willing to help its Arab allies support the lethal side of the civil war.
From offices at secret locations, American intelligence officers have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia, and have vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive, according to American officials speaking on the condition of anonymity. The C.I.A. declined to comment on the shipments or its role in them.
The shipments also highlight the competition for Syria’s future between Sunni Muslim states and Iran, the Shiite theocracy that remains Mr. Assad’s main ally. Secretary of State John Kerry pressed Iraq on Sunday to do more to halt Iranian arms shipments through its airspace; he did so even as the most recent military cargo flight from Qatar for the rebels landed at Esenboga early Sunday night.
Syrian opposition figures and some American lawmakers and officials have argued that Russian and Iranian arms shipments to support Mr. Assad’s government have made arming the rebels more necessary.
Most of the cargo flights have occurred since November, after the presidential election in the United States and as the Turkish and Arab governments grew more frustrated by the rebels’ slow progress against Mr. Assad’s well-equipped military. The flights also became more frequent as the humanitarian crisis inside Syria deepened in the winter and cascades of refugees crossed into neighboring countries.
The Turkish government has had oversight over much of the program, down to affixing transponders to trucks ferrying the military goods through Turkey so it might monitor shipments as they move by land into Syria, officials said. The scale of shipments was very large, according to officials familiar with the pipeline and to an arms-trafficking investigator who assembled data on the cargo planes involved.
“A conservative estimate of the payload of these flights would be 3,500 tons of military equipment,” said Hugh Griffiths, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, who monitors illicit arms transfers.
“The intensity and frequency of these flights,” he added, are “suggestive of a well-planned and coordinated clandestine military logistics operation.”
Although rebel commanders and the data indicate that Qatar and Saudi Arabia had been shipping military materials via Turkey to the opposition since early and late 2012, respectively, a major hurdle was removed late last fall after the Turkish government agreed to allow the pace of air shipments to accelerate, officials said.
Simultaneously, arms and equipment were being purchased by Saudi Arabia in Croatia and flown to Jordan on Jordanian cargo planes for rebels working in southern Syria and for retransfer to Turkey for rebels groups operating from there, several officials said.
These multiple logistics streams throughout the winter formed what one former American official who was briefed on the program called “a cataract of weaponry.”
American officials, rebel commanders and a Turkish opposition politician have described the Arab roles as an open secret, but have also said the program is freighted with risk, including the possibility of drawing Turkey or Jordan actively into the war and of provoking military action by Iran.
Still, rebel commanders have criticized the shipments as insufficient, saying the quantities of weapons they receive are too small and the types too light to fight Mr. Assad’s military effectively. They also accused those distributing the weapons of being parsimonious or corrupt.
“The outside countries give us weapons and bullets little by little,” said Abdel Rahman Ayachi, a commander in Soquor al-Sham, an Islamist fighting group in northern Syria.
He made a gesture as if switching on and off a tap. “They open and they close the way to the bullets like water,” he said.
Two other commanders, Hassan Aboud of Soquor al-Sham and Abu Ayman of Ahrar al-Sham, another Islamist group, said that whoever was vetting which groups receive the weapons was doing an inadequate job.
“There are fake Free Syrian Army brigades claiming to be revolutionaries, and when they get the weapons they sell them in trade,” Mr. Aboud said.
The former American official noted that the size of the shipments and the degree of distributions are voluminous.
“People hear the amounts flowing in, and it is huge,” he said. “But they burn through a million rounds of ammo in two weeks.”
A Tentative Start
The airlift to Syrian rebels began slowly. On Jan. 3, 2012, months after the crackdown by the Alawite-led government against antigovernment demonstrators had morphed into a military campaign, a pair of Qatar Emiri Air Force C-130 transport aircraft touched down in Istanbul, according to air traffic data.
They were a vanguard.
Weeks later, the Syrian Army besieged Homs, Syria’s third largest city. Artillery and tanks pounded neighborhoods. Ground forces moved in.
Across the country, the army and loyalist militias were trying to stamp out the rebellion with force — further infuriating Syria’s Sunni Arab majority, which was severely outgunned. The rebels called for international help, and more weapons.
By late midspring the first stream of cargo flights from an Arab state began, according to air traffic data and information from plane spotters.
On a string of nights from April 26 through May 4, a Qatari Air Force C-17 — a huge American-made cargo plane — made six landings in Turkey, at Esenboga Airport. By Aug. 8 the Qataris had made 14 more cargo flights. All came from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, a hub for American military logistics in the Middle East.
Qatar has denied providing any arms to the rebels. A Qatari official, who requested anonymity, said Qatar has shipped in only what he called nonlethal aid. He declined to answer further questions. It is not clear whether Qatar has purchased and supplied the arms alone or is also providing air transportation service for other donors. But American and other Western officials, and rebel commanders, have said Qatar has been an active arms supplier — so much so that the United States became concerned about some of the Islamist groups that Qatar has armed.
The Qatari flights aligned with the tide-turning military campaign by rebel forces in the northern province of Idlib, as their campaign of ambushes, roadside bombs and attacks on isolated outposts began driving Mr. Assad’s military and supporting militias from parts of the countryside.
As flights continued into the summer, the rebels also opened an offensive in that city — a battle that soon bogged down.
The former American official said David H. Petraeus, the C.I.A. director until November, had been instrumental in helping to get this aviation network moving and had prodded various countries to work together on it. Mr. Petraeus did not return multiple e-mails asking for comment.
The American government became involved, the former American official said, in part because there was a sense that other states would arm the rebels anyhow. The C.I.A. role in facilitating the shipments, he said, gave the United States a degree of influence over the process, including trying to steer weapons away from Islamist groups and persuading donors to withhold portable antiaircraft missiles that might be used in future terrorist attacks on civilian aircraft.
American officials have confirmed that senior White House officials were regularly briefed on the shipments. “These countries were going to do it one way or another,” the former official said. “They weren’t asking for a ‘Mother, may I?’ from us. But if we could help them in certain ways, they’d appreciate that.”
Through the fall, the Qatari Air Force cargo fleet became even more busy, running flights almost every other day in October. But the rebels were clamoring for even more weapons, continuing to assert that they lacked the firepower to fight a military armed with tanks, artillery, multiple rocket launchers and aircraft.
Many were also complaining, saying they were hearing from arms donors that the Obama administration was limiting their supplies and blocking the distribution of the antiaircraft and anti-armor weapons they most sought. These complaints continue.
“Arming or not arming, lethal or nonlethal — it all depends on what America says,” said Mohammed Abu Ahmed, who leads a band of anti-Assad fighters in Idlib Province.
Soon, other players joined the airlift: In November, three Royal Jordanian Air Force C-130s landed in Esenboga, in a hint at what would become a stepped-up Jordanian and Saudi role.
Within three weeks, two other Jordanian cargo planes began making a round-trip run between Amman, the capital of Jordan, and Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, where, officials from several countries said, the aircraft were picking up a large Saudi purchase of infantry arms from a Croatian-controlled stockpile.
The first flight returned to Amman on Dec. 15, according to intercepts of a transponder from one of the aircraft recorded by a plane spotter in Cyprus and air traffic control data from an aviation official in the region.
In all, records show that two Jordanian Ilyushins bearing the logo of the Jordanian International Air Cargo firm but flying under Jordanian military call signs made a combined 36 round-trip flights between Amman and Croatia from December through February. The same two planes made five flights between Amman and Turkey this January.
As the Jordanian flights were under way, the Qatari flights continued and the Royal Saudi Air Force began a busy schedule, too — making at least 30 C-130 flights into Esenboga from mid-February to early March this year, according to flight data provided by a regional air traffic control official.
Several of the Saudi flights were spotted coming and going at Ankara by civilians, who alerted opposition politicians in Turkey.
“The use of Turkish airspace at such a critical time, with the conflict in Syria across our borders, and by foreign planes from countries that are known to be central to the conflict, defines Turkey as a party in the conflict,” said Attilla Kart, a member of the Turkish Parliament from the C.H.P. opposition party, who confirmed details about several Saudi shipments. “The government has the responsibility to respond to these claims.”
Turkish and Saudi Arabian officials declined to discuss the flights or any arms transfers. The Turkish government has not officially approved military aid to Syrian rebels.
Croatia and Jordan both denied any role in moving arms to the Syrian rebels. Jordanian aviation officials went so far as to insist that no cargo flights occurred.
The director of cargo for Jordanian International Air Cargo, Muhammad Jubour, insisted on March 7 that his firm had no knowledge of any flights to or from Croatia.
“This is all lies,” he said. “We never did any such thing.”
A regional air traffic official who has been researching the flights confirmed the flight data, and offered an explanation. “Jordanian International Air Cargo,” the official said, “is a front company for Jordan’s air force.”
After being informed of the air-traffic control and transponder data that showed the plane’s routes, Mr. Jubour, from the cargo company, claimed that his firm did not own any Ilyushin cargo planes.
Asked why his employer’s Web site still displayed images of two Ilyushin-76MFs and text claiming they were part of the company fleet, Mr. Jubour had no immediate reply. That night the company’s Web site was taken down.
Reporting was contributed by Robert F. Worth from Washington and Istanbul; Dan Bilefsky from Paris; and Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey.
Hundreds of Israeli police remove second Palestinian protest camp
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, March 24, 2013 12:24 EDT
Hundreds of Israeli police for the second time dismantled a Palestinian protest encampment on the outskirts of Jerusalem overnight, activists and police said on Sunday.
Activists set up the camp, known as Bab al-Shams, on a patch of land known as E1 which lies between east Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim in a bid to draw attention to controversial Israeli plans to build there.
Tents were pitched on Wednesday to highlight the issue at the start of a landmark three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories by US President Barack Obama — his first since taking office more than four years ago.
Palestinian legislator Mustafa Barghouti, one of the organisers, told AFP by phone that he and four others had been arrested and taken for questioning at Maale Adumim police station. Police said they were later released on bail.
He said about 50 other protesters were put on buses and released in a Palestinian Authority-controlled part of the West Bank.
“Sixty army and police vehicles and two helicopters” were deployed, Barghouti said, and added that security forces “attacked us with truncheons.”
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said one woman was arrested for allegedly assaulting a policeman.
“Over 200 officers took part in the operation,” he told AFP. “The area was cleared in about half an hour.”
The camp was first set up in January but taken down by court order on the grounds of “public disorder.”
Similar encampments have sprouted elsewhere but have been quickly razed by troops or police.
The Palestinians say settlement construction in E1 would effectively cut the West Bank in two and prevent the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state.
“The settlers in E1 will destroy the idea of an independent Palestinian state, which will end once the West Bank is cut in two,” Barghouti said.
The international community has reacted with consternation at Israeli plans to build in E1, urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to reconsider.
Israel's Prisoner X was arrested after bid to recruit double agent – claim
Joint investigation by Australian and German publications claims Ben Zygier jailed after giving away information about informants
The Guardian, Monday 25 March 2013
The man known as Prisoner X, a dual Israeli-Australian national and reputed Israeli spy who died in a jail in Israel in 2010, was arrested after making a bungled and unauthorised bid to recruit a double agent with links to Lebanon's Hezbollah, Australian newspapers have reported.
The man, Ben Zygier, was arrested in early 2010 and held in secret on unspecified security charges. A judicial inquiry in Israel found Zygier, 34, hanged himself in a high-security jail cell.
Ben Zygier Ben Zygier. Photograph: ABC TV
Israel has refused to disclose details of the case, even denying a request for information from Australia's department of foreign affairs and trade, and the case has been the subject of gag orders in Israel.
Australia's Fairfax newspapers and Germany's Der Spiegel magazine said that after a joint investigation they had determined that Zygier had unwittingly given away secret information about Lebanese informants who were later arrested and jailed in Lebanon.
"Zygier wanted to achieve something that he didn't end up getting," the Sydney Morning Herald quoted an unidentified, highly placed Israeli official as saying.
"Then he ended up on a precipitous path. He crossed paths with someone who was much more professional than he was."
The newspaper said Zygier, who took Israeli citizenship in the mid-1990s, was recruited to Israel's spy agency the Mossad in 2004 and worked in Europe.
He was assigned to infiltrate companies with links to countries hostile to Israel, including Iran and Syria. Zygier was eventually pulled back to Tel Aviv and assigned to a desk job within Mossad.
In an attempt to prove himself and return to a field assignment, Zygier set about trying to recruit a European man known to be close to Hezbollah militants, setting up meetings in late 2008 with the hope of recruiting the man as a double agent.
But the plan went wrong when Zygier tried to prove his credentials by giving up the names of Israel's top two Lebanese informants, Ziad al-Homsi and Mustafa Ali Awadeh, who were both arrested in 2009 by Lebanese authorities and jailed for 15 years, the paper said.
When he was arrested in early 2010 Zygier was carrying a compact disc loaded with more intelligence files that he might have planned to pass on to his Hezbollah contact, the Sydney Morning Herald said.
An Australian government inquiry said it found no evidence any Australian passports had been misused by either Zygier Australian citizen or by Mossad in the case.
The Australian foreign minister, Bob Carr, has confirmed Zygier was working for the Israeli government but stopped short of confirming he worked for the Mossad.
March 24, 2013
President Is Said to Flee as Rebels Seize Capital of the Central African Republic
By ADAM NOSSITER
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Rebels entered Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, on Sunday morning, seizing control of the city in the culmination of a lengthy uprising in one of the world’s weakest and most impoverished states. The country’s president was reported to have fled.
The rebels met little opposition, either from the country’s military or troops from the region who had been sent to bolster the government. The rebels immediately set about looting, according to residents, another indication of the state’s feeble hold on the destitute country.
“Bangui is under the control of rebel elements who entered the capital this morning,” said Martin Wiguele, a member of the country’s Parliament, speaking by phone from Bangui. “They fired in the air and asked people to stay at home.”
The whereabouts of President François Bozizé, who took power in a coup in 2003, was not immediately clear, with local radio and the French government reporting that he had fled. Analysts suggested that he was unlikely to be missed, either by citizens of the Central African Republic or by foreign governments, because his efforts had been focused on staying in power rather than developing his country.
Bangui residents said that they had heard heavy-weapons fire on Sunday morning and that widespread looting by the rebels was under way, with the fighters hauling away cars, trucks, computers and freezers.
“There are gunshots here and there,” said the deputy director of the president’s press office, Essiae Nganamokoi. “Nobody is going out. It is too dangerous.”
The seizure of Bangui is the most significant step yet for the rebellion by guerrillas who call themselves Seleka, which is the word for alliance in the Sango language. But the Central African Republic, a country roughly the size of Texas with a population of about four million, has known little but coups, rebellions, hunger and destitution since it gained independence from France in 1960.
Since Saturday, France has sent 300 soldiers to Bangui from Gabon, said a French military spokesman, Col. Thierry Burkhard. Those troops, who arrived to reinforce a permanent deployment of 250 French soldiers in Bangui, have been ordered to protect French citizens and the French Embassy, Colonel Burkhard said, and have been stationed at strategic points in the city.
“Things are going pretty much all right,” he said, but he declined to say whether French forces had engaged in any fighting with rebels or government soldiers.
In a statement on Sunday afternoon, President François Hollande of France appealed “to all parties for calm and for dialogue.” Mr. Hollande said he had “taken note” of Mr. Bozizé’s departure from the country.
A State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said in a statement on Sunday that the United States was “deeply concerned about a serious deterioration in the security situation” in the Central African Republic.
“We urgently call on the Seleka leadership which has taken control of Bangui to establish law and order in the city and to restore basic services of electricity and water,” the statement said.
The chaos began in 2005, when small-scale rebellions erupted in the loosely governed and remote north, where the guerrilla alliance was born. The government appeared powerless to halt them.
“The C.A.R. has become virtually a phantom state, lacking any meaningful institutional capacity,” the International Crisis Group said in report in 2010, noting that the country was in “permanent crisis.” Talks with the rebels in 2008 failed, just as they had before and would again; Mr. Bozizé relied on foreign governments to help pay civil servants in the capital, one of his few bases of support.
“It is actually a country that is not governed,” said Thibaud Lesueur, an expert on the Central African Republic at the International Crisis Group. “There is a kind of immobilism that is very serious, a thorough absence of the state.” A failed coup in 2001 led to 300 deaths, and 50,000 people fled the capital. More fighting erupted in 2002 and 2003 between government troops and rebels.
“Seleka is a coalition of rebel groups that already existed for some time,” Mr. Lesueur said. The takeover of the capital on Sunday was merely “something one could have feared for a long time,” he said. The grievances have remained consistent: lack of development in the north.
Mr. Bozizé’s strategy has been to buy off rebel leaders with government positions, analysts said. But that did little to quell discontent among the rank-and-file rebels. “The Seleka leaders didn’t have the influence they thought they had, and the Seleka men still wanted to fight,” Mr. Lesueur said.
The rebels said last week that Mr. Bozizé had reneged on a January peace agreement by failing to integrate some of their men into the army and by refusing to send home the foreign troops, including soldiers from South Africa and Chad, who were helping to train the army. The rebels quickly took over towns around the capital and then moved into Bangui around 7:30 a.m. on Sunday, witnesses said. What little resistance they encountered crumbled about two hours later.
By early Sunday evening, the gunfire in Bangui had trailed off, apart from celebratory shots. But the capital remained tense. “It’s very difficult to move around the city at this moment,” said Serge St. Louis, head of mission for Doctors Without Borders. “If we leave our compound, it’s almost automatic that our cars will be seized” by patrolling rebels, Mr. St. Louis said. He said wounded people were filling the city’s hospitals, which have little means to treat them.
“All the institutions of the republic have fallen,” said Mr. Wiguele, the member of Parliament. “This changing of government by gunfire, this has consequences in a country that is already very poor and miserable.”
Sylvie Panika contributed reporting from Bangui, Central African Republic, and Scott Sayare from Paris.
From war babies to billionaires: Vietnam's wealthiest women
Female entrepreneurs own 25% of all private enterprises in Vietnam – Asia's fastest-growing economy after China. But those at the top have often overcome extraordinary hardship to get there. Abigail Haworth meets three of Vietnam's wealthiest women
The Observer, Sunday 24 March 2013
"What's the first designer item you ever bought?" I ask 42-year-old Vietnamese tycoon Le Hong Thuy Tien as we cruise through Ho Chi Minh City in her beast-like black Bentley. It has come to this. I have been asking about her childhood during the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it's known here) for the past half an hour. She has politely refused to be drawn. Fawning questions about how filthy rich she is are all I have left.
"That's a great question!" she exclaims, her perfect eyebrows arching with delight. Sadly, it is only half great. The purchase was so many hundreds of Louis Vuitton tote bags, Bulgari watches and Chanel dresses ago that Thuy Tien can't remember the answer. She searches her memory in vain as motorcycles buzz past like flies outside the tinted windows.
Whatever the item was, we establish that she most likely bought it in Paris in the mid-1990s. Back then she was a flight attendant for the national carrier Vietnam Airlines. It was such a coveted job at a time when few Vietnamese could travel that she'd chosen it over a fledgling career as a movie starlet. Today she is the president of a huge trading company, Imex Pan Pacific Group. "I run 25 private equity and venture capital firms that distribute luxury brands and invest in local shopping malls," she says in her girlish, slightly Americanised English.
Unlike some of Vietnam's super-rich, who are reluctant to flaunt their success in a country run by an increasingly jittery and repressive Communist regime, Thuy Tien is all about the money. Her mission, she adds, is to generate annual revenue of US$1bn. How close is she? "I'm over half way there."
Welcome to modern Vietnam – one side of it, at least – where the pinnacle of achievement is to snare the exclusive rights to distribute Burberry or (Thuy Tien's newest acquisition) the franchise for Dunkin' Donuts. The city formerly known as Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City to celebrate national unity after two decades of civil strife, including the war with America from 1965-75. Now it is Vietnam's commercial hub. Gleaming billboards and five-star hotels signal the country's status as Asia's fastest-growing economy after China. Since liberalisation began in the 1980s, founding father Ho's Communist mantra "Success, Success, Great Success" has become the creed of hardcore capitalism.
The number of multimillionaires has jumped 150% in the past five years alone. There is no breakdown by gender, probably because women like Thuy Tien are still rare. Vietnam remains overwhelmingly male-dominated. There is only one woman in the 14-member ruling Communist politburo and overall equality is badly lacking. Problems such as bride trafficking and forced prostitution are rife. Yet, for better or worse, women have been playing a hidden role in the breakneck development.
Up to three million Vietnamese died in the war, many of them male soldiers who left behind wives and young children (although women fought and died, too). When the war ended, failed collectivisation policies plunged the country into dire hardship. Single mothers supported their families with clandestine household commerce and raised their daughters to be equally resourceful. Today, female entrepreneurs own around 25% of all private enterprises in Vietnam, mostly small family outfits. Those who have reached the very top have usually overcome extraordinary obstacles to get there.
"Women? Oh, they run this country underneath it all," Frenchman Yves-Victor Liccioni, a luxury-brand PR guru and longtime resident of HCMC, tells me one evening under a canopy of fairylights at one of the city's relaxed European bistros. "They're powerful, energetic and they love making money."
It takes 40 minutes to reach Thuy Tien's home overlooking the swampy Saigon River. She lives here with her husband, two teenage children and 10 pyjama-clad housemaids. It is a typical new-money neoclassical mansion: giant gates with ornate gold metalwork, white exterior, Doric columns. In the grounds there are statues of lions standing sentry, cherubs keeping watch, and horses and dragons apparently loitering for the fun of it. There's a swimming pool, a tennis court and a garage housing three varieties of Rolls-Royce, another Bentley and an SUV. "My husband collects cars," Thuy Tien explains casually.
We go inside. It is no surprise that Thuy Tien likes gold – there is nobody in Vietnam who doesn't – but it seems unfeasible for one person to like so much of it. She designed the decor herself. Everything is so gold that it is easier to describe what isn't gold, including a white marble staircase hewn from rock from the coastal city of Da Nang. "This pure-white marble is very rare," boasts Thuy Tien. "We mined it ourselves."
Thuy Tien is married to a Vietnamese-born, Philippines-raised airline tycoon whom she met during her flight-attendant days. He is the brains behind state-owned Vietnam Airlines' international expansion, and his ties to the ruling elite have almost certainly proved helpful to his wife along the way. Nevertheless, Thuy Tien insists that her financial success is her own. "I studied every aspect of business from A to Z so I could compete at the highest level."
Relaxing on her gilded sofa, she finally opens up a little about her past. She was born in the capital Hanoi in 1970. Her father died when she was five, just before the war ended. (She won't say whether he was a soldier or which side her family was aligned with.) "My mother raised me and my five siblings alone. She was a schoolteacher and very strict. She taught us that working hard was the key to survival."
It's a lesson she says she has never forgotten, and it is true that few women in Vietnam who are hitched to wealthy men are content to be trophy wives. Shortly after she married, Thuy Tien fought for and won a lucrative contract to open Vietnam's first supermarket in 1995. "It was a joint venture with the military. I sat in meetings with all these men in uniform and they didn't believe a 25-year-old woman could handle 20,000 products. I was determined to prove them wrong." She did. The supermarket was mobbed on its opening day. "It was the first time people could do all their shopping in one place."
Thuy Tien attributes her huge success since to her knack for understanding what "modern Vietnamese consumers want". Her company is now the exclusive agent for luxury brands such as Ferragamo, Ralph Lauren, Rolex and Bulgari. "Sales are increasing every year," she says, happily. She checks her constantly buzzing iPhone before announcing, at almost 6pm, that she needs to return to the office.
No doubt due to its David and Goliath battle with the US, there is a perception that Vietnam is a tiny country. It is not that small. With almost 90m people it is the world's 13th most populous nation, and has a land area the size of Germany. Economic reform has certainly improved many people's lives – poverty has declined from 60% two decades ago to 20% today. But the wealth gap is widening and growth has stalled in the past year. Economic inefficiency, largely due to corruption inside state enterprises, including the wholesale plunder of natural resources, has caused a range of problems for ordinary Vietnamese, from inflation to high interest rates.
Vietnam's wealthiest women: Thuy Tien by her pool ‘I studied every aspect of business from A to Z so I could compete at the highest level’: Thuy Tien by her pool. Photograph: Nana Chen
The government is in a dangerous bind. Increasingly unable to sustain its Communist edifice alongside runaway capitalism, it has been ruthlessly cracking down on dissent. At least 22 democracy activists and bloggers were imprisoned last year. But the super-rich are not safe, either. Tales of the wealthy quaffing champagne infused with 22ct gold, eating the brains of live monkeys as a delicacy and buying diamond-encrusted mobile phones have irritated the public. In a show of tackling corruption, the regime has recently arrested a number of top executives at state-owned enterprises for "mismanaging funds". The blood of business magnates all over the country has run cold.
Still, there is little sign of concern about this at Koh Thai, a chic restaurant serving "Thai fusion cuisine" in HCMC's business district. A lunchtime crowd of office workers is chatting noisily at tables decorated in lime green and purple. Some fashion types are smoking Menthol Slims on the balcony. Most glamorous of all is the restaurant's owner, Hana Dang. Wearing a short white dress and sky-high heels, 40-year-old Dang is busy being groomed by a make-up artist when I arrive.
If she is flustered by the curling tongs clamped to her head she doesn't show it. She tells me how much she's worth before I've sat down. "The restaurant is a new venture. I own an advertising agency with annual revenue of $50m." Her voice is sandpapery with a hint of foghorn. "I'm also a partner in a private equity firm that manages funds of $250m." With that out of the way, she flashes a charismatic smile and hands me one of her restaurant's signature cocktails, a chilli-infused strawberry vodka concoction called a Hot Lips (named after the nurse in the old TV series M*A*S*H*).
She's just as no-nonsense about her past. She was born in Hanoi in 1972 when it was "raining American bombs". Her father was enlisted with the Communist forces, the Vietnam People's Army, and was killed when she was a year old. Her mother was so traumatised that her breast milk dried up. "She fed me on water mixed with sugar. But look at me – I turned out OK, didn't I?" She lets out a raucous laugh. "If I'd been fed on milk I'd have been a supermodel." In her teens, Dang fainted from hunger in the street due to her meagre daily diet of rice mixed with corn kernels. "For years we had no meat or fish. Everyone was poor." She became an entrepreneur from a young age. "I set up a coffee stand outside our house when I was 14, and made clothes to sell. I learned a lot from those days." Most of all, she says, she learned she never wanted to be poor again. She worked hard at school and graduated from college as a fluent English speaker.
In early 1994, shortly before the US trade embargo was lifted, Dang was hired by global advertising agency McCann Erickson to work on campaigns for the first western products to arrive in postwar Vietnam: Coca-Cola, Maybelline lipstick, Nestlé milk. "It was so exciting, so much fun." She soon set up her own agency, Golden Communication Group, to take advantage of the country's insatiable new appetite for consumerism. "It was hard at the start because Vietnam is so sexist. Male clients often assumed I was the secretary, not the CEO." She pauses for effect. "They don't make that mistake any more."
Partly due to the endeavours of people like Dang, Vietnam's city centres are unrecognisable from even a decade ago. Ho Chi Minh City is full of women carrying It bags and doing valiant battle with the uneven pavements in £400 Jimmy Choos. Fake goods are increasingly déclassé. Fake noses and eyelids, on the other hand, are all the rage. Predictably, cosmetic surgery has been taking off among both sexes as Vietnamese society has grown more image conscious. PR consultant Yves-Victor Liccioni divulges that most people fly to Thailand or Singapore for big operations, while top French dermatologists fly in to Vietnam to hold "Botox bootcamps". "They come here for three weeks at a time and do nonstop injections and treatments. It's very lucrative."
Dang admits she's had "a few injections". But she insists she has no time for the conspicuous consumption of other home-grown multimillionaires. "I'm a practical person. I like what I like." She illustrates her point by noting that her zebra-striped silk jacket is from Zara. Recently divorced after a brief marriage, she's proud of her wealth, but realises it's too easy to get carried away. "It's been like a huge gold rush here. There's a lot of greed and there are still too many poor people in Vietnam." Turning 40, she says, has prompted her to focus on things she truly enjoys, like her new restaurant business, and also "to get into some charity activities" – philanthropy being as far as any of the newly rich are prepared to go when it comes to modern-day wealth redistribution.
Dang's good friend and fellow female dynamo, Alan Duong, is similarly grounded in her own way. I meet her for coffee in the ritzy Park Hyatt Hotel. Duong, 38, is the owner of a company selling modern furniture and interior design products. With so much emphasis on "aspirational lifestyles", her business has boomed. But Duong says she feels that many female entrepreneurs are slightly less enslaved than men by the desire for limitless riches. "It's fine to have a fast car, but there are other things in life. Many women don't want their children to grow up to be spoiled brats," says the mother of a one-year-old son.
When Duong was 10, her rambling French colonial family home in the centre of Hanoi was confiscated by the government. "They accused us of being capitalists because we had a big house. We were thrown on to the streets." Four years later, in 1988, their situation was so unbearable that Duong and her father, a former Vietnam People's Army soldier, joined the ranks of so-called boat people trying their luck at a better life elsewhere. "We paid a fortune for places on a fishing boat to sail to Hong Kong. The boat's capacity was 20 people and there were 72 of us packed on board. We didn't know if we'd live or die." Storms and piracy were terrifying hazards: a boat that left at the same time as theirs didn't make it, Duong says. Her mother, who had stayed behind to protect what little they still owned in Vietnam, barely slept for the entire 17 days they were at sea until she learned they were safe.
Still, they arrived in Hong Kong too late. Official resettlement programmes for Vietnamese refugees had already ended. Duong and her father spent the next five years there living in limbo in a barbed-wire compound. "It was like a prison," she says. "There was no privacy, and at shower time we were hosed down with disinfectant like pigs." Unable to prove they were political asylum seekers, they eventually returned to Vietnam when she was 19.
Almost two decades later, Duong is elated with the way her life has turned out in her home country. "Even in my dreams I didn't imagine that I would have this much money." But she's not certain that the good fortune will continue in the volatile domestic climate. Nor is she convinced that Vietnam's current population – two-thirds of whom were born after the war ended in 1975 – understands that material wealth can be fleeting.
"I'm from the generation that knows what it's like to have both nothing and everything," she says. "I don't take anything for granted."
In the USA....
The Republican Party’s Ratings Now Stand at a 20-Year Low
By: Sarah Jones
Mar. 23rd, 2013
Remember when Speaker John Boehner lamented that President Obama wanted to shove the Republican Party to the “dustbin of history”? Turns out, it’s not Obama who’s killing the GOP; it’s more of a suicide.
For those who pay attention, this should come as no surprise, but rather a “what took so long” response. Yes, America is on to the GOP. The Republican Party’s ratings now stand at a 20-year low.
Andrew Kohut, founding director and former president of the Pew Research Center and president of the Gallup Organization from 1979 to 1989, is a polling expert, so when he writes a column titled “The numbers prove it: The GOP is estranged from America”, it means something.
Writing in the Washington Post, Kohut compares the radical image problem of today’s GOP with that of the Democratic Party of the 1960s and early 1970s.
“The Republican Party’s ratings now stand at a 20-year low, with just 33 percent of the public holding a favorable view of the party and 58 percent judging it unfavorably, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Although the Democrats are better regarded (47 percent favorable and 46 percent unfavorable), the GOP’s problems are its own, not a mirror image of renewed Democratic strength.”
It’s one thing to have a few polls showing the GOP tanking, but what we have here is an undeniable trend (and national elections to back it up).
Kohut notes RNC chair Reince Priebus’ recent efforts to rebrand the party, but observes, “A long list, but one that doesn’t address the emergence of a staunch conservative bloc that has undermined the GOP’s national image.”
This is the Republican Party’s problem– the so called Tea Party that won them 2010 seats is costing them their party image. Of course, in reality, the Republican Party itself is as extreme as the media sensation of the Tea Party; their party platform spells out the extremism at every turn. They are one and the same.
The usual right wing rebuttal to numbers is that “both sides” have extremists. Yes, they do, but the left wing’s extremists are not running the party or drafting policy. Kohut points out that the entrenchment of right wing extremism is the party’s demise, “But while members of the Republican and Democratic parties have become more conservative and liberal, respectively, a bloc of doctrinaire, across-the-board conservatives has become a dominant force on the right. Indeed, their resolve and ultra-conservatism have protected Republican lawmakers from the broader voter backlash that is so apparent in opinion polls.”
The base is dominated by far right conservatives who are exceptionally active but are also “demographically and politically distinct from the national electorate. Ninety-two percent are white. They tend to be male, married, Protestant, well off and at least 50 years old.”
This has caused the party to fall in upon itself, narrowing its tent until there’s barely an opening for even the most hardened conservative. Kohut says that not only is the percentage of people self-identifying as Republican at an historic low, “(B)ut that within that smaller base, the traditional divides between pro-business economic conservatives and social conservatives had narrowed. There was less diversity of values within the GOP than at any time in the past quarter-century.”
All of the things that outsiders can see are killing the party are also its engine: The conservative media bubble, appeals to racism (sorry but it’s in the numbers and labeled “white flight”), the fear of change, and catering to the rich. It’s a circular problem with no end.
Kohut concludes, “Any Republican efforts at reinvention face this dilemma: While staunch conservatives help keep GOP lawmakers in office, they also help keep the party out of the White House.”
It’s rather ironic that the Republican Party lives in the 1960s, throwing intended bombs at their opposition that fizzle out because they are out of date and irrelevant. The GOP still thinks the Democratic Party is the party of the 1960s, and hence labeling a politician “liberal” is enough. But it’s 2013, and in these times, being a Republican/conservative is a hindrance to achieving national office.
Pro-Life Iowa Republican Kills Maternal Care Bill with Abortion Amendment
By: Sarah Jones
Mar. 23rd, 2013
Here is the proof that ‘pro-life’ Republicans are not actually really concerned with the life of a fetus.
In Iowa, a female Democrat was close to passing a bill to protect the feti of pregnant inmates, when along came a male Republican who attached an amendment (aka, poison pill to kill the bill) demanding that no state money be used for inmate abortions. Now the maternal care bill is dead because just like the assault weapons ban, no one wants an abortion debate side-tracking from their bill.
Sen. Janet Petersen, a Des Moines Democrat, told the Des Moines Register that she won’t proceed with her bill because of Sen. Kent Sorenson’s, a Milo Republican, amendment, “I would like to make advances on maternal health care for women who are incarcerated. But his amendment causes problems getting this legislation passed.”
Bizarrely, the Register reports that Sorenson said “that when lawmakers discuss maternal health care for prisoners, they also need to consider the life of the inmate’s unborn child.” So he’s saying you don’t get maternal care unless you give us a redundant and irrelevant amendment — and yet, maternal care is care for the “unborn child” and his poison pill ensures that more feti will be endangered. (Maybe he can be prosecuted for this under the protection of the unborn laws Republicans are using to prosecute women.)
An ACLU brief broke down the dangers of shackling pregnant women:
Shackling pregnant women is dangerous and inhumane. Although widely regarded as an assault on human dignity as well as an unsafe medical practice, women prisoners are still routinely shackled during pregnancy and childbirth. Restraining pregnant prisoners at any time increases their potential for physical harm from an accidental trip or fall. This also poses a risk of serious harm to the woman’s fetus, including the potential for miscarriage. During labor, delivery and postpartum recovery, shackling can interfere with appropriate medical care and be detrimental to the health of the mother and her newborn child.
Who’s backing Petersen’s maternal care bill? Oh, just churches, medical associations and justice alliances, and the ACLU. When Pennsylvania put up a similar bill, “The Healthy Birth for Incarcerated Women Act”, it was also supported by Public Health officials, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, Women’s Law Project, Women’s Way, Maternity Care Coalition, Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, and more. In other words, the legal, medical and religious communities. So, Mr. Sorensen’s efforts to kill this bill put him at odds with a broad consensus of agreement that shackling pregnant women is a bad idea.
Pennsylvania passed the healthy birth bill in 2010. According to the ACLU, 18 states have laws prohibiting or restricting the use of shackles on pregnant prisoners (AZ, CA, CO, DE, FL, HI, ID, IL, LA, PA, NM, NV, NY, RI, TX, VT, WA and WV).
The kicker? The Register points out, “State officials said they currently cannot authorize the expense of public funds for an abortion unless there is a life-threatening situation or serious medical threat to the mother.”
So, unless Mr. Sorensen’s amendment was intended to force pregnant women in prison to die, his amendment was both redundant and unnecessary — nothing but a poison pill to kill a maternal care bill.
The culture of ‘life’ has been shackled by Republican chains. This Iowa Republican obviously doesn’t care what damage shackling causes to the unborn, which raises the question: Just what is the real purpose of allegedly pro-life legislation, because it’s obviously not really about the unborn.
In a New Low The NRA is Schilling for War Criminals and Terrorists
By: Adalia Woodbury
Mar. 23rd, 2013
As certain as the sun rises in the morning and sets at night, you can count on shoddy reporting from the right wing. This is especially true when reality fails to suit their narrative.
We saw a classic example of shoddy reporting in a Washington Times article about talks on a proposed Arms Trade Treaty. Under the headline U.N. threatens to override Second Amendment, Washington Times spin-madam Emily Miller cultivates the fiction that Obama is using the United Nations to come after your guns.
Well, there are a few problems with that. For one thing, the United States is on record as being in opposition to statements made by others about the treaty’s objectives. For another thing we have a list of conditions, including protecting the Second Amendment, that must be met before we will support the final draft of this treaty. Perhaps if Miller learned how to use Google, she would have found the Reuters report that sets the record straight.
She might have learned, for example, that according to the U.N.’s disarmament office, the ATT will not
do any of the following:
“interfere with domestic arms commerce or the right to bear arms in member states; ban the export of any type of weapon; harm states’ legitimate right to self-defense; undermine national arms regulation standards already in place.” (my emphasis)
If she was interested in facts, she might have done something radical – like read the draft document that is the starting point from which participants in the talks will hold their discussions.
Granted, it’s a draft and the final version will have changes that reflect the horse-trading that goes with making treaties. I realize that reading the text of proposed agreements or looking at statements of what was actually said isn’t as much fun as making stuff up, nor is it as politically expedient for a right wing extremists who feed on fear of the imagined, spiced with hatred for the proverbial other.
The thing is if you look beyond the NRA’s talking points, it’s pretty clear that this treaty is about controlling arms sales outside the United States. It’s about taking steps to prevent arms sales to war criminals and terrorists.
According to Reuters, 108 countries led by Mexico issued a statement supporting the treaty. ”the overwhelming majority of (U.N.) Member States agree with us on the necessity and the urgency of adopting a strong Arms Trade Treaty. Our voice must be heard.”
The United States was not among the states that supported the statement. Rather we joined with other members of the U.N. Security Council to issue a separate statement saying: ”an effective (treaty) should not hinder the legitimate arms trade or the legitimate right to self-defense under the U.N. Charter.”
Moreover, the State Department is on record with a series of conditions that must be met for the U.S. to support the final treaty. Guess what the first condition is.
The Second Amendment to the Constitution must be upheld.
Additional provisions reinforce the condition that the Second Amendment must be upheld.
There will be no restrictions on civilian possession or trade of firearms otherwise permitted by law or protected by the U.S. Constitution.
There will be no dilution or diminishing of sovereign control over issues involving the private acquisition, ownership, or possession of firearms, which must remain matters of domestic law.
The U.S. will oppose provisions inconsistent with existing U.S. law or that would unduly interfere with our ability to import, export, or transfer arms in support of our national security and foreign policy interests.
The international arms trade is a legitimate commercial activity, and otherwise lawful commercial trade in arms must not be unduly hindered.
There will be no requirement for reporting on or marking and tracing of ammunition or explosives.
There will be no lowering of current international standards.
Existing nonproliferation and export control regimes must not be undermined.
The ATT negotiations must have consensus decision making to allow us to protect U.S. equities.
There will be no mandate for an international body to enforce an ATT.
The American Bar Association actually reviewed the content of the ATT and concluded:
The proposed treaty would obligate the United States to block both exports and imports of covered arms across its borders whenever those transfers pose an overriding risk of causing certain adverse consequences, including: serious human rights abuses, war crimes, or terrorist acts.
the United States retains the discretion to regulate the flow of weapons into and out of the United States in a manner consistent with the Second Amendment,
In short, for the U.S. to sign the treaty the aforementioned conditions must be met. Under the existing draft, the treaty is consistent with the Second Amendment. Even if there is something questionable in the final draft of the treaty, the United States has the option of registering a reservation reiterating these conditions.
Still, I’m not about to give the NRA a free pass on just what it is they are supporting when they express opposition to provisions that don’t exist.
By opposing this treaty, the NRA supports countries that do or will engage in war crimes and crimes against humanity. The NRA also supports the free flow of weapons to the hands of terrorists, like Al Qaeda.
Why not just come out and say the NRA advocates war crimes and terrorism for profit?
Too Big To Fail Should Never Mean Too Big to Jail
Mar. 24th, 2013
America is a nation of laws, and allegedly follows the rule of law implying that every citizen is subject to the law in contrast to the idea that the powerful and wealthy are above the law by divine right. However, the law is hardly applied without distinction in this country evidenced by the disproportionate number of African Americans in the penal system, or the curiously small number of wealthy bankers and powerful financial leaders imprisoned for crashing the world’s economy during the financial meltdown of 2008. There is a glimmer of hope that justice does catch up to the powerful financial institutions, but just like the concept that financial institutions are too big to fail, the people behind private equity firms, investment banks, and Wall Street institutions are too big to jail.
Over the past couple of months, large financial institutions have begun being held accountable for malfeasance that cheated investors and earned billions of dollars in the process, but aside from paying fines in plea bargains and possibly compensating bilked investors, it is impossible to jail a bank or corporation. One of the financial giants on Wall Street, Goldman Sachs, is facing monetary damages in a lawsuit involving eToys and Bain Capital, and they suffered a setback when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a decision forcing it to face charges it misled investors regarding mortgage securities that lost value in the 2008 financial crisis.
The eToys case involves Goldman Sachs undervaluing IPO shares and then spinning off shares to preferred clients. GS deliberately set an artificially low price of $20 a share so institutional investors could reap a fortune on the first day’s run-up when the stocks ended the day at $77, and then demanded the easy profits be kicked back to Goldman Sachs in the form of commissions. eToys received about $17 a share from Goldman that raised $164 million in one day. According to the lawsuit, the Goldman Sachs executive heading the underwriting team knew the market demand and made a bet with colleagues the price would reach $80 a share at the opening. The creditors suing Goldman Sachs asked an important question; who was Goldman Sachs working for during the IPO rigging in 1999? Readers of this column may recall Willard Romney’s firm, Bain Capital, ended up with eToys for next to nothing, and the company mysteriously failed and went through bankruptcy because the profits from the IPO never made it to eToys. The good news is that the lawsuit is still on going, but despite the outcome, no-one will go to jail.
In September 2012, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court allowed a group of investors that owned mortgage-backed certificates underwritten by Goldman Sachs to sue on behalf of investors in certificates it did not own, but were backed by mortgages from the same lenders. Goldman appealed to the conservative Supreme Court for relief, but the High Court let the Appeals Court ruling stand and forced Goldman to defend itself against claims it misled investors. Goldman and other banks are facing myriad lawsuits by investors hoping to recoup losses on mortgage securities, but GS complained the 2nd Court’s decision could end up costing them billions of dollars. A lawyer for Goldman warned the Supreme Court that if the lawsuits are successful, financial institutions will be liable for tens-of-billions of dollars that will eat into their obscene profits.
In December 2012, the United States Justice Department failed to criminally prosecute HSBC as a result of money-laundering schemes, because although the conservative Supreme Court ruled “corporations are people,” banks and corporations are not really people when they break the law and therefore cannot be jailed. However, like Goldman Sachs, Bain Capital, and HSBC, the people responsible for raping investors and stealing companies can be prosecuted and jailed but they are too rich, too powerful, and too big to jail. One of the arguments the Justice Department makes is that “in considering collateral consequences, prosecutors must determine whether they would be disproportionate harm to investors, pension holders, customers, and employees who were not personally culpable as well as the impact on the public arising from the prosecution.” And yet, if an African American youth steals a loaf of bread because his family is hungry, he will certainly be prosecuted, convicted, and go directly to jail.
Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs CEO, told an interviewer he believes banks have divine right to special treatment because they are “doing God’s work.” According to Blankfein, “We’re very important, we help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital. Companies that grow create wealth. In turn, it allows people to create more growth and more wealth. It’s a virtuous cycle.” If Blankfein sounds eerily like Willard Romney, it is because he repeated the same spiel defending Bain Capital, and like Bain, wealth never reaches the people and goes directly to CEOs offshore accounts. The mindset among the wealthy corporate heads, private equity firms, and investment banks is “We have a social purpose, and we’re doing god’s work” and with a failed justice system, they are too big to fail.
Financial institutions may not face prosecution because they cannot go to jail, but the men and women committing fraud, money laundering, and shorting investors can be criminally prosecuted and sent to jail. However, financial institutions can be forced to make restitution for billions and billions of dollars they stole from investors and struggling firms, and if they fail, it will send a message to other banks, Wall Street firms, and private equity firms that untoward activities and illegal stock manipulation will incur punitive consequences. There is a reason Romney pledged his first day in office he would repeal the financial reform law preventing banks from being “too big to fail,” and why Sheldon Adelson donated millions of dollars to Willard’s campaign to avoid a Justice Department investigation; the system is easily corrupted and tilted in favor of the rich and powerful.
The rule of law cannot be arbitrary based on whether or not a financial giant is prosecuted and fails, or if men like Blankfein or Romney claim they are “doing god’s work” and “serving a social purpose.” Remember, Blankfein’s twisted social purpose drove him to attempt to convince the President to support raising the retirement age to 70 because “we can’t afford” Social Security or Medicare. The problem with the financial sector is Republicans have given them free rein to rape and pillage the public, pay no taxes, crash the economy, and come out of the recession they created earning record profits with impunity. All the while, investors lost everything, retirement funds were decimated, and firms like Goldman Sachs have the temerity to warn the Supreme Court they will lose tens-of-billions of dollars if they are held accountable for their crimes.
There is a solution, but the Justice Department is too timid to enforce the law equitably. If they cannot prosecute and jail a corporation or bank, they certainly can prosecute the individuals who are culpable for facilitating financial malfeasance. Martha Stewart spent time in prison for getting insider tips on stocks, and yet Willard Romney is free after lying on FEC and SEC disclosures and profiting from a Bain law firm’s bankruptcy scheme. If justice is blind, and every citizen is subject to the law, then every bank, private equity firm, and financial corporation’s leaders should be held accountable and pay fines, pay investors, and go to jail because anything less is raw injustice. The good news is that with the court system allowing investors to sue companies like Goldman Sachs, maybe the tide is turning, and one hopes that those who caused the financial meltdown in 2008, and cheated eToys investors will at least have to provide restitution, but until they are sitting in a prison cell, justice will not be served. American justice is not blind, it just turns a blind eye when criminals are rich and too big to jail.
Bob Dole Tells the Republican Party to ‘close its doors to make repairs’
By: Sarah Jones
Mar. 24th, 2013
How can you be sure that your party is truly off course? Consistently bad polling is a start, an inability to win national elections is another clue. But for the final nail in the GOP’s coffin, we have the revered former Republican Senator Bob Dole’s deep disappointment and shock at the modern day Republican Party.
After the 89-year-old Republican wheeled his way back onto the Senate floor in 2012, hoping to pass an international treaty modeled on his historic Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, he got quite a shock. Dole was betrayed by his own party, including a senator from his own state of Kansas: The treaty was killed by his own party.
The Boston Globe covered Dole’s reaction to the loss, which he blames on his party’s anti-government rhetoric. Dole called for the party to take a time-out to make repairs:
As Dole sat in his Washington law office in February, still stunned by the outcome, he blamed his own party and suggested a headline: “Republican Party closes its doors to make repairs.” The GOP, added Dole, one of the party’s most revered figures, “needs a timeout” to tone down the antigovernment rhetoric.
To be sure, Dole says there is a larger problem of political dysfunction in which Democrats also share blame. But if there is a legislative tale that symbolizes the rise and fall of bipartisanship in Washington during the past quarter-century — and the Republican Party’s own schism — it is the story of Dole’s initial success and recent failure on behalf of people with disabilities. It is also the story of Dole himself, discovering how Washington has changed and become a broken city.
It must have been a shock for Dole to discover just how crazy his own party has become. It’s a shock for anyone who pays attention. Those who don’t pay attention play the false equivalency game, but the legislative process tells the truth.
In Dole’s case, we have a solid treaty based on existing legislation that had bipartisan support; a treaty first negotiated by former Republican President George W. Bush. Let that sink in. Among many other countries, Afghanistan (where we are allegedly fighting for freedom) has ratified this treaty, but we have not.
The treaty ratification was killed as all but 8 Republicans voted against it. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has dragged the Senate into the tea party Republican ditch (his filibuster record speaks for itself). The tea party was against it because they hate anything the UN does; they see the UN as imposing on American exceptionalism. They would rather have Mitt Romney taking orders from Netanhayu than be a part of the United Nations.
In order to justify this, the Republicans put the head of the Home School Legal Defense Fund on the stand (you can’t make this stuff up). He spewed the typical paranoia of the far right, hysterically proclaiming that ratifying this treaty would give the UN control over his kid because his kid wears glasses. Quote: “The definition of disability is not defined in the treaty and so, my kid wears glasses, now they’re disabled; now the UN gets control over them.”
Sounds crazy, right? After all, UN treaties are not American law, and we already have that law on the books and no one has come for the kids, not even anyone from the “evil” Democratic Party, as described by the home schooler head. Okay, so the home schooling advocate is a bit nuts. But wait. Republican Senators James Inhofe and Jim DeMint began echoing the home schooler’s hysteria, adding (falsely) that the treaty covered abortion. Oh yes, There’s nothing like the poison pill of the abortion debate to deliberately kill a bill/treaty/discussion.
Bob Dole, meet the new GOP.
The modern day GOP doesn’t believe government should do anything. Anything. Anything at all, except serve as a function to collect taxes that can be redistributed to corporate entities poised to grift off of the government (see Gov Rick Scott’s infamous Medicare fraud history as an example of the Great GOP Privatization Heist).
Nothing echoes more clearly the problems in DC than Dole describing his governing principles during 89-90 session. When he was the Minority Leader in the Senate, he says he thought he was there to do something, and as such, he saw it as his “job” to meet the Democrats halfway. He described an agreement with the Democratic Majority Leader to never criticize one another, to build a relationship of trust. Dole concluded, “I thought when I was elected I was supposed to do something.”
Imagine that. He thought he was being paid to actually do something for the country other than swear fealty to the paranoid rantings of the Republican base.
North Korea rockets and artillery 'target' US bases
Pyongyang puts military in 'combat mode' saying it is now targeting US bases in Guam, Hawaii and American mainland
Tania Branigan in Beijing
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 26 March 2013 09.51 GMT
North Korea said it had ordered its rocket and long-range artillery units to be combat-ready, targeting military bases in the US and American bases in the region, in its latest fiery warning.
Pyongyang has issued stern admonitions and threats on an almost daily basis since the UN security council tightened sanctions over its latest nuclear test and the US and South Korea began joint military drills.
"From this moment, the supreme command of the Korean People's Army will be putting into combat duty posture No 1 all field artillery units, including long-range artillery units and strategic rocket units, that will target all enemy objects in US invasionary bases on its mainland, Hawaii and Guam," said a statement from the North's military supreme command, carried on the state's KCNA news agency.
The South Korean defence ministry said it was monitoring the situation but had detected no signs of unusual activity by the North's army. Seoul and Washington say their current military exercises, which will continue until the end of April, are strictly defensive.
"It's attention-seeking behaviour. It's like a child in a candy shop: if you haven't bought him a lolly and don't pay attention to his tantrums he tries to intimidate you with things – even if they are self-harming," said Leonid Petrov, an expert on North Korea at the Australian National University.
"North Korea really doesn't have the capability to strike the US, though they could strike US interests in north-east Asia and South Korea. They can spur another round of the arms race, as they have already done successfully. I don't know who benefits from that, but it's obviously not the North, because they can't afford it."
He added: "It is more of a message to the domestic population. Despite all the promises of the last year about people leading a better life, the imperialists are about to attack so you have to forget that. The North is trying to seal the loyalty of the people, insulate the country and buy more time for the regime to survive."
China's foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters at a daily briefing that it hopes all sides on the Korean peninsula can exercise restraint.
Reuters reported last week that China did not export any crude oil to the North in February, the first such instance of its kind for a year, and there have been reports of tightened restrictions on trade.
China is the North's main ally and Pyongyang remains heavily dependent on trade and aid with its neighbour. But many analysts say it is too early to tell whether Beijing's approach has changed and stress there is no sign of a fundamental or long-term shift in policy.
"I think philosophically they don't really like sanctions and when I talk to the Chinese none of them seem to think sanctions will work," said John Delury, an expert on Chinese-North Korean relations at Yonsei University in Seoul.
He noted that a clampdown on cross-border deals may be part of a more general desire to clean up trade, for example.
But he added that ties between the two countries appeared weaker than they were towards the end of Kim Jong-il's rule, probably reflecting Pyongyang's concerns about the relationship as much as Beijing's.
"They were getting into a red zone where all the economic ties and diplomatic ties were with China," he said.
Despite the military alert, Kim Jong-un has found time for civilian-focused duties as leader in recent days, according to the North's media.
The Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported that in addition to his visits to the army, he toured a new restaurant boat on Sunday, "feasting his eyes on the deck and handrails around it" and expressing concern that the view and air-conditioning should be satisfactory.
March 25, 2013
South Korea and U.S. Make Plans for Defense
By CHOE SANG-HUN
SEOUL, South Korea — The United States military said Monday that it had signed an agreement with South Korea on how to counter provocations from North Korea.
The deal, struck on Friday, defines the role that United States forces would play in dealing with what South Korean military officials called local clashes and skirmishes, like the shelling of an island near the border in 2010 by the North, which killed four South Koreans.
The two allies described the new contingency plans developed after that episode as “South Korean-led, U.S.-supported.” They lay out various types of provocations and a joint South Korean-American response for each type, South Korean officials said. Putting those commitments down on paper will help deter provocations, they said.
The two allies refused to disclose specifics about how far the United States would go in its supporting role, especially at what point American troops would directly join a South Korean counterattack against a North Korean provocation.
In recent weeks, South Korea has said that if provoked, it would attack not only the origin of the North Korean provocation but also “its supporting forces and its commanding post.”
“By completing this plan, we improved our combined readiness posture to allow us to immediately and decisively respond to any North Korean provocation,” a joint statement from the two allies said.
The plan was signed by Gen. James D. Thurman, the top American commander in South Korea, and Gen. Jung Seung-jo, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the South Korean military. The signing followed a recent series of North Korean threats after the United States and South Korea supported sanctions the United Nations imposed on the North for its launching of a three-stage rocket in December and its third nuclear test last month.
Although analysts in South Korea said there was little chance for North Korea to follow through on its threat to strike Washington and Seoul with nuclear weapons, they warned that it might attempt a limited military provocation against the South.
South Korea was unsettled last week when hacking attacks paralyzed the computer networks of three broadcasters and three banks. Many here suspected North Korean involvement in the synchronized attacks.
The new contingency plan comes at a delicate time in the 60-year-old military alliance. The wartime operational control of the South Korean military, which has belonged to an American general since the beginning of the 1950-53 Korean War, is scheduled to return to South Korea in 2015.
An annual military drill that ended last week was led for the first time by the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff.
March 25, 2013
Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis Knocks at Australia’s Door
By DONALD G. M cNEIL Jr.
Australia’s first death from XDR-TB — extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis, which is nearly incurable — has alarmed health officials and added new heat to a debate over how to treat immigrants with dangerous diseases. That debate echoes one on the United States’ southern border.
A long string of small Australian islands — bits of what was once a land bridge — mingle with islands belonging to Papua New Guinea, one of the world’s poorest nations. One of those islands, Daru, has a major TB outbreak in its shantytowns. Australia used to have two TB clinics on its islands, but closed them in 2011 and sent many patients back to Daru, instead offering foreign aid to help them be treated at home.
But the health system in Papua New Guinea is overwhelmed, and there are accusations that the foreign aid has been stolen. A World Health Organization report found serious drug shortages, and Australian television showed XDR patients mingling with others in Daru Hospital tuberculosis wards, raising the risk of spreading resistant strains.
Catherina Abraham, a 20-year-old Daru woman, went to Australia on a tourist visa in 2012 but ended up as a “medical refugee,” spending months in isolation in a Queensland hospital, posing for pictures and giving interviews before she died on March 8, according to an article in The Medical Journal of Australia. Australia, which otherwise has little tuberculosis within its borders, is still debating how to respond. Treatment for drug-resistant TB — when it works — can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Experts noted that the same problem exists on the borders between the United States and Mexico and between Finland and Russia.