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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1090073 times)
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« Reply #6435 on: May 18, 2013, 05:46 AM »

The Christian Science Monitor

Venezuela's Maduro still waiting on Washington's recognition

By Alasdair Baverstock, Contributor / May 17, 2013 at 4:02 pm EDT
Caracas, Venezuela

More than a month after Venezuela’s contested presidential election, President Nicolás Maduro’s narrow victory has yet to be recognized by the United States. Refusing to legitimize the new premier while a partial recount of the vote is underway, the US position has led to further political tensions in a relationship historically stressed under the leadership of former President Hugo Chávez.

A handful of countries, including Chile, Peru, and the US, have expressed concern over the democratic standards of the election, which Maduro won by a little more than 1 percent of the vote. Venezuela’s opposition party is calling for the results to be annulled, citing over 3,000 instances of election fraud, ranging from alleged multiple-voting in chavista-strongholds to polling booth intimidation.

“Obviously, if there are huge irregularities we are going to have serious questions about the viability of that government,” said Secretary of State John Kerry during a hearing of the US Foreign Affairs Committee following the announcement of President Maduro’s victory in April.

While the US has pledged not to interfere with Venezuelan politics, the refusal to recognize Maduro's presidency has left many to question what message the US is trying to send, and how – if at all – it will impact Venezuela post-Chávez.

“The US isn’t recognizing or failing to recognize,” says David Smilde, professor of sociology at the University of Georgia. “They’re just waiting. But here in Venezuela that’s seen as an act of belligerence.”

The US’s reluctance to accept the new leader affects little in economic terms; the heavy crude is still flowing steadily from the Venezuelan oil fields into US refineries, a trading relationship upon which Venezuela relies heavily, particularly following the recent slump in global oil prices. In fact, many believe the US’s reluctance to legitimize Maduro amounts to little more than a message to other regional observers.

“Maduro is certainly now the president of Venezuela,” says Mark Jones, professor of political science at Rice University in Texas. “The US’s refusal to recognize him is more symbolic than anything else. Ignoring Maduro’s win sends a signal to other Latin American countries that these elections didn’t meet minimum democratic standards.”

Other observers cite the socialist leader’s continued belligerence toward Washington – Maduro blames the US government’s “dark forces” for the death of Mr. Chávez and has pursued the provocative rhetoric of his predecessor – as a factor in the US’s reluctance to recognize Maduro as president.

“You can’t blame the US for not extending their hand,” says Mr. Smilde. “Maduro has been denouncing US conspiracies since the day Chávez died.”

Maduro reacted publicly to President Obama’s announcement that the US was withholding recognition of his victory by describing the US president as the “Grand chief of devils” and threatening to cut off oil exports to the country.“That’s an entirely hollow threat,” says Professor Jones, “96 percent of Venezuela’s export revenues come from oil, so Maduro is not going to do anything to upset that.”
Regional recognition

Meanwhile, other countries in the region were quick to congratulate Maduro on his victory. In fact, the new leader spent last week on a whistle-stop tour of friendly regional governments including Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil in an attempt to secure his leadership status.

“Things haven’t been going well for Maduro since the election,” says Smilde. “his recent touring of the continent has been a very obvious attempt to demonstrate his legitimacy.”

Following the hotly contested election, which many Venezuelans believe was stolen by a socialist government fearing the loss of power, country-wide protests erupted. Riot police fought protesters with tear gas and nightly "cacerolazo" sound protests filled the capital with a cacophony of noise. Although officially victorious, Maduro’s slim win compared to the eleven percent by which Chávez defeated the same opponent last October left the new premier with little mandate to govern.

“A lot of Venezuelans seem to think that a close election is not a valid election, so this leaves room for Maduro’s critics to question it,” says Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy research, an independent think-tank in Washington. Mr. Weisbrot says he thinks the US is trying to take advantage of this situation.

Far from putting a dent in Maduro’s credibility, other observers believe that continued tensions between Venezuela and the US serve as a positive for a president whose supporters have come to expect belligerence towards “las imperialistas.”

“In many ways John Kerry is doing Maduro a favor by not recognizing him,” says Jones. “The US’s refusal to cooperate plays into the socialists’ broader narrative that the US is conspiring to defeat Venezuela’s revolution.”

Others are less convinced by Maduro’s bluster, seeing a politician weakened by his lack of mandate at home. “He’d definitely like the US to recognize him,” says Gerardo Munck, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. “There’s nothing he can do to pressure the US, but to be seen as having been duly elected would put him in a far stronger position both at home and internationally.”

With neither side showing any inclination toward compromise, the standoff between the two countries also shows no sign of ending. But Maduro’s long-term challenges are looming. Inflation in the socialist country is nearing 30 percent, there is public anger over the chronic shortages of basic goods, and the ballooning murder rate exceeds Europe and the United States’s combined.

“Maduro is going to have to tackle these problems if he’s going to last as president,” says Mr. Munck. “nless there’s some change in the way he handles the situation, the US isn’t going to budge.

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« Last Edit: May 18, 2013, 06:02 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #6436 on: May 18, 2013, 05:49 AM »

Blog del Narco: author who chronicled Mexico's drugs war forced to flee

'He said 'run', then hung up' – woman behind must-read blog tells how colleague's disappearance meant she had to escape

Rory Carroll in Los Angeles, Thursday 16 May 2013 17.27 BST   

The author of a pioneering blog about Mexico's drug war has said that she has fled the country and that her blog partner has gone missing.

The young woman, using her pseudonym Lucy, said her colleague phoned her last week to say a single word – "run" – and then vanished, prompting her to flee to the United States and then Spain.

"I'm trying to think positively but I'm scared something terrible has happened. 'Run' was our codeword for when something was very wrong. We had never used it before."

Blog del Narco is an internet sensation which has chronicled Mexico's drug war with graphic images and shocking stories few others dare show. It has been a must-read for authorities, drug gangs and millions of ordinary people.

The anonymous author was a mystery until last month when she revealed to the Guardian and Texas Observer she was a woman, not a man as previously assumed, and that with her colleague she had written a book, Dying for the Truth: Undercover Inside Mexico's Violent Drug War.
Dying for the Truth: Mexico drug wars Dying for the Truth: Mexico drug wars

The revelation caused a stir but the duo continued as normal, Lucy, a journalist, writing and editing the site and her partner, a male friend aged 27 who lived in a different city in northern Mexico, managing the technical side.

On 5 May he phoned her. "He just said 'run'. Then hung up. It was our code word for extreme situations, our last resort, but until then we had never used it. I called him back but there was no answer. I emailed him, tried Skype and WhatsApp, but nothing. Nothing."

Lucy, speaking to the Guardian via Skype this week, cried several times. She said she was speaking from an undisclosed location in Spain and that she was alone, lonely and frightened.

Her account could not be independently verified but a US-based intermediary who is also in contact with Lucy backed up her story. Adam Parfrey, head of the Washington-based publisher Feral House, which published Dying for the Truth, said he was not in direct contact with the authors but had heard a rumour one had disappeared. "I hope it's not true."

Lucy said that after receiving the phone call she immediately moved to another part of her home city, in northern Mexico, and prepared to flee. She sold some of her great-grandmother's jewellery, took a bus to the border and legally entered the US on foot. "I had all the correct papers." Hours later she was on a flight to Spain, she said. "It's further away. It feels safer."

She has not posted on the blog since 3 May, she said, but technical issues related to previous cyber-attacks meant it appeared on the site on 8 May. She has no immediate plans to resume blogging.

She is in a boarding house and has enough money to last a few months, she said, but has no friends or contacts in Spain.

Her biggest fear is she will see her colleague appear on a video of the type that frequently appeared on their blog: battered, interrogated, gazing into the camera, knowing a terrible fate awaits. Some victims have been tortured and beheaded on camera. "I don't want to think the worst but I can't help it."

More than 70,000 people have died in the past six years, including dozens of journalists, as cartels battle each other and state forces. Tens of thousands more have vanished.

Blog del Narco helped fill a vacuum left by cowed mainstream media organisations which often could not report roadblocks, shootouts and kidnappings.

Over time it acquired multiple sources, including drug gangs, and drew more than 3m hits monthly. It provided bulletins, pictures and video of abductions, shootouts, executions and the discovery of bodies as well as severed human heads, limbs and torsos.

Some critics said it provided a platform to cartels, others complained the blog cut and pasted reports from other sources without attribution.

The site has come under repeated cyber-attack – the government was more aggressive than narcos in this regard, Lucy said. The biggest risk was being identified and abducted, either by narcos or government forces who have been accused of multiple abuses.

A young couple who contributed material to the blog was abducted, tortured and disembowelled in 2011 in the state of Tamaulipas. A sign next to the bodies said bloggers were next. A few days later, another contributor was killed. A keyboard, mouse and sign mentioning the blog were strewn over the corpse.

In a visit to Mexico City earlier this month President Barack Obama focused on economic potential, echoing the upbeat rhetoric of Mexico's new president, Enrique Pena Nieto. Lucy said some good things were indeed happening but that the leaders played down violence and narco-trafficing. "These are primordial issues."

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« Reply #6437 on: May 18, 2013, 05:51 AM »

Microfinance in Madagascar helps small businesses buck the system

Borrowers get business advice and a buffer against disaster from growing microcredit sector in cyclone-prone Madagascar

IRIN in Toliara, part of the Guardian development network, Saturday 18 May 2013 09.30 BST   

Justine Sija, 60, begins her day at 4am, when she buys catch from local fishermen to hawk on the streets of St Augustin village, in Madagascar's southern Atsimo-Andrefana region. The work is hard, but in the past year, access to microcredit has boosted both her business and her hopes for the future.

"Before, I used to make 10,000 to 20,000 ariary ($4.50-9.00, about £3) a day. Now, with the credit, I can make double that amount," she told IRIN. "I can put my four [grand]children in school, buy some livestock and save the rest of the money. Eventually, I plan to sell other goods as well, like rice and other local products."

Madagascar's microfinance sector was established in 1990, but began to experience rapid growth only in the past 10 years; it was worth about 22.7bn ariary ($10m) in 2002, and by 2011, it was valued at about 244.4bn ariary. Microfinance is seen as a vehicle to help Madagascar attain some of its millennium development goals, particularly on eradicating extreme poverty. The UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) says about 85% of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day.

Poor people often lack access to formal banking and credit services; according to some estimates, only 2% of low-income households have access to credit. Instead, they rely on informal moneylenders, who charge annual interest rates for unsecured loans of 120-400% – compared with microfinance institutions' (MFI) average rate of 36% for the same period, or 2-4% a month. The country's annual inflation rate was pegged at 5.4% in March.

Madagascar's microfinance sector has about 31 players, which include state, foreign investor and donor-supported initiatives, operating under a legal framework and regulated by the central bank. Since 2011, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and UNCDF have jointly managed the $350,000 support programme for inclusive finance for Madagascar (Pafim), which operates through three MFIs and charges zero interest on loans.

Fatma Samoura, UNDP's country representative, says: "Through this mechanism, we have good hopes that the cycle of poverty caused by poor farmers' debts will be broken."
Education needed

"People in Madagascar need to work together and the poor need a direct approach to development. The products are there, but people need the right education to be able to access them," says Harinavalona Rajaonah, who works at Ombona Tahiry Ifampisamborana Vola (Otiv), one of UNDP's partner organisations.

"We have tried to put a culture of credit access in place here. The hardest part is to change the mentality of the people," says Jean Olivier Razafimanantsoa, regional director of the credit co-operative Caisses d'Epargne et de Crédit Agricole Mutuelles (Cecam), which is registered with the central bank.

"We work together with other organisations in the city, as some people are members [of other MFIs] everywhere, and so they take out too many loans. Also, the farmers tend to overestimate how much they need. They want us to finance their rice crop, which is worth 700,000 ariary, but they'll come and ask for 2m. When you ask them how they got to this amount, they don't know," he says.

All microloan borrowers receive business advice, but with technical assistance and funding from UNDP, microfinance players have established microcredit education programmes aimed at vulnerable groups. One such programme, run by Cecam, mainly targets poor female street vendors. Razafimanantsoa says the programme has more than 1,300 clients, including Sija and other women from St Augustin village. The women must save 200-400 ariary a week, as part of the initial loan agreement.

They are then enrolled in a lending system that goes through nine cycles, the first entitling the recipient to an 80,000 ariary loan. Each time the clients repay a loan, they are eligible for another, with progressively higher loan ceilings up to 300,000 ariary. Repayment schedules range from a few months to a year. The programme offers education on basic money management, family planning and health issues.

After completing all the cycles, the women become eligible for Cecam's commercial microcredit system. "Right now, our goal is for these women to eat three times a day and feed their children, but eventually, they should be able to build up a guarantee to get a commercial business going and enter into the regular Cecam system," Razafimanantsoa says.

Emergency funds

The weekly savings plan acts as a buffer against hard times, which is especially important in this cyclone-prone country. After cyclone Haruna struck in February, many of Cecam's clients in Toliara, the regional capital of Atsimo-Andrefana region, were left penniless.

"[During] the first weeks, we didn't give out any more loans, as we were afraid people would just use the money to eat. We are now helping some of the women who have lost their homes to reschedule their loans," says Razafimanantsoa.

Prisca, 33, who did not provide her family name, from Belem, a district of Toliara, had entered her second credit cycle, and was using the capital to buy eggs from producers to sell at the market. "After I got the microcredit, I went from selling 100 eggs a day to selling up to 300. I could send the children to a private school and was able to buy some chickens," she says.

But she was left homeless in the wake of the cyclone, and now lives in a displacement camp, sharing a tent with 10 others. "We were left with only the clothes on our back. The first week we stayed in a school. Then the BNGRC [National Disaster Risk Reduction Office] came to give us these tents," she says.

Prisca owes a 44,000 ariary debt to Cecam, and in the interim she has enrolled in a cash-for-work project. "We're working to rehabilitate the roads, earning 24,000 ariary a week. I want to pay the Cecam [debt] first, as that will enable me to take out a new loan. Then, I can earn money again and rebuild the house little by little. This credit is what takes care of our daily needs," she says.

In the wake of the disaster, Sija was grateful for the loan's savings requirement. "We pay back our loans from our savings," she says. "After the cyclone in February, we had some problems paying, as there were no more goods to sell, so it was good that I had saved up some money."

Growing businesses

The programmes are working. Hanisoa Ravalison, 43, operates a small roadside restaurant selling sausages and simple meals in the village of Ambanitsena, about 26km (16 miles) east of Antananarivo, the capital. Following a visit by an Otiv agent, who recruits prospective clients, Ravalison decided to expand her business.

"At first, I borrowed money to renovate and enlarge the snack bar and to buy a fridge," she says. "Now, I use money to buy more goods, so I can make more profit." Ravalison is in the 10th borrowing cycle of Otiv's 12 cycles – which have an initial loan of 60,000 ariary and reach a loan ceiling of 440,000 ariary.

"Before I received training, I just used the money I made to buy whatever was needed. Now, I separate personal expenses and money for the business. I also know the difference between sales and profits, and know that I need to use part of the profits to make the company run." On a good day, her restaurant takes in 85,000 ariary. "During holidays and festivals, we sell as many as 100kg of sausages," she says.

Her husband has set up a second restaurant, and two of their five children work in the family businesses. Ravalison says her next plan is to open a wholesale food business.

Liva Harininana Ramanatenasoa began a small business selling charcoal in Ambanitsena. "One day, an agent from Otiv came along and explained that, with microcredit, I could do better," she says. With the first loan, Ramanatenasoa bought more charcoal. "Without credit, I would be able to buy 10 bags maximum, but with credit, I could afford as many as 22, so I made a lot more profit," she says.

Two years after enrolling in the microcredit scheme, Ramanatenasoa used the profits from her business to buy the rights to a stone quarry for 200,000 ariary. She now employs 14 people. Profits from the business have enabled her to build a house and send her children to school. "If it wasn't for the credit, I would have still been selling coal," she says.

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« Reply #6438 on: May 18, 2013, 05:53 AM »

Mandela family fall out as lawyers argue over former president's legacy

Nelson Mandela said to be furious with daughters for trying to manipulate trusts to advance their businesses

David Smith in Johannesburg, Friday 17 May 2013 18.49 BST   

Nelson Mandela was "furious" that two of his daughters went behind his back to meddle in the management of his personal wealth, his lawyer has claimed in a case that exposes ugly battles over the lucrative Mandela brand.

Makaziwe and Zenani Mandela allegedly amended a trust deed in secret so they could gain access to the former president's wealth, according to court papers filed by Bally Chuene, the lawyer. The affidavit offers an insight into potential conflicts over the 94-year-old's inheritance. Some members of the family, whose wealth is tied into an opaque web of about 27 trusts, have been accused of exploiting the former president's global celebrity – a charge that Makaziwe rejects.

"Why are people obsessed with the Mandela family?" she demanded . "They are human beings like anyone else. They did not come from Mars. They have ambitions to be successful in life like anyone else, and I don't see anything wrong with that."

Married three times, Nelson Mandela has fathered six children, three of whom are still alive. He has 17 grandchildren. Blessed – or cursed – with Africa's most famous name, many of the Mandelas have gone into business; a few have dabbled in politics and two are starring in a much-derided reality TV show, Being Mandela.

Chuene's allegations are a response to Makaziwe, founder of the House of Mandela wine label, and Zenani, the South African ambassador to Argentina, who are seeking to oust him and George Bizos, Mandela's long-time friend and lawyer, from the boards of two investment funds. In an affidavit endorsed by Bizos, Chuene argues that the daughters' motive is to gain access to Mandela's money and sell artworks featuring his handprints. He contends that Makaziwe and Zenani have been trying to gain control of the Mandela Trust and became trustees without Mandela's knowledge since 2005.

Recalling Mandela's reaction when he found out, Chuene states: "Mr Mandela was shocked and used a common expression, 'Good Lord'. He was most infuriated and wanted to know when this had happened. He assured me that no such decision or approval had been given by him."

Mandela called a meeting at his Johannesburg home in April 2005. Makaziwe and Zenani as well as Bizos and Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, attended. "During this meeting, Mr Mandela made it clear to the applicants that he did not want them involved in his affairs," Chuene continues. "Mr Mandela wanted the applicants to resign their trusteeships."

Chuene accuses Mandela's estranged lawyer, Ismail Ayob, of colluding with Makaziwe and Zenani. Mandela "had become concerned that artworks were being sold, ostensibly on his behalf, without his authority or permission", Chuene said.

In June 2006, another meeting was held at Mandela's home. Chuene claims: "The meeting was very heated and, in some respects, unpleasant. Mr Mandela was furious that the applicants had allowed themselves to be used by Mr Ayob and had continued to associate themselves with him, knowing full well that he had terminated his relationship with Mr Ayob.

"He was, moreover, upset that they continued to be involved in his personal affairs despite his clear instructions to them at the previous meeting held in April 2005."

According to Chuene's affidavit, filed at a regional high court in Johannesburg, the wounds reopened in August 2011 when Zenani asked for trust money to be distributed to them and other beneficiaries. Bizos was reluctant to do so, citing legal and tax implications.

He says Bizos's reservations were confirmed after a bank requested the original trust deed for the Mandela Trust. It had been covertly amended by Makaziwe and Zenani in 2005, he alleges.

He goes on to claim: "It was evident from the purported amendment of the trust deed that the applicants had clandestinely and with the assistance of Mr Ayob sought to secure control of the Mandela Trust, contrary not only to the wishes of Mr Mandela, but also to the terms of the trust deed."

On Friday, Makaziwe declined to address the claims directly, while Zenani was unavailable for comment, but Ayob said: "The Mandelas will respond to the allegations within the timeframe allowed."

With the former president frail and his lucidity dwindling, some fear the case is indicative of a looming, unseemly struggle for his legacy. "The squabbles will be bitter and vicious if the first salvoes in this war are anything to go by," warned the Star of South Africa. Mandela's personal wealth is a mystery, but one veteran journalist who has followed him closely put it at 150m rand (£10.5m).

In the court papers, Bizos, 84, raises concerns about how it might be carved up. "As a confidant and adviser of Mr Mandela, I know that his wishes in relation to the three general trusts established by him was that these ought to provide long term assurance, to the extent possible, for the support and education of the beneficiaries, which would include generations to come," he states.

"I was, accordingly, concerned to learn in the last quarter of 2011 of a proposal for the distribution of almost the entire capital of the Mandela Trust in lump sums to groups within the broader Mandela family."

About 27 trusts containing a roughly estimated 50-60m rand were created by Ayob in the 1990s. He admitted that this was "tax advantageous" because it split the income between different individuals, but he denied that was the sole reason.

"It's fairly routine with large families with a lot of money to create trusts for the beneficiaries," he said. "It's very simple: you have one child who says as soon as I get my inheritance, I'm going to get a Jaguar, and you need a balance in terms of who gets the money. Everyone has different needs. It's very difficult if you only have one trust."

The Mandela name can inevitably open doors. The family is active in more than 110 trading companies, according to records compiled by Beeld newspaper. Makaziwe is reportedly an active director in 16, including Nestlé South Africa, although she insists some directorships have lapsed.

An emotional Makaziwe responded to critics who accuse the family of exploitation. "It's our name anyway," she said. "Why should we apologise for our name? I'm in the wine industry. There are families who've been in the wine industry for 500 years and no one says they are cashing in on their name. Every child in this family who wants to use the Mandela name has a right to do, so as long as they do so with honour and integrity and upholding the values of my father."

Noting that many other commercial operators use Mandela's name and image, Makaziwe added: "It's the height of madness. I know what I am. The fact that someone calls me greedy is not going to make me greedy. Are they saying because I'm Nelson Mandela's daughter I'm not allowed to be a company director?"

Not all the Mandelas have been successful. Grandson Zondwa Gaddafi Mandela was a director of Aurora Empowerment Systems, a mining company that went into liquidation and was named by unions as the country's worst employer. Last year Zondwa established a company called Mandela 95TH Birthday (Mandela turns 95 in July). Asked for details of the venture, Zondwa requested that questions be submitted by email, but he had not replied by Friday afternoon. He said the inclusion of Gaddafi in his name was a long story.

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« Reply #6439 on: May 18, 2013, 05:55 AM »

May 17, 2013

In Nigeria, More Attacks on Militants


DAKAR, Senegal — The Nigerian military stepped up its assault on Islamist militants in northeastern Nigeria, officials said Friday, only days after the president announced a heightened campaign against insurgents who he said had declared war on the state.

Military officials said air and ground assaults were launched against suspected bases of the Boko Haram Islamist group at Nigeria’s northeastern edge and in a forest south of the city of Maiduguri, the group’s birthplace.

Officials said a number of insurgents had been killed in the raids but could not say how many. The military operation follows President Goodluck Jonathan’s declaration of a state of emergency in the country’s northeast on Tuesday night, which followed heightened confrontations between Islamist militants and government security forces in that hard-hit region.

The president’s speech, with its promise of a stepped-up military response, prompted critics and allies of the government to warn against further large-scale civilian killings by the army and the police, a pattern that has persisted since the start of the military’s campaign against the Islamist insurgency nearly four years ago.

The United States gave some $3 million in law enforcement assistance to Nigeria last year, meets regularly with Nigerian officers on counterterrorism issues, and considers Nigeria a significant ally in the fight against Islamist extremism. But reports of civilian massacres by the military have made some officials in Washington uneasy.

On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States was “deeply concerned about the fighting in northeastern Nigeria following President Jonathan’s declaration of a state of emergency,” and that “we are also deeply concerned by credible allegations that Nigerian security forces are committing gross human rights violations, which, in turn, only escalate the violence and fuel extremism.”

Mr. Kerry made it clear that “the United States condemns Boko Haram’s campaign of terror in the strongest terms,” but he also urged “Nigeria’s security forces to apply disciplined use of force in all operations, protect civilians in any security response, and respect human rights and the rule of law.”

The scope of this operation appears larger than similar predecessors, although the northeast was already heavily militarized before it began, with many checkpoints on the region’s roads, sandbagged military emplacements throughout Maiduguri and convoys of soldiers bristling with weapons regularly racing through the city’s dusty streets.

“Advancing troops of Special Task Force have destroyed some terrorist camps sited in the forests of Northern and central Borno,” said a statement from Nigeria’s Defense Headquarters that was sent to reporters from the country’s capital, Abuja, on Friday. “Heavy weapons including antiaircraft and antitank guns were also destroyed in the process.”

“The special operations which preceded troops’ movement has resulted in the destruction of much of the insurgents’ weapons and logistics such as vehicles, containers, fuel dumps and power generators,” the statement said, adding that “the casualties inflicted on the insurgents in the cause of the assault will be verified during mop-up."

An army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade, said in a brief phone interview from Abuja that “the air force led the assault, helicopters and fighter jets,” targeting “all the camps spread across border towns.”

Critics wondered whether it would seriously disrupt the hit-and-run guerrilla insurgency of Boko Haram. “We may win the battle, but we may not win the war,” said Kole Shettima, the chairman of the Center for Democracy and Development in Abuja. The army “may succeed in disbanding some of the camps, but eventually, the insurgents being essentially mobile and nomadic in their activities, they will resurface,” he said. “They may even attempt to attack us in different parts of the country.”

In Maiduguri, militants often come from and blend in with the civilian population, and in the extreme north, soldiers were searching house to house for Boko Haram members, according to a military official who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Hamza Idris contributed from Bauchi, Nigeria.
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« Reply #6440 on: May 18, 2013, 06:30 AM »

In the USA...

Very few of those who live in American know this fact: It's U.S. Supreme Court made it legal for any media, the corporate media, to lie without consequence so that lies and pure propaganda can be passed off as truth. Sadly, below, is such an example.

ABC Faces No Consequences for Passing Republican Propaganda Off as Fact

By: Sarah Jones
May. 17th, 2013

It’s really not that hard to spot a planted story. They have tells.

On the heels of last night’s bombshell courtesy of CBS’s Major Garrett that Republicans are behind the lies/propaganda about the Benghazi emails, you might be expecting an apology from ABC or at the very least, an acknowledgment that they were had. Someone should be investigating the lying leak, right?

Nope. None of that is going to happen, and if you think this is an anomaly, I’m sorry to tell you that actually, there were two stories this week sourced by Republican congressional aides’ interpretation of facts not available to the press. Yes, that’s right. It’s not just Benghazi.

Republicans are in the habit of planting stories in the press, and your “free press” falls for it over and over again. Big kudos to CBS, which was also fed the bogus Benghazi propaganda and turned it down. That’s called journalism.

This past week, I pointed out how the IRS scandal was sourced in a mainstream article as via “Republican congressional aides.” See, the entire narrative that conservatives were targeted and higher ups knew about it and did nothing was based on the interpretation of the briefing by the IRS given to Republicans.

A day later, ABC got outed as having misled the public on purpose by claiming they had actually reviewed the emails, after they got taken by a Republican source who deliberately lied to them about the content of the emails.

This is huge, but it will die with the Friday news dump, and the press will continue on their pseudo serious journey to “expose” the Executive Branch, when in reality, these same folks catered to the Bush White House’s propaganda and now they are catering to Congressional Republicans’ agenda. See the trend? It has nothing to do with the Executive Branch or the Legislative Branch, and everything to do with siding with the money/corporate overlords/and the scandal makers who know how to dress a story up with a Hollywoodesque marketing campaign.

An anonymous source makes sense in some cases, but when that narrative plays into a partisan agenda and it’s an “aide” instead of an actual elected official, caution is advised. Aides can be thrown under the bus. They exist to protect their celebucritter. True, sometimes an aide will leak things or say something the official can’t say.

I’m a liberal, but there’s no way I would take a Democratic congressional aide’s interpretation of documents I am not allowed to see for myself and source. There is no “exclusive” worth that risk, and it is inaccurate to call that an “exclusive”. It’s a fictional story being used to generate hits.

To deliberately choose to run an unvetted accusation as a fact and deliberately mislead your audience as to the source is unforgivable. That is not a mistake. That should be a career ender for whoever’s name is on that story.

People must learn to read articles with an eye for the source. No, you can’t honestly dismiss a source because it’s partisan. But they should disclose their bias to you, and their facts should be transparent and checkable.

If it’s a breaking story with a huge bombshell, they better have a source better than the interpretation of Republican congressional aides. Yes, everyone makes mistakes; it’s impossible not to when you’re covering news. New information corrects previous information, things shift, etc. These things should be transparent to the reader. ABC should apologize for passing Republican propaganda along as fact.

It should inform caution when two “scandals” in the past week were both sourced to Republicans leaking their “info” to the press. We should be investigating these Republicans and we should be holding the press accountable.

ABC should apologize, and the reporter should be fired. If you were going to bet your integrity on someone else’s interpretation of the facts that they won’t give to you to view with your own eyes, you’d better be damn sure they don’t have an agenda. You’d better be damn sure you trust their ability to be accurate.

Even then, who does that?

Ever play telephone? One go around with telephone should inform an average person that we all bring bias, emotion, history, triggers, and more to our interpretation of what is actually said. A reasonable person does not base a story on emails they have never seen, while claiming to have read them. They do not believe a partisan source with an agenda so much that they will take their word for what the emails said. This is absolutely outrageous, but nothing will happen to the press for it because the people tolerate it.

If you want a free press that vets its sources and is honest with you about who they are and what they have actually seen with their own eyes, outrage at being lied to on purpose must be voiced.

For a political writer, every source has an agenda. They give you a story because they have an agenda — no matter who they are. You have to vet that story. Agenda doesn’t mean they are lying. Sometimes the agenda is exposing the truth. But an agenda is always at play.


A sad, sick, example of the utter corruption of the U.S.A corporate media and the purposeful propaganda they create to further their own self interests ....

May 17, 2013 08:41 PM

Maddow: Fair Game to Disclose Names of Republicans Who Lied to ABC News

By Heather

After taking her viewers through the whole, long, ugly mess with ABC's big "scoop" on the Benghazi emails and the how the story pretty much fizzled out by the end of the week with the discovery that Republicans were responsible for doctoring the supposed quotes from the emails that they published, Rachel Maddow gave her two cents on ABC still protecting the sources who lied to them.

    MADDOW: And now, part of the scandal here is a press scandal. You know what? When you get used like this and you end up publishing false information, false quotes, you have to correct it. But the bigger scandal here is not a process matter, not a press matter. There's a very stark fact that somebody in Congress right now, or somebody working for somebody in Congress right now, a staffer, concocted a big lie to try to make the White House look very desperately bad on this Benghazi scandal that they otherwise have not been able to get traction on.

    Who told the lie? And a note to my journalist pals who got involved in this scandal. If your source lied to you, they are not actually a source. They are a con artist and you are their victim. It means you don't have to protect them any more. They're not a source.

    When you get lied to, when you are a tool of somebody else's deception, when you get lied to, the person lying to you is no longer a source, they are news. Their lie to you is itself news and you can report that news. Republican Congressional offices shopped a false dossier as if it was a White House email. That is a story. The office and the staffers and the members of Congress maybe who did that... that is news. And if you know who it is, you can say so.

Boy do I wish they'd take her advice, but again, I'm not holding my breath.

Click to watch: click the line that starts ' ... etc ...

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Benghazi Backfires on Republicans as Democrats Eviscerate Issa and the GOP

By: Jason Easley
May. 17th, 2013

The GOP’s Benghazi house of cards has collapsed, and now Democrats are eviscerating Darrell Issa and his fellow Republicans for overreaching and politicizing a tragedy.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform blasted Rep. Darrell Issa for going back on his word to hold a public hearing with the Accountability Review Board that examined the security situation in Benghazi.

Cummings said,

Today’s subpoena is a stark example of extreme Republican overreach and the shameful politicization of this tragedy. Chairman Issa’s accusations keep getting shot down one by one, but he simply resorts to even more extreme measures. After falsely accusing former Secretary Clinton of lying to Congress, falsely accusing the White House of deliberately misleading the American people, and falsely accusing the military of withholding critical assistance on the night of the attacks, the Chairman is now accusing Admiral Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Ambassador Pickering, a seven-time U.S. ambassador, of being complicit in a cover-up.

Both Admiral Mullen and Ambassador Pickering have made clear that they stand ready and willing to testify at a public hearing to respond directly to these reckless accusations, but Chairman Issa is now imposing new conditions to keep them behind closed doors. The Chairman should reverse his decision, conduct a responsible and bipartisan investigation, and allow the American people to hear directly from these officials.

As the ranking member on the committee, Rep. Cummings is leading the Democratic pushback against Rep. Issa, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and other Republicans who have politicized Benghazi. There is no cover-up, but Republicans keep moving the goalposts in their never ending quest to find the scandal that never was.

A backlash is growing against these relentless Republican attempts to drum up an Obama scandal. While Darrell Issa chases conspiracy theories while the walls are crumbling around the Republican Party. Republicans have politicized a tragedy to the point where it has become an insult to the victims, and for that there will be a price to pay.

Gallup recently concluded that the number of Americans who are paying attention to the Benghazi and IRS stories is well below average. The Republican habit of looking for a scandal in everything President Obama does has resulted in most Americans tuning out their cries of wolf.

Instead of being the scandal that would bring down Obama, Benghazi is turning into another reason for many Americans to not trust, or vote Republican.

That’s what’s called a Benghazi backfire.


House Republican Hypocrites Rage About The IRS While Demanding An Audit of the AARP

By: Rmuse
May. 17th, 2013

It has been a week since revelations the Internal Revenue Service questioned the legitimacy of political activists’ applications for tax exemption as “social welfare” organizations started the phony scandal of whether or not the scrutiny was part of an Obama Administration plot carried out by IRS criminals singling out beleaguered conservatives for vicious persecution. Republicans are playing up another phony scandal out of sheer spite and part of their four-year campaign to discredit the President, but as is always the case with Republicans, they are projecting on the President what they themselves are guilty of. Corporate media is remiss to remind Americans that Republicans targeted the voter registration organization ACORN for eradication after racist angst, fabricated evidence, and phony allegations drove them to destroy what they perceived as an outfit that served African Americans who supported the President in the 2008 general election.  Conservatives deemed their attack was warranted and legitimate, and bristled at suggestions their effort was racially or politically motivated. Now, while Republicans are raging at President Obama and the IRS for what they call politically motivated persecution, they are using the IRS to target an organization for its support of the Affordable Care Act.

Last week, a day before the IRS apologized for scrutinizing conservatives’ applications for “social welfare” tax exemption, House Republicans sent a letter to the IRS Commissioner demanding an audit of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) claiming the organization does not qualify for tax-exempt status and deserves extra scrutiny.  Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee want the evil IRS to investigate AARP’s finances, but AARP asserts all of its revenue is put to use supporting it mission of assisting senior citizens. The letter sent to the deposed acting-commissioner said “facts laid out in our report strongly suggest that AARP, Inc., and its affiliates may no longer qualify as a tax-exempt organization.” In light of the Republicans’ repeated attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act they failed to thwart in 2010, it is more likely they are meting out punishment on AARP for throwing its considerable weight behind the healthcare reform law, and the hypocrisy in using their new arch-enemy the IRS to do their bidding in revoking AARP’s tax-exempt status is stunning, but not unusual.

The IRS must be reeling from the ambiguous signals emanating from Republicans who are, on one hand, pressuring the agency to scrutinize AARP’s tax exempt status for its support of the healthcare reform law, and questioning whether or not there are “political implications of access to healthcare, denial of healthcare” in light of the phony IRS scandal Republicans are raging over. According to Michele Bachmann, the “extremely troubling” IRS scandal is proof her opposition to the Affordable Care Act is warranted because “knowing it’s the IRS who will be the enforcing mechanism for this new entitlement program of Obamacare, it is very important to ask could there be potential political implications of access to healthcare, denial of healthcare,” and “will that happen based upon a person’s political beliefs, or their religiously held beliefs?”

The prescient question Republicans need to answer is could there be potential political implications in their demand for the IRS to scrutinize AARP’s tax exempt status based on their support of the Affordable Care Act because as Bachmann says, “this question is more than reasonable, and more than fair for the American people.” Bachmann was addressing teabaggers from around the nation and joined by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul who impugned the “extremely troubling” IRS they expect to scrutinize AARP in a purely partisan political act of retribution. The mixed messages aside, Republican hypocrisy is the story Americans will never hear from the conservative media.

The notion that the phony IRS scandal is political partisanship on the part of the Obama Administration as claimed by every Republican on the planet fails to admit, and media is loath to report, is that the IRS commissioner who sanctioned the appropriate scrutiny was a Bush appointee. The previous director of the Exempt Organizations Division also said it was appropriate for the IRS to look closely at conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. Marcus Owens said, “I think that it would be unreasonable to expect the IRS to simply approve these 501(c)(4) applications from politically active organizations as if they were Scout troops or Little Leagues; there should be special evaluation.” Republicans disagree because the special evaluations were aimed a conservative groups, and yet they have no qualms demanding the IRS investigate AARP with a view toward revoking their tax exempt status based on their support of the ACA.

Republicans cannot have it both ways, and yet that is precisely what they propose. They had no issue with the senior advocacy nonprofit until they supported healthcare reform, and their demand the group be investigated and no longer qualifies as a tax-exempt organization is politically motivated in the same vein as their assault on ACORN was and they know it. George W. Bush’s appointee oversaw the conservative groups’ scrutiny, and the IRS performed its job with due diligence without political motivation, and the previous director agreed giving extra attention to politically active organizations was well-warranted as part of the IRS’s job and not politically motivated.

However, Republicans assailing AARP is politically motivated because it supported healthcare reform, and it is not the first time Republicans encouraged IRS scrutiny of non-conservative groups. During Bush’s administration, Republicans pushed the IRS to target an anti-war religious group, the NAACP, environmental advocate Greenpeace, and a progressive nonprofit Emerge America. Those IRS investigations were politically motivated, Republican attacks on the IRS now are politically motivated, and the media is complicit in covering up the other real scandal; Republicans are politically motivated hypocrites.


The IRS did Nothing to Deserve Criticism From Republicans

By: Dennis S
May. 17th, 2013

I’ve just got to take one more spin around the contrived IRS “scandal” track.

The Tea Party and its radical “Patriot” offspring are political organizations. They’re gaming the system by avoiding taxes by claiming alleged no-profit status. If I had any reservations about the IRS, it would be the question of how dense do you have to be as an investigative agency not to pick up on that irrefutable fact?

I will help out the easy-to-fool bureaucrats with some real life facts and figures, but first an observation. Maybe, just maybe, the IRS is heavy with Tea Party sympathizers. The IRS’ newly-resigned Interim Commissioner, Steven T. Miller, was once Deputy Commissioner for Services and enforcement under G.W. Bush. One of the entities he oversaw was the IRS Tax Exempt and Government Agencies Division tasked with looking into non-profit organizations. Maybe this is all a scam to make it look like the Tea Party and Patriot organizations were being intentionally targeted and gee, golly whiz, they’re just as honest as they can be. Why, we didn’t find anything suspicious. Maybe this phony patina of “the letter of the IRS law” behavior will spare any future snooping into the radical right’s non-profit business. There’s my paranoia. By the way, Daniel Werfel, the new acting IRS head, comes from the White House Budget office and has also worked for Republicans. Let us continue.

A lot has been made of the IRS wanting to know who Tea Party donors and money supporters were while processing applications. This is apparently outside the bounds of the IRS right to know. It’s not outside my bounds and it’s no secret. The Koch brothers fund the political Pied-a-Terre for the Tea Party with substantial fiscal input from FreedomWorks. Jane Mayer let that cat out of the back way back in the August 30, 2010 issue of The New Yorker Magazine.

Mayer credits David and Charles Koch and other conservative foundations with greasing the tea party propaganda skids with multiple-millions of dollars. Organization and implementation money mostly came from FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity (AFP). David Koch and Koch Industries board member, David Fink, founded the latter.

Here are the requirements for retaining tax-exempt non-profit status as a 501 (c) (3) taken from Title 26: Internal Revenue Code, Part 1, Income taxes…

(3) Authorization of legislative or political activities. An organization is not organized exclusively for one or more exempt purposes if its articles expressly empower it:
(i) To devote more than an insubstantial part of its activities to attempting to influence legislation by propaganda or otherwise; or
(ii) Directly or indirectly to participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.

The easy conclusion is that the groups under scrutiny simply don’t meet those requirements.

Digging deeper into this tea party, Republican, political propaganda abyss, let’s take a peek at a recent South Carolina Tea Party convention speaker lineup. At the podium was the most right-wing Senator in all the land, Jim DeMint, just before leaving the Senate and assuming the leadership of the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation. Also making his way to the dais, Representative, Tim Scott, damn near as right-wing as DeMint and soon to assume his Senate seat. It’s Scott’s vacated seat that Mark Sanford recently won. This moral and ethical misfit was greeting by fellow House Republicans as a conquering hero.

Meanwhile back at the convention, Dick Armey, who at that time was still in the good graces of FreedomWorks, spread some of his predictable BS. Shortly thereafter Armey left his consultancy with the organization as FreedomWorks guaranteed him $400,000 a year until he was 92 (potentially $8 million if he were to live that long), to prevent a threatened Armey lawsuit; something about Matt Kibbe, another “FreedomWorker.” Kibbe was being groomed to be the new face of the organization. Armey accused Kibbe of pocketing book royalties that should have gone to FreedomWorks. The media hinted there was a gun involved. Yikes!

The State Republican Party Chairman said a few words, as ironically did Kibbe. There were a total of 4 FreedomWorks speakers over the two-day confab. The Tea Party Patriots founder spoke the first day. Tea Party state convention delegates also heard from the Republican governor, the Attorney General, Treasurer and the State’s Education Superintendent. There were also several “experts” on assorted issues (“Free Market Warrior”, Sharia Law, the fair tax) all slanted waaaay to the right. Appropriately, Michele wound things up.

According to the Southern Pverty Law Center, there were about 149 “patriotic” groups in 2008. Then a black man up and got himself elected president. The 2010 number of racists ‘er patriot groups skyrocketed to 1,274. Don’t know the latest numbers, but Obama is still in office so I’m betting they’re higher yet. As for tea party organizations, they number about 600-700 at latest count. Combined, you’ve got about 2,000 of these right-wing propaganda centers.

In light of what you’ve just read, please recall the core imperative for claiming a tax-exemption. No, it’s not the fact the 501 (c) (3) is engaging in political activity. It’s the imperative that “politics cannot be the primary mission.” For (c) (4′s) the requirements are a little more stringetn. So, if you’re nothing but a right-wing political mouthpiece; if that’s all you do all day, every day, the IRS is going to deny your application as a non-profit. Even if the Kochs stuff your pockets with money and Glenn Beck sings your praises. That’s why you’ve drawn special attention and asked to provide more info. Yes, you’re being rightfully “targeting” by the IRS.

In addition to “targeting”, the IRS was also accused of causing long delays because of their questions and record-producing demands of the applicants. Isn’t it just possible that the tea party or patriot organizations themselves took the extra time, hiding, changing and camouflaging certain requested information and stretching out the process themselves for PR purposes? Yes, it’s very possible!

Even though not a single application has been denied to this point, the tea party and patriot organizations have been taken down a peg. They thought their ‘Koch and friends’ Money Monkeys had insulated them against irritants like abiding by IRS regulations. Interesting the pressure would come from Cincinnati, not exactly the epicenter of progressive thought.

Consider your bluff called T’publicans. When all’s said and done and you continue to flaunt the rules, you’d better keep looking over your shoulders. The latest polls show the public is not much invested in your latest nonsense.


Outgoing IRS chief deflects Republican attempts to link scandal to White House

Steven Miller issues public apology at House hearing in which he blamed tax-targeting scandal on procedure, not politics

Ewen MacAskill in Washington, Friday 17 May 2013 18.31 BST   

Republican attempts to turn the row over the IRS into a scandal engulfing the White House fizzled on Friday when the ousted head of the agency delivered a public apology at a congressional heading into the affair.

Steven Miller, who was fired on Wednesday, portrayed the tougher scrutiny meted out to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status as the result of overworked employees struggling to cope with a flood of applications, rather than a partisan effort.

In a three-hour hearing at the House ways and means committee, Morris conceded that "foolish" mistakes were made by people trying to be more "efficient".

Despite repeated attempts, Republicans on the committee failed to establish a link between the IRS scandal and either the White House or the 2012 Obama re-election campaign. No new major details about the scandal emerged, offering the White House breathing space going into the weekend after one of the most frenzied weeks since Obama took office in 2009.

At the opening of the hearing, the Republican chairman David Camp accused Barack Obama of hiding the scandal in the run-up to last year's presidential election. "Listening to the nightly news, this appears to be just the latest example of a culture of cover-ups – and political intimidation – in this administration," Camp said. " It seems like the truth is hidden from the American people just long enough to make it through an election."

His comment immediately alienated Democrats on the committee, leaving it divided, with Democrats defending the Obama administration. With the committee split, it lost much of its momentum.

The White House was helped by the testimony of Miller, whom it had sacrificed this week. Miller, who received a hostile reception from the Republicans throughout the hearing and who was repeatedly accused of lying, started with an apology. "I want to apologise on behalf of the Internal Revenue Services for the mistakes that were made," he said.

He portrayed the affair as the result of incompetence by overworked staff at an office in Cincinnati, Ohio, rather than a politically motivated conspiracy. "I do not believe partisanship motivated the people involved in the practices described … I think what happened here was that foolish mistakes were made by people trying to be more efficient in their workload selections," he said.

Miller described what had happened as intolerable but said it had been "a mistake, not an act of partisanship". Further playing down the scandal, he described it as "horrible customer service" and insisted that nothing illegal had happened.

The Republican attacks failed to hit home partly because Miller came across as an old-fashioned public servant caught up in a mess for which he had not personally been responsible.

Camp was among Republicans who accused Miller of lying. "Despite a two-year-long investigation by this committee, the IRS never told the American people or their representatives about this simple truth. That is not being misleading. That is lying," Camp said.

Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's vice-presidential running mate, was one of the Republicans who pushed Miller the hardest and echoed Camp's point.
Miller denied he had misled them, saying he had been replying at an earlier committee hearing to another point. "I answered the question truthfully," Miller said. "I answered them as they were asked."

Asked by Ryan why then had he resigned, Miller said that, as head of the agency, he took responsibility for the mistake even though he had not been personally involved in this particular episode, an answer that won him the sympathy of some committee members.

Earlier, Miller described the treatment of conservative groups by the IRS as obnoxious but said the IRS had received 70,000 applications for tax-exempt status and only 150 people to deal with them. He suggested appointing more staff.

The Republicans' failure to achieve the political coup they were seeking was down in part to their decision from the outset to make it a partisan issue, alienating Democrats. The Democrats castigated the Republicans for trying to blame Obama and pointing out that some of the key appointees had been made by the Bush administration.  

Camp, opening the hearing, said: "Trimming a few branches will not solve the problem when the roots of the tree have gone rotten. And that is exactly what has happened with our entire tax system – it is rotten at the core, and it must be ripped out so we can start fresh." He then added his remark about the alleged culture of cover-up by the Obama administration.

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Sandy Levin, following Camp, rounded on him. "We must seek the truth, not political gain," he said, taking issue with him for suggesting that there were a culture of cover-up.

Republicans turning it into a political issue, as part of the warm-up for the 2014 election would be making a "very, very serious mistake," Levin said, who departed from prepared remarks to deliver the rebuke.


Republican law would punish Ohio colleges for helping students vote

By David Ferguson
Friday, May 17, 2013 12:58 EDT

Republicans in the Ohio state legislature are promoting an amendment to a state budget bill that would punish public universities that provide students with the necessary materials to register to vote. According to Talking Points Memo, the legislators say that they are trying to resolve discrepancies between residency requirements for in-state tuition and voter registration. Democrats accuse the Republicans of attempting to disenfranchise another traditionally Democratic constituency in an important swing state.

“What the bill would do is penalize public universities for providing their students with the documents they need to vote,” said Ohio University professor and election law expert Daniel Tokaji to TPM. “It’s a transparent effort at vote suppression — about the most blatant and shameful we’ve seen in this state, which is saying quite a lot.”

To vote in Ohio elections, a person must be a resident of the state for at least 30 days prior to the election in which they intend to vote. To register to vote, they must present a photo ID, a current utility bill, bank statement, current government check or other government document (besides voter registration acknowledgment) that bears their name and address.

Students living in on-campus housing may not have some of the above items, so universities in Ohio typically supply necessary documents to students wishing to register to vote.

However, for students to qualify for in-state tuition at public universities in the state, they must have attended an Ohio school or have a parent or spouse who lives in the state prior to enrollment.

Republicans say this is a double standard, and the new law would force colleges and universities to charge in-state tuition to students it helps to vote.

“The amendment has the purpose of getting a discussion going on sort of the mismatch that exists in Ohio, where we have one requirement for when a student becomes in-state for tuition purposes and another requirement for voting,” Republican state Rep. Ron Amstutz told the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Losing out-of-state tuition would cost state colleges and universities an estimated $272 million. The institutions say they intend to continue to distribute the materials, however.

Democratic Ohio Senate Minority Leader Eric Kearney told the Enquirer that Republicans’ real intent is to nullify an important constituency which helped President Barack Obama carry Ohio in the 2008 election against former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA).

“They’re somehow trying to thwart the strategy that worked to elect President Obama,” he told the newspaper.

Tokaji warned that the strategy could backfire.

“The way that they’ve written this bill makes it clear that its only purpose is to suppress student voting,” he told TPM. “What I’d say to the Republican Party is this is not only a shameful strategy, but it’s a stupid strategy because, you know, the Republican Party already has a signifcant problem with young voters. They’re on the verge of losing a generation of voters. Their path to victory is not to suppress the student vote, but to win the student vote.”

Ohio Republicans and the state’s Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted ran afoul of the Department of Justice in 2012 when they tried to do away with early voting in the November election. Early voting has historically been an important resource for hourly workers and other people who can’t get to the polls on Election Day.

By eliminating voting, Husted and the Republicans hoped to dilute the African-American vote, an intention made explicit when Franklin County, Ohio Republican Party Chairperson Doug Priesse told the Columbus Dispatch, “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter-turnout machine. Let’s be fair and reasonable.”


May 17, 2013

U.S.-Russian Diplomacy, With a Personal Touch


WASHINGTON — When Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, clashed over Syria last year with Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the secretary of state, he called her hysterical, the sort of impolitic remark that showed just how sour their relationship had become.

The hardened positions of Russia and the United States over Syria and other issues have not changed significantly since then, but with John Kerry replacing Mrs. Clinton, the tone at least has.

Despite fight after fight in recent months over everything from new sanctions targeting Russian officials for rights abuses to the detention of an American Embassy official this week on charges of espionage, the two diplomats seem to have found common purpose on one of the most intractable disputes between the United States and Russia: Syria’s civil war.

They have revived the prospect of a negotiated settlement in Syria that was first proposed a year ago but then abandoned as the death toll from the war grimly mounted — although much remains uncertain. They have done so with greater comity than Mr. Lavrov ever showed toward Mrs. Clinton or her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice. Both women had famously frosty relationships with Mr. Lavrov and Russia’s leader, President Vladimir V. Putin, shaped in no small part by the Russians’ perception that the United States relentlessly meddles in their country’s internal affairs.

Mr. Lavrov ended hours of talks with Mr. Kerry in Moscow last week with a post-midnight dinner at the Foreign Ministry’s guesthouse and a toast to the American B-50B bomber that made the world’s first nonstop flight around the world in 1949 — with a wine of that year’s vintage. When asked in Sweden this week about the espionage scandal, Mr. Lavrov passed on the chance to excoriate his counterpart while officials in Moscow were ridiculing the Central Intelligence Agency as an organization trapped in cold war habits.

Since then, they have managed to corral growing support for a meeting to try to negotiate a Syria settlement — most likely to be held in Geneva in June — even as relations between the United States and Russia continue to lurch between cooperation and confrontation. The latest dispute came over new American intelligence warnings that Russia was shipping new anti-ship missiles to Syria, which the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin E. Dempsey, said Friday was “ill-timed and very unfortunate.”

“It’s at the very least an unfortunate decision that will embolden the regime and prolong the suffering,” he said.

The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, met on Friday with Mr. Putin and expressed support for the work accomplished so far by the two diplomats. “We should not lose this momentum generated by Minister Lavrov and Secretary Kerry,” Mr. Ban said in Sochi, the Black Sea city where the Winter Olympics will be held in February.

Although he did not announce a date for convening peace talks, he added, “There is high expectation that this meeting should be held as soon as possible.”

The conspicuous shift on Syria has benefits for both countries.

It has given Russia the opportunity to reassert its view of geopolitics, arguing against international efforts to remove undesirable governments from power, as the United States and its allies did in Libya. It has also allowed the Obama administration to defer, for now, calls for the United States to act more forcefully to intervene in the Syrian conflict.

Mr. Kerry’s focus on Russia and its role in Syria reflects a decision by the White House to pull relations with Russia back from the brink in President Obama’s second term. The first term included a honeymoon that Mrs. Clinton called a reset, which led to reductions in nuclear weapons and Russia’s ascension to the World Trade Organization, among other things.

Tensions erupted, though, over the Arab spring, the overthrow of Libya’s dictator, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and ultimately Mr. Putin’s own return to the presidency in elections widely denounced as undemocratic.

Mr. Putin, as a candidate and as president once again, adopted stridently anti-American views. After the disputed parliamentary elections of 2011, he accused Mrs. Clinton of personally instigating large protests in Moscow. Russia subsequently ended more than two decades of collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development, labeled legally defined nongovernment organizations receiving American assistance as “foreign agents”; and after the United States imposed sanctions on Russian officials under new legislation named after a lawyer who died in prison, Sergei Magnitsky, it barred adoptions of Russian children by American parents.

All of those actions have made Mr. Kerry’s personal outreach to Mr. Lavrov even more striking. Since being sworn in, Mr. Kerry has met with Mr. Lavrov five times — in Berlin, London, Brussels, Moscow and Kiruna, Sweden, where they talked one-on-one for an hour on the sidelines of a meeting of the Arctic Council this week to work out details of the coming negotiations over Syria. The five meetings are the most Mr. Kerry has had with any foreign diplomat, exceeding his four with Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu.

Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov, according to one official familiar with their exchanges, have developed a rapport. In Moscow, they bantered about “their mutual love for hockey and the grace of the older school style.” The two men left their delegations inside the Foreign Ministry’s guesthouse and strolled through the mansion’s gardens, engaging in a lengthy — at times animated — discussion over the exact wording of the statement they announced later that night.

Mikhail V. Margelov, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament, said that Russia’s position on Syria had been consistent and that Mr. Kerry had finally accepted it.

Mr. Kerry’s arrival, he said, had helped the relationship between the two countries, but the ability to move past the spy case had a parallel in a mutual expulsion of diplomats after an espionage scandal in 2001. That was followed by Mr. Putin’s cooperation with President George W. Bush after the attacks of Sept. 11.

“The world has changed,” Mr. Margelov said. “It’s not a bipolar world anymore. We are facing many threats, and many of the same threats. We are made to cooperate.”

Mr. Kerry’s tactics have political risks at home, where many lawmakers have called for the administration to act far more forcefully on Syria. Senator John Barrasso, the Wyoming Republican who is chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, criticized Mr. Kerry’s “hat-in-hand” trip to Moscow. “Asking Russia to support U.S. interests in Syria is like asking the fox to guard the henhouse,” the statement said.

It remains to be seen whether either country can get the warring parties to the table in Geneva, let alone to agree on a transition government that would replace Mr. Assad’s, but officials and analysts in Washington and Moscow said the joint effort was a genuine attempt to resolve an increasingly intractable crisis.

“It’s not simply another diplomatic engagement just to show the world they are pursuing a settlement,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, who closely scrutinizes American-Russia relations, said of the Kerry-Lavrov effort. “I think they mean to achieve a result.”

Steven Lee Myers reported from Washington, and David M. Herszenhorn from Moscow. Thom Shanker contributed reporting from Washington.


May 17, 2013

President Seeks Path Forward Beyond Troubles


BALTIMORE — President Obama, struggling to find his footing after one of his most turbulent weeks in office, will try to push past the moment’s political furor with a focus on the few pieces of legislation he believes have a chance in Congress and on executive actions that do not require Republican approval.

The president’s aides, wary of what they say are Republican attempts to seize on woes as a way of thwarting Mr. Obama’s agenda, have ordered the White House staff not to be distracted by approaching hearings on Capitol Hill. Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff, has told those in the West Wing that he expects them to spend no more than 10 percent of their time on the controversies.

In a meeting with Democratic strategists on Thursday morning, Mr. McDonough outlined a plan to intensify focus on revamping immigration laws, reaching a budget deal, and carrying out the health care law. The White House is also preparing a new push to keep student loan rates low when the current ones expire this summer, on the theory that the best way to get past the controversies is to emphasize policy proposals and contrast them with what the administration will portray as political gamesmanship by the Republicans.

“We’ve got to stay focused,” Mr. McDonough told the group of strategists, according to Mike McCurry, a former spokesman for President Bill Clinton, who was at the meeting. “Even if it’s not going to break through in the short run, we’ve got to keep hammering on,” Mr. McDonough added, according to the account.

Aware that few substantive bills can receive the bipartisan support needed to pass Congress in the current political climate, White House officials are also turning their attention to narrower policies Mr. Obama can carry out on his own. On Friday, he flew by helicopter to Baltimore, where he announced an accelerated process for federal approval of infrastructure projects.

“Others may get distracted by chasing every fleeting issue that passes by,” Mr. Obama said to a crowd of 500 at a factory here. “But the middle class will always be my No. 1 focus, period.”

Republicans have already criticized Mr. Obama’s executive actions as big-government overreach, and are likely to use the controversies to further their case, especially as the White House turns to thorny areas, like greenhouse-gas emissions.

As Mr. Obama spent the day in Baltimore, his adversaries in the House grilled the acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service and its inspector general, trying to determine whether other officials in the administration knew that conservative groups had received special scrutiny.

Beyond executive actions, the White House has made a spate of nominations in the last week, after having left many jobs unfilled at the State Department and elsewhere, and continues to lobby to win approval of a nominee to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

Publicly, White House officials say they will continue to push for major bills, like energy legislation, a long-term deficit deal and a bill to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. But the officials acknowledge that only immigration has a strong chance of receiving enough Republican support to pass, with a budget deal having an outside chance.

Mr. Obama and his aides have deliberately played a low-profile role in the immigration debate, believing his involvement could stoke Republican opposition and damage the bill’s prospects. Congress appeared to make progress on immigration this week, with the Senate starting to mark up a bill and a bipartisan group in the House announcing the outlines of an agreement.

Senator Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who is a central player in negotiating a budget deal, suggested that the troubles could even bring a silver lining. If the president is focused elsewhere, he said, it could soothe partisan furies and raise the prospects for a compromise.

“It’s good he’s not as excited right now,” Mr. Baucus said.

Mr. Obama’s visit to Baltimore underscored the White House’s strategy. At Ellicott Dredges, Mr. Obama announced a plan to streamline the process for issuing permits for federal public-works projects, the kind of modest measure that does not require legislation.

But his first stop, at an elementary school, brought a reminder that most of his ambitious social initiatives — like a federal-state plan to expand pre-kindergarten and early childhood education, which he promoted — probably cannot pass Congress on their own. Aides hope that financing for the education plan might ultimately become part of a broader budget deal.

Thursday’s meeting in Mr. McDonough’s office was the latest in a series of gatherings with Democratic thinkers that he has held since becoming chief of staff in January. The controversies — not just the I.R.S., but the debate over the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and the Justice Department’s seizure of news media phone records as well — quickly became the topic of the day.

“You have to contain the so-called scandal,” said Steve Elmendorf, a veteran Democratic strategist who was at the meeting. “But you have to change the subject by accomplishing things.”

One of the most consequential but quietest areas of White House deliberation is climate policy. In his State of the Union address this year, Mr. Obama promised to address climate change aggressively, but has done little so far.

Searching for policies that do not require Congressional approval, he has proposed to divert about $200 million a year from oil and gas royalties to clean-vehicle technologies. The administration is also moving forward with new rules on appliance efficiency, among other steps.

But scientists say that major progress depends on cleaning up the electric utility sector, which produces roughly 40 percent of the nation’s climate-altering gases. The Environmental Protection Agency is weighing whether to impose emissions limits on new and existing coal-burning power plants, but that project, which would be hugely controversial, is on the shelf for now as the E.P.A. studies the costs and benefits.

Some of the president’s allies have urged him to develop a political “circuit breaker” in case the Republican effort to stoke controversies continues for months, said Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director. But she said there were no plans for Mr. Obama to make a big speech to confront controversies that White House officials do not believe will last.

In the last few days, the administration appears to have stopped the bleeding. The release of internal e-mails on Benghazi largely confirmed the White House’s account; the inspector general’s report on the I.R.S. did not tie anyone outside the agency to its actions; and the press freedom issues raised by The Associated Press leak investigation are a bigger concern for journalists than the broader public.

“Our circuit breaker is dealing with it aggressively and moving on to other stuff,” said Ms. Palmieri, a veteran of woes in the Clinton administration.

Mark Landler reported from Baltimore and Michael D. Shear from Washington; John M. Broder and John Harwood contributed reporting from Washington.

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Debate on bill to protect Afghan women from violence halted after complaints it is ‘against Islamic teaching’

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, May 18, 2013 11:47 EDT

The Afghan parliament on Saturday cut short a debate on a bill to protect women from violence after complaints from some traditionalist MPs that it was against Islamic teaching.

The Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law, which was passed by a presidential decree in 2009, is seen as a benchmark piece of legislation marking progress since the fall of the Taliban regime nearly 12 years ago.

But ratification by parliament was postponed after several MPs branded the bill as against Sharia law — the Islamic teachings drawn from the Koran, the Prophet Mohammad and rulings by scholars.

“This law is just a government project, it is against Sharia… we need to discuss more about this and remove articles that are against Islam,” Abdul Sattar Khawasi, a conservative MP from Parwan province, said.

In a rowdy debate, some male lawmakers shouted out that child marriage — made illegal by the bill — should not be a crime.

But there were also strong supporters of the law during Saturday’s curtailed session in parliament.

“This bill was signed into effect after enormous efforts by women, this law is to defend the rights of poor women in towns and villages,” Takhar province MP Mariam Kofi said.

Aimal Faizi, President Hamid Karzai’s spokesman, told reporters that Karzai would not interfere in parliamentary affairs but suggested that the palace was working to boost support for the bill.

“It is up to them to pass it or not to pass it, but the president has recently met with representatives of women and civil society,” Faizi said.

“They have discussed these concerns that the women have in regard to this bill and what kind of support we can get from within the parliament.”

The EVAW bill is already officially law, but many women’s rights activists fear that conservative MPs could water it down by insisting on amendments, or even try to throw it out completely.

“We did not want this law to go to parliament. But unfortunately it happened,” Mahbooba Seraj, an activist, told AFP.

“Afghan women have fought for years to make this law. If parliament changes it, women will go ten years backwards and they will have to restart their fight.”

The law bans violence against women, child marriage and forced marriages, and is considered one of the government’s key achievements since the Taliban era, when women were banned from attending school or any form of public activity.

Western countries point to advances for women as an indicator of success in a long and costly war that is increasingly unpopular in the United States, Britain and other nations contributing troops to the NATO-led coalition.

But the bulk of the 100,000 international troops will pull out by the end of 2014, and there are widespread fears that improvements in women’s lives will be eroded after the soldiers depart.

“The parliament is politicising it, but for us the existing law is valid, we will hold on to our achievements,” rights activist Wazhma Frogh told AFP.

There have been a series of widely-publicised cases of horrific treatment of women this year in Afghanistan.

One mother of two children was shot dead by her father in front of 300 villagers in an execution overseen by religious leaders in the northwestern province of Badghis last month to punish her for an alleged affair.

Under the Taliban’s 1996-2001 regime, women risked being beaten if they did not wear full burqas or if they left the house without a male escort.


May 18, 2013

Effort to Strengthen an Afghan Law on Women May Backfire


KABUL, Afghanistan — Even with some legal protections in place, Afghan women, and sometimes even little girls, can be sold to pay family debts. In the country’s vast rural areas, just talking to a man who is not a close relative can be punishable by death. And in some places, girls are routinely married at puberty.

And now, preserving any protections long-term appears to be in question, as the country’s tiny women’s rights movement faces an unenviable decision: leave intact the only law that attempts to halt such abuses, or continue to present changes to Parliament and run the risk that a growing conservative bloc could dismantle the law entirely.

The quandary became evident on Saturday, when a bid to add more robust protections was rapidly withdrawn in Parliament after stinging rebukes. Angry mullahs and conservatives who never supported the law in the first place complained that it and the proposed revisions were un-Islamic and asked who could better decide than they who and when their daughters should marry.

Some women in Parliament were not supportive either, citing the measure’s backing of shelters for battered women. Many Afghans believe shelters are little better than brothels and tarnish a girl’s reputation.

To cut off the onslaught, the proposal was sent back to committee, its future uncertain.

The push to bring up the law in Parliament has split the small group of Afghan women’s rights advocates. Despite fears of the conservatives, some argued that quick action had to be taken before the exit of the United States, which, along with the European Union, has championed better lives and protections for Afghan women.

But others resisted. “We know who is in the Parliament,” said Soraya Sobrang, a women’s rights activist and part of a hastily organized effort to stop the law from coming up in Parliament, referring to the former militia commanders, mullahs and other conservatives who take a dim view of many Western-backed protections for women. What would stop them, she asked, “from pulling a list from their back pocket” of changes that would weaken the protections against child marriage or even rape?

The drive to amend the law was led by one of Afghanistan’s more visible champions for women’s issues: Fawzia Koofi, a determined, ambitious woman who gained a seat in Parliament in 2005 and in 2010, survived an attempt on her life by gunmen thought to be Taliban.

“There is a step back on women’s issues,” Ms. Koofi said, explaining her drive to revise the law in the plenary session of Parliament this weekend. “The government used to be more supportive.”

Ms. Koofi is a somewhat controversial figure. Closely allied with the predominantly Tajik former Northern Alliance faction in Parliament, she has sometimes been criticized as pursuing policies for her own political gain. However, she insisted that her motivation to amend the women’s law was to help solidify it, though not all supporters of women’s rights here agree.

Ms. Koofi said the proposed changes would allow the government to prosecute cases of abuse even when the woman who had been abused withdrew her claim. Women frequently come under family pressure to drop complaints of domestic violence.

Ms. Koofi said she also added a provision prohibiting sexual harassment, calling it increasingly pervasive as more women go to work in offices. And, she said, she included a provision to require men to pay women child support if they leave them or take other wives. No written version of the amendments was publicly available, so it was difficult to verify their contents or wording.

The law — the Elimination of Violence Against Women Act — was issued in 2009 as a decree by President Hamid Karzai. In a first for the country, it outlined basic protections from practices common throughout Afghanistan, including child marriage, forced marriage, physical abuse and the practice of giving women in marriage to settle disputes between families, called baad.

Ms. Koofi said her prime worry was that, with elections due in less than a year, the law might be annulled by a new president. Parliament’s endorsement would enshrine it more securely, she argued.

“If we wait for the best moment when there is no opposition, we will wait forever,” she said. “Our worry is that things will get worse after 2014, and there’s no guarantee that the next president will support the women’s issues. We should have done it even earlier.”

Women who opposed Ms. Koofi’s gambit said they were resigned that it might already be too late to do more in Parliament than safeguard the current law.

“It’s gambling with the law with this kind of Parliament,” said Mahbooba Saraj, a women’s advocate who joined a news conference at the offices of the Afghan Women’s Network, one of the larger women’s rights organizations here, to urge that Parliament remove discussion of the act from its agenda this weekend. “It’s a gamble with the lives of Afghan women.”

Last week, the Afghan Women’s Network, along with a number of Kabul-based civil society organizations, began sending out alarmed e-mails to embassies and international organizations, as well as reporters, to rally opposition to the effort to revise the law.

Western diplomats in Kabul also strongly advised Ms. Koofi not to push ahead with a full debate unless she was absolutely sure that the law could be protected from evisceration.

Georgette Gagnon, the head of the human rights office for the United Nations here, who has studied how the law has been carried out, described taking the measure before the Parliament as “fraught with all kinds of risk.”

“Ultimately, the losers could be millions of Afghan women,” she said.

The existing law is far from ideal. Human rights lawyers say it lacks a definition of honor crimes and offers little clarity on how the police or prosecutors should treat a woman who runs away from home to escape violence. Often a woman who flees is imprisoned on charges that she intended to commit adultery; numerous women interviewed in jails by the United Nations for its 2012 report on the law’s enforcement said they left home to avoid a forced marriage or domestic violence. And women come under enormous family pressure to drop any charge of domestic violence.

Enforcement remains woefully insufficient: in the first full year that the law was put into effect, from 2010 to 2011, courts relied on it in just 4 percent of the 2,299 reported episodes that could be defined as crimes under the measure, according to a November 2011 report by the United Nations human rights division. However, prosecutors have begun to use the law, especially in the larger urban areas like Kabul and Herat, and human rights groups hope that as prosecutors become familiar with it, they will rely on it more frequently.

At a minimum, the law provides a basic set of protections for women that prosecutors, judges, lawyers for women and women’s advocates can look to in determining whether prosecutable abuses have occurred.

“The potential risk of opening this Pandora’s box is enormous,” said Heather Barr, the director of the Human Rights Watch office for Afghanistan, referring to the risks inherent in letting the full Parliament reconsider each provision.

“Just look at a photograph of the Parliament. What planet would you have to be on to think that they would vote to send themselves to prison if they married off their under-aged daughter, or send themselves to jail if they beat their wives?”

Jawad Sukhanyar and Rod Nordland contributed reporting from Kabul.


May 18, 2013

Afghanistan Hit by Wave of Violence


KABUL, Afghanistan — A spate of violence across Afghanistan has claimed the lives of nearly two dozen Afghan police officers and civilians in the past few days, including a district police official assassinated over a recent anti-Taliban campaign.

Two gunmen on motorcycles in the Khaki Safed district of Farah Province, in western Afghanistan, killed the police official, Abdul Ghani, in front of his home on Friday night, apparently as retribution for a crackdown on the Taliban that killed several insurgents, a spokesman for the Farah governor said.

The targeted hit was a rare example of recent violence not involving a bomb or civilian casualties. In Helmand Province in the south, six Afghan policemen were killed and four were injured on Thursday when a roadside bomb exploded near their vehicle in the Gereshk district. On Friday, three police officers and six civilians were killed by two car bombs in a Kandahar city development owned by Mahmoud Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s brother. Meanwhile, an explosion on Saturday morning in Khost, in eastern Afghanistan, killed at least one border policeman while wounding eight others.

The annual fighting season is beginning in earnest, including a huge bombing in Kabul on Thursday that injured dozens and killed 16 people, 6 of them Americans, the deadliest attack in the city in months.

Though unrelated, the assaults underscore the ability of insurgents to attack government forces, despite a decade-long campaign to snuff them out. The acts also undermine the credibility of Mr. Karzai’s administration and heighten the uncertainty over whether Afghans can maintain security on their own once the majority of international coalition forces withdraw next year.

The International Security Assistance Force, the military coalition known as ISAF, released a statement Friday night denouncing the attacks on civilians in Kandahar, which took place in the Aino Mina development, a relatively peaceful area where families often gather for picnics. “Once again the insurgents have chosen to conduct an attack that was designed to kill or maim the maximum number of people possible,” Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the coalition commander, said in the statement. “To conduct this attack in a crowded area on the traditional day of peace and mercy speaks to the utter ruthlessness of the insurgents.”

The first blast in Kandahar targeted a police vehicle, killing the three officers, while the second killed six people visiting Aino Mina with their children, according to Javed Faisal, a spokesman for the provincial governor.

The attack in Khost took place around 9:30 a.m. Saturday, when a barrel laden with explosives was detonated near a checkpoint in the Kochi Sarai area. In addition to killing one of the police officers, the blast wounded three other officers and five civilians, said Mubariz Zadran, the provincial governor’s spokesman.

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan; Jawad Sukhanyar from Kabul; and Farouk Jan Mangal from Khost, Afghanistan.

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May 18, 2013

Pakistan, Rusting in Its Tracks


RUK, Pakistan — Resplendent in his gleaming white uniform and peaked cap, jacket buttons tugging his plump girth, the stationmaster stood at the platform, waiting for a train that would never come. “Cutbacks,” Nisar Ahmed Abro said with a resigned shrug.

Ruk Station, in the center of Pakistan, is a dollhouse-pretty building, ringed by palm trees and rice paddies. Once, it stood at the junction of two great Pakistani rail lines: the Kandahar State Railway, which raced north through the desert to the Afghan border; and another that swept east to west, chaining cities from the Hindu Kush mountains to the Arabian Sea.

Now it was a ghost station. No train had stopped at Ruk in six months, because of cost cutting at the state-owned rail service, Pakistan Railways, and the elegant station stood lonely and deserted. Idle railway men smoked in the shadows. A water buffalo sauntered past.

Mr. Abro led the way into his office, a high-ceilinged room with a silent grandfather clock. Pouring tea, he mopped sweat from his brow. The afternoon heat was rising, and the power had been down for 16 hours — nothing unusual in Pakistan these days.

Opposite him, Faisal Imran, a visiting railway engineer, listened sympathetically to the mournful stationmaster. This was about more than just trains — more than the decrepit condition of the once-mighty state railway service, Mr. Imran said. It was about Pakistan itself.

“The railways are the true image of our country,” he said, sipping his tea in the heat. “If you want to see Pakistan, see its railways.”

For all the wonders offered by a train journey across Pakistan — a country of jaw-dropping landscapes, steeped in a rich history and filled with unexpected pleasures — it also presents some deeply troubling images.

At every major stop on the long line from Peshawar, in the northwest, to the turbulent port city of Karachi, lie reminders of why the country is a worry to its people, and to the wider world: natural disasters and entrenched insurgencies, abject poverty and feudal kleptocrats, and an economy near meltdown.

The election last weekend was a hopeful moment for a struggling democracy, with the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif winning a huge mandate amid record voter turnout of nearly 60 percent. But the voting left undecided the larger battle against popular disillusionment. In a country forged on religion, Pakistanis are losing faith. People are desperate for change — for any improvement their proudly nuclear-armed government could make, yet has not.

Chronic electricity shortages, up to 18 hours per day, have crippled industry and stoked public anger. The education and health systems are inadequate and in stark disrepair. The state airline, Pakistan International Airlines, which lost $32 million last year, is listing badly. The police are underpaid and corrupt, and militancy is spreading. There is a disturbing sense of drift.

This failure is the legacy of decades of misadventure, misrule and misfortune under both civilian and military leaders, but its price is being paid by the country’s 180 million people.

To them, the dire headlines about Taliban attacks and sterile arguments about failed states mean little. Their preoccupations are mundane, yet vitally important. They want jobs and educations for their children. They want fair treatment from their justice system and electricity that does not flicker out.

And they want trains that run on time.

Peshawar: The Scarred City

At the journey’s beginning, policemen wielding AK-47s guard the train station in Peshawar, on the cusp of craggy mountains that climb into Afghanistan — one of about 40 such checkposts in a city that has long been a hub of intrigue, but that now finds itself openly at war. Since the first Taliban attacks about six years ago, the city has faced a relentless barrage of suicide bombings. No place can claim immunity: five-star hotels and religious shrines, bustling markets and the international airport, police stations and foreign consulates. Hundreds of people have died.

The train system has been deeply affected. Until a few years ago, the tracks stretched up to the storied Khyber Pass, 30 miles to the west, where one of the last steam trains chugged through the tribal belt. Now that line is closed, its tracks washed away by floodwaters and too dangerous to run even if it were intact, given the insurgent violence.

Khyber also gave its name to the country’s most famous train service, the Khyber Mail, immortalized by travel writers like Paul Theroux. It recalls the heyday of Pakistan’s railway raj, when the train was an elegant, popular mode of travel used by the wealthy and working classes alike, with liveried bearers carrying trays of tea, and pressed linen sheets and showers in the first-class carriages.

But the Awami Express, which waited at the platform, had little of that old-world charm. The carriages were austere and dusty. Porters scurried about in tattered uniforms, taking modest tips from a trickle of passengers. Only one class of ticket, economy, was for sale. The train company, lacking generators, could not offer any air-conditioning.

The decrepitude of the 152-year-old railway system has, in recent years, been attributed largely to a Peshawar native: the previous rail minister, Ghulam Ahmed Bilour. A classic product of Pakistan’s patronage-driven politics, Mr. Bilour, 73, faced regular accusations of cronyism, using railway resources — money, land and jobs — to look after his own supporters. Meanwhile, service has floundered. Passenger numbers have plunged, train lines have closed and the freight business — the lifeblood of any train service — has crumbled. The last time the rail system turned a profit was in 1974.

Last year the national anticorruption agency placed Mr. Bilour under investigation; a court later jailed two of the railway’s top managers. The minister avoided prosecution, and in interviews has insisted that a lack of funding was the main problem. More recently, though, Mr. Bilour has become emblematic of another aspect of Pakistani politics: the complex relationship with violent extremism.

When Peshawar erupted in deadly riots last October over an American-made video clip that insulted the Prophet Muhammad, enraged protesters attacked the city’s movie theaters, including one belonging to Mr. Bilour’s family. A day later, the minister made a controversial offer: he would pay $100,000 to anyone, militants included, who killed the offending filmmaker. That gesture ingratiated Mr. Bilour with the Taliban, who offered to remove him from their hit list, but deeply shamed his party, which had suffered fatal militant attacks. In Peshawar, people viewed it with irony: the Bilour cinema was notorious for showing racy films that the Taliban surely would not appreciate.

But the cinemas represented more than just Western culture; they were a rare form of public entertainment in a city that is closing in on itself.

Khalid Saeed, the owner of one of the few theaters left standing in Peshawar, the Capitol, sat in the foyer of the once-grand 1930s-era building, surrounded by tatty posters advertising old action movies. Invading rioters broke his projector and set fire to the screen, he said, but mercifully the flames did not spread.

Still, he said, he understood the frustration. “This is about religion, but it’s also about poverty,” he said, sucking on a cigarette. “There’s so much unemployment here. Young people have nothing to do, nowhere to go. You can read it in their faces. They get upset.”

The rattle of Taliban violence has created a stronger curfew than the local police ever could. Mr. Saeed said his son dared not venture out after dark, fearing attack or kidnapping. And still the militants keep striking.

“Around here, nobody knows what will happen tomorrow,” he said with an air of quiet resignation. “What sort of life is that?”

In Mr. Bilour’s case, the entire episode was for naught. A few months later, in December, the Taliban assassinated his younger brother, the politician Bashir Bilour. As election campaigning got under way recently, a Taliban suicide bomber nearly killed Mr. Bilour himself at a rally in Peshawar’s old city. Then, last weekend, he lost his Parliament seat to Imran Khan — the former sports star who has said the government should negotiate with the insurgents, not fight them.

At Peshawar Station, the Awami Express slowly chugged out, brushing against the yawning canopies of gnarled trees and slicing through a crowded clothing market. The clattering grew faster, carriage doors swinging open and shut, as the train rumbled into the countryside. Its passengers — traders, government employees, large families — stretched out on aged leather seats.

Muhammad Akmal, a 20-year-old ice factory worker, was going home to Punjab for a wedding. “Hope to get married myself, soon — perhaps to one of my cousins,” he said. Hopefully, he added, the train would not be too late.

At Attock, the train crawled over a spectacular bridge spanning the Indus River, passing under an ancient hilltop fort built by a Mughal emperor in the 16th century, now occupied by the Pakistani Army.

Sepia-toned images of sweeping train journeys occupy a central place in the Western imagination of the Indian subcontinent, from movie classics like “Gandhi” to the recent “Slumdog Millionaire.” In real life, the Awami Express possessed little of that romance. The 45-year-old diesel locomotive groaned as it belched pillowy black fumes. Fine clouds of dust entered through the open windows. The carriages jerked violently on the corners.

It was not always so. Much as the American West filled out one train depot at a time, Pakistan was forged on steel rails. The state-owned train system, over 5,000 miles of track inherited from the British at independence in 1947, helped mesh a new and fractious country. Trains ferried migrants to the cities, provided a moving platform for campaigning politicians and played a role in the wars against India. It became — and remains — the country’s largest civilian employer, still with more than 80,000 employees.

Today, though, decades of neglect have taken a heavy toll. On paper, Pakistan Railways has almost 500 engines, but in reality barely 150 are in working order. Most Pakistanis prefer to take the bus. Those left on the trains are often frustrated, sometimes mutinous.

Early last year, dozens of protesting passengers laid their children across the tracks in Multan, in southern Punjab Province. They were angry because a journey that should have taken 18 hours had lasted three days — and they were still only halfway to their destination.

In the train engineer’s seat, Hameed Ahmed Rana, a taciturn man in a neat white shirt and a baseball cap, tugged gently on a brass handle and grumbled. The Japanese-built locomotive wheezed and shuddered. “There’s a problem with the oil pressure,” he said. “Not looking good.”

Mr. Rana guided the train into the garrison city of Rawalpindi, headquarters to Pakistan’s military, where artillery pieces poked out from under awnings. Then it pressed south, the landscape flattening as its colors shifted from stony brown to rich green, rumbling past the rich irrigated fields and orange groves of northern Punjab, the heartland of military recruitment.

Inside the train, fans hung inertly from the ceiling as the day’s heat pressed in. The carriages, filling up, were acquiring the air of a village tea shop. Men smoked and chatted; small traders boarded carrying salty snacks and hot drinks; families with women pulled sheets across their seats for privacy.

The conversation, inevitably, turned to politics and religion. An argument about the merits of various leaders erupted between a Pashtun trader, traveling to Karachi for heart treatment, and an engineer who worked in a military tank plant. “We’ve tried them all,” the engineer said with an exasperated air. “All we get are opportunists. We need a strong leader. We need a Khomeini.”

A group of jolly Islamic missionaries, known as jamaats, squeezed into a long seat, offering a foreign visitor smiles, a snack and an invitation to convert to Islam. “We’re not on this world for long,” said Abdul Qadir, a rotund man with a gray-speckled beard, proffering a plate of sliced apple. “People have a choice: heaven or hell. So they should work toward the afterlife.”

Lahore: Class and Corruption

Almost on schedule, the Awami Express panted into the grand old station at Lahore. A Hollywood movie starring Ava Gardner was shot here in 1955; today the yard is cluttered with empty freight vans.

Once the seat of Mughal emperors who ruled the Indian subcontinent, Lahore is the center of gravity for Pakistan’s cultural and military elite, a city of army barracks, tree-lined boulevards, artists and chic parties. It is also the headquarters of the 152-year-old railway empire. In the 1960s, Pakistan Railways was said to own one-third of the city’s land, and today the company is still run from a towering colonial-era palace, where clerks scurry between offices down polished corridors.

Up close, however, there is evidence of decline.

At the Mughalpura rail complex — a vast yard of workshops and train sheds stretched across 360 acres with 12,000 employees — workers were operating at 40 percent capacity, managers complained. Electricity cuts bring work to a halt, while entrenched unions, a rarity in Pakistan, stridently oppose any efforts to shed jobs or cut benefits. Unions blame management for corruption; managers say the unions are inflexible. Strikes are frequent.

Outside the plant gates, Muhammad Akram, a railway blacksmith, wore a tinsel garland that showed he was on a “token hunger strike,” from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The system was on the verge of collapse, he said: “It’s like sitting on the edge of the sea, wondering when you will fall in.”

The misfortune of the railways has, however, benefited Lahore’s elite. Traditionally, the city’s wealth has stemmed from the surrounding countryside, where feudal landlords live off the rents of poor peasants. For decades, the landlords have epitomized Pakistan’s gaping divisions: paying no tax, treating seats in Parliament like family heirlooms, virtually a law unto themselves on their own lands. But things are changing. Of late, the landlords are being nudged aside by a new elite, one that has found a home in a gilded country club built on railway land.

The Royal Palm Golf and Country Club, a lavish facility with an 18-hole golf course, gyms, 3-D cinemas and cigar rooms, opened in 2002 at the height of the military rule of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The club, which costs $8,000 to join, has become a showcase for new money: families that made their fortunes from property and industry, contacts and corruption.

The Royal Palm’s glittering social functions, attended by men in expensive suits and women in ornate gowns, are a staple of local society magazines. The opening of a local Porsche dealership was celebrated here in 2005 with a gala dinner featuring exotic dancers flown in from Europe. Some events even offer alcohol, although guests are encouraged to drop their wine glasses when the cameras show up.

“This is a family club, and a lifestyle choice,” said the manager, an architect named Parvez Qureshi, sitting in his stained-wood office overlooking the golf links.

But the Royal Palm was also built on the bones of the railways.

The rail minister at the time was Lt. Gen. Javed Ashraf Qazi, an ally of General Musharraf’s and a former spy chief who leased the railway’s land to a consortium of businessmen. Critics accused him of giving the land away at a sweetheart rate.

“It was not a clean deal. Absolutely not,” said Nasir Khalili, chairman of the Gardens Club, an officers social club with 1,400 members that had to surrender its property.

The National Accountability Bureau, which investigates official corruption, concluded last year that the Royal Palm deal had cost the government millions of dollars in lost revenue.

It was not the first time that the military had chipped at the rail system. Back in the 1980s, the military ruler Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq diverted train freight business to the National Logistics Cell, a military-run road haulage company that cornered the market for transporting wheat and other commodities. Less publicly it smuggled C.I.A.-financed weapons destined for mujahedeen rebels fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

“With freight gone, the railway was doomed,” said Salman Rashid, a travel writer who has specialized in the train network.

One evening, a raucous concert took place on the Royal Palm driving green. Thousands of teenagers crowded onto the grass to see Atif Aslam, a popular singer, in a performance sponsored by a cellphone company. Militant violence has curtailed public events in Lahore; most take place in such cloistered circumstances.

Before a crowd of about 4,000 young people, some joined by their parents, Mr. Aslam, wearing skinny jeans and a fur hat, bounded across the stage in a sea of testosterone, fluttering vocals and crashing guitars.

To a foreigner, many posed a rhetorical question that betrayed their wounded sensitivity to Pakistan’s international image. “Do we look like terrorists?” asked Zuhaib Rafaqat, a 21-year-old computer student. “The West seems to think we are. But look at us — we’re just enjoying ourselves, like anyone else.”

Sindh: Abiding Alienation

Charging across lush fields of wheat and cotton, the train crossed into Sindh Province, where it halted at Sukkur, on the Indus River. The Lansdowne Bridge, completed in 1889, spanned the water — one of several feats of engineering by the British colonialists who hacked through mountains, traversed ravines and cut across deserts to make a railroad in what has become Pakistan.

The railway project was foremost a tool of occupation: first to transport cheap cotton to English factories, later to move troops toward the northwestern frontier to guard against invasion from czarist Russia. Tens of thousands of construction workers died on the job, perishing in blistering summers and freezing winters, or from diseases like scurvy and malaria.

South of Sukkur, waterlogged fields mark a modern calamity: the 2010 floods, which inundated about one-fifth of the country, affected 20 million people and caused up to $43 billion in economic losses, according to some estimates. Topsoil and entire villages washed away in muddy waves, never to return.

In the Awami Express’s grimy dining car, a cook named Amir Khan stirred a greasy chicken broth over an open flame, then flopped onto a stack of soda crates. He gestured to the flood-scarred landscape.

“Zardari will show this to America, so that he can get some money,” Mr. Khan said with a cackling laugh, referring to President Asif Ali Zardari, who comes from Sindh. The cook wiped a mug clean, then paused reflectively. “Maybe if Benazir were alive, things would be different.”

The assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 was a traumatic event for Pakistan, but also for its railways. Enraged supporters attacked 30 train stations across her native Sindh, burning 137 coaches and 22 locomotives in a sulfurous protest at the failure of the state to protect Ms. Bhutto.

Still today, the trains present an easy target for disgruntled Pakistanis. As the Awami Express pushed south, the railway police passed through the train, brusquely searching passengers and their luggage. The police increased railway security after Baloch separatists exploded a small bomb at Lahore Station last year, killing two people. More recently, ethnic Sindhi separatists have singled out the train lines for attack.

Sindh is the hub of Pakistan’s Hindu population, which, like other minorities, has suffered from deepening intolerance in recent years. Stories of forced conversion of Hindu women at the hands of Muslim zealots have caused media scandals; last year some Hindu families, complaining of prejudice, left for India. But they were an exception: most Hindus remained behind, and some are quietly thriving.

At the southern city of Hyderabad, a train branch line jutted into the desert, toward the border with India. This was Thar, a desert region where, unusually, Hindus are predominant. A rural commuter service — a train with open doors and a handful of seats — ambled through irrigated farmland toward the desert. On board were farmers, small traders and pilgrims returning from a Hindu shrine, the bareheaded women adorned in gold and silver jewelry.

At the district’s main town, Umerkot, the local colony of snake charmers lives in the shadow of a clay-walled fort. The chief snake charmer, wearing a bright red turban and playing a flute, entranced a cobra as it curled from a wicker basket. Later, he produced a government certificate that attested to his ability to “perform a dangerous act of passing three-foot snake from nostril and mouth.”

“Half of our people are in India,” he said afterward, pointing toward the desert and the border. “But we feel ourselves 100 percent Pakistani.”

Karachi: The Slum Patriot

Land is gold in Karachi, Pakistan’s tremulous port megalopolis: a city of migrants, filled with opportunity and danger, where space is at a premium that is often paid in blood. Political parties, mullahs, criminal gangs and Taliban militants all battle for land in the city, often with weapons. The railways offer an easy target.

Slums crowd the train lines that snake through the city, pushing up against the tracks. Migrants have been coming here for decades, seeking economic opportunity or, more recently, fleeing Taliban violence.

A short walk from Karachi’s main train station lies Railway Colony Gate No. 10: a cluster of rough shacks, pressed against a slope, bordered by a stagnant pool of black, putrid sewage.

Among its residents is Nazir Ahmed Jan, a burly 30-year-old and an unlikely Pakistani patriot.

Mr. Jan, known to friends as Janu, is from the northwestern Swat Valley, where fighting erupted in 2009. After the Taliban arrived, his family fled Khwazakhela, a village “between the river and the mountain,” which he described with misty-eyed nostalgia: lush fields, soaring mountains and his family’s grocery store, later destroyed in fighting.

In contrast, Karachi is gritty and ugly, he acknowledged. He made his money selling “chola” — a cheap bean gruel — as he guided his pushcart through the railway slum. It earned him perhaps $3 a day — enough to feed his two infant children, if not much else.

But Mr. Jan was an irrepressible optimist. At least Karachi was safe, relatively speaking, he said. And it had other attractions.

In the corner of his home was a battered computer, hooked up to the Internet via a stolen phone line. He used it to write poetry, mostly about his love for Pakistan, he said, pulling out a sample. One couplet read:

“If you divide my body into 100 parts /a voice will cry from each one: Pakistan! Pakistan!"Mr. Jan’s face clouded. He had contacted national television stations, and even the army press service, trying to get his work published, he said, folding a page of verse slowly. But nobody was interested; for now the poetry was confined to his Facebook page.

“I just want to express my love for my country,” he said.

Distrusting politicians, he harbored a halcyon vision of what Pakistan could become: a country that offered justice, free education and health care, where leaders made the people wealthy, and not the other way round. “That would be the Islamic way of serving the people,” he said.

Mr. Jan smiled and, clasping his hands across his chest, excused himself. He had to work. The mountain migrant vanished down the street behind his pushcart, children scurrying around him. He whistled a Pashto folk tune, his soup jostling in the cart.

From the distance came the sound of a hooting train, pulling into the station. It was surely late.

This article was reported and written before Declan Walsh’s expulsion from Pakistan by the Interior Ministry on May 10.

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« Reply #6443 on: May 19, 2013, 06:54 AM »

Leading Pakistan politician Zahra Shahid Hussain killed outside home

Police say member of Imran Khan's Movement for Justice party ambushed by two bikers

Paul Gallagher   
The Observer, Saturday 18 May 2013 22.09 BST

A senior female member of Imran Khan's Movement for Justice party (PTI) was shot dead outside her home in Karachi on Saturday.

Reports suggested that Zahra Shahid Hussain, who was senior vice-president of the PTI, was killed while resisting an attempted robbery in the upmarket Defence neighbourhood of the city. Police said that she was ambushed by two people on a motorcycle. "The assailants opened fire on Zahra, 60, as soon as she reached the gate of her residence. Apparently they were there to target her only," an official said.

An eyewitness said that she handed the attackers her belongings, but was then shot, according to reports. Police superintendent Nasir Aftab said that initial findings suggested the killing was a purse snatching that went wrong. He said that, according to Hussain's daughter, her mother got into their car to leave. The driver drove the car out and was locking up the gate when two men on a motorcycle pulled up and tried to snatch her purse. "When she resisted, they shot her."

Hussain died on her way to hospital, it was reported. Imran Khan blamed the city's dominant MQM party, a claim the party has denied, and the British government, for Hussain's murder in a series of tweets. "I am shocked and deeply saddened by the brutal killing of Zara Shahid Hussain, Zara apa to us, in Karachi tonite. A targeted act of terror!

"I hold Altaf Hussain directly responsible for the murder as he had openly threatened PTI workers and leaders through public broadcasts.

"I also hold the British Govt responsible as I had warned them abt Br citizen Altaf Hussain after his open threats to kill PTI workers."

MQM television said on its facebook page: "As per Zahra Shahid Hussain's daughter and driver, the eyewitnesses, it was a street crime related murder. She got killed resisting a robbery." MQM leader Altaf Hussain has also condemned the killing.

Dr Arif Alvi, the former secretary-general of PTI, tweeted: "I condemn the murder of Zahra Shahid Hussein my dear colleague & demand the arrest of the killers immediately. May her soul rest in peace."

Hussain's murder comes on the eve of a highly contested partial rerun of the vote in the area following last Saturday's general election.

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« Reply #6444 on: May 19, 2013, 06:57 AM »

May 18, 2013

Disputed Election Sends Malaysian Politician Back to Fight on the Streets


KUANTAN, Malaysia — Not long ago he was flirting with the idea of semiretirement, maybe a teaching job at an American university. But now Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the Malaysian opposition, former political prisoner and longtime bugbear of the establishment, says those plans are firmly on the shelf.

After a disputed election this month, in which he and his allies won a majority of votes but failed to capture control of Parliament, Mr. Anwar has returned to his roots as a political street fighter, drawing large crowds across the country to protest what he calls mass vote rigging.

“Rise up!” he beseeched a crowd of thousands crammed last week into a field in this seaside city. “We won the election, but we were robbed of victory.”

Street politics is a sort of political oxygen for Mr. Anwar, who turns 66 in August. His wife jokes that when he complains of aches or fatigue, the only way she can revive him is with a microphone and a crowd.

As a Malay radical in the 1970s, he led student protests for expanded Malay rights and was imprisoned for two years without trial. In the 1990s, he led tens of thousands of followers through the streets of Kuala Lumpur, the capital, embarrassing the government during a visit by Queen Elizabeth II. He was later convicted of sodomy, a charge brought by his political enemies that was ultimately overturned. He spent six years in prison.

Now, as Mr. Anwar poses a new type of challenge to his government, many questions loom for him — and indeed for this relatively prosperous but unsettled country of about 30 million people. How long will he continue to protest the election results? And how long will the government, which has been slowly relaxing its mildly authoritarian powers, put up with the unrest?

At stake in the battle, besides the questioned validity of the election, is a fight over two visions for the future of this multiethnic country: the government view that continues to favor the Malays and those linked to the governing coalition with preferences versus Mr. Anwar’s campaign to curtail patronage and make government assistance operate on the basis of need, not ethnicity.

For Mr. Anwar, a Malay who once defended those preferences, the shift is a personal sea change, which some say is born of political ambition but that he says came to him during years of reflection in jail.

“My dream was to have a Malaysian spring that would be unique in the sense that we would do it through votes, not in the streets — a peaceful transition into a vibrant democracy in Malaysia,” Mr. Anwar said in an interview at his modest office in an obscure neighborhood outside Kuala Lumpur. Now, with victory elusive, he said he wanted a peaceful resolution but hedged when asked how far he would take his protests.

Malaysian politics, so closely entwined with the country’s ethnic complexity, can be bewildering to outsiders.

Like Indonesia, Myanmar and many other countries in Asia, Malaysia is a product of European colonialism and still a work in progress. The mix of ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indians (a much smaller group) is far from a melting pot — more a Babel of language, a hodgepodge of foods and a tense coexistence of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism.

Malay Muslims have a slim majority of the population but have dominated politics since independence from Britain in 1957. Their wide-reaching set of preferential policies — cheap loans, scholarships and government contracts among them — were put in place in large part to help them rise in a society in which much of the wealth was held by the strongly entrepreneurial Chinese, who make up about a quarter of the population.

Under the social contract of decades past, ethnic groups shared power within the governing coalition led by the United Malays National Organization, or U.M.N.O. But that informal compact is now in tatters, with a majority of Chinese Malaysian voters defecting to the opposition over resentment of what many term “second-class citizenship.”

The falling out between the governing party and Chinese Malaysians seems mutual. “It’s the first time that a Malay government thinks it can govern virtually without any minority representation,” said Bridget Welsh, an associate professor at Singapore Management University and a leading researcher on Malaysian politics who said that many people “feel traumatized” by the election and the alleged irregularities.

The May 5 election was the closest that the opposition had come to defeating the governing party. Mr. Anwar and his allies won 51 percent of the vote, compared with 47 for the governing coalition. That was not enough for Mr. Anwar to win control of Parliament because the governing coalition is strong in rural areas, where it captured many more small districts, adding up to a comfortable majority of 133 seats, with 89 for the opposition.

There are glimmers of a multicultural Malaysian identity among Mr. Anwar’s supporters. At rallies where speaker after speaker proclaims interethnic brotherhood, Chinese Malaysian women in skimpy shorts stand next to Malay Muslim women fully covered in Islamic robes. Chinese Buddhists drape themselves in the green flag of the opposition’s Islamic party.

Mr. Anwar, his supporters say, is a sort of midwife in the slow birth of Malaysia’s multiethnic identity.

“Anwar sparked people’s thinking,” said Mohammed Razif, a 30-year-old Islamic teacher who attended the rally Tuesday. “Malaysia is a multicultural country, but only recently I realized that not every race is treated equally.”

Najib Razak, the prime minister who was returned to power after the elections, announced what he described as a “unity cabinet.” It includes several new faces, including the head of the local chapter of Transparency International, an anticorruption group.

“Together we will act to bring about national reconciliation,” he said.

Yet his new cabinet is most notable for the dominance of Malays — and the near absence of ethnic Chinese. Mr. Najib angered many in the opposition when he said that his coalition’s weak showing was the result of a “Chinese tsunami,” the withdrawal of support by Chinese Malaysian voters.

The opposition said the shift in support was by voters of all ethnicities and that singling out Chinese Malaysians served only to deepen divisions.

Such anger and frustration are palpable at opposition rallies, where protesters wear black because, as their T-shirts proclaim, they see May 5 as “the day that democracy died.”

At the rally in Kuantan, leaders of the opposition took turns addressing the crowd, but when Mr. Anwar’s arrival was announced, people rose to their feet and cheered. An ethnic Chinese woman, wearing a Malaysian flag draped over her shoulders, began jumping up and down.

“At the moment, he’s the only leader who can keep the opposition together,” Selva Raja, a courier-company employee who attended the rally, said.

Mr. Anwar paced the stage, telling the crowd that the election had been stolen and that the governing party was trying to divide the country.

“Look to your left; look to your right; look in front of you and behind you,” Mr. Anwar said. “You will see Chinese, Malays and Indians. This is the new Malaysia.”

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« Reply #6445 on: May 19, 2013, 07:04 AM »

May 14, 2013

Economic Recovery, Made in Bangladesh?


A couple of years ago, I was in an industrial park in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as a textiles executive pitched me on becoming a rich T-shirt manufacturer. It was easy, he said, to teach basic sewing to even the most poorly educated farmers. If I could spend $500,000 on used sewing machines (he knew a guy), rent a concrete building with no air-conditioning and hire a few dozen peyizan (Creole for “peasants”) for around $3 per day, I could recoup my investment within two years. And if it didn’t work out, he noted, I could sell the equipment to an entrepreneur in another poor nation.

Nearly every rich country has gone through a “T-shirt phase” — an economic period in which there are a significant number of poor farmers who, rather than toil on unproductive land, accept harsh work conditions and low wages in textile and apparel factories. Britain started its T-shirt phase in the late 18th century; the United States had two — New England in the 19th century, then the South in the 20th. During the last 80 or so years, many Asian countries — first Japan, then Korea, Taiwan and China — progressed from the T-shirt phase into broader economic development. Cambodia, Vietnam, parts of India and Sri Lanka are passing through this now. But Bangladesh, where an eight-story apparel factory tragically collapsed last month, killing hundreds of workers and devastating the country, is in the midst of a particularly confusing T-shirt phase. The question is whether it will emerge into a more developed economy, like its many predecessors, or remain stuck, like Haiti.

According to the comprehensive “Ashgate Companion to the History of Textile Workers,” a study of 21 countries over 350 years, nearly every nation suffered through its T-shirt phase differently. Argentina’s brutal encomienda system literally worked indigenous laborers to death. The Hapsburg monarchy’s T-shirt phase coincided with its own collapse. Japan’s progress was slowed by a world war; Germany’s was all but destroyed by two. New England’s textile workers had it relatively good; if conditions didn’t improve, they could threaten to leave for the frontier.

All these countries, however, experienced the same broad phenomenon. Lex Heerma van Voss, an editor of the “Ashgate Companion,” told me that the T-shirt phase lasts only as long as there are large populations of farmers with few options. This is known as a “race to the bottom.” Factory owners compete by offering low prices, which are accomplished by paying workers tiny wages. Cutting costs by a few pennies per shirt may sound trivial, but mass-market brands find that even a slight increase in price destroys demand. And those pennies at wholesale become dollars at retail.

But once the factories have absorbed all these desperate farmers, they need to find a new competitive advantage. That usually involves making better products. When the T-shirt phase ends, a “race to the top” usually begins. Factories often shift to finer clothes, like dress shirts, which require skilled workers. This phase often involves the growth of unions and rising wages. It’s typically followed by one in which factory owners, forced to pay more, seek out ever more profitable lines of business. That can mean the move to low-end electronics assembly, then auto plants and maybe even airplane manufacturing. At the high end of the spectrum, you begin to see what the U.S. manufacturing economy is going through now — expensive products, like medical devices, which are often made by machines that are operated by highly skilled workers.

Bangladesh is in that moment when the race to the bottom coincides with the beginning of a race to the top. Munir Quddus, dean of the business school at Prairie View A&M University in Texas, remembers living as a teenager in Bangladesh, in the ’70s, when it was one of the poorest countries on earth. Since the arrival of textile manufacturing, in the late 1970s, the country’s poverty rate has fallen to less than 40 percent from 70. The average Bangladeshi went from living on about $1 a day to more than $5. But while there have been modest improvements in some factories (“They have air-conditioning,” Quddus says), there are still thousands of decrepit ones with minimal oversight. Quddus also points out that roughly 10 percent of Parliament seats are occupied by factory owners, and others have strong political ties. This includes Sohel Rana, the owner of the factory building that recently collapsed.

Bangladesh has become the world’s second-largest apparel exporter, growing from next to nothing to $18 billion a year. “It could be a $40 or $50 billion superpower,” Quddus told me. That will require a coordinated race to the top. The government would have to support factory inspections and safer conditions, which would inevitably raise prices — and could send wholesalers elsewhere. Cambodia responded to angry worker strikes by raising its minimum wage to $78 a month, about double of that in Bangladesh. The average Cambodian T-shirt now costs an American wholesaler around $2.50, which is 82 cents more than one coming from Bangladesh — a huge differential in the apparel trade. Mike Flanagan, a retail-sourcing consultant, told me that if Bangladesh raised its prices even 50 cents, the results would be devastating. “There won’t be four million garment-making jobs in Bangladesh,” he wrote in an e-mail. “There probably won’t be 4,000.”

Many in Bangladesh fear that if the country becomes too expensive a place to make clothes, countless sewing machines will be sent to new factories in Nigeria, Kenya or Ghana. But Vijaya Ramachandran, an economist at the Center for Global Development, who recently studied the industrial prospects of sub-Saharan nations, says this outcome is unlikely. African countries may have a steady supply of unskilled labor, but a higher cost of living should keep them from competing with Bangladesh.

Ramachandran and I tried to figure out what countries might inherit Bangladesh’s T-shirt phase. Other than Burma, a long shot, Ramachandran couldn’t think of any. For now, Bangladesh might be where this centuries-long T-shirt journey ends, which means that their race to the bottom may be rooted in a misunderstanding. The country’s manufacturers can afford to take a step or two up the value chain. Not only can they pay their workers more, treat them better and house them in safe and clean factories, but there is also a significant economic incentive to do so.

Adam Davidson is co-founder of NPR’s “Planet Money,” a podcast and blog.


May 19, 2013

Factory Owner Barred From Leaving Bangladesh


DHAKA, Bangladesh — The High Court in Bangladesh's capital asked authorities Sunday to prevent the owner of a garment factory where 112 people died in a fire last year from leaving the country, a lawyer said.

The High Court made the request in response to a petition seeking the arrest of Delwar Hossain, the owner of Tazreen Fashions Ltd. It also asked authorities to bring Hossain before the court on May 30.

No criminal charges have been brought against Hossain, although a government inquiry into the fire accused him of negligence.

Lawyer Jyotirmoy Barua said the petition was presented by three anthropologists who believe the large death toll in the Nov. 24 fire resulted from Hossain's negligence.

At least 1,800 people have died in fires or building collapses in Bangladesh's garment industry since 2005. The collapse of a factory building on April 24 killed 1,227 people in the worst tragedy in the history of the global garment industry.

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« Reply #6446 on: May 19, 2013, 07:05 AM »

May 18, 2013

So Far, the Battery Charger Is Working in Japan


A GENERATION ago, Japan was a colossus on any investing map of the world.

Envious foreigners called its export-driven economy a “miracle.” Its real estate and stock markets seemed to defy gravity, and its financiers were so flush with cash that they bought skyscrapers, golf courses and corporate empires far from Japan’s shores.

Then the bubble burst. In 1990, Japan began more than 20 years of stagnation and deflation. Invest in Japan? For most foreigners, it was wiser to avoid it. At the end of 1989, the Topix, a k a the Tokyo Stock Price index, reached 2,881. Now it’s less than half that.

It’s possible, at least, that those lost decades are finally over. Japanese markets have become turbocharged again, and are beginning to move markets worldwide. This year alone, the Topix has risen more than 22 percent in dollar terms, far exceeding the gain of the Dow Jones industrial average and nearly every other major stock market. The yen has weakened sharply, trading at more than 100 to the dollar for the first time in four years. That exchange rate should make many Japanese companies more profitable and more competitive. It may also inject inflation into the Japanese economy, encouraging consumers to spend and companies to invest.

“What is happening in Japan is revolutionary,” said Mohamed El-Erian, the chief executive of Pimco, one of the world’s largest bond managers. “Nothing they’ve done since the Second World War comes close in terms of economic experimentation,” he said.

It’s far too soon to judge whether “Abenomics” — the new policies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Haruhiko Kuroda, the Bank of Japan governor — will be successful. But they have already begun to change expectations within Japan and around the world.

Most crucially, there are signs that the policies may be breaking Japan’s debilitating spiral of deflation. In April, Mr. Kuroda declared that Japan would achieve an inflation target of 2 percent within two years — an ambitious goal that he said he would achieve by doubling the country’s monetary base.

The central bank, which has already been holding short-term interest rates near zero, is making direct purchases of long-term bonds and other securities. That program of quantitative easing is enormous, Mr. El-Erian said: “It is much bigger than the Federal Reserve’s in the United States, when you consider the size of the two economies.”

Is the new monetary policy working? It hasn’t been in place long, and no up-to-date inflation data is yet in hand. The latest government figures show that in March, Japan’s consumer price index fell 0.5 percent, annualized, a deflationary reading. But Japan’s bond prices imply that expectations for inflation two years from now have already jumped to well above 1.6 percent.

“It’s not quantifiable yet, but the psyche of the Japanese consumer may actually be changing,” said Taizo Ishida, lead manager of the Matthews Japan fund, a stock mutual fund for American investors. “Anecdotally, you can feel it,” he said. “People are beginning to put money into equity mutual funds in Japan, and consumers are buying luxury goods. But we’ll have to see where this ends up.”

MR. ABE, who faces elections in July in the upper house of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, has not unveiled all the details of his policy, which comprises “three arrows”: monetary easing, fiscal policy and structural reform. Monetary easing is the only one of the three that is substantially under way. It appears to be largely responsible for the yen’s weakening and could have a sharp impact.

Forced for many years to adjust to competitive pressures from overseas, Japanese companies said in a government survey last year that they were profitable at an exchange rate of 84 yen to the dollar, a big change from 1986, when they said they needed a rate of 175 yen to the dollar.

The current rate of more than 100 yen to the dollar will make many export-oriented companies much more profitable, said Eileen Dibb, a portfolio manager and Japan specialist at Pyramis Global Advisors, the institutional arm of Fidelity Investments. Her portfolios include Toyota and Fuji Heavy Industries, and both should benefit from the yen depreciation, she said. While the cheaper yen could heighten trade frictions, Mr. Abe says he would like Japan to join the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Asia-Pacific free trade pact supported by the Obama administration.

Ms. Dibb is bullish on the Japanese stock market, saying it is still quite reasonably priced even after its recent run. In 1988, for example, the Topix traded at a price-to-book ratio of 6.5, compared with only 1.4 today, yet current earnings are attractive and strengthening. For the first time in years, she says, the outlook is extremely positive. “It’s as though Japan has turned the lights back on,” she said.

Mr. Abe has adopted a stimulative fiscal policy. It may give the economy a short-term boost, but in a speech in April, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, warned that Japan’s fiscal policy “looks increasingly unsustainable,” saying its debt-to-G.D.P. ratio is now nearing an extraordinarily high 245 percent.

Japan has some factors in its favor, however, making it quite different from debt-burdened countries like Greece, said M. Campbell Gunn, portfolio manager of the T. Rowe Price Japan fund. Japan’s debt is overwhelmingly financed by its own citizens, he noted; it is denominated in its own currency, and Japan runs a steady current-account surplus, all of which insulate it from bond market pressure.

Furthermore, he said, Japan can reduce debt by privatizing or more efficiently operating billions of dollars worth of state-owned assets, like the nation’s ports and its postal system, which doubles as a gigantic savings bank. “Japan now is in some ways like the U.K. before Margaret Thatcher,” he said. “There is much that could be done if the government wanted to do it.”

Structural problems, however, are major impediments to economic growth. Japan’s population has been aging and declining in size, said Roger Aliaga-Díaz, a senior economist at Vanguard. Unless Japan permits enough immigration to offset this, he said, demographic constraints are likely to trim gross domestic product by 1.3 percentage points a year. “That’s a big hurdle for Japan,” he said.

Shifts like raising the retirement age and removing impediments to work force participation by women could improve matters, but improvements are likely to be slow in coming, he said.

Still, Japan’s markets have awakened, its economy may be reviving, and the flood of yen is certainly flowing into other markets around the world, Mr. El-Erian said. “This is an ambitious effort,” he said. But, he added, “Japan’s mounting debt load and difficult structural problems make this program a very high-risk and high-reward one.”

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« Reply #6447 on: May 19, 2013, 07:07 AM »

May 18, 2013

North Korea Reportedly Launches Short-Range Missiles


SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea launched three short-range missiles into the sea off its east coast on Saturday, the South Korean Defense Ministry said. The tests broke the recent relative silence from the North, but the move was much less provocative than what had been feared in the tense weeks after the country’s nuclear test in February.

Short-range tests from North Korea are fairly routine, and as it often has, the North fired the missiles away from South Korea and toward the northeast.

South Korean and American officials have worried that North Korea would cap weeks of bluster after the nuclear blast with the test of a longer-range missile that might show worrisome improvements in Pyongyang’s arsenal.

Analysts say that missile, called the Musudan, might be capable of striking as far as Guam, where American troops are stationed. The North has threatened to strike bases there if provoked.

“With the short-range missile tests, North Korea is reminding the United States and South Korea that it can escalate tensions again and follow up with more serious steps if things do not go in the direction it wants,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea analyst at Dongguk University in Seoul.

American and South Korean officials have speculated that the North’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, might be hoping to force the Obama administration and South Korea to offer major concessions to stop its threats, a move Washington and Seoul have so far been unwilling to take.

Some analysts have also suggested that a missile test might have an upside: allowing Mr. Kim to tell his people he had taken action after months of sensational warnings against Washington and Seoul, but to do so without provoking hostilities.

A spokesman for the Defense Ministry, Kim Min-seok, said that two missiles had been launched in the morning and another in the afternoon.

“We remain vigilant and prepared in case the launching of these missiles might be followed by a military provocation by the North,” Mr. Kim said.

North Korea last launched short-range missiles in February and March. Such tests do not draw as much attention as the North’s longer-range ballistic missiles, which the country was barred from launching under United Nations resolutions.

In recent months, North Korea has threatened to strike the United States with nuclear-tipped missiles, although American intelligence agencies remain divided over how close it has come to mastering such technology.

Officials in the region have been watching for North Korean missile tests since the South detected mobile launching vehicles on the North’s east coast early last month. The vehicles carried Musudan missiles, which have never been tested.

This month, American officials said North Korea had withdrawn the Musudan launching vehicles, prompting speculation that it wanted to de-escalate tensions or, perhaps, was moving the missiles out of view of spy satellites.

The tests of the shorter-range missiles followed a summit meeting on May 7 between President Obama and his South Korean counterpart, Park Geun-hye, in which the two leaders made no new overtures toward the North.

Glyn T. Davies, the top American envoy on North Korea, completed a trip last week to Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo, where he discussed how to deal with the North’s nuclear and missile threats.

Tensions on the divided peninsula appear to have decreased in recent weeks, since the United States and South Korea completed their major annual military drills. The drills had angered the North.

With the apparent easing, Washington and its allies have recently revived diplomatic efforts to try to get North Korea committed to dismantling its nuclear weapons, which the North has recently said it would never give up.

On Saturday, Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the United States National Security Council, said that North Korea “will achieve nothing by threats or provocations” — which she said would further isolate the country.

“We continue to urge the North Korean leadership to heed President Obama’s call to choose the path of peace and come into compliance with its international obligations,” she said.

Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting from Washington.
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« Reply #6448 on: May 19, 2013, 07:09 AM »

May 18, 2013

China Tries to Improve Image in a Changing Myanmar


MADAY ISLAND, Myanmar — The pipelines are finished. The oil storage tanks gleam in the tropical sun. The deep-sea port set in jade-colored waters awaits the first ships bearing crude from the Middle East.

China’s ambition of transporting energy through the Indian Ocean and across the mountains of Myanmar seems close to fulfillment. Natural gas is scheduled to start flowing in July from wells deep in the Bay of Bengal through a 500-mile pipeline. Oil will run in a parallel pipe at the end of the year.

But for China, the cost of the pipelines has been far greater than the several billion dollars that the China National Petroleum Corporation, China’s energy giant, has spent on construction. With its projects challenged more than ever by activists energized by Myanmar’s democratic opening, China has been trying to repair its tarnished reputation among residents here, and in the country at large.

Farmers and fishermen in this remote coastal region — who made little headway while objecting to lost lands and diminished catches under Myanmar’s repressive military junta — are winning some concessions. In central Myanmar, monks have joined with ancestral landholders to stop a Chinese-led conglomerate from leveling a fabled mountain embedded with copper.

And last week, in a new ominous sign for the Chinese, guerrillas of the Shan State Army attacked a compound belonging to the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, a partner with the Chinese oil company, not far from the pipeline and close to China’s border.

In response to the broad opposition, Beijing has ordered secretive state-owned Chinese companies to do something they have rarely done before: publicly embrace Western-style corporate social responsibility practices and act humbly toward the people who live near their vaunted projects.

The grass-roots protests against Chinese projects disturb Beijing because they come amid a scramble for influence in Myanmar between China and the United States.

Official visits give a glimpse of the diplomatic jockeying. President Thein Sein of Myanmar, who heads the quasi-civilian government, will visit the White House on Monday in what will be the first encounter in Washington between an American president and a leader of the country formerly known as Burma, since 1966.

A member of the military junta that China backed for decades, Mr. Thein Sein met President Obama in November during what was the first visit by a sitting American president to Myanmar. Mr. Thein Sein has visited China twice in the past six months. The leader of the opposition, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was at the White House earlier this year and is expected in Beijing soon.

“It is in China’s self interest to think about the impact of their investments,” said Thant Myint-U, a Myanmar historian and author of “Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia.” “In the long term, it is difficult to see a Myanmar where China is not important. But there is a chance that China will no longer be the dominant actor in Myanmar, and that is worrying for some people in China.”

That concern has prompted Chinese officials, worried about losing Myanmar to the Americans, to push back. When a veteran Chinese diplomat, Wang Yingfan, was appointed several months ago as special envoy to Myanmar, he immediately flew there and spoke about the social obligations of Chinese state-run corporations.

And Gao Mingbo, the head of the political section at the Chinese Embassy in Yangon, said: “The companies must retain the support of the local communities. That has been the consistent message of the embassy: to be open, to be engaged.”

He created the embassy’s Facebook page; although Facebook is blocked in China, it is a tool that Chinese officials in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital and main city, are using to reach citizens.

“If you don’t walk the walk and just talk the talk, you won’t win the hearts and minds of the local people,” Mr. Gao said.

Whether China’s outreach efforts will quell anti-China protests is an open question.

After years in exile in Thailand, the leadership of activist organizations like the Shwe Gas Movement has now regrouped at home, its ground forces well trained in tactics of persuasion and protest. The group has pledged to continue to press for higher compensation for land taken for the pipelines, and to push for better-paying jobs along the pipelines’ route. These are demands similar to those made by nongovernmental groups in China but given short shrift by Chinese authorities.

Hundreds of miles east of the pipeline, the Wanbao Mining Corporation, a subsidiary of China’s state-owned arms maker, Norinco, is collaborating with Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. to build a vast new pit for the mining of copper, a project that calls for the acquisition of the lands of 26 villages at the base of Letpadaung mountain.

After violent protests against the mine last November, during which human rights groups say the police used white phosphorous smoke grenades, the government established an inquiry led by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi.

To the relief of Wanbao, the inquiry ruled that the company could continue to expand, and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, anxious not to alienate China, urged the farmers to cooperate with the project. Her inquiry ordered the company to pay market prices for farmers’ land, and compensation for three years of crops.

The report said that the company must conduct an environmental impact study but mentioned nothing about enforcing the results.

Passions are high among the farmers near the mine, many of whom have been trained by former student activists known as the 88 Generation Group. At the village of Wat Mie, a 27-year-old woman, San San Hla, recently sat on the dusty orange earth sorting watercress leaves, plucking the good ones and discarding the others in preparation for selling at the market.

In the distance, the tin roofs of new houses built by the mining company for farmers who agreed to sell their land glinted in the setting sun. Ms. Hla said there was no way she could be persuaded to move into the company-provided compound.

“I’m not afraid of the mining company,” said Ms. Hla, who was arrested during the protest last year. “I won’t move, because I like this farming life.” She will ignore Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s pleas for cooperation with the Chinese company, she said.

Immediately after the release of the inquiry’s results, Wanbao appointed a public relations officer, Aung Zawlin, who proudly showed visitors his PowerPoint presentation outlining plans for new schools, libraries and upgraded roads around the mine.

China National Petroleum Corporation’s public relations team recently released a 42-page document outlining community outreach, which the company says includes $20 million worth of schools, clinics and other projects. Many of the company structures appear sturdier than the run-down government facilities in the villages along the pipeline. But villagers complain of no money for teachers.

Leading the opposition to the petroleum corporation is Wong Aung, the international coordinator of the Shwe Gas Movement, who was born in Rakhine State, an area that encompasses Maday Island, where the gas and oil pipelines begin their journey. “The exiles were encouraged to come back to put more pressure on the Chinese companies,” said Mr. Wong, who is running workshops for villagers on how to organize.

The fact that the pipeline will provide power to Yunnan Province, in the far southwest of China, but leave Rakhine still largely in the dark galls the villagers, who use wood for cooking and candles for light.

As the finishing touches were being made to the oil storage tanks, several hundred men and women from tiny Piyin Village in the center of Maday Island protested last month, demanding additional compensation for their lands.

The company agreed to more money for land, new roads and extra electricity.

Still, the resentment remains. Maung Maung Gyi, 52, a physics teacher in nearby Kyaukphyu, said: “The Chinese come here for their own benefit and then leave us with only small things.”

Wai Moe contributed reporting.

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« Reply #6449 on: May 19, 2013, 07:11 AM »

May 18, 2013

On Hong Kong Shelves, Illicit Dirt on China’s Elite


HONG KONG — Visitors from mainland China climb the narrow stairs to a cramped room here filled with forbidden delights: shelves of scandal-packed exposés about their Communist Party masters.

The People’s Recreation Community bookstore and several others on Hong Kong’s teeming shopping streets specialize in selling books and magazines banned by the Chinese government, mostly for their luridly damning accounts of party leaders, past and present. And at a time when many Chinese citizens smolder with distrust of their leaders, business is thriving.

“We come here to buy books that we can’t read in China,” said Huang Tao, a salesman of nutritional supplements from southeast China, who picked out a muckraking volume recently about corruption among senior party leaders. “There are so many things that we’ve been deceived over,” he said, waving toward books on the devastating famine of the late 1950s and early 1960s, an episode that official histories have muffled in euphemisms. “We can’t learn the truth, so black becomes white and white becomes black.”

Such publications smuggle corrosive facts and rumors into the bloodstream of Chinese political life. The contraband flow is reinforced by a flow of online publications and downloadable pirate copies. The trade shows the thirst for information in a society gripped by censorship, and the difficulties that party authorities face in trying to stifle that thirst, especially when, people in the business say, officials are among the avid readers of banned books.

“These books are playing a big role in raising the consciousness of the Chinese people,” said a Beijing journalist who visits Hong Kong several times a year and buys armloads of exposés. He asked that his name not be used, fearing punishment. “It’s impossible to stop everything getting through.”

They contain accounts of every conceivable scandal of the past. Then there are the gloomy prophecies about China’s future. One book foretells a war with Japan in 2014, another a toppling of the current leadership that same year. The strongest seller among these feverish jeremiads, “2014: The Great Collapse,” says the fall of the Communist Party is assured, citing what it says are secret party documents. “This is not gossip or soothsaying,” the preface declares.

“Some people take these books very seriously. I had a phone call just yesterday for 20 copies of this book. He seemed to be a Chinese businessman,” said Paul Tang, the proprietor of the store, which in Chinese goes by the more ironic name of the People’s Commune bookstore.

“Right now, more than 90 percent of our sales come from mainland visitors,” said Mr. Tang, 38, who formerly worked for fast food chains. He and three partners opened the store in 2002 and two years later shifted its focus to banned books for visitors from mainland China. “The most frequently asked question is not about the content of books,” Mr. Tang said. “It’s how they can get the books back to China.”

That game of hide and seek takes place daily, as Chinese travelers return from Hong Kong and other destinations, sometimes with contraband. Customs officers are sometimes instructed to stop particular titles, people in the trade say, but often anything with a political edge that is discovered is scrutinized, and decisions on what to confiscate are made on the fly.

Zhou Qicai, a businessman from northeast China, was lugging a suitcase stuffed with 400 copies of a Chinese-language magazine from Hong Kong into China in March when a customs officer inspected his luggage. The magazine, Boxun, had a report about court officials in his hometown who are suspected of being corrupt that he wanted to share with friends.

“He took one look at the magazines and said, ‘These are reactionary publications, they’re illegal,’ ” Mr. Zhou said. The officer seized the magazines, took down his personal details and warned him not to smuggle again. “That didn’t matter,” Mr. Zhou said. “I came back and tried again a couple of days later and brought in 93 copies without a problem.”

A former British colony, Hong Kong became a self-administered region of China in 1997, and despite pressures from Beijing, remains free of state censorship. In 2012, Hong Kong hosted 34.9 million visits by Chinese nationals, many on shopping sprees.

Chinese customs officials often confiscate publications about forbidden themes. But prosecutions of caught travelers are virtually unheard-of these days, because the government would have difficulty explaining its secretive censorship practices, even before tame, party-run courts, said Bao Pu, the head of New Century Press, a Hong Kong publisher of many books by ousted and retired Chinese officials.

“They can never openly justify their rules, because there’s no public list of banned books and these people make their own arbitrary decisions,” said Mr. Bao, the son of a purged Chinese official. “There would simply be too many people to prosecute; there would be a backlash.”

The illicit flow includes memoirs and studies of events and people that the Communist Party would rather forget, like the Great Leap famine and brutal Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, and the upheavals that culminated in the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Former officials whose memoirs cannot be published in China, among them the late ousted party leader, Zhao Ziyang, often turn to Hong Kong for an outlet.

Then there are the magazines and books offering salacious accounts of party officials’ private lives. Few members of China’s political elite escape having a book, or at least a chapter, devoted to their suspected plots, mistresses or ill-gotten fortunes.

Some of the hastily written potboilers appear fanciful, even by the generous standards that China has recently set, with a real-life scandal involving a Politburo member, Bo Xilai, who fell from power after his wife, Gu Kailai, was arrested on charges of murdering a British businessman.

“It’s like when your National Enquirer becomes your only form of political discussion,” said Geremie Barmé, a professor at the Australian National University in Canberra who studies Chinese culture and politics. “This is a tragedy that the party has generated for itself. Its processes are all cloaked from the public.”

Yet many readers of banned publications from Hong Kong are themselves Chinese officials, often eager for gossip that can help them navigate treacherous political shoals. The books and magazines are surviving the onslaught of online material in part because so many of their readers are officials who fear using the Internet to look at forbidden material or lack the skill to thwart censorship, said Mr. Tang.

“You don’t have to read the People’s Daily, because that won’t tell you what’s really going on, but you have to read these,” said Ho Pin, an exiled Chinese journalist who runs Mirror Books, a company based in New York that publishes muckraking books and magazines in Chinese. Chinese officials visiting Hong Kong often buy them as gifts for fellow officials, he said. “In the past, you’d give a mayor a bottle of liquor. But that’s nothing these days, and so is a carton of cigarettes,” Mr. Ho said. “But if you give him one of our books or magazines, he’ll be very happy.”

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