Monday, December 24, 2007

Why Thailand's king is so revered - BBC

Why Thailand's king is so revered
By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

Thais say the king exhibits perfect Buddhist qualities
Not much can bring the life of the noisy, traffic-clogged heart of Bangkok to a halt.

But on Wednesday the streets were hushed, the cars and buses banished.

All you could hear were speakers playing the royal anthem, and thousands of flags fluttering in the breeze, held by people of all ages.

Most were dressed in yellow and had waited for hours for a glimpse of a stiff and stern-faced old man passing in a motorcade, on his way to the gilded halls and temples of Bangkok's Grand Palace.

And as it passed they shouted "Song Phra Charoen", "Long Live Your Majesty". Some had tears in their eyes.

What explains this extraordinary bond between people and monarch?

King Bhumibol Adulyadej is accorded an almost divine reverence, with titles like Phra Chao Yu Hua (Lord Upon our Heads) or Chao Chiwit (Lord of Life).

People prostrate themselves on the ground in his presence. Yet there is genuine affection too, and it goes both ways.

Thais talk of their love for him as though he were a cherished member of the family.

In his speeches to the nation he likes to joke and tease them.

Public relations

Pink clothing sales rocketed when the king left hospital in a pink suit

Earlier in his reign when he was younger and travelled a lot, he clearly enjoyed meeting and mixing with people from the poorest rural communities.

People often refer to his long life of service to the nation, to his experiments with agriculture and irrigation, many of them carried out on the grounds of his palace in Bangkok.

The formidable public relations machine which manages the monarchy's image makes much of these experiments, as it does of the king's other talents as a jazz musician and sailor.

But the real measure of these achievements is impossible to know in a country where all criticism of the monarchy is curtailed by the draconian lese majeste law (offence against the dignity of the monarch), and only lavish praise for the royal family can be published.

The reverence for the king seems rooted in something less worldly.

Time after time when Thais are asked about the virtues of King Bhumibol they refer to his proper adherence to the principles of "Dhamma", Buddhist teachings and the Buddhist concept of righteousness.

Our political system has been unstable all the time. So whenever there is a political crisis people expect the King to solve the problem

Prof Suchit Bunbongkarn

It is not just his practical deeds they are looking at, but his manner; his modesty, his reserve, his gentleness, and his apparent detachment from the world - qualities he has worked hard to perfect and project.

He is as much a spiritual leader as a worldly one.

During his six decades on the throne Thailand has undergone changes as wrenching as in any other country.

Per capita income has gone up 40-fold. An almost entirely agrarian society has become a substantially urban one. The economy has been swept along by the forces of globalisation.

Political upheaval

There have been other changes as well.

The king's endorsement of the coup was essential to its success

This king has reigned through 17 military coups and 26 prime ministers. The gap between rich and poor has widened, with conspicuous consumption and conspicuous corruption accepted as part of everyday life.

There has been a corresponding decline in traditional community and family values.

Amid this whirlwind, the king has remained a reassuring anchor, a man who embodies Thailand's history but who has also come to embody integrity and detachment from the squalid realities of day-to-day politics and business.

He has lived the myth of the virtuous monarch so well that almost the entire population believes in it and takes comfort from it.

And it gives him a unique moral authority. When he speaks, people listen.

They may, and often do fail to act on his advice. But he has been able to use that authority to settle a number of political crises.

I want to be making suits for him when he is 90 years old, when he is 100 - longer even."

Sompop Louilarpprasert
King Bhumibol's tailor

"If the country were in good shape politically, then the role of the constitutional monarch is not very difficult," explains Suchit Bunbongkarn, professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University.

"But in the case of Thailand it is not easy because our political system has been unstable all the time. So whenever there is a political crisis people expect the king to solve the problem."

Former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun describes King Bhumibol's authority as "reserve power" that, because it has been used judiciously and sparingly, has been decisive in maintaining the country's stability.

This power, he says, has been accumulated through a life of dedication to his job. It cannot, he points out, be inherited or passed on.

Fears and superstition

There is quiet concern about the abilities of the heir to the throne

That explains the acute anxiety now over the king's fragile health. Few imagine that any future monarch can match this one.

There are many reservations about the capabilities of his presumed heir, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, although these cannot be expressed publicly because of the lese majeste laws.

The succession itself is not completely clear, with the constitution leaving considerable powers to designate an heir to the 19-member Privy Council of senior advisors to the king.

The opacity that has preserved the mystique of monarchy in Thailand makes it impossible to discuss, let alone plan for the succession.

So Thais prefer not to think about it.

When I saw his tailor, Sompop Louilarpprasert, and asked him about the king's recent spell in hospital, he brushed it aside.

"I want to be making suits for him when he is 90 years old, when he is 100 - longer even."

It was Sompop who made the dazzling pink blazer the king wore when he came out of hospital.

Within hours, pink shirts were been sold in their thousands across the country, and there are days when some streets are a sea of pink.

In this superstitious country they now associate pink with the king's recovery. It will bring him good fortune, they say.

By wearing it they are literally willing him to stay alive for them.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Vatican hails Blair Church switch

Vatican hails Blair Church switch

Tony Blair visited Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in June
The Vatican has welcomed Tony Blair's decision to become a Roman Catholic.
A spokesman said such an "authoritative personality" choosing to join the Catholic Church "could only give rise to joy and respect".

The ex-PM was received into the Church by the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor.

It comes as research by Christian Research suggests Catholic churchgoers now outnumber Anglicans for the first time since the Reformation in the UK.

Ex-Tory minister Ann Widdecombe - herself a Catholic convert - said Mr Blair's voting record as an MP had often "gone against Church teaching".

Mr Blair's wife and children are already Catholic and there had been speculation he would convert after leaving office.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, who led the service to welcome Mr Blair, said he was "very glad" to do so.

'Joyful moment'

Last year, Mr Blair, who is now a Middle East peace envoy, said he had prayed to God when deciding whether or not to send UK troops into Iraq.

And one of Mr Blair's final official trips while prime minister was a visit to the Vatican in June where he met Pope Benedict XVI.

Mr Blair was received into full communion with the Catholic Church during Mass at Archbishop's House, Westminster, on Friday.

The choice of joining the Catholic church made by such an authoritative personality can only arouse joy and respect

Federico Lombardi
Vatican spokesman

Cardinal Murphy O'Connor, who is the head of Catholics in England and Wales, said he was "very glad" to welcome Mr Blair into the church.

"My prayers are with him, his wife and family at this joyful moment in their journey of faith together," he said.

Chief Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the Catholic church in Rome shared Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor's "satisfaction".

"The choice of joining the Catholic church made by such an authoritative personality can only arouse joy and respect," Fr Lombardi added.

'Private matter'

BBC correspondent David Willey said it had been no secret in Rome that Mr Blair had been taking instruction from a Catholic priest as a prelude to conversion.

He added that the Pope was informed of Mr Blair's intentions prior to his visit to the Vatican in June 2007, shortly before he left office.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, leader of the Anglican church, wished the former prime minister well in his spiritual journey.

He said: "Tony Blair has my prayers and good wishes as he takes this step in his Christian pilgrimage."

If you look at Tony Blair's voting record in the House of Commons, he's gone against church teaching on more than one occasion

Ann Widdecombe

Downing Street confirmed the former prime minister had converted but said it was a private matter and it would not comment further.

But Miss Widdecombe, who became a Catholic in 1993, told the BBC Mr Blair's move raised some questions.

"If you look at Tony Blair's voting record in the House of Commons, he's gone against Church teaching on more than one occasion. On things, for example, like abortion," she said.

"My question would be, 'has he changed his mind on that?'"

Eastern Europeans

There has never been a Roman Catholic prime minister of Britain, although there is no constitutional barrier to such a move.

However, it had in the past been suggested that Mr Blair would wait until after leaving office, to avoid possible clashes such as over his role in appointing Church of England bishops.

A study by the organisation Christian Research has found Church of England services are no longer Britain's most popular form of worship and have been overtaken by Catholic mass.

The numbers have swelled due to the large number of EU nationals from Eastern Europe who have immigrated to the UK in recent years, it says.

Estimates for church attendances in 2006, based on previous years' figures, reveal 861,800 Catholics attended services every Sunday compared with 852,500 Anglican worshippers.

FBI planned mass arrests in 1950

FBI planned mass arrests in 1950

The FBI boss wanted suspects held in military and federal prisons
Former FBI director J Edgar Hoover had a plan to arrest 12,000 Americans he deemed a possible threat to national security, declassified papers reveal.
The FBI chief sent his proposal to US President Harry Truman just after the start of the Korean War in 1950, The New York Times newspaper reports.

He asked the president to declare the mass arrest necessary to counter "treason, espionage and sabotage".

There is no evidence any part of the plan was ever approved.

Mr Hoover wanted the president to suspend the centuries-old legal right of habeas corpus, which protects individuals against unlawful arrest.

The FBI director planned to detain the suspects - whose list of names he had been compiling for years - in US military and federal prisons.

"The index now contains approximately 12,000 individuals, of which approximately 97% are citizens of the United States," wrote Mr Hoover, in the now declassified document.

The New York Times gave no details about the identities of those targeted.

The US Department of State declassified the plan, along with other Cold War-era documents from 1950-55 this week.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Dec 22, 2007 - 800 year old ship salvaged

Dec 22, 2007
Beijing salvages ship that sank 800 years ago

BEIJING - GOVERNMENT salvagers raised a merchant boat yesterday that sank some 800 years ago off the south China coast loaded with exquisite porcelain.
The salvage operation, which took place one day earlier than planned, kicked off at 9am when a huge crane began lifting a steel basket containing the 30m-long vessel, dubbed the Nanhai No. 1, or South China Sea No. 1.

Two hours later, the wooden wreck, which was some 30m below water, breached the surface and was moved onto a waiting barge.

To protect the relics and ship, archaeologists launched a 150 million yuan (S$29 million) operation in early May to wrap the wreck with its surrounding silt intact in a huge steel basket as large as a basketball court and as tall as a three-storey building.

The steel basket, together with the vessel, weighed more than 3,000 tonnes.

'Submerged in the sea, the boat has become very fragile,' said Mr Wu Jiancheng, head of the world's first project of salvaging a sunken historical ship in one complete piece with its cargo and silt.

Local officials originally planned to hoist the boat today but changed their minds due to favourable weather conditions yesterday.

The boat will be placed in a glass pool at a specially built museum, named the 'crystal palace', where the water temperature, pressure and other environmental conditions are the same as where the ship was on the sea bed.

Discovered in 1987 off the coast near Yangjiang city, in southern China's Guangdong province, the vessel dates from the early Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279).


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Khmer Rouge trial: A man in the monster

Khmer Rouge trial: A man in the monster
By Putsata Reang
Dec 12 2007

PHNOM PENH - THE appearance of the first former Khmer Rouge leader in a special hybrid court established in Cambodia to bring that movement's surviving leaders to justice provoked a question on which the tribunal's integrity will depend: Should an accused mass murderer be released from prison pending his trial?
Kaing Guek Eav, commonly known as 'Duch', presided over the deaths of more than 14,000 people at S-21, a former Phnom Penh high school turned into a torture centre. He is one of five former senior Khmer Rouge leaders who will be made to answer for their roles during Pol Pot's genocide, in which an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died. Until recently, Duch was the only one imprisoned, after being exposed in 1999.

The court - with its improbable blend of Cambodian and foreign judges and attorneys as well as laws - is meant to be a model for judicial reform and independent justice in a country where impunity has long been the rule.

The five red-robed judges who preside over the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (the tribunal's official name) are the final arbiters of Duch's detention, but the question they are now considering belongs as much to the people of Cambodia as it does to the court. Should accused mass murderers be afforded the same rights as everyone else?

One of my aunts has a strong opinion on the matter. Khmer Rouge soldiers beat her father to death, and she remembers being shot at for sport by communist cadres as she and dozens of other peasants scuttled up a mountainside. She now lives one block from the former S-21. 'Human rights are for humans,' she said emphatically when I asked her about Duch's case. 'He is a monster.'

I once believed that too. When I first visited Duch's house of horrors in 1990, I was 15 and full of wonder about the country where I was born but had never lived. My family escaped the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975, the day they claimed victory. When my mother and I journeyed home to reunite with relatives who had survived the genocide, S-21 (also known as Tuol Sleng) was among our first stops.

By then, the torture facility had been turned into a museum. I remember feeling claustrophobic as I walked down its narrow halls and into classrooms turned into crude cellblocks. The air was stale but heavy with the stench of death in interrogation chambers, barren save for a single bed frame, shackles and a chair. Flecks of dried blood peeled up from the floor.

This was a place where fingernails of countless victims were ripped out, where others were strung upside down and dunked in barrels of water, where many were brutalised with metal prongs and batons. This was a place of utter brokenness. This was Duch's place.

Mostly, I remember the hundreds of black-and-white mug shots of prisoners and victims that covered every inch of the walls - a ghastly montage of human suffering that haunts me to this day. I couldn't help but think: This was somebody's daughter, somebody's son. This was somebody's mother or sister or brother.

Back then, I thought: What monster could do such things?

Now, that monster was sitting in a courtroom, looking scared and meek as prosecutors catalogued his alleged war crimes. Sitting in the packed auditorium where snatches of Duch's face flash by on a movie screen, I'm struck by what I see: a face that belongs to someone. This alleged perpetrator of unspeakable misdeeds is, like his victims, someone's son, someone's brother, someone's father.

This might have been only a fleeting thought had I not seen Duch's family members, who attended the hearings. Hang Seav Heang, 28, described the defendant as a gentle man, a good father. One of his sisters said he was a caring, protective brother, and that she would always love him.

Outside the courtroom and in the community, most of the Khmers I talked to were, like my aunt, quick to categorise Duch as something other than human. Duch must have thought much the same thing about his victims when he ordered them to their deaths. When we start to see each other as less than human, we respond with inhuman acts.

It is this narrow, black-and-white view of humanity that has perpetuated a cycle of violence in Cambodia, where raging mobs beat to death robbery suspects and young mistresses suffer acid attacks by jealous wives. To say that Duch is a monster who does not deserve rights ignores the grey area between good and evil, between man and monster, where anything is possible.

This trial is about that grey area, about that place in us all where morality decays and evil takes root and grows, the way mould prevails, given the right conditions. Each of us carries this potential for rot.

There is no dispute that Duch violated the rights of thousands of Khmers. But if the basic premise of these trials is to uphold human rights, then we are obliged to extend that same principle to Duch. What does it say to the country and the world if a court convened to mete out justice flouts the law? Isn't lawlessness the plague we are finally trying to eradicate in Cambodia?

The judges have offered no indication of when they will make a decision. And no one would blame them for taking their time to consider their options. This is, after all, the court's first test of fairness before the trials of Duch and four of Pol Pot's other henchmen begin next year.

We all want justice, but that justice should not come at the cost of our humanity.

The writer is a fellow of The Asia Society.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/The Asia Society

Friday, December 7, 2007

Hindu gods get summons from court - BBC

Hindu gods get summons from court
7 Dec 2007
By Amarnath Tewary

A judge in India has summoned two Hindu gods, Ram and Hanuman, to help resolve a property dispute.
Judge Sunil Kumar Singh in the eastern state of Jharkhand has issued adverts in newspapers asking the gods to "appear before the court personally".

The gods have been asked to appear before the court on Tuesday, after the judge said that letters addressed to them had gone unanswered.

Ram and Hanuman are among the most popular Indian Hindu gods.

Judge Singh presides in a "fast track" court - designed to resolve disputes quickly - in the city of Dhanbad.

The dispute is now 20 years old and revolves around the ownership of a 1.4 acre plot of land housing two temples.

You failed to appear in the court despite notices sent by a peon and post

Judge Sunil Kumar Singh in letter to Lord Ram and Hanuman

The deities of Ram and Hanuman, the monkey god, are worshipped at the two temples on the land.

Temple priest Manmohan Pathak claims the land belongs to him. Locals say it belongs to the two deities.

The two sides first went to court in 1987.

A few years ago, the dispute was settled in favour of the locals. Then Mr Pathak challenged the verdict in a fast track court.


Judge Singh sent out two notices to the deities, but they were returned as the addresses were found to be "incomplete".

Local say the temple belongs to the gods Pic: Mahadeo Sen
This prompted him to put out adverts in local newspapers summoning the gods.

"You failed to appear in court despite notices sent by a peon and later through registered post. You are herby directed to appear before the court personally", Judge Singh's notice said.

The two Hindu gods have been summoned as the defence claimed that they were owners of the disputed land.

"Since the land has been donated to the gods, it is necessary to make them a party to the case," local lawyer Bijan Rawani said.

Mr Pathak said the land was given to his grandfather by a former local king.