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  Nation 2  


 

 

Qantas says fleet safe after ‘unrelated’ mid-air incidents

SYDNEY (AFP) - Dramatic mid-air engine failures that struck two Qantas aircraft in as many days are unrelated, the airline said yesterday, adding it was confident of the safety of the planes it is flying.
Qantas grounded its A380 superjumbos on Thursday after one carrying 466 passengers and crew was forced to return to Singapore after an engine exploded during ascent, raining debris onto an Indonesian island.
The 90-year-old airline suffered a second engine failure the following day when a Sydney-bound Boeing 747-400 jumbo carrying 412 passengers and 19 crew experienced problems shortly after take-off from Singapore.
Unlike the A380 engine blast -- which sent debris flying, causing damage to the plane’s wing -- the second incident was a “contained engine failure”, Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said.
“We are not concerned about our 747 fleet,” he added. “Those engines have a long life... We’ve seen inflight shutdowns take place before... It’s...not a safety issue.”
He pointed to mechanical failure being the source of the problem, which came six minutes into the flight, causing the engine to emit sparks and smoke, frightening passengers who likened the explosion to fireworks.
Those onboard have reported hearing an explosion and seeing flames on one of the engines minutes after takeoff.
“It was pretty scary,” said Swedish tourist Lisa Ogden. “An engine on the wing exploded. It looked like fireworks, a pretty big one,” she told reporters at the airport.
“The plane jumped a bit and the cabin crew were yelling ‘crisis’ and they told everyone to sit down.
“Some were screaming, one or two got up. It felt like forever but it was one minute then the fire was out,” she added.
Asked whether he thought the 747 had been sabotaged, Joyce said: “We do not believe this is sabotage. It looks like a mechanical failure of the engine”.
On Friday, Joyce said an engine design fault might have caused the mid-air emergency involving one of the carrier’s Airbus A380 superjumbos.
Both planes landed safely in Singapore, with no injuries to any onboard.
Qantas has said it will investigate both incidents, and that engine checks were still being carried out on the airline’s six A380s, which Joyce said he hoped to have flying again “within days”.
The airline has been using other aircraft to pick up passengers booked onto A380s -- the world’s biggest passenger jets -- but the problems have delayed hundreds of passengers in Los Angeles, London and Australia.
The engine failures, which are front page news in Australia, were earlier described as “unrelated incidents” by Qantas spokeswoman Olivia Wirth.
Wirth said while both aircraft operated on Rolls Royce manufactured engines, the planes involved had different models and there was no apparent connection.
The spokeswoman said travellers should feel “absolutely safe” on Qantas, despite the recent problems.
“Safety is at the heart of our business, we take these issues very, very seriously,” Wirth told Channel Nine.
But the latest incidents come after a Qantas Boeing 747 engine failed on a flight from San Francisco to Sydney in late August, blowing a hole in the engine casing and forcing an emergency landing.
Australian investigators reported last month that one of the four engines on that plane, which was carrying 213 passengers and 18 crew, ruptured through the left and right sides of its turbine case, ejecting debris which hit the wing.
The bureau said its investigation into the flight, which landed safely at San Francisco International Airport with no reports of injuries after the failed engine was shut down, was continuing.
Qantas, known as the ‘Flying Kangaroo’ has never had a fatal jetliner crash in 90 years. Celebrations to mark its birthday began in Sydney Saturday.

 

ARGOMULYO, Indonesia (AFP) - Rescuers picked through the rubble of destroyed homes yesterday as officials prepared for a mass burial of people killed by the violent eruption of Indonesia’s most active volcano.
Ash, deadly heat clouds and molten debris gushed from the mouth of Mount Merapi and shot high into the sky, triggering chaos on the roads as people fled their homes.
The death toll from Friday’s eruption -- its most violent in more than a century -- stood at 77.
The latest deaths bring the overall toll to 120 since the volcano started erupting on Java island on October 26, a day after a tsunami killed more than 400 people in a remote area off Sumatra island.
The mountain spewed ash over a vast area including the Central Java provincial capital of Yogyakarta, about 28km to the south, and continued erupting yesterday, officials said.
Many of the dead were from Argomulyo village, 18km from the crater, according to emergency response officials and witnesses, with several children under the age of 10 killed.
Dozens from the village were to be buried in a mass grave in Yogyakarta, disaster management spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said Saturday.
“We will bury them in a place where it’s safe. There’s no way we will have the burial in their village, as the village is within the 20-km danger zone,” he said.
Rescuer Utha told AFP as he delivered 10 bodies to the hospital, “I found three bodies: a child, mother and father, still in their bed. They must have been sleeping when the hot ash struck their house.
“We also found a dead man with a phone still in his hand.”
At least 156 people were injured in the latest eruption, Nugroho said, adding “most suffered burn injuries”.
The ranks of evacuees increased to more than 166,000 people after officials widened the danger zone from 15 to 20km early on Friday. Everyone living in the area was ordered to evacuate their homes immediately.
Kepuharjo village chief Heri Suprapto, who was evacuated 12 days ago with his wife and four of his children, said he was worried for the safety of people from his village.
“The people from my village are scattered in various temporary shelters. I cannot monitor them all the time,” he said.
“We are worried here in shelters. All we do is just wait for aid,” Suprapto said, adding it was hard to find suitable milk for his two-year old daughter.
“I can only pray to God. I pray for the mountain to stop erupting,” he said.
Merapi continued to belch hot ash and gas, government volcanologist Surono said yesterday.
“The eruption from Merapi has not stopped since November 3, although its intensity has gone down and up again,” he said. But he added there was no plan to expand the danger zone beyond 20 kilometres.
The international airport at Yogyakarta was closed as ash clouds billowed from the 2,914-metre mountain to the altitude of cruising jetliners. It would stay closed until today, said general manager Agus Andriyanto.
“We have to keep the airport closed until 6:00 am tomorrow (2200 GMT Saturday). We’ll have an evaluation again as there is a chance we may keep it closed,” he said.
Merapi killed around 1,300 people in 1930 but experts say the current eruptions are its biggest convulsions since 1872.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced the deployment of an army brigade to help with relief and reconstruction in central Java, as the country struggles to cope with dual natural disasters.
A tsunami smashed into villages on the remote Mentawai island chain following a 7.7-magnitude earthquake off the coast on October 25, killing 428 people and leaving 15,000 homeless.
“The military is preparing to deploy one brigade to handle disaster management,” he told a press conference.
He said the government would buy the cattle that residents had been forced to leave behind near the volcano, after locals resisted evacuation because the livestock is their main source of income.
“We will purchase their livestock at the proper prices,” he said.
The Indonesian archipelago has dozens of active volcanoes and straddles major tectonic fault lines known as the “ring of fire” from the Indian to the Pacific oceans.
 
‘Enterprise visa’ plan

LONDON: Prime Mminister David Cameron will promise to set up an “enterprise visa”, allowing more UK businesses to be set up by foreigners.
The prime minister will say overseas entrepreneurs with a “great business idea” and “serious investment” behind them will be eligible.
Cameron is also due to announce copyright law will change to attract more hi-tech companies to the UK.
He has already indicated employees of multinational firms will be exempt from the government’s immigration cap.
The cap - which was a key part of the Conservatives’ election manifesto - is aimed at cutting net immigration from its current level of 196,000 a year to “tens of thousands”.
A temporary limit of 24,100 a year will be replaced by permanent measures from April 2011.
Cameron will tell a business audience in east London on Thursday: “I can announce today that we will create a new entrepreneur visa. These entrepreneur visas will mean that if you have a great business idea, and you receive serious investment from a leading investor, you are welcome to set up your business in our country.”
He will add: “The second new announcement I can make today is to do with intellectual property. The founders of Google have said they could never have started their company in Britain.
“The service they provide depends on taking a snapshot of all the content on the internet at any one time and they feel our copyright system is not as friendly to this sort of innovation as it is in the United States. (BBC NEWS)

Obama kicks off Asia tour with Mumbai
attacks tribute

MUMBAI (AFP) - US President Barack Obama began a trade-focussed visit to India yesterday in Mumbai with a sombre tribute to the victims of the 2008 attacks on the city by extremists.
India’s financial hub is Obama’s first stop on a four-nation Asia tour which is expected to be heavily weighted towards strengthening ties with fast-growing economies in the thriving region.
The trip comes just days after his Democratic Party’s drubbing in mid-term elections in which the state of the US economy was a primary source of voter dissatisfaction.
The visit to Mumbai will see Obama and his wife Michelle become the most high-profile guests to stay at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel since the attacks two years ago by 10 militants that claimed 166 lives.
Obama is expected to meet survivors and pay tribute to those who died at a permanent memorial erected at the luxury seafront hotel, which was the focus of the militant assault and where 31 people, including 12 members of staff, were killed.
Security is tight for the visit, with roads closed, a ban enforced on sea traffic off the coast, and the plaza near the Taj and Gateway of India monument sealed off.
Some 5,000 security personnel, including US Secret Service, Indian intelligence officials and elite commandos have been deployed around the venues for the presidential visit in south Mumbai.
At the time of the attacks -- likened by some in India to those in the US on September 11, 2001 -- the then president-elect Obama said they demonstrated “the grave and urgent threat of terrorism”.
He also called for closer ties with India and other countries to root out and destroy extremist networks.
US officials now say that cooperation with India on counter-terrorism is at its highest-ever level, despite India’s misgivings about continued US support for its longstanding rival and neighbour Pakistan.
The only surviving gunman from the attacks said they were recruited, trained and equipped by the banned, Pakistan-based Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) with support from elements in the country’s military and intelligence service.
New Delhi has also questioned how much the United States knew about the activities of a US-Pakistani national, David Coleman Headley, who earlier this year admitted scouting potential targets in Mumbai before the attacks.
In Mumbai, Obama will visit the house where the father of the Indian independence movement Mahatma Gandhi stayed on visits to the city. The US president has cited Gandhi as a key influence.
From there he meets captains of industry and entrepreneurs at a US-India Business Council forum, where he will stress the commercial opportunities offered by Asia, as he seeks to boost US exports to create jobs at home.
“The primary purpose (of the India trip) is to take a bunch of US companies and open up markets so that we can sell in Asia and some of the fastest-growing markets in the world,” Obama told reporters on Thursday.
US exports to India have quadrupled in the last seven years to about 17 billion dollars a year, while service exports have tripled to 10 billion dollars a year.
Relations between the world’s two largest democracies have warmed considerably in the past 10 years, but there are niggling disagreements over issues like US controls on the export of “dual-use” technology with military and civil applications.
Obama moves on to New Delhi today where he will meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and deliver an address to parliament tomorrow.
The next morning he leaves for Indonesia on the second leg of his tour, which will also take him to the G20 summit in South Korea and then on to Japan.
 

Musharraf disappointed Obama not in Pakistan

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Pakistan’s former president Pervez Musharraf on Friday voiced disappointment that US President Barack Obama was not stopping in his country on the sidelines of his maiden visit to India.
“I would take it as a disappointment, yes, indeed,” Musharraf, a military leader who stepped down in 2008, told MSNBC television.
Musharraf also criticized Obama for not speaking about Kashmir, the Himalayan region disputed between Pakistan and India, saying: “It doesn’t resonate well with the people of Pakistan.”
“They take it that the United States or the president of the United States is not that concerned about Pakistan’s own sensitivities and interests,” he said.
Obama was en route Friday for Mumbai and New Delhi on a trip aimed at convincing India that he wants to push ahead relations between the world’s two largest democracies after an early focus on Pakistan and China.
For many US policymakers, it would be unthinkable for Obama to visit Pakistan on the sidelines of the long-promoted trip as Obama is hoping to show India that he sees it as a global power and not simply as a regional player.
But Obama has a delicate balancing act as he has also tried to convince Pakistan that he sees the country as more than simply a conduit into Afghanistan for war operations.
Ahead of the India trip, Obama invited Musharraf’s civilian successor, President Asif Ali Zardari, for a future visit to Washington and announced that he would travel to Pakistan next year. The US has tried to dent Pakistan’s rampant anti-Americanism by last year approving a 7.5 billion-dollar aid package aimed at building schools, infrastructure and democratic institutions.
Last month, the Obama administration also proposed an additional two billion dollars for Pakistan in military assistance, despite misgivings in India.

 

Hidden from world, Myanmar prepares for rare election

YANGON (AFP) - Shielded from the eyes of the outside world, Myanmar holds its first election in 20 years today with the opposition in disarray and the odds stacked heavily in the favour of pro-junta parties.
Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi will spend election day locked up and her National League for Democracy (NLD) is boycotting the poll, leaving other opposition parties with little prospect of victory.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner -- whose current term of house arrest is due to expire just days after the vote -- swept her party to power in 1990 but the results were never recognised by the ruling generals.
This time, one quarter of the seats in parliament are reserved for military appointees, whatever the outcome.
In many areas, it is a two-horse race between parties closely aligned with the military establishment.
The main democracy parties still in the running, the National Democratic Force (NDF) and the Democratic Party (Myanmar), have managed to field candidates for just a fraction of the constituencies.
They have faced serious hurdles including financial and campaigning constraints.
“There is no possibility of a 1990s-style surprise vote and an opposition party winning the election. It cannot happen,” the British ambassador to Myanmar, Andrew Heyn, said in Bangkok.
Deepening concerns about the legitimacy of the polls, foreign election observers and international media have been barred from coming into the country for the election.
The authorities have invited local journalists and diplomats on an organised visit to pre-selected polling stations, but Heyn dismissed it as “choreographed tour”.
Internet users in the military-ruled country have reported slow connections and sporadic outages for more than a week, and some suspect the junta may be intentionally disrupting services to block news on the vote flowing out.
Yet while the election has been widely criticised by activists and Western nations as a sham aimed at putting a veneer of legitimacy over military rule, some see it as a small step towards democracy after five decades of autocracy.
“The opposition cannot win a victory. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean the elections as a whole are inconsequential,” said Professor David Steinberg, a Myanmar expert at Georgetown University in the United States.
“This is the first election in 50 years when you’re likely to have opposition voices in parliament. That is significant,” he said.
The military has ruled Myanmar with an iron fist since 1962 and few expect it to relinquish the real power any time soon.
Junta chief Than Shwe is not running as a candidate in the election, but could still become president.
The Union Solidarity and Development Party, a political and financial juggernaut that is seen as a proxy of the military regime, is widely expected to come out on top, despite the junta’s unpopularity.
“We have only two parties -- the USDP and the NUP -- we have no choice,” said a 33-year-old hotel receptionist in the capital Naypyidaw who did not wanted to be named.
“I don’t like either but if I have to choose from the two, I will choose the USDP,” she said.
Yet where they are in the running, opposition parties say they are confident of victory.
“The USDP cannot win in our constituencies. People are now politically aware,” said Khin Maung Swe, a leader of the NDF, which was created by former members of the NLD who disagreed with Suu Kyi’s boycott decision. The wild card is the National Unity Party (NUP) -- the successor to late dictator Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Program Party -- which is also contesting most of the seats, despite a 500-dollar registration fee for each candidate. It could hold the balance of power in parliament, particularly if it benefits from a protest vote against the USDP.
More than 29 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots but a lack of information -- and meaningful choice -- has left many disillusioned and apathetic in a country where almost one-third of the population lives below the poverty line.
“We don’t know much about the election. I don’t know whom I would like to vote for on the day,” said Daw Kyi, a 67-year-old farmer living in a village near the capital. “As we are ordinary people, we just want peace.”

 

Facts about Myanmar

YANGON (AFP) - Myanmar is staging its first election in 20 years today, but the vote has been criticised by the West and opposition activists as a sham.
Following are some facts about the country:
GEOGRAPHY: The Republic of the Union of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is in Southeast Asia and borders Bangladesh and India to the west, China to the north and Laos and Thailand to the east.
AREA: 676,552 square kilometres (270,620 square miles).
POPULATION: 57.5 million (2008, official estimate), 49.2 million (2009, World Bank estimate).
ETHNIC GROUPS: Burman (68 percent), several minorities including the Shan (nine percent) in the east, the Karen (seven percent, mainly Christian) in the southeast, the Mon in the south and the Kachin in the northeast.
CAPITAL: The junta in 2005 moved to an administrative capital at Naypyidaw in the centre of the country, about 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of the former capital, Yangon.
RELIGION: Buddhist (89 percent), Christian (five percent), Muslim (four percent, Rohingya -- a Bengali minority), Hindu, animist (two percent).
HISTORY: Following three Anglo-Burmese wars (1824-26, 1852 and 1885), Britain annexed Burma and made it a province of British India in 1886. Burma became a separate colony in 1937 but this ended with Japanese invasion in 1942.
After Japan’s World War II defeat, the Union of Burma gained independence on January 4, 1948.
GOVERNMENT: Military dictatorship. Head of state: Senior General Than Shwe, who is head of the State Peace and Development Council.
ECONOMY: Despite rich natural resources (oil, gas, gold, rubies, teak, copper), almost one-third of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. Myanmar is also the world’s second largest producer of illicit opium, after Afghanistan.
GDP PER CAPITA: Estimated at 235 dollars (IMF, 2007)
TOTAL EXTERNAL DEBT: 7.3 billion dollars (2007, World Bank)
CURRENCY: Kyat
ARMED FORCES: Up to about 400,000 personnel, according to Jane’s Sentinel.
REBELS: The country has been plagued by insurgency in ethnic areas since independence in 1948.
The Karen National Union and the Shan State Army are the only major ethnic rebel movements that have not agreed to a ceasefire deal with the military rulers. But there have been renewed tensions with others such as the Kachin Independence Army and analysts believe the junta may soon launch a new offensive against rebels who refuse to transform into border guard forces.
GOVERNMENT WEBSITE: www.myanmar.com

 

BPO exports: Philippines to overtake India

NEW DELHI: The Philippines is set to overtake India as the world’s back office for voice-based customer support and sales this year, as firms such as Cisco, HSBC, T-Mobile and BT Plc shift work to the nation to avoid India’s high staff turnover, and build an alternate support hub.
Better affinity with the American culture, lack of competing industries for skilled workforce, higher tax incentives and an overall strategy to derisk from a pure India-based call centre model are among top reasons for this shift.
Of India’s total BPO exports, nearly 45% comes from voice-based work, which is expected to be around $5.58 billion this year. However, the Philippines BPO industry will post almost $5.70 billion of pure voice-based revenues in 2010, higher than its bigger outsourcing rival, research firm Everest and the Business Process Association of Philippines (BPAP) say.
“In standalone voice business, the Philippines will undoubtedly beat India this year to become the call centre capital of the world,” says Nikhil Rajpal, partner, Everest Research India .
Companies such as Cisco and BT are increasingly outsourcing handling of customer queries and support to cheaper locations, including the Philippines. Every time a user of, say, Cisco’s router dials a toll-free customer support number, his call gets diverted to a customer support executive sitting in Manila who is paid less than a quarter of what it would cost to hire somebody with similar profile in the US.
Experts point out that at this pace, the Philippines can even overtake India’s $12.4-billion BPO industry in five years. The $9.5-billion Philippines O&O (offshoring & outsourcing) industry grew at a compounded 27.6% in the last two years.
On the other hand, India’s BPO industry has showed a CAGR of 11.92% in the last two years. Going by exactly the same rate of growth over the next few years, India will lose to the Philippines before 2015. “We will grow at least by 20% annually in BPO exports over the next five years,” says Oscar Sanez, the man spearheading the BPO association of Philippines.

 
Legal appeal sent to UN for jailed Nobel winner

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Lawyers for China’s Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo said they had sent an appeal to a UN panel in hopes it will find his imprisonment and his wife’s house arrest to be illegal.
The lawyers sent a petition to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention which argues that Liu’s detention violates both international law and China’s own constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression.
“Liu Xiaobo did not receive a fair trial and his wife, Liu Xia, did not have any opportunity to challenge her house arrest,” said Maran Turner, executive director of Washington-based Freedom Now which is representing them for free.
“We are submitting this to the UN to present them with a legal forum to challenge their detentions,” Turner said.
“We urge the Chinese government to immediately release both Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia from their illegal and unjust detentions,” she said.
Liu, 54, was sentenced to 11 years in prison last December on subversion charges after co-authoring Charter 08, a petition calling for sweeping political reform that has been circulated online and signed by thousands.
Liu Xia, a poet who has vocally supported her husband’s work, was put under house arrest soon after the Nobel Peace Prize was announced in October.
The UN panel, part of the Human Rights Council, is comprised of experts from around the world tasked with independently investigating cases of arbitrary detention around the world.
Its findings have no binding power. It found last year that Myanmar was breaking its own law by detaining democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest.
Turner estimated that the response from the UN panel on Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia would take eight to 10 months.
China voiced outrage when Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, saying the move by the Norwegian committee was tantamount to “encouraging crime”.
Nobel laureates have joined forces in urging China to release Liu. In a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Czech president Vaclav Havel said China should view Liu with pride as the first Chinese Nobel Peace laureate.
US lawmakers and activists have urged President Barack Obama -- last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner -- to appeal for Liu’s freedom when he meets his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao on the sidelines of a summit in Seoul next week.
Rights groups strongly criticized UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for not raising Liu’s case on a recent visit to Beijing. The UN leader’s spokesman countered that Ban raises human rights when the timing is “appropriate”.

 

Spanish balcony owners try to cash in on Pope’s visit

MADRID (AFP) - Many residents of the two Spanish cities which Pope Benedict XVI will visit this weekend are trying to cash in on his trip by renting balconies with views of the sites of services for hundreds of euros.
One ad on online advertising site Mercattel offered spots on the balcony of an apartment promising views of the entrance to the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona which the Pope will visit for 300 euros ($420) per person.
“See it and enjoy this unique moment from the first line,” the ad said.
The Pope will consecrate the Sagrada Familia, Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi’s masterpiece, today, a day after he visited the pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela in northeast Spain.
The famously unfinished building, whose spires covered with glazed ceramics dominate the Barcelona skyline, will receive the official status of basilica following the consecration and masses can be celebrated there.
Currently only the building’s crypt has been consecrated by the church.
Another ad offers a balcony on a Barcelona street where the Popemobile will pass through on its way to the temple that fits between four to eight people for 400 euros “with free aperitifs”.
Ads offering balconies for rent in Santiago de Compostela have also emerged, including one charging “a very interesting price” for a veranda overlooking the vast Plaza Obradoiro outside the city’s cathedral where the pope was to celebrate mass this week.
But Catalan daily newspaper La Vanguardia said few people have been able to rent their balconies, in large part because of the strict security measures put in place around the sites where the pope will celebrate mass.
Shop owners and residents who live around the Sagrada Familia must prove their identity and their place of residence to police to gain access to the area, it said.
Daily El Pais meanwhile reported that 20 percent of hotel rooms in Santiago de Compostela were still free for the weekend of the pope’s visit.
They were all sold out last weekend, with demand boosted by the fact that tomorrow was a national holiday.
Pope calls for Church’s purification, reform
The Pope has also called for “purification” and “reform” of the Catholic Church, as the wave of abuse accusations against paedophile priests continues to rock the establishment.

 
Hu bests Obama in Forbes power list

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Chinese President Hu Jintao has topped US President Barack Obama on the Forbes list of most powerful people, with the magazine pointing to Hu’s sweeping powers and the stinging defeat of Obama’s democrats in legislative polls.
The magazine said Hu was the world’s most powerful person, saying he “exercises near dictatorial control over 1.3 billion people, one-fifth of world’s population.”
“Unlike Western counterparts, Hu can divert rivers, build cities, jail dissidents and censor Internet without meddling from pesky bureaucrats, courts,” it said.
Hu topped Obama, last year’s most powerful person, whose Democratic Party suffered major losses in congressional elections on Tuesday.
Forbes said it was “quite a comedown” for Obama, “who after enacting widespread reforms in his first two years in office will be hard-pressed to implement his agenda in the next two.”

 

Asia-Pacific governments chip away at Internet freedom

HONG KONG (AFP) - The tentacles of government censors are creeping ever further across the web in the Asia-Pacific region as officials from Thailand to Australia try to control what people say and do online.
Aside from China, which has a vast army of censors operating behind what has been dubbed the “Great Firewall”, other countries are also taking steps to restrict access to the Internet.
A massive cyber attack has crippled the web in military-ruled Myanmar ahead of today’s controversial election, IT experts say, raising fears of a deliberate communications blackout for the vote.
But moves to rein in Internet freedoms in other countries in the region are often presented as being well intentioned.
Australia proposes introducing an Internet filter to block sites containing material such as rape, drug use, bestiality and child sex abuse.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has defended the plan as a moral move which will bring the web into line with TV and film which have long been censored by the state.
“My fundamental outlook is this: it is unlawful for me as an adult to go to a cinema and watch certain sorts of content, it’s unlawful and we believe it to be wrong,” Gillard said recently.
“If we accept that then it seems to me that the moral question is not changed by the medium that the images come through.”
Yet the plan has been heavily criticised as setting a precedent for censorship and has even been attacked by web giants Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft.
Australian anti-censorship campaigner Geordie Guy said while the filter was not designed to control political dissent it was a case of the state “putting its foot down on what the population can see”.
In another Asia-Pacific democracy, the Philippines, several bills have been filed seeking restrictions on the Internet, mainly focussed on pornography and the trafficking of women.
And in Thailand, a wide-ranging campaign of government censorship has shut down thousands of Internet sites.
It is a reflection of the deep political divide in the country, where 91 people died and nearly 1,900 were hurt in clashes between Red Shirts and troops during two months of protests, which ended with a bloody army crackdown in May.
Thousands of web pages have also been removed in recent years on the grounds that they were insulting to the Thai royal family.
In April, a Red Shirt sympathiser was arrested and charged for allegedly insulting the monarchy on Facebook -- a serious crime punishable by up to 15 years in jail. He remains in detention awaiting possible trial.
The editor of the popular Prachatai website could face up to 70 years in jail after she was arrested on charges of insulting the monarchy and breaching computer law - for comments posted by users of the site.
John Palfrey, co-director of the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University, says online censorship and surveillance are growing around the world.
“This increase in control is taking place concurrently with the growth of the role that the Internet and digital media are playing in the ways that people live and societies function,” he said.
“Oftentimes, these online controls grow out of well-meaning online protections designed to help keep children safe.
“But the same mechanisms that we use to keep our children from unwanted content and contact can be used to keep dissidents from communicating with one another or with the world outside their own society.
“The tools that prevent harmful forms of pornography from being published can also keep a political manifesto from reaching its intended audience.
“The same tools that bring a terrorist to justice before he can harm his targets can also be used to put a muck-raking journalist in prison for something that she said in an email or a web chat.”
Sometimes calls for censorship of the Internet are for religious reasons.
Hundreds of Indonesian radicals rallied in central Jakarta in June to demand the stoning to death and public caning of celebrities who allegedly appeared in homemade sex videos circulating online.
About 1,000 protesters led by radical group Hizbut Tahrir shouted “Allahu akbar” (God is greater) and brandished black flags and banners with slogans such as “Arrest those who commit promiscuous sex”.

 

Cyber sleuths fight computer hackers

SINGAPORE (AFP) - If you’ve just become the victim of identity thieves or computer hackers, it’s time to call in someone like Ali Fazeli.
The Iranian expatriate specialises in crime scene investigations but unlike his glamorised television counterparts, he packs no gun and the evidence he looks for does not include DNA, fingerprints or blood.
Fazeli is a digital sleuth operating in cyberspace, trawling computers, Internet websites and the latest mobile devices for evidence of corruption and fraud - even
marital infidelity.
“We are IT security people, private security who specialise in computer forensics,” the 30-year-old said with a smile.
Fazeli and fellow digital crime fighters have a growing number of cases to crack in Singapore, a global financial hub where crooks are using modern technology to steal money and precious business information.
“I believe cybercrimes, or attempts at cybercrimes in Singapore, are on the increase given our increasing connectivity of computer systems and use of the Internet here,” said Gerard Tan, president of the Association of Information Security Professionals.
“If you include virus attacks, most of us, if not all users, would have been targeted or hit at some time, as this is so common now,” he told AFP.

 

Malaysia can be Muslim ‘thought leader’: Clinton

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Malaysia can be a global “thought leader”, praising the multicultural nation’s efforts to avoid religious rifts.
On a visit to cultivate ties with the moderate country, Clinton told an Islamic university forum in Kuala Lumpur that Malaysia can be influential among both the world’s Muslims and the broader international community.
“Malaysia, both by geography, (its) dynamism, the role that Islam plays, which is a role that is not divisive as it is in some parts of the world, has a real opportunity to be a thought leader in a number of significant areas,” she said.
She lauded Malaysia’s “creative approach” to Islamic finance and noted the presence of civil society group “Sisters in Islam”, which she said promotes the role of women within Islamic traditions.
Malaysia’s population is dominated by Muslim Malays, living alongside large ethnic Chinese and Indian communities. After serious ethnic violence in 1969, great efforts have been made to avoid a repeat of the bloodshed.
The chief US diplomat praised the Southeast Asian country’s efforts to boost the economy while protecting the environment and “creative ways’ to deal with deforestation.
Clinton made the remarks at the International Institute for Islamic Thought and Civilisation, where she fielded questions about US foreign policy in a programme broadcast on Malaysian television.
When he took office in January 2009, President Barack Obama vowed to get US relations with the Muslim world on a fresh footing after the previous administration of George W Bush.
Clinton also told students that the United States was working hard for a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in response to an audience member’s comment that Muslims were frustrated with a sense that America was pro-Israel.
She said the US was equally supportive of the Palestinians and Israelis, backing a secure Israel living alongside a Palestinian state.
“It is important for a country like Malaysia to support Palestinians in their statebuilding,” she added.
Later, Clinton held talks with Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman. She was also due to meet Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who is standing in for Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has chickenpox.
She also met Malaysian women leaders, including top bankers.
Malaysia has positioned itself as a centre for Islamic finance, a booming trillion-dollar industry which follows religious laws prohibiting the payment and collection of interest.
Malaysia is the fifth stop on an Asia tour that has taken Clinton to Guam, Vietnam, China and Cambodia. The tour includes Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Australia and American Samoa.
“Few countries have come as far in terms of our bilateral relationship as the one between the US and Malaysia,” Clinton’s top diplomat for Asia, Kurt Campbell, said before the tour began.
He cited “enormous progress on a range of issues -- (nuclear) proliferation issues, political coordination and strategic dialogue.”
Malaysia is also important as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an organisation the Obama administration is trying to re-engage with after blaming the Bush administration for ignoring it.
Relations with Washington were rocky when Malaysia was led by Mahathir Mohamad, who was known for his strident criticism of the West during his two-decade rule, which ended in 2003.
The US sometimes riled Malaysia with calls to expand democratic freedoms.

 
World’s tallest Hanuman statue at Shimla

SHIMLA: Religiosity in India is scaling new heights.
Just on the outskirts of this erstwhile summer capital of the British raj, a giant 108 feet high idol of Hanuman (the Monkey God) was unveiled at Jakhoo Hanuman temple, overlooking the entire city.
Given its gigantism, it would not be out of place to say that monkeys will be omnipresent in this famous tourist destination which already has a large monkey population.
Deemed to be world’s tallest statue at 108 feet at the highest altitude of more than 8,100 feet and constructed at a cost of Rs 15 million, it surpasses the current tallest statue of ‘Christ the Redeemer’, which measures at 98 feet and stands at an altitude of 2,296 feet in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The imposing idol, overlooking the stately deodars, was unveiled today by chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal, Bollywood star Abhishek Bachan and the industrialist Nanda.
Speaking on the occasion, chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal said the Jakhoo temple attracted thousands of visitors every year.
Their visit to the city was
incomplete without a visit to the temple and paying obeisance to hanuman, he said.
“The idol which can be seen from various parts of the city, will not only become a talk of the town, but the world and will play an important role in attracting tourists to Shimla,” he added.
Expressing hope that the idol constructed by Naresh Kumar Verma of Pilani, Rajasthan, would soon find a place in the record books, he said that he and the people of the city were grateful to the Nanda Trust for setting up the statue. The foundation stone of the statue was laid on Hanuman Jayanti which fell on October 26, 2008, with the intention that it would be completed in two years.
Bollywood star Abhishek Bachan said the construction of the statue was an indication that the Indian craftsmen had not lost their sheen.
He added that it was a momentous occasion to be present at the unveiling of the statue constructed at a holy spot. According to Hindu mythology, Hanuman is said to have stooped at this spot to ask the way to Drona Giri to know the exact location of the sanjeevini booti that he had set out to get. (TOI)

 

Porn surfing ‘a cyber risk’

NEW DELHI: Watching porn in the workplace is a risk to the nation’s security, the Indian home ministry has warned officials.
In a recent advisory to all officials, the ministry’s cyber security wing has asked bureaucrats not to click on any external links on their emails as these frequently open to pornographic websites, which are a major source of hacking. The communication also warms against emails with lottery announcements for the same reason.
Sources in the ministry said nearly two lakh hacking cases were being reported from different agencies across the country every day. Most of these were taking place from China, Pakistan and some African countries, mainly Nigeria, an official said.
Though the advisory does not specifically mention pornography, officials said porn surfing was common in various ministries.
“Despite repeated warnings by the home ministry, officials of many vital wings of the government keep surfing pornographic sites during office hours using official computers, resulting in penetration of spyware from foreign hackers,” a ministry official said.
The home ministry has in the past asked all ministries and departments not to keep any file of strategic importance in internet-connected computers.
There have been reports that foreign hackers recently penetrated the defence ministry’s computer system and accessed information related to India’s strategic matters.
One such case is currently being investigated by the Army as it involved a major who was posted in Arunachal Pradesh.
He had kept a number of important files in his personal computer, which was linked to the internet. His files had been hacked by Pakistan’s ISI, resulting in the leak of vital information. (TOI)

 

Britain tells Israel it will amend war crimes law

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Foreign Secretary William Hague pledged this week that Britain would act fast to amend a law that puts visiting Israeli officials at risk of arrest for alleged war crimes, an embassy official said.
Britain’s top diplomat, who was visiting Israel, made the remarks to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during “a very productive meeting” that lasted for more than an hour, the British embassy spokesperson said.
“Hague reiterated the government’s firm commitment to move as fast as it can on this matter,” the official added.
On Wednesday, the embassy said a draft amendment to the law would be put before parliament “in the coming weeks”.
“The British government understands that we have a real problem and we are dealing with it,” spokeswoman Karen Kaufman told AFP, saying it would take “several months” before any amendment was passed.
“We will present a draft (amendment) in the coming weeks with the goal of passing it in this current sitting of parliament.”
Israel has postponed all strategic dialogue with Britain in protest at its law on “universal jurisdiction,” which empowers courts to issue warrants against people accused of war crimes, including visiting foreign politicians.
Hague later travelled to Cairo, where he said “international laws, human rights laws on universal jurisdiction will continue to apply in the UK.”
But he said “we will change the law so that an arrest can only be made if there is a reasonable chance of success in a prosecution. Otherwise it means that international figures cannot visit the UK.”
The Britain-Israel strategic dialogue focuses on defence and security issues and generally takes place annually.
“The strategic dialogue will be continuing early and as normal,” Hague said in Cairo.
Hague and Netanyahu also discussed Iran’s nuclear programme, the spokesperson said, while the premier’s office said they also talked about prospects for renewing stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
“The two... discussed a broad range of common issues, including the efforts to advance the diplomatic process in the region,” it said in a statement.
“Israel and Great Britain maintain very close ties on strategic issues, especially Iran. It was agreed that another official meeting will be held soon in Israel.”
Earlier, Hague met one-on-one with Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak.
The contents of their meeting were not disclosed, but Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, which on Wednesday published an interview with Hague, said he would “take advantage of his visit to Israel to participate in a secret and closed discussion on Iran.”
Israel, the United States and other Western countries believe Tehran’s nuclear programme is aimed at building an atomic bomb. Iran denies the allegations, saying its programme is for civil energy purposes only.
The Jewish state, believed to have the Middle East’s sole but undeclared nuclear arsenal, has refused to rule out an attack on arch-foe Iran to prevent it going nuclear.
The newspaper Haaretz this week reported Hague would hold in-depth talks with Israeli officials to assess the efficacy of international sanctions against Tehran.
The talks, it said, were at Hague’s request and would be attended by Meir Dagan, head of the Mossad spy agency, Shaul Horev, who runs Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, and Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Dan Meridor.