Archive for ‘Uncategorized’

March 31, 2015

The Royal Lao Government never uses Ho Chi Minh Trail for transport weaponry

Boonton woman looking for MIAs, unexploded bombs in Laos

Lorraine Ash, @LorraineVAsh 5:55 p.m. EDT March 30, 2015

Click on the link to get more news and video from original source: http://www.dailyrecord.com/story/news/local/2015/03/29/boonton-woman-looking-mias-unexploded-bombs-laos/70559216/

Gutbrod_2_hi-res.jpg (Photo: Photo courtesy of Eric Gutbrod).  U.S. Army Spc. Laura Gutbrod of Boonton is on a 35-day mission to southern Laos, part of a 20-person team looking for unexploded ordinance and any evidence of MIAs from the Vietnam War.

Her Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) recovery team is going over the same terrain U.S. forces bombed or traversed 50 years ago.

“Even finding one piece of tiny bone means something,” Gutbrod said in a telephone interview with the Daily Record.

American remains are transferred to an official laboratory in Hawaii for identification by forensic anthropologists, according to the DPAA, which was activated Jan. 30 and dispatches 23 such teams at sites all over the world where Americans have fought and fallen.

“They run a DNA test,” Gutbrod explained. “Once they find a match, they’re able to cross that person’s name off an MIA list, and call the family, because that person is considered found. That way, the family knows their family member passed away.”

She called the work rewarding and an example of the military pledge to leave no soldier behind.

“It’s something that I never expected I’d be able to do in a place I never expected to be,” said Gutbrod, who is stationed with the 25th Infantry Division at the Schofield Barracks in Honolulu.

Until April 9, however, her team, and two others, are sharing a makeshift 60-tent base camp at 9,000 feet, some two hours outside the city of Pakse and 17 miles away from the recovery site they’re working. Each day, she said, they fly by helicopter into the mountains and land at about 18,000 feet, after which they hike down 3,000 feet to the site.

The hiking is intense, she said, especially since the real-feel temperature in Laos is about 105 degrees this time of year.

“It is hot as can be here. There are mountains everywhere,” said Gutbrod, who is digging and working the team’s radio communications.

Presently, Laos is not in its rainy season, which runs, according to travelfish.org, from May to October.

At this time, the 23 American recovery teams, which use standard archaeology methods, include one underwater and one mountaineering team, according to Maj. Natasha Waggoner of the DPAA. Personnel on each team can include a forensic anthropologist, team leader and sergeant, linguist, medic, life support technician, communications technician, forensic photographer, explosive ordnance disposal technician, and mortuary affairs specialists.

Accounting missions began in January 1973, long before the accounting agency came into being, Waggoner said. Over the years, they’ve identified 1,983 MIAs. Currently, Gutbrod’s team is one of 16 teams conducting operations in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, South Korea as well as Vanuatu and Palau, the latter two being island nations in the Pacific Ocean.

As of now, there are 302 missing Americans in Laos, 1,269 in Vietnam, and 51 in Cambodia, according to the DPAA. An American POW/MIA investigator, stationed full time in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, pursues leads. The investigator has interviewed some 80 Vietnamese witnesses with helpful information, and, for 10 years, combed through pictures, videos, and other documents concerning U.S. POWs and aircraft wreckages in Lao archives.

“We offer a special thanks to all the governments whose efforts and dedication have enabled DPAA to further progress in achieving the fullest possible accounting of our missing,” Waggoner said. “We rely heavily on those cooperative relationships.”

According to Gutbrod, Lao government representatives are with her team whenever it goes to its recovery site.

“They’re there to survey,” she said, “just to make sure that we’re not doing something we’re not supposed to be doing here.”

When her team found a live 500-pound, cylinder-shaped American cluster bomb, partially above the surface of the ground, its explosive ordnance technicians roped off the area.

“A couple of days later, Lao officials came and took care of it,” she said.

Several search accounts of the Laos landscape reveal a 250- or 500-pound UXO (unexploded ordinance) can be destroyed onsite, but anything larger must be moved before detonation so it does not impact any nearby villages.

From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions, according to Legacies of War, a U.S.-based educational and advocacy organization devoted to addressing the impact of the Vietnam War-era on Laos.

At the time, the Americans were trying to cut off traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, used by both sides during the war to transport weaponry, and support the Royal Lao Government against the ultimately triumphant Communist Pathet Lao.

Legacies of War reports 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War. Up to 80 million never detonated, leaving the country even today with a dangerous landscape that makes the cultivation of farmland nigh on impossible. Since the war, some 20,000 people have been killed or hurt by unexploded ordnance.

For nine years, the U.S. spent $13.3 million per day (in 2013 dollars) bombing Laos, according to Legacies of War. Between 1995 and 2013, it spent $3.2 million per year clearing unexploded ordinance.

The mission in Laos is the first for Gutbrod, who joined the military for practical and inspirational reasons. Joining provides steady work in an economy where that’s hard to come by, she said, but she also feels like she’s carrying on a family tradition.

Her cousin served in the Navy, she said, and an uncle recently retired from the Air Force. But she joined the Army because of her grandfather—John Gutbrod, 93, of Surf City, an Army veteran.

“My grandfather actually jumped on D-Day,” she said. “He spent most of his time in World War II throughout France and parts of Italy. After hearing all the stories he told me throughout the years, going into the Army seemed like something worthwhile to me.”

This summer, Gutbrod said, she’ll visit her family in Boonton for the first time in three years. She hasn’t seen a family member in a year.

My grandfather taught me that you can go through hell and back again,” she said, “but family is always there.”

Lorraine Ash: 973-428-6660; lash@njpressmedia.com

 

March 31, 2015

Searching for ‘The Last Unicorn’ in the Wildness of Laos

Searching for ‘The Last Unicorn’ in the Wildness of Laos

March 22, 2015

The two faces of Thai authoritarianism

The two faces of Thai authoritarianism

29 September 2014

Author:ThitinanPongsudhirakAuthor:Phuong Nguyen,CSIS, Washington
Click on the link to get more news and video from original source: http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2014/09/29/the-two-faces-of-thai-authoritarianism/Thai politics has completed a dramatic turn from electoral authoritarianism under deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001–2006 to a virtual military government under General Prayuth Chan-ocha. These two sides of the authoritarian coin, electoral and military, represent Thailand’s painful learning curve. The most daunting challenge for the country is not to choose one or the other but to create a hybrid that combines electoral sources of legitimacy for democratic rule and some measure of moral authority and integrity often lacked by elected officials.

A decade ago, Thaksin was practically unchallenged in Thailand. He had earlier squeaked through an assets concealment trial on a narrow and questionable vote after nearly winning a majority in the January 2001 election. A consummate politician and former police officer, Thaksin benefited from extensive networks in business and the bureaucracy, including the police and army.

In politics, his Thai Rak Thai party became a juggernaut. It devised a popular policy platform, featuring affordable universal healthcare, debt relief and microcredit schemes. It won over most of the rural electorate and even the majority of Bangkok. Absorbing smaller parties, Thai Rak Thai virtually monopolised party politics in view of a weak opposition.

Thaksin penetrated and controlled supposedly independent agencies aimed at promoting accountability, particularly the Constitutional Court, the Election Commission and the Anti-Corruption Commission. His confidants and loyalists steered these agencies. His cousin became the army’s Commander-in-Chief. His police cohorts were fast-tracked to senior positions, including his brother-in-law, who became national police chief. Similarly, Thaksin’s business allies and associated partners secured plum concessions and choice government procurement projects.

After his landslide victory in February 2005, Thaksin became the first prime minister to be re-elected and to preside over a government composed only of one party. But his virtual monopoly on Thai politics and accompanying hubris inevitably got the better of him. Making a lucrative business out of politics led to his demise in the September 2006 military coup. Thaksin’s rule was democratic on paper but authoritarian in practice.

Yet Thaksin’s legacy is already strong. His subsequent proxy governments in 2008 and 2011–2014, under his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, were politically paralysed by anti-Thaksin street protests. When Yingluck looked poised to complete her term, Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party came up with a blanket amnesty bill that upended her government, assisted by the independent agencies that had turned against Thaksin in the 2006 coup. The putsch on 22 May 2014 was merely the knock-out blow on an ineffectual administration that was not allowed to govern.

Now the pendulum has swung to the other, authoritarian end. General Prayuth now heads a regime with no democratic pretences, ruling with absolute power. His is a military government both on paper and in practice. The tone of the 22 May coup clearly signalled that the military would dominate politics, epitomised by the general himself becoming prime minister.

Prayuth’s allies under the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) have now taken key portfolios relating to the Thai economy and society, foreign affairs and internal security. The structure of power under the NCPO is clear.

Two months after seizing power, the NCPO rolled out an interim constitution and appointed a National Legislative Assembly (NLA). Today the NLA is filled not with business cronies and spouses of politicians but with military classmates and siblings, who in turn chose Prayuth as prime minister. The caretaker prime minister then selected his cabinet, more than one third of which is military. The National Reform Council (NRC) will soon be formed, leading to a constitution-drafting committee, which will be nominated by the NRC, NLA, cabinet and NCPO.

Like a politburo, the NCPO is thus the nexus of this interim governing structure, comprising the NLA, cabinet, and NRC. This monopoly of power is reminiscent of the Thaksin juggernaut a decade ago. It was a parliamentary dictatorship then as it is now. But the fundamental difference is that the current authoritarian period completely bypassed the electorate.

Prayuth enjoys the same immense personal popularity as Thaksin did. His no-nonsense state of the nation speeches have been to the point and delivered in appealing tones. The NCPO’s anti-corruption campaign is popular and would certainly score more points if it dared to aim at higher-up corruption schemes and concessions, not just low-hanging fruits like extortion rackets that run motorcycle taxis and the state lottery.

Prayuth and the NCPO also benefit from the fact that public expectations started from a low base. After six months of anti-government street protests and policy paralysis, the coup was a relief. Everyone had to make do with the coup because there was no initial alternative in the face of continuing martial law. But reality will start to bite as the military-dominated government starts its day-to-day work. The next 14 months of the NCPO’s timetable to return to democratic rule may be long and hard.

The military-backed government faces a tall order dealing with the grievances and expectations of a neglected electorate. Those who spoke out against the political monster that the Thaksin regime eventually became must now be wary of the potential for the military-backed government setting on a similar path. Unaccountable power with absolute authority and direct rule is inadvisable in Thailand. Past experiences in the 1960s, early 1970s and 1991–1992 have shown that such governments eventually end in tears.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches International Political Economy and is Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

A version of this article was earlier published here in The Straits Times.

March 22, 2015

Behind Thailand’s coup is a fight over the king and his successor. But it’s hush-hush.

Behind Thailand’s coup is a fight over the king and his successor. But it’s hush-hush.

June 7, 2014

Author:Phuong Nguyen,CSIS, Washington

Click on the link to get more news and video from original source:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/behind-thailands-coup-is-a-fight-over-the-king-and-his-successor-but-its-hush-hush/2014/06/05/d0cac579-374c-4671-b418-b8dda46c76ed_story.html


Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej takes pictures during the royal ploughing ceremony in Bangkok. The king has semi-divine status after almost seven decades on the throne. (PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s hard in Thailand to have a meaningful discussion about the country’s most meaningful institution: the monarchy. Laws ban any criticism of the king. Salacious palace intrigue is off-limits. So is any exploration of what may be the ailing king’s final major decision: his succession.

But it’s the uncertainty over that power hand off that forms the silent backdrop to Thailand’s intensifying political instability.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej has semi-divine status after almost seven decades on the throne, but his son, the crown prince, is far less revered. Many scholars outside Thailand say the political tug of war in Bangkok is really a competition to hold power when the king passes away, a moment when Thailand could have at least a partial power vacuum.

“It’s like a musical chairs game,” said Ernest Bower, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “When the music stops — when the king dies — whoever has power gets to organize the next steps.”

For most of the 20th century, the Thai king was a guarantor of relative political stability — a unifying force amid coups, constitutional changes and bloodshed. When needed, he could call dueling faction leaders before him and chastise them. The bloodshed would stop.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower welcomes Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit to Washington in 1960. (AP)

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Queen Sirikit, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and Princess Ubolratana sit on the steps of Chitralada Palace in 1955. (AP)

This time around, though, the king appears too frail to play such a role and has not been seen publicly since a May 22 coup. The military takeover — endorsed near the end of May by the palace — came after seven months of street protests against the Thai government, which was led at the time by prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, a member of Thailand’s most divisive political family. Yingluck’s party — which has the critical backing of her older brother Thaksin Shinawatra — remains popular in the rural north but is loathed by elites in Bangkok. Those elites often describe themselves as royalists.

Thaksin-supported candidates have prevailed in every national election since 2001, but in almost every case those leaders have been ousted in dubious judicial rulings or military coups that have the support of the wealthy Bangkok establishment. Those who oppose Thaksin say he has allowed rampant corruption and consolidated power among his family and friends. The most vicious charge of all is that Thaksin so covets power, he poses a threat to the monarchy.

Some experts say that the military could seek to hold power until the king’s death. Thailand’s new military ruler, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has a reputation as a staunch monarchist and has warned that violations of the lèse-majesté law — a broad rule that bans anything offensive against the monarchy — will be heard in military, rather than criminal, courts.

A working king

Thais pay homage to the king in ways both big and small. His face is on every coin and banknote. Massive golden-framed portraits hang in front of office buildings, in restaurants and along highways, portraying different periods in his life. Before viewing movies, Thais stand for a royal anthem. The king is described rarely by name: “His Majesty,” Thais say. The best-selling book in Thai history is a lighthearted biography written by the king about his favorite dog.

Born in Boston, where his father was studying medicine, King Bhumibol inherited the throne at age 19 after the mysterious death of his older brother. He arrived in Thailand at a time when the monarchy’s power appeared in decline. The king managed to reverse this with what Thais viewed as a lifetime of selfless acts. He visited far-flung rural areas wearing common clothes, a camera slung around his neck. He bankrolled thousands of royal projects, many that aimed to help villages improve their agriculture and irrigation. Famously, he was never seen smiling; he projected leadership as a somber task.

“I would say he is a working king,” said Sakarindr Bhumiratana, who has been involved for three decades with royal development projects. “Each night on television you’d hear of him being somewhere in Thailand — somewhere far away, somewhere in great need. He was there, looking to help people.”

With his health in decline, King Bhumibol has retreated to the coastal Klaikangwon Palace, whose name means “far from worries.” His condition is treated as a state secret, as is the palace role in politics. Technically, the king is a political bystander, able only to approve or veto decisions made by the parliament. In rare public cases where the king has intervened, Thais have almost always come to view his moves as selfless, the sagacious decision of somebody duty-bound to his people.

The king has almost never allowed himself to be seen in public with generals and politicians, who were seen as far less virtuous and whose power was fleeting by comparison.

Thaksin’s rise and fall

Thaksin rose to prominence in Thailand as the king transitioned into a less public role. Elected as prime minister in 2001, Thaksin was the first Thai politician to seek to curry favor with the countryside, providing low-cost health care and debt forgiveness to a previously disenfranchised group of voters. The result: A multi-billionaire telecom tycoon became the voice of the masses.

Thaksin was deposed in a 2006 military coup and lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai, graft charges awaiting him back home. In recent years, Thaksin has been portrayed by many in Bangkok as a puppet master, controlling his political party — and most recently, his sister.

Thaksin has long proclaimed his adoration of the king. Opponents see it differently. A 2010 U.S. diplomatic cable, released by WikiLeaks, described one monarchy loyalist as saying that the “King’s health and mood remained poor ‘primarily because of Thaksin’ and the challenge Thaksin posed to the stability of the country.”

Whatever the case, Thaksin has carefully tried to cultivate a good relationship with Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn — something that could play to his advantage after the succession. Thaksin opponents have for years expressed concerns about his intentions, saying he wants to become Thailand’s first president, with more executive power than he had as prime minister.

“He wants total control,” said Kasit Piromya, a former Thai foreign minister and ambassador to the United States. “He wants to put the royal family in a golden cage.”

Thaksin has defended himself against all such charges, saying they are politically motivated, and has filed a series of defamation suits against those who have criticized him, including Kasit.

In Thailand, discussing Thaksin’s feelings about the monarchy is fair game, a topic not protected by lèse-majesté. But blogs and foreign accounts that detail Thaksin’s relationship with the prince are blocked. No tabloids serve up delicious gossip about the monarchy’s inner workings. Even academic work about the monarchy is severely limited.

Over the years,theenforcementoflèse-majesté law has waxed and waned. But recent governments have aggressively pursued cases, warning that even “liking” material considered offensive on Facebook could lead to charges. As a result of the restrictions, the Thai monarchy remains a “black hole,”said PavinChachavalpongpun, an associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University.“You are not supposed to talk about anything,”Pavin said. “Well, anything but glorification.”

4 things to know about Thailand’s military coup(0:51)

http://www.washingtonpost.com/posttv/c/embed/e0597344-e2a5-11e3-9442-54189bf1a809?e=1&

After months of violence, Thailand’s military went from declaring martial law to seizing control of the government. Here are the facts to know. (Casey Capachi/The Washington Post)
Chico Harlan covers personal economics as part of The Post’s financial team.

 

March 19, 2015

This Laos Resort Serves Rich Tourists Tiger Meat and Fresh-Killed Bear Cubs

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This Laos Resort Serves Rich Tourists Tiger Meat and Fresh-Killed Bear Cubs

By Hilary Pollack

March 19, 2015 / 3:00 pm

Click on the link to get more news and video from original source:  https://munchies.vice.com/articles/this-laos-resort-serves-rich-tourists-tiger-meat-and-fresh-killed-bear-cubs

No matter where you go on Earth, the rich are subject to all kinds of buyable privileges that seem outlandish to the common person. It could be something as simple as paying $450 for a bottle of Smirnoff that would otherwise retail for less than a tenth of that price while trying to live large in a nightclub, or as lavish as hopping on a caviar-stocked private jet to an island resort.

But in Laos, the wealthy have other decadent means of blowing their cash—and an investigative report has revealed that they’re extravagant in very controversial ways.

According to a new report from the Environmental Investigation Agency, numerous ritzy resorts in the Southeast Asian country have been capitalizing off the sale of exotic meats and specialty food items. We’re not talking Wagyu beef here, either; this is a veritable smorgasbord of endangered species and other illegal game, from tiger bone wine to pangolins to bear paws.

The epicenter of these specialty attractions is in Laos’ Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, which the EIA has dubbed “Sin City” and “a lawless playground.” The tourist area is run by Hong Kong’s Kings Romans Group (which has an insane 99-year lease) and is primarily patronized by the wealthy Chinese. And according to company records, though the area is replete with expensive restaurants and a massive casino, the primary business of the Kings Romans Group (KRG) is the raising of livestock “other than dairy and poultry.”

There are gift shops with names such as Golden Triangle Treasure Hall and Fantasy Garret displaying tiger skins, stuffed tigers, ivory tusks, rhino horn shavings (which are sometimes snorted or added to beverages), and leopard skins, as well as restaurants advertising “sauté tiger meat,” pangolin, and snake dishes. When pressed, vendors told EIA investigators that their suppliers were local tiger farms, or even admitted that they were illegally trafficked in from other neighboring countries—knowing that there would be few or no repercussions.

According to the EIA’s report, “The blatant illegal wildlife trade by Chinese companies in this part of Laos should be a national embarrassment, and yet it appears to enjoy high-level political support from the Laos Government, blocking any potential law enforcement.”

Perhaps the most egregious business in the block is a restaurant called God of Fortune, which specializes in yewei—a Chinese term for exotic meat that translates to “wild flavor.” There, undercover investigators observed the sale of bear paw, turtle, Tokay gecko, and snake; jars upon jars of (purported) tiger bone wine; and visible cages containing live pythons and bear cubs, which the staff said could be killed and served upon request.

A nearby “zoo” is populated with dozens of bears and tigers—making it no secret that its “attractions” will eventually turn into meals for the hungry tourists.

The EIA points out that tigers, with a wild population of only a few thousand, are “perilously close” to extinction, and the bear trade in Laos has been on the rise in the past few years due to increased demand for bear bile—valued for medicinal applications in China, Korea, Laos, and other nearby countries. Current laws permit the trade of second- or further generation bears that were bred in captivity, but the “lawlessness” of the GT SEZ creates an environment that fosters illegal breeding, trading, and capture of animals.

The EIA and other conservation and animal welfare groups stress that these types of businesses and tourist zones send a confusing message to consumers, implying that the consumption of these animals is legal and acceptable.

Laos has been under pressure for years to tighten its restrictions on illegal wildlife trade and put an end to its inhumane bear bile farms, which have only been a growing problem due to rampant smuggling of the specialty product overseas. But with the money pouring in from tourists in areas such as the GT SEZ, it’s hard to clean up the trade without ruffling feathers.

As Jeremy Hance of  The Guardian points out, “As China—and much of East Asia—has experienced a runaway economic boom, snorting powdered rhino horn, displaying tiger skins, or purchasing ivory has become a way to flex one’s power and wealth.”

These bear cubs, tigers, and other animals will only make their way out of Laos’s Sin City if the demand for them diminishes—and when the cash stops flowing.

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