2014 News archive

Goodbye 2014 – you will not be missed

31 December 2014

So another year comes to an end and more than any other in recent times I will be glad to see the back of this one.

Of course that does not mean that 2015 will be any better – or that some things simply go away because it is the end of the year – but there will always be the sense that 1 January marks the start of a new year and the hope of change.

2014 will be remembered for the loss of Tai’s father in the sort of accident that is just the waste of a life and for her sister’s stroke. That her sister has made a partial recovery contrary to the surgeon’s expectations is one of the reasons for hope.

Both events highlighted the importance of family and community in Thailand. It is such a tragedy that a country with so much potential is being held back in the dark ages by powerful vested interests and a compliant army. Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s late 2014 book “A Kingdom in Crisis” should be required reading for anyone who loves Thailand but who believes in the future rather than a servile past and present. The May coup was just another setback on the road to building a proud future and an educated democratic nation.

Meanwhile an industry that I love had one of its worst years in recent history. The disappearance of MH370 remains one of the great aviation mysteries. I still believe that the wreckage will be found and her secrets revealed but the uncertainty and the wait for the families must be heart-breaking.

No one has yet been found responsible for shooting down MH17. Though most rational people are certain that it was Russian supported Ukraine separatists. Political pragmatism must ot be allowed to hide the truth and bring those responsible to justice.

And just three days ago Air Asia had its first fatal accident with the loss of flight 8501 from Surabaya to Singapore. Air Asia will survive. Its CEO has been strong. But the airline’s innocence has gone.

The world seemed a less certain place in 2014. The rise of ISIS in the middle east should concern anyone who values peace in the region. Calm appears to have come to the Ukraine but there remains uncertainty over Russian intentions which have been somewhat short circuited by the dramatic fall in oil prices. Disputes over island ownership and passage through the South China Sea could be the next hot spot. Calm heads should prevail. But the rise of sabre-rattling patriotism could cause escalation. Maybe there is the issue – the rise of extremism is all its different hues. The rest of us – the big silent majority – may just get caught up in the crossfire.

The Gaza conflict in July shocked the world. Israel launched a devastating operation on Gaza after three teenagers were kidnapped by Palestinians. In seven weeks of bombardment, 2,200 people were killed – the vast majority of them Palestinians. There appears to be no acceptable (to all parties) resolution. And war and murder are hiddne behind ever more effective propaganda machines.

Myanmar’s refugee problem and the oppression of the Rohinya people continues. The greatest disappointment – the silence of Aung San Suu Chi. After years of persecution she should be standing up for the oppressed not playing for political expediency.

Oscar Pistorius got away with it – which shows what can be done when you can afford the best legal representation. The trial should never have been televised. It simply led to media excess.

Ebola is a reminder that nature can still terrify us and that there are some remarkably brave doctors, nurses and relief agency staff working with little fuss and only with the well-being of their patients in mind.

In a troubled world the US looks impotent; Russia looks weakened; the rise of China is inexorable. How China uses that influence and its economic domination will be a great test for all.

It was a good year for travel – even if it was not always for the happiest of reasons: on the map this year were London, Newcastle, Vienna, Thailand (Bangkok, Phuket, Hua Hin and Chiang Mai), Tokyo, Rome, Vientiane, Switzerland, Devon, Ireland, Stockholm, Norway, Seattle, Portland, Sicily, Hong Kong, Athens, Sydney. Norway and Ireland were highlights; Norway for its scenery and just simple decent friendliness; Ireland for the landing place of Alcock and Brown and for that connection to one of the great feats of aviation.

Lunch in Stockholm was a wonderful way to reconnect. Long lunches and long conversations should happen more often.

Dubai meanders along. As it has rebounded from the 2008-2010 financial crisis the hubris has ratcheted up as well. Dubai was granted the 2020 World Expo. The trouble is most people do not know what this is or indeed where the 2015 event will be held. But they have been told it is important so it is.

There are still too many vanity construction projects – hello Dubai canal – and not enough projects that make a difference to the lives of all the UAE’s residents. The trouble is when Dubi booms there are people taking advantage – and when it crashes there have been too many people taking advantage. Meanwhile human rights and concerns over legal transparency remain a concern here as they do throughout much of the region.

So that’s about it – a troubled year ends. And a new year begins. I wonder where I will be writing this from in 12 months time.

Take care, gentle reader. Thank you. Have a safe and happy new year and an optimistic 2015.

In praise of…..London

31 December 2014

It is time to give London its due – it is one of the world’s great cities – maybe it eve tops the list.

I left London in 1988. Thatcher was Prime Minister. Eddie the Eagle was the best the British could offer at the Calgary WInter Olympics. London felt old, tired.

The new London is far from perfect – that is part of its appeal. But it is a vibrant, international city, that has benefited hugely from an influx of nationalities who have arrived to study, work or just to explore.

That to me is the biggest and most welcome difference. The new London is an international city. The old 1980s London was a British city.

House prices are prohibitive. The best properties are now foreign owned. Commutes have become longer and more expensive. The infrastructure creaks….but that at least gives the British something to complain about.

Over Christmas engineering work on the railways predictably did not finish in time. Finsbury Park – a remote NE London commuter station replaced Kings Cross as London’s main terminal for two days. Perhaps the daftest piece of contingency planning since Canute tried t stop the incoming tide. Misery for those caught up in the mess. Mirth for the rest of us.

But what a fun place to visit. The investment in the city over the last thirty years has transformed derelict suburbs into new destinations; Canary Wharf; the city around Liverpool Street; Paddington Basin; the transformation of the South Bank, including Borough and Southwark.

On a sunny, cold December Sunday evening crowds on the south bank were enjoying a European style winter fair. The churros and hot chocolate stand was next to the duck confit burger stand and the chorizo roll and hot sangria stand. There was music. There was the buzz of a happy crowd.

The river is so much busier than it used to be. Tour boats continue through the winter months. The redevelopment of the South Bank, allows an uninterrupted walk along the river and takes in the Globe Theatre; the Tate Modern, the National Theatre – and some fine restaurants, bars, and markets. London is a city where you should explore as much as you can on foot. There is always something to see.

Over in Covent Garden, whose transformation in the 1980s arguably started the rebuilding of London as a destination, performers entertained a big crowd. The market was busy. The festive decorations were classy. The subway station as over-crowded as it always is.

Chinatown and Soho were busy. This is a very different Soho from 30 years ago. Restaurants of just about every nationality line the streets. Few of the staff are British – maybe that is why they are welcoming and enthusiastic. There is a warm energy. Explore and you will be rewarded.

The media remains vibrant – both traditional and new media. Fleet Street’s media giants have long gone, to be replaced by solicitors and accountants and even a Premier Inn in one of the old Reuters buildings. But reading newspapers like the Independent and Guardian is a good reminder of what quality, questioning, informative and sometimes humourous journalism can do….and is such a refreshing change after too many years of the SCMP, Bangkok Post and Gulf News.

Maybe that is part of the charm – London does not take itself too seriously. None of the pompous overblown self promotion of Dubai. London has it all and does not need to make a loud noise about it. Take Paddington station where a statue of the great engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel sits next to a tribute to Paddington Bear. London has this ability to make people smile.

I am sure living in London has many frustrations. The cost of living is among the highest in the world. But for a visitor it is hard to beat.

Coup drives down Thai Air Asia profits

30 December 2014

Thai AirAsia CEO Tassapon Bijleveld said the carrier will, during 2014, post its greatest profit decline in its 10-year history, from THB1.9 billion (USD57.7 million) in 2013 to THB200 million (USD6.1 million) in 2014.

The carrier also lowered its FY2014 traffic forecast, from an earlier projection of 13.6 million to around 12.1 million passengers. Load factors are expected to average 80%, lower than a previously-forecast 83%.

Mr Tassapon said: “Despite increasing capacity by 20 per cent by adding five new aircraft, the number of passengers will be up by only about 16 per cent, lower than our average annual growth of 20 per cent… Political unrest in Thailand was the key factor for the decline”.

The carrier, which handled 10.3 million passengers in 2013, also announced plans to focus on the domestic market in 2015 to substitute for losses from international markets.

Guzzling in the Gulf

23 December 2014

The Monarchies Face a Threat From Within

By Jim Krane for Foreign Affairs magazine

The story of the Persian Gulf monarchies is a Horatio Alger tale writ large. Over the past half-century, oil has transformed the six once-destitute sheikhdoms into some of the wealthiest places on earth.

Supergiant oil fields discovered between the 1930s and the 1970s, such as Kuwait’s Burgan and Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar, provided an ideal source of energy for the free world. It was easy oil, pooled in boundless reservoirs that could geyser into action with the prick of a drill bit. Even better, there was virtually no regional demand for that oil. Gulf populations were tiny and their economies undeveloped.

Over the years, the monarchies’ steady stewardship kept markets supplied with sufficient energy to fuel the world during a period of unprecedented economic and population growth. Back home, the ruling families harvested the proceeds to improve the lives of their people, who had, until then, lived in nearly primeval deprivation, with little access to electricity, clean water, medicine, or education. Ruling sheikhs made their subjects wealthy and complacent; oil production was a virtuous cycle.

That old story is beginning to change. The Gulf monarchies have developed a growing taste for their chief export, which, if left unaddressed, could undermine both of their long-held roles: as global suppliers and as stable polities in an otherwise fractious Middle East. For the rest of the world, meanwhile, the potential loss of a key Gulf asset—spare oil production—foreshadows a period of greater market volatility and uncertainty.

DRILLING FOR DISCOUNTS

It took an astonishing increase in demand to get to this point. Energy consumption in these six exporting countries, just a rounding error on global demand a few decades ago, has grown by eight percent annually since 1972, compared to two percent for the world. Together, four of the six monarchies (Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) have less than one percent of the world’s population, but account for more than five percent of global oil consumption. Saudi Arabia, which consumes roughly a quarter of its own production, is now the world’s number-six oil consumer, guzzling nearly as much of the stuff as Russia and more than either Brazil or Germany, countries with far larger economies and populations.

What lies behind the transformation? For one thing, populations and incomes in the Gulf countries have mushroomed in recent decades, with predictable effects on demand. But another factor, one that lies entirely within government control, is also responsible: price.

Energy is so cheap in the Gulf states that, in some cases, it is essentially given away. Prices are among the world’s lowest: at 45 cents per gallon, gasoline in Saudi Arabia is a quarter the price of bottled water. In Kuwait, electricity has cost just 0.7 cents per kilowatt-hour since 1966. (Americans pay about 15 times as much.) In nearby Qatar, citizens receive unlimited electricity and water for free. Ultra-low energy prices are typical in autocratic or populist petro-states beyond the Arabian Peninsula, including Algeria, Brunei, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela.

Cheap energy has exacerbated demand in two important ways. First, it has created path-dependence on energy-intensive infrastructure and technologies: skyscrapers, Hummers, and industrial plants producing aluminum, fertilizer, and petrochemicals. Second, low prices have also engendered wasteful behavior, making it easy for families to leave their air-conditioners blasting at home during a long vacation.

As a result, the Gulf’s per capita carbon emissions lead the world as well, ahead of or alongside other big emitters such as Australia, Canada, and the United States. The level of waste is substantial, even on a global scale. The IMF has calculated that eliminating energy subsidies, the largest of which are concentrated in oil-producing states, would reduce worldwide carbon emissions by 13 percent

Short-sighted energy policies could be defended in the 1970s, when citizens of these states were poor and few in number. But they have set the Gulf on a dangerous path.

WHEN ALL PETROLEUM IS LOCAL

The region’s problems extend beyond wasted energy. The Saudis and their neighbors also divert massive amounts of their chief export into domestic markets. That trend could prove ruinous. The Gulf countries derive, on average, 40 percent of their GDPs and 80 percent of their national budgets from oil exports. Yet if longstanding consumption trends continue, these countries will be unable to maintain their all-important supply to global markets. Most are already experiencing shortages of natural gas used in power generation, and some, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, are generating more than half their electricity from crude oil and other valuable liquid fuels.

Khalid al-Falih, the CEO of Saudi Aramco, has warned that without any significant changes, the kingdom’s consumption could rise from three million barrels per day to eight million by 2030. A projection by Riyadh’s Jadwa Investment Bank paints an even gloomier picture, showing that, at current rates of consumption growth, Saudi spare oil production capacity will dwindle until it disappears sometime before 2020. Barring major new investments, the Saudis would have to begin diverting oil destined for export into the domestic market. Following the trend further, Jadwa has estimated that Saudi Arabia will consume its entire production capacity—12.5 million barrels per day—at home by 2043. London’s Chatham House has predicted that the kingdom will become a net oil importer even earlier, by 2038.

There is a clear way, however, that the monarchies can reverse course: by raising domestic prices. In one sense, the Gulf monarchies and other big exporters are fortunate. They don’t need to tax energy; they just need to sell it at a reasonable price. If the Gulf states raised prices to global levels, calculations based on modest estimates of price elasticity show that demand would respond strongly. Over the long term, Kuwait might cut its electricity demand by as much as 60 percent, and Abu Dhabi by as much as 40 percent. An end to gasoline subsidies in Saudi Arabia could reduce its domestic demand by a third.

Just as in the United States, Gulf consumers would also take steps to reduce their exposure to higher prices, insulating their homes and trading in old appliances and SUVs. Governments would reap even more revenue, which could help finance a transition to a more energy-efficient economy. Polluted skies would give way to cleaner air. And since actual reserves in most of these countries remain huge, they could export more of the oil and gas they now consume.

Reforms, however, won’t be easy to implement. Subsidies are notoriously difficult to retract, even the unsustainable ones. And centralized governments, like those in the Gulf, are particularly vulnerable to angry public reaction. The Arab Spring, moreover, has taught the sheikhs that antagonizing subjects could endanger their very survival. As the political scientist Ted Gurr wrote in 1970—and as history has demonstrated since—declines in state benefits and social welfare are among the most common triggers for political violence. The examples are many. In OPEC members Venezuela and Indonesia, government-mandated price increases triggered violent public reactions that toppled sitting governments in 1993 and 1998, respectively. More recently, Arab Spring rioters counted benefit cuts as a major grievance, in countries ranging from Tunisia to Oman.

Citizens of the Gulf monarchies—like those in petro-states the world over—consider themselves entitled to cheap energy, alongside the other inducements that the regimes provide in return for political support. For many of them, raising prices on electricity or gasoline is politically illegitimate.

As the ability of Gulf monarchies to maintain exports comes under challenge, that sense of entitlement will be tested. Gulf rulers will need to look for ways to tinker with the prevailing social contract, reforming subsidies in ways that maintain exports without undermining public support for the regime. The recent plunge in oil prices has made these reforms simultaneously more urgent and easier to sell. But the stakes are high: If the monarchs fail, they may not get a second chance.

THE END OF SPARE CAPACITY

Surging Gulf oil consumption poses a strategic threat as much as it presents an economic one. In the past, OPEC has been able to flood the market with oil, mostly from Saudi Arabian reserves, to protect the global economy from damaging volatility. This capability has also functioned as a critical strategic asset for the United States. When Washington intervenes in the Middle East, it can usually count on its Saudi friends to ramp up production and replace lost exports from, say, Iran, to help avoid a crippling spike in prices. At one time or another, Saudi spare capacity has replaced exports from Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and Libya. Such reserves allow the United States to have its cake and eat it too—to advance foreign policy goals without disrupting economies, antagonizing motorists, or complicating investment decisions.

At the moment, a supply overhang is sending oil prices lower, and so, few are thinking about Saudi spare capacity. When demand returns, however, the Saudis may be less able to rise to their old role. Future export outages could trigger more virulent price spikes, as Robert McNally, a former economic adviser to U.S. President George W. Bush, and Michael Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, predicted in these pages in 2011. Everyone from central bankers to U.S. consumers would suffer, and the ensuing damage to national economies and personal incomes would have no short-term antidote.

For the Gulf monarchs, the scenario gets even worse. If they lose their spare capacity, they start to lose their strategic importance to the United States and much of the oil-importing world. Pundits have crowed for some time that U.S. shale production could eliminate the country’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Meanwhile, Middle Eastern elites have feared that shale oil could reduce U.S. commitment to the region’s security.

Yet such scenarios are off-target. Since oil is a globally fungible commodity, the source of supply matters less than the level of supply. Even if the United States were entirely self-sufficient, an external supply shock would still impact U.S. prices. Shale oil doesn’t decouple the United States from the Middle East; it simply makes its dependence on the region’s oil less direct. Washington’s current calculus will change, however, if the Gulf countries find themselves unable to sustain their market-regulating role. In that case, the United States may not be as interested in spending, by one estimate, $50 billion annually to protect the monarchies.

THE REFORMER’S PLAYBOOK

Like all oil exporters, the Gulf monarchies’ prime business will eventually come to an end, either from depletion, the domestic displacement of exports, or reduced global demand for a product that is contributing to a warming climate. Some countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, have already begun funneling profits into sovereign wealth funds and diversifying their economies, both of which are steps in the right direction. But they are still insufficient to replace the giant economic contributions of oil. The sheikhs need more time.

The simplest way for these oil monarchies to stay in business is to end extraordinarily generous energy subsidies. Once prices increase, efficiency will follow, driving behavioral change and technological improvement.

The good news is that an effective model for reform already exists. Across the Gulf, an old nemesis, Iran, has proven that an oil-exporting autocracy can launch a massive change in energy pricing without triggering unrest. Although Arab monarchs might recoil at the thought of emulating Iran, there are reasons to believe that the Iranian script for replacing in-kind energy benefits with cash might work better on the Arab side. In Iran, the government ultimately suspended its reforms in the face of inflation, currency devaluation, and embargo. But the Arab oil monarchies have a more reform-friendly macroeconomic environment, since they peg their currency to the U.S. dollar and face little danger of embargo.

External pressure would also help, providing political cover for governments, especially centralized regimes, to enact unpopular measures. Saudi Arabia’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2005 gave the kingdom justification to enact difficult economic reforms. And when the IMF’s managing director, Christine Lagarde, warned of wasted resources in Kuwait, she provided the government with a rationale to scale back diesel and gasoline subsidies.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed carbon standards for power plants have provided President Barack Obama with new credibility on climate change. He should leverage that momentum by asking exporting countries to pare back their subsidies. In so doing, he would also provide political cover for Middle East allies that are ready to begin a task they desperately want to start. Oil revenues that have tumbled to their lowest levels in years provide a handy fiscal incentive to get busy.

Whatever the catalyst, subsidy reform will likely occur for a simple reason: because the alternatives are far worse. As Saudi King Faisal understood, rags-to-riches tales don’t always end on a high note. “In one generation we went from riding camels to riding Cadillacs,” he wrote. “The way we are wasting money, I fear the next generation will be riding camels again.”

Emirates to launch 3rd daily to Birmingham

22 December 2014

Emirates has announced a third daily service from Dubai to Birmingham Airport  and will also become the first airline to offer a direct First Class service to the region.

Commencing Saturday 1st August 2015, Emirates flight EK41 will depart Dubai International Airport at 0235hrs and arrive in Birmingham at 0705hrs. The outbound flight EK42 will depart Birmingham Airport at 0910hrs and arrive in Dubai at 1910hrs, well-timed for a good night’s sleep and a fresh start in the city the following day.

Or – which is far more likely – well timed for an onward connection on flight into South Asia, the GCC and the Far East.

Emirates started flying from Birmingham to Dubai in December 2000 when it launched the route with a daily non-stop service, operated by a 278-seat Airbus A330. Over its 14 year history at Birmingham, Emirates has carried 4.9 million passengers.

The seven new flights a week will be operated with a Boeing 777-300ER aircraft in a three class configuration.

Oil prices in a changing world

16 December 2014

Oil prices dropped below US$59/barrel today for the first time since 2009. In six months the price of oil has fallen 50%.

No one seems to have seen this coming – the fall is substantial and dramatic.

So good news or bad? Exporters, oil-company shareholders and industry suppliers are all contemplating a future of oil at $60 a barrel—or below. So too are all the people who lent money to them. Markets are pricing in the pain and pessimism immediately, while seeming to discount the future gains to energy users.

Russia’s currency is at a record low, falling below 60 roubles to the dollar on December 15th. Indonesia’s rupiah is at its weakest for six years. The FTSE 100, a London-based stock market index dominated by extractive-industry shares, had its worst week since August 2011, with a 6.3% fall. European equities across the continent suffered their biggest weekly loss in more than three years. Emerging market stocks are also down to a nine-month low. Middle East stock markets saw falls of up to 7% today. Thailand yesterday saw its biggest one day market fall since 2008.

Yet the secretary general of the Organisation of Oil Exporting Countries, (OPEC), a cartel which produces 40% of the world’s oil, said he saw no grounds for production cuts. So excessive supply meets falling demand.

OPEC is gambling that the fall in price will be short-lived. That is a big gamble. Increased efficiency, weak economic growth and the use of alternative energy sources are all dampening demand.

Weak demand is only a minor factor, though. The biggest cause of the falling price is rising supply from non-OPEC countries, particularly from America. Since 2008 oil companies in the US, for example, have increased production by 70%, or 3.5m barrels of oil per day. In theory, lower oil prices will curb that. Spending on new projects is falling, chilling the prospects for jobs and profits.

Efforts to trim supply have little immediate effect. Once a well has been drilled it makes sense to pump them.

So what has happened:

i) demand is low because of weak economic activity, increased efficiency, and a growing switch away from oil to other fuels.
ii) turmoil in Iraq and Libya — two big oil producers with nearly 4m barrels a day combined — has not affected their output. The market is more sanguine about geopolitical risk.
iii) America has become the world’s largest oil producer. Though it does not export crude oil, it now imports much less, creating a lot of spare supply.
iv) the Saudis and their Gulf allies have decided not to sacrifice their own market share to restore the price. They could curb production sharply, but the main benefits would go to countries they detest such as Iran and Russia. Saudi Arabia can tolerate lower oil prices quite easily. It has $900 billion in reserves. Its own oil costs very little (around $5-6 per barrel) to get out of the ground.

The question that no one seems able to answer is whether this is a good or bad thing. The answer probably depends on where you live and what you do.

Global demand is still expected to grow next year, but by far less than many thought earlier this year. The economies of China, Japan and western Europe – the top oil consumers after the United States – all appear to be weakening. Oil demand falls when economic growth stalls.

The US is still the world’s largest consumer, but more fuel-efficient cars and changing demographics mean demand for oil and gasoline is not increasing. The Energy Department predicts a slight decrease in gasoline demand next year even though the price is expected to be sharply lower and the economy is expected to grow.

Lower oil prices present a major economic risk to oil-producing nations like Russia, Venezuela and Nigeria. And the lower prices are spooking the Middle East despite massive cash reserves.

It is not all gloom – for drivers, shippers, airlines and other consumers of fuel, there’s nothing not to like about the drop in oil prices. In the USA the national average gasoline price has fallen for 81 straight days to $2.55 a gallon, its lowest level since October of 2009, according to AAA. It’s $1.15 a gallon cheaper than its high for the year, saving US households $100 a month as they shop for holiday presents.

Diesel and jet fuel prices have also plunged, helping boost the profits and share prices of airlines and shippers. Heating oil is the cheapest it has been in four years, reducing home heating prices.

Falling fuel prices act like a tax cut and help boost consumer spending, which for example accounts for 70% of the US economy. But economists are growing concerned that there are other, more troublesome forces at play.

The depth of oil’s plunge could be a signal that the global economy is struggling even more than economists think. A weak global economy could hurt the US economy by reducing exports, employment and spending, which together could outweigh the economic benefits of cheaper fuel.

The knock on effect for another house price and construction slump is worrying.

For oil companies, oil-producing states and oil-exporting countries, the oil price collapse is painful.

Major oil exporters such as Iran, Iraq, Russia and Venezuela rely heavily on revenues from state-owned oil companies to run their governments and are struggling under major budget shortfalls.

For example, Bank of America estimates that every $1 drop in the global price of oil costs Venezuela $770m in annual revenue. Current prices are now $47 below last year’s average, putting the country on pace for a $36bn reduction in revenue.

A fresh wave of panic selling wiped out $49 billion of stock market value across the Gulf Arab economies today.

The stock market losses came on top of over $200 billion of value already destroyed since the end of October. Most of the frenzied selling has been by retail investors who fear governments will cut spending in line with falling oil revenues.

Dubai’s index tumbled 7.3 percent to 3,084 points, a one-year low. The market has now retraced more than 50 percent of its massive rally from a multi-year low in January 2012 to this year’s peak in May, a rise of 318 percent.

Abu Dhabi’s benchmark ended 6.9 percent lower, posting its biggest daily loss in five years and also hitting a one-year low.

Investors ignored statements by officials and economists who said fears of sharply lower spending and growth were not justified.

Speaking at a conference in Dubai on Tuesday, an International Monetary Fund official said that although the oil price plunge would cut revenues of Gulf Arab governments, they had big reserves so in general they would not need to reduce state spending significantly.

United Arab Emirates economy minister Sultan bin Saeed al-Mansouri said development projects would not be cut significantly in coming years and urged investors to remain calm.

But investors were dismayed by the speed of oil’s decline and the fact that their governments do not appear to have tried to support oil prices. Heavily traded UAE blue chips such as Emaar Properties, Arabtec and First Gulf Bank sank their 10 percent daily limits.

One of the few UAE stocks to gain was Air Arabia, which can be expected to benefit from cheaper aviation fuel. The stock edged up 0.7 percent and was Dubai’s third most heavily traded.

Saudi Arabia’s bourse, which has the biggest share of petrochemicals among markets in the region, tumbled 7.3 percent in its biggest daily loss in six years and reached 7,330 points, its lowest level since June 2013.

Dozens of Saudi stocks fell by their daily 10 percent limits, indicating further potential weakness. The index has dropped 34 percent from its September peak.

While analysts think earnings in many sectors such as banking and retailing will not necessarily be dampened much by cheap oil, petrochemical firms are exposed as they will lose the competitive advantage they enjoy against foreign rivals from cheap feedstock. Also, the global economic weakness indicated by the commodities rout is a bad omen for petrochemical exporters.

Saudi Arabia is expected to announce its 2015 budget by the end of this month, and possibly as soon as on Monday.

TUESDAY’S HIGHLIGHTS
DUBAI
* The index tumbled 7.3 percent to 3,084 points.
ABU DHABI
* The index fell 6.9 percent to 3,892 points.
SAUDI ARABIA
* The index fell 7.3 percent to 7,330 points.

In other words for the oil-based economies of the Middle East this is something of an unwanted and unexpected setback. But a radical rethink of middle east budgets and sources of income is long overdue.

Sorry, Putin. Russia’s economy is doomed

16 December 2014 The Washington Post

A funny thing happened on the way to Vladimir Putin running strategic laps around the West. Russia’s economy imploded.

The latest news is that Russia’s central bank raised interest rates from 10.5 to 17 percent at an emergency 1 a.m. meeting in an attempt to stop the ruble, which is down 50 percent on the year against the dollar, from falling any further. It’s a desperate move to save Russia’s currency that comes at the cost of sacrificing Russia’s economy. So even if it “works,” things are about to get a lot worse.

It’s a classic kind of emerging markets crisis. It’s only a small simplification, you see, to say that Russia doesn’t so much have an economy as it has an oil exporting business that subsidizes everything else. That’s why the combination of more supply from the United States, and less demand from Europe, China, and Japan has hit them particularly hard. Cheaper oil means Russian companies have fewer dollars to turn into rubles, which is just another way of saying that there’s less demand for rubles—so its price is falling. It hasn’t helped, of course, that sanctions over Russia’s incursion into Ukraine have already left Russia short on dollars.

Add it all up, and the ruble has fallen something like 22 percent against the dollar the past month, with 11 percent of that coming on Monday alone. The Russian ruble has fallen even further than the Ukrainian hryvnia or Brent oil has this year. The only asset, and I use that word lightly, that’s done worse than the ruble’s 50 percent fall is Bitcoin, which is a fake currency that techno-utopians insist is the future we don’t know we want.

And this is only going to get worse. Russia, you see, is stuck in an economic catch-22. Its economy needs lower interest rates to push up growth, but its companies need higher interest rates to push up the ruble and make all the dollars they borrowed not worth so much. So, to use a technical term, they’re screwed no matter what they do. If they had kept interest rates low, then the ruble would have continued to disintegrate, inflation would have spiked, and big corporations would have defaulted—but at least growth wouldn’t have fallen quite so much.

Instead, Russia has opted for the financial shock-and-awe of raising rates from 10.5 to 17 percent in one fell swoop. Rates that high will send Russia’s moribund economy into a deep recession—its central bank already estimates its economy will contract 4.5 to 4.7 percent if oil stays at $60-a-barrel—but they might, just might, be enough to stop the ruble’s free fall. We’ll see. If they’re not, Russia will have to resort to capital controls to prop up the value of the ruble, and might even have to ask the IMF for a bailout.

Putin’s Russia, like the USSR before it, is only as strong as the price of oil. In the 1970s, we made the mistake of thinking that the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan meant we were losing the Cold War, when the reality was that they had stumbled into their own Vietnam and could only afford to feed their people as long as oil stayed sky-high. The USSR’s economic mirage, though, became apparent to everybody—none less than their own people, who had to scrounge in empty supermarkets—after oil prices bottomed out in the 1980s. That history is repeating itself now, just without the Marxism-Leninism. Putin could afford to invade Georgia and Ukraine when oil prices were comfortably in the triple digits, but not when they’re half that. Russia can’t afford anything then.

Putin might be playing chess while we play checkers, but only if we lend him the money for the set.

The Sydney siege – some sensible perspective

16 December 2014 The Guardian

It was the act of terror that Australia feared would come but could do little to anticipate and even less to prevent.

It arrived, characteristically, when least expected – just as the country was winding down with office Christmas parties ahead of the customary hazy summer languor of cricket, family gatherings and beach.

And then it came to an ordinarily welcoming morning coffee shop, the Lindt Chocolat cafe in Sydney’s Martin Place, in the form of Man Haron Monis.

It makes tragic little difference to the two dead hostages and the survivors, who must live forever with the terrifying legacy of their experiences, that Monis was apparently an auto-radicalised terrorist, acting partly under the banner of contorted, extreme Islam.

It already seems probable that Monis was not a remote drone acting directly for the Islamic State (Isis), as others who have come to the attention of Australian counter-terrorism authorities have allegedly been. Rather, as Tony Abbott pointed out early on Tuesday morning, he was a mentally unstable man who “cloaked his actions with the symbolism of the Isis death cult”.

Abbott’s statement is a temperate departure from comments he made a few months ago after the shooting of a Muslim man near a Sydney mosque and an earlier unrelated incident in Melbourne in which police shot dead an Islamic radical.

Commenting in September on those incidents, Abbott said:

Well obviously we saw the attack on two policemen in Victoria a month or so back. It seems there is an [Isis] death cult influence on this shooting in Sydney in the last 24 hours or so. The important thing is for all of us to absolutely reject this death cult.

But in measured statements during and after the siege yesterday and today, Abbott offered Australians much-needed assurance and empathy, rather than linking the dead terrorist firmly to Islamic State.

Notwithstanding the number of Australian men who have been drawn to the Isis fight in Syria and Iraq, and suspected terrorists already arrested and charged locally, it seems a sensible way to proceed. Abbott’s security mandarins have been on the record for some time about the danger of auto-radicalisation.

In August the then director of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (Asio), David Irvine, said “a recurring nightmare has been the so-called lone wolf, radicalised over the internet, who had managed to avoid coming across our radar”.

And with Monis – a “damaged goods individual” according to his own lawyer – it has come to pass. This is an incident to which all Australians (and citizens anywhere who assume it is safe to buy a morning coffee without becoming a hostage) can relate and, therefore, be fearful of. That is the universal potency of terrorism.

Moments such as these test political leaders. Abbott told his traumatised country:

I can think of almost nothing more distressing, more terrifying than to be caught up in such a situation and our hearts go out to these people.

It required neither more nor less. But as the siege developed, imprudent hyperbole captivated some headline writers, not least at the The Daily Telegraph, whose special edition screamed “DEATH CULT CBD ATTACK – IS takes 13 hostages in city cafe siege”.

It was, we were advised, “the instant we changed forever”.

But it wasn’t really. Australia and Australians, here and abroad, have had sufficient deadly brushes with the terrorism of contorted Islam to understand their own susceptibility. Our distance, always considered such a tyranny, offers us little safety from the darker uses of the internet, where hatred is easily spawned and the deranged easily captivated by deformed religion.

The frequently naïve chatter of social media and the white noise of rolling, 24-hour news coverage – of journalists who know nothing live crossing to those who know little more, in an endless barrage of speculation – brought new dimensions to inanity, irresponsibility and perhaps insensitivity.

A traumatised employee of the Lindt cafe, who narrowly escaped becoming a hostage with her work colleagues, was asked on air, “How do you feel … knowing that could be you?” Who is genuinely served by such an interview?

Thankfully acts of kindness reverberate in times of evil. That’s why Tessa Kum’s hashtag #Illridewithyou – an evocation of support for Muslims, who are rightly fearful of an anti-Islam backlash after the Martin Place siege – has been mentioned more than 120,000 times on Twitter.

It’s a beautifully conceived reminder that such attacks, whether carried out by Isis or a lone wolf, are antithetical to nearly all Australians.

Abbott on Tuesday morning declared there were “lessons to be learned” from what happened yesterday and overnight. As Australia winds down for the beach and the cricket and extended family time, there is plenty else besides to think about this year. There are lessons for everyone, all right.

Hostage crisis in Sydney

15 December 2014

It was 9.30am on a Monday morning – the start of a new work week.

Martin Place is in the heart of the CBD – the Lindt cafe one of many cafes where people stop on their way into the office.

People pick up a takeaway coffee or office workers sit around tables chatting.

But this was not a normal Monday morning as the Australian newspaper reports below:

“Three motorcycle police arrived and a woman still clasping her mobile phone to her ear was telling them about a gunman inside.

She had tried to enter the cafe just after I had walked out but the automatic sliding glass doors were shut.

Initially she thought the cafe was closed but saw a man with a blue bag and what she thought was a shotgun.

As police quickly swarmed and cleared the area, I turned to see a man against the window, facing out with his hands raised.

At first I was relieved, thinking this was the gunman responding to police — but soon came the awful realisation that customers were being forced against the windows.

From the outset the suggestion of a hold-up seemed remote — a cafe at 9.30am in the middle of the city seemed an unlikely target.

Police said little but pushed shoppers and commuters back as onlookers strained to seen what was going on.

Within 10 minutes car-loads of police were on the scene, wearing bullet-proof vests and some with handguns drawn. They were telling their colleagues that specialist officers were on the way.

Soon traffic along Elizabeth and Phillip streets was blocked, rail traffic through Martin Place station was halted and a massive emergency operation was under way.

My fellow customers — fellow Australians — are now in a horrific situation, the sliding doors of the cafe playing a brutal game of chance and fate in Sydney today.

It is a central, busy location, above a crucial train station and across the road from a television network newsroom — whoever has unleashed this was not after cash but impact.

Terror is in the heart of Sydney right now.”

8 hours on the siege continues – five people have been seen running out of a cafe in Sydney’s CBD where at least one armed gunman took ‘fewer than 30’ customers and staff hostage but it remains unclear whether they escaped or were freed.

The cafe remains surrounded by heavily armed New South Wales police. Some inside the cafe were apparently forced to stand at the cafe’s windows holding up a flag bearing what appears to be the Islamic creed

Bizarrely since it is now the end of the work day the crowds are swelling in Martin Place where the siege is taking place. There are hundreds of people now trying to catch a glimpse of the siege, which is likely making the police operation more difficult.

In addition there are people in the crowd drinking (it is the Xmas party season) and taking selfies. Not very appropriate.

Police eventually made contact with the gunman, who appears to be acting alone, in mid afternoon. Hostages have been made to hold a flag with Arabic writing and this has raised concern that this is an Islamic State terrorist attack.

The gunman, calling himself “The Brother” claims there are two bombs in the cafe and 2 in the CBD.

The police presence is massive. Largely shutting down the CBD. Many offices have closed – even those away from the city centre.

So far none of the hostages appear to have been hurt. Five hostages appear to have escaped suggesting that the gunman does not have complete control in the cafe. The police are asking people to be patient and this will be a waiting game.

The CIA torture report and the shaming of the USA

11 December 2014

Last Tuesday a long-awaited US Senate report was released after a five-year investigation into the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.

The report, which looked into CIA interrogation techniques under the George W. Bush administration, comes after an investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee and wrangling between the committee, the CIA and the Obama administration over how to release the report.

Only the Executive Summary was released and even parts of that are redacted, mainly to avoid disclosing names or locations. It is grim reading.

While parts of the programme had been known – and much more will never be revealed – the catalogue of abuse is nightmarish.

Detainees were forced to stand on broken limbs for hours, kept in complete darkness, deprived of sleep for up to 180 hours, sometimes standing, sometimes with their arms shackled above their heads.

Prisoners were subjected to “rectal feeding” without medical necessity. Rectal exams were conducted with “excessive force”. The report highlights one prisoner later diagnosed with anal fissures, chronic hemorrhoids and “symptomatic rectal prolapse”.

The report mentions mock executions, Russian roulette. US agents threatened to slit the throat of a detainee’s mother, sexually abuse another and threatened prisoners’ children. One prisoner died of hypothermia brought on in part by being forced to sit on a bare concrete floor without pants.

The Senate committee’s investigation, born of what its chairwoman, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, said was a need to reckon with the excesses of this war, found that CIA officials routinely misled the White House and Congress about the information it obtained, and failed to provide basic oversight of the secret prisons it established around the world.

In a speech in the Senate, moments after the report was released Tuesday morning, Ms. Feinstein described the tumultuous history of her investigation and called the C.I.A. interrogation program “a stain on our values and our history.”

She said, “History will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say ‘never again.’

The report is more than 6,000 pages long, but the committee voted in April to declassify only its 524-page executive summary and a rebuttal by Republican members of the committee. The investigation was conducted by the committee’s Democratic majority and their staffs.

Inevitably the responses to the report has largely followed partisan political lines.

Damningly the senate report found that the detention and interrogation of Mr. Zubaydah and dozens of other prisoners were ineffective in giving the government “unique” intelligence information that the C.I.A. or other intelligence agencies could not get from other means.

Basically, torturing prisoners produced unreliable or useless intelligence. There are plenty of examples even in the executive summary – just a few follow:

One CIA cable released in the report reveals that detainee Majid Khan was administered by enema his “‘lunch tray’ consisting of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts and raisins was ‘pureed and rectally infused’”. One CIA officer’s email was in the report quoted as saying “we used the largest Ewal [sic] tube we had”.

Rectal feeding is not intended as a form or sustenance – it is simply painful abuse of limited application in actually keeping a person alive or administering nutrients, since the colon and rectum cannot absorb much besides salt, glucose and a few minerals and vitamins. The CIA administered rectal rehydration to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed “without a determination of medical need” and justified “rectal fluid resuscitation” of Abu Zubaydah because he “partially refus[ed] liquids”. Al-Nashiri was given an enema after a brief hunger strike.

The CIA’s chief of interrogations characterized rectal rehydration as a method of “total control” over detainees, and an unnamed person said the procedure helped to “clear a person’s head”.

One CIA interrogator at COBALT reported that “‘literally, a detainee could go for days or weeks without anyone looking at him’, and that his team found one detainee who ‘as far as we could determine’, had been chained to a wall in a standing position for 17 days’.’ Some prisoners were said to be like dogs in kennels: “When the doors to their cells were pened, ‘they cowered.’”

In April 2006, during a CIA briefing, President George W Bush, expressed discomfort at the “image of a detainee, chained to the ceiling, clothed in a diaper, and forced to go to the bathroom on himself”. This man is thought to be Ridha al-Najjar, who was forced to spend 22 hours each day with one or both wrists chained to an overhead bar, for two consecutive days, while wearing a diaper. His incarceration was concealed from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Sleep deprivation involved keeping detainees awake for up to 180 hours, usually standing or in stress positions, at times with their hands shackled above their heads. At least five detainees experienced disturbing hallucinations during prolonged sleep deprivation and, in at least two of those cases, the CIA nonetheless continued the sleep deprivation.” One of the prisoners forced to say awake for seven-and-a-half days was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Most of this time he was forced to stand. The report says that former CIS director Michael Hayden was aware that Mohammed had been deprived of sleep for this period.

Many Republicans have said that the report is an attempt to smear both the CIA and the Bush White House. Former C.I.A. officials have already begun a vigorous public campaign to dispute the report’s findings.

But taken in its entirety, the report is a portrait of a spy agency that was wholly unprepared for its new mission as jailers and interrogators, but that embraced its assignment with vigor. The report chronicles millions of dollars in secret payments between 2002 and 2004 from the CIA to foreign officials and to third part contractors aimed at getting other governments to agree to host secret prisons, including Thailand.

The report reveals that two doctors, identified by the pseudonyms Dr Grayson Swigert and Dr Hammond Dunbar, were paid $81 million by the CIA to help develop and implement a seven-year programme that included “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding, placing detainees in stress positions and sleep deprivation.

Until now, little was known about the pair, who the New York Times has named as James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.

According to the declassifed documents, they created the programme in 2002 when the CIA took custody of Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi arrested in Pakistan and suspected of being an al-Qaeda lieutenant.

He was taken to an unnamed country, reportedly Thailand, where a prison – “detention site green” – became an experimental laboratory for Swigert and Dunbar to perfect the techniques they had learned at the US Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (Sere) school where they were based before.

During Swigert’s pitch for the programme he described 12 SERE techniques that could prove useful to the CIA. They were: “The attention grasp, walling, facial hold, facial slap, cramped confinement, standing, stress positions, sleep deprivation, water-board, use of diapers, use of insects, and mock burial.”

A year after Swigert and Dunbar began the torture (or “enhanced interrogation techniques”), a senior CIA interrogator would tell colleagues that their model at SERE was “based on resisting North Vietnamese physical torture” and “designed to extract confessions”.

Indeed, the interrogation was prioritised over the health of the detainee. One declassified cable says the interrogation team understood that “interrogation process takes precedence over preventative medical procedures”.

The CIA also provided a “indemnification agreement” to “protect the company and its employees from legal liability arising out of the programme”.

But while condemning the actions of the CIA the report is weak on its commentary on every top official whose job it was to prevent this torture from happening.

The report recasts the country’s political leadership as useful idiots for an intelligence agency gone rogue, concluding that Bush was only fully briefed on the interrogation program in 2006, as the details were coming out in the press. But it’s hard to believe that the Bush administration couldn’t have had any clue about what was really going on at the CIA.

Less than a week after the 9/11 attacks, Bush signed an order allowing the CIA to detain and interrogate terror suspects, and in February 2002, he signed “a memorandum stating that the Third Geneva Convention did not apply to the conflict with al Qaeda and concluding that Taliban detainees were not entitled to prisoner of war status or the legal protections afforded by the Third Geneva Convention,” according to a 2008 Senate Armed Services’ Committee investigation.

So: Mere months after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration was already rewriting the law to make it easy to torture detainees in U.S. custody.

So a major US government agency acted with utter disregard for human decency, implementing a program that was as incompetently managed as it was brutal. And not one person will be prosecuted.

Despite the fact that agency officials involved in the program reportedly misled Congress, the White House, and the Justice Department, the agency has so far faced no meaningful accountability for its actions. That’s because the CIA’s wrongful detentions and interrogations affected an unpopular group against whom violence can be easily justified. Americans are, at best, ambivalent about, if not supportive of, the use of torture when it comes to suspected terrorists — particularly those who can be perceived as foreign.

Indeed, when tv shows such as Homeland appear to embrace interrogation we have started to become immune to it.

The CIA didn’t go rogue. It did more or less what the Bush administration, and perhaps even the public, wanted it to do. Faced with the hawkish political climate of the post-9/11 years, Congress was too paralyzed by fear or indifference to stop them. With the gruesome details now made public, the Obama administration would like to move on like nothing happened, even though the next Republican president could overturn his 2009 order banning Bush-era torture with nothing more than a pen.

The CIA’s interrogation program was a spectacular, grisly failure. But it wasn’t theirs alone.

The Dear Leader’s core values embrace Hitler as a role model

11 December 2014

The Thai junta’s efforts to stifle the media and control the national narrative since it took power on May 22 have been well documented. Aside from plain old-fashioned censorship, it has put serious efforts into creating a wave of patriotic fervour among Thais and instilling the desired values with films and songs.

In June the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) gave out thousands of free tickets for the patriotic Thai war biopic ‘King Naresuan 5‘ and has regularly hosted free music concerts featuring music suitable for a collective “return to happiness”.

Even junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha pitched in, writing a catchy sentimentalist ballad justifying the coup – entitled ‘Return Happiness to Thailand’ – before making it a hit by flooding radio and television stations with his song. It is still played at the end of every hour on government controlled radio stations.

As Thailand’s prime minister, he also hosts a one-man TV program ‘Returning Happiness to the People’ every Friday evening when he updates the nation on the junta’s progress and reminds Thai people of their duties. With a goal to impose its own moralism on the nation, the junta’s relentless attempt to dominate the media space are unlikely to come to an end anytime soon.

Last Saturday, December 6, a new production called Thai Pride (Thai Niyom) premiered with a free screening at Major Cineplex cinemas nationwide. This latest production, commissioned by the Office of the Prime Minister, is also scheduled to be broadcast on free TV later this month. Aimed at bolstering patriotism among the Thai people, the production comprises 12 short films by 12 directors. Each of them presents one of the 12 core values which are being endlessly promoted by the junta.

These have not only been adapted into film, they have already been adopted by the Education Ministry and are being integrated into the standard curricula. Many schools have responded quickly to the idea, and the result is a number of YouTube videos of students singing, reciting and dancing to the patriotic song in an awkward melody.

Bizarrely, one of the short films features an animated section depicting young Thai students painting a picture of Adolf Hitler with a Swastika in the background. The short, entitled ’30’, was quickly removed from official YouTube channels Tuesday.

The director of a film commissioned by the junta has defended the Hitler scene. saying he “didn’t think it would be an issue.”

In the video, which reportedly is intended to promote the value of “democracy,” wholesome looking children smile as they put the final touches on a glorious painting of Hitler with his arm raised into a fist beneath a large swastika wreathed with laurels.

If Hitler is an acceptable role model for the Thai junta then there are even worse times ahead.

If it was simply a naive mistake by the director then it raises again the whole issue of education and the lack of critical reasoning and discussion.

Air Canada to fly to Dubai in 2015

11 December 2014

 Air Canada will launch non-stop service between Toronto and Dubai beginning in November 2015. The new route will extend the airline’s international network farther into the Middle East at a time of increased travel between North America and the region.

It should be noted that Air Canada has spent years lobbying the Canadian government to stop Emirates and Etihad from establishing any additional flights to Toronto beyond the six a week to Toronto that the airlines share equally.

Air Canada say that te introduction of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner has been a catalyst for international expansion plans. Air Canada’s 787s are in a high density configuration with 9 across in economy and only a 30 or 31 inch seat pitch. It terms of cabin product it will fall far behind the product of both UAE airlines.

The new route will increase Air Canada’s presence in the Middle East by providing its customers with direct, non-stop access to Dubai, complementing its other services in the region. Air Canada currently serves the region primarily through an extensive joint venture with its JV and Star Alliance partner Lufthansa over Frankfurt and Munich. In addition, the new route will build on Air Canada’s existing codeshare relationship with Etihad Airways, with whom it codeshares on three flights a week between Toronto and Abu Dhabi, in the UAE.

Since last December, Air Canada has announced new international service to Delhi, Amsterdam, Rio de Janeiro, Osaka, Tokyo-Haneda and Panama City. Including Dubai, Air Canada now serves or has announced service to a total of 66 international destinations on five continents from its Toronto global hub.

Tickets for Dubai go on sale Dec. 16, 2014 and the three-times-weekly service starts on Nov. 3, 2015.

FlightFromToDepartArriveDays of the week
AC056TorontoDubai20:5518:40 (+ 1 day)Tuesday*, Thursday, Saturday
AC057DubaiToronto23:5505:00Wednesday*, Friday, Sunday
All flights operated with the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner except where noted by (*) which are Boeing 787-8 service

The Guardian view on the continuing protests in Hong Kong

2 December 2014 – Editorial: Rule that is simultaneously timid, fearful, and harsh: China’s problem is that it cannot free itself of a mind set that values control above all else

China’s obsession with control is the enemy of sensible policy. If nothing that comes from outside the ranks of the governing elite can ever be permitted, and indeed must on principle be opposed simply because it does come from outside, the result will be rule that is simultaneously timid, fearful, and harsh. That is the lesson of Hong Kong, where both the local authorities and Beijing have made misstep after misstep. The result is that the police are still beating and arresting student demonstrators more than a month after the first, peaceful, protests against the Chinese government’s insistence that it must control who can and who cannot stand for the position of chief executive.

True, the number of demonstrators has fallen, as has popular support for their cause. True, the use of force has been, so far, relatively restrained. The situation is manageable, but that does not mean that China has won, if by winning is meant winning over that large proportion of the population of Hong Kong who want their city to have the autonomy and gradually evolving democracy they believe they were promised, and in return for which they were ready to offer a qualified loyalty to Beijing. What China has done in Hong Kong will preserve control but deepen alienation.

It will have a price, too, outside China, where it is seen as yet another indication that compromise and the Chinese communist party are strangers to each other, whether in dealing with non-Han minorities, in territorial issues with neighbours or in relations with other major states.

Taiwan is a case in point. The disastrous results for the ruling Kuomintang in the weekend’s elections there mainly reflect the unpopularity of President Ma Ying-jeou, a good man who lost his political touch, rather than than any deliberate repudiation by voters of his and his party’s relative closeness to Beijing. Yet the fact that the “one country, two systems” formula has been almost completely discredited by events in Hong Kong is part of the context. Mr Ma’s criticism of Beijing in a speech last month in which he supported the Hong Kong demonstrators and called for China to move toward constitutional democracy did him no good electorally. This may have been because voters felt that he acted less than wisely in dealing earlier this year with the Sunflower student movement, which demanded that increased trade with the mainland be monitored to prevent it being used by China to gain political influence in Taiwan.

But it is also true that the narrative of convergence to which Mr Ma tried to appeal has lost its power. The Chinese are prisoners of another narrative, in which China’s rise is a phenomenon benefiting its neighbours as much as itself, in which opponents are seen as a tiny minority manipulated by hostile powers, and in which democracy is a flawed western concept that has no relevance for China. The refusal to allow the British parliament’s foreign affairs select committee to visit Hong Kong is typical of this deeply counterproductive attitude. If there are Chinese officials who understand this, they have yet to show their hand.

Etihad’s new colour scheme

1 December 2014

My opinion may not count for much but I like this very much – bold, distinctive, original, global.

And on an A380

Etihad A6-APA by XFW-Spotter, on Flickr

How Hong Kong’s democracy protesters overplayed their hand

27 November 2014 The Conversation
Author – Niv Horesh Professor of Modern Chinese History and Director of the China Policy Institute at University of Nottingham

Time is running out for Hong Kong’s protest movement. Beijing’s last shred of patience has worn thin; police have cleared one of the protest zones in the commercial neighbourhood of Mong Kok, arresting two leading student activists.

The action comes a fortnight after Chinese president Xi Jinping, in a joint press conference with Barack Obama on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing, declared the Occupy Central group “an illegal movement”. His words left no doubt that Hong Kong’s anti-riot police would sweep away the remaining sit-ins once the world’s dignitaries had left the Chinese capital.

But the biggest blow to protesters was a recent University of a Hong Kong survey, which found that the overwhelming majority of Hong Kong citizens apparently think enough is enough: 83% are eager for the Occupy Central protests to end.

This dramatic loss of popular support could be extremely damaging for protest groups who try to remobilise the masses for similar shows of defiance further down the line, as they surely will.

So as far as this round of unrest goes, we are now moving decisively into the final act. As post mortems begin to address why the revolt has fizzled out, Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement activists may well come to regret overplaying their hand.

The movement’s members won admiration around the world. But they might have found more scope for extracting concessions on universal suffrage from Beijing had they toned down some of their more radical demands, like the call for the resignation of Hong Kong’s current chief executive, CY Leung.

Such demands moved the debate away, at least in Beijing’s eyes, from the core issue of popular say in the choice of Hong Kong’s next chief executive. Instead Beijing came to see the Umbrella Movement as a challenge to its sovereignty over the former colony – an independence movement in the making.

This perception has been extremely damaging to the activists’ calls for change. In fact, there’s much more to the protestors’ grievances than anti-Beijing sentiment, and Hong Kong’s history makes that perfectly logical.

Hong Kong has been showered with Chinese cash and favours since the handover in 1997, particularly in the wake of the global financial crisis – and yet Hong Kong has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world. As in London, a property bubble has priced out most middle-income earners and first-time buyers from the housing market.

The Occupy Central campaign has matured over the last two years partly through trade union activism to curb migration from mainland China, which has dampened wages for unskilled local workers. It’s also given voice to protests against property and infrastructure developments set to benefit the local plutocracy.

All this frustration and resentment at Hong Kong’s accelerated evolution has clouded and confused the protest leaders’ main cause: the right to genuine universal suffrage.

It was also unwise for protesters to let a sense of nostalgia for British colonial rule creep into their movement. This is a red rag to a bull as far as China goes, particularly when we consider that Hong Kong’s 1990s transformation from back-street textile sweatshop to financial mecca owed a great deal to China’s “open-door” economic policy.

It has also given China ammunition for its persistent claim that foreign governments, Britain included of course, are stoking the rebellion through their funding of local NGOs, which in turn are backing Hong Kong’s trade union movement. A recent BBC report controversially suggested that a few of the key Umbrella activists received training in Oslo two years ago on how to protest effectively – a report that Beijing no doubt views as vindication of their suspicions.

China’s leaders quickly spotted an uneasy overlap between the new strand of local patriotism professed by some Hong Kong protesters, and former Taiwanese premier Chen Shui-bian’s attempt to rinse Taiwan of its Chinese heritage – a policy that almost sparked a disastrous war across the Taiwan Strait.

Given that Hong Kong under British rule was hardly a paragon of democratic transparency, until the 1970s at least, it should surprise no-one that the Chinese government finds nostalgia for the colonial era so deeply irritating.

In fact, before Murray MacLehose, British governor of the territory between 1971 and 1982, turned the colony’s fortunes around and cemented the rule of law, Hong Kong’s civil service and police force were widely considered corrupt. It wasn’t until 1974 that Chinese became the official language and ethnic Chinese residents were appointed to senior posts in the civil service.

Ultimately, Beijing’s elite finds it unthinkable that any Hong Konger could think life was better under colonial rule, making it even less likely to offer any concessions. This is why a decision by breakaway groups within the protest movement to tactically push the envelope beyond the technicalities of universal suffrage appears to have backfired.

Bangkok Post Reporter Retracts Interview With Yingluck

26 November 2014 Khaosod English

So here is what the Bangkok Post printed on Monday – and here is how it was revised by Tuesday morning. Remarkable on so many levels:

The Bangkok Post, Thailand’s most established English-language newspaper, published “Yingluck Saw the Coup Coming” by Wassana Nanuam on 24 November in its print edition.

Billed as the first interview with Ms. Yingluck since the military staged a coup against her government on 22 May 2014, the piece gained considerable attention almost immediately after it was made available.

Ms. Yingluck was quoted as saying that she was contemplating running in the next election, and that since her first day as Prime Minister she had expected to be ousted either by the military or by one of Thailand’s “independent agencies.” The remarks were considered unusually strong for the former PM, who is known for her modest speeches.

Credibility shot through in one act of self censorship. Both of the newspaper and one of its higher profile reporters who always claims to have strong links to, and generally (no pun intended) favour the military.

This was a major scoop for the Post who billed the report as Yingluck’s “first public interview since she was ousted.”

A Yingluck interview is remarkable in itself, as she is prohibited by the NCPO from commenting on politics after being detained post the coup by the military and only released after agreeing to refrain from political activity.

The comments in her interview were blunt and clear; “I knew from the first day I was prime minister that if it wasn’t cut short by the independent agencies or the judiciary, it would be a coup”.

Most provocatively, Yingluck said that she felt as if she were being metaphorically held at gunpoint by the military: “I did my best to fulfil my duty as a prime minister installed via an election and who preserved democracy… It’s the same as if the people had handed me the car keys and said I must drive and lead the country. Then suddenly, someone points a gun at my head and tells me to get out of the car while I’m at the wheel driving the people forward.”

The article focused entirely on politics with Yingluck stating that “if in 2016 there is a general election and she is still qualified to stand, she intends to run for parliament.”

By Tuesday evening the Bangkok Post had deleted the article from its website and replaced it with a completely rewritten version, headlined “Yingluck focuses on family, not politics”. See above. The revised version’s emphasis is entirely on Yingluck’s private life, with no political content, making it the exact opposite of the original.

The new, much shorter version removes all of the quotes from the original, replacing them with a single new quote: “I’ve put all my energy in [sic.] taking care of my son… growing mushroom [sic.], reading books and writing. That’s all”. It was clearly hastily rewritten, as it was not proof-read before publication. It’s also intentionally bland and without any news value.

so what happened. On her Facebook page the reported – Wassana – denies that the iinterview ever took place and that she prepared the report from a number of different conversations and it was then edited by the Post into the story that was published. Sorry. But that sounds utterly false. So what were the writer’s motivations, as Wassana sometimes acts as a military mouthpiece and she is certainly experienced enough to know the difference between on- and off-the-record conversations?

Wassana said that “I just wanted to present lighthearted and colourful angles [of former PM Yingluck]. I didn’t want to focus on politics,” Wassana wrote. “Let me insist that this is not an interview. It’s a recollection of lighthearted and colourful topics about the former Madam Prime Minister.”

According to Wassana, the editors at Bangkok Post “misunderstood” the intention of her article when they edited the piece.

“They may have looked at the heavy angles and raised them into points that are different to what the author intended to present, but I recognise it as the error on my own part.”

She concluded, “I’d like to take responsibility for any [errors] that were caused by the lack of clear communication from my article. I know that I will be criticised and scolded by many sides.”

A self-styled “military reporter,” Wassana is known to be close with many high-ranking generals in the Thai armed forces, including Gen. Prayuth, who is now ruling Thailand as chairman of the military junta and Prime Minister.

She has published numerous books based on the “inside information” she has accumulated from her influential sources. Her most recent work, “The Path of the Tiger: Prayuth Chan-ocha,” was published in October.

The former leader has not publicly reacted to the “interview” by Wassana.

Prime Minister Prayut has now threatened to bar ousted premier Yingluck Shinawatra from travelling abroad, a day after the publication of her first media interview since May’s coup.

“I am considering it and have asked my security staff to look into it,” Prayut told reporters after a weekly cabinet meeting in response to a question on whether the junta would bar Yingluck from traveling abroad following Monday’s interview. “We have clear rules. If something triggers chaos or unrest we have measures … If she wants to go overseas then she will not be able to go,” he said.

The reality is that Wassana amost certainly did interview Yingluck? Then Wassana’s miltary conntacts took offense and demanded that the article be retracted. And the Bangkok Post – with the backbone of a jellyfish forced an embarrassing retraction.

Police purge in Thailand

26 November 2014

Update – there is a much more revealing story on the Palace intrigue here on Asia Sentinel.

A number of Thai policemen have been charged for offences ranging from accepting bribes to insulting the monarchy as a probe that has led to the arrest of two senior officers widens.

Thailand’s lese-majeste law is the world’s harshest and makes it a crime to defame, insult or threaten the king, queen, heir to the throne or regent. It is rare for high-ranking officials to face charges of lese majeste.

The first arrests were of Police Lieutenant General Pongpat Chayaphan, commissioner of the Central Investigation Bureau, and his deputy Police Major General Kowit Wongrungroj. They were accused of using the royal establishment for personal benefit, said police spokesman Lieutenant General Prawut Thavornsiri.

A total of twelve people have been charged in relation to the case that involves the seven police officers, Prawut told Reuters.

A search of Pongpat and Kowit’s homes revealed assets worth a total of more than a billion baht ($30 million), he said. These claims have been supported by pictures that look like the pursuit of treasure trives.

At a press conference in Bangkok on November 26, the country’s police chief displayed pictures of what he said were assets worth 61 million USD taken from the suspects’ homes.

Pongpat was head of the Crime Suppression Bureau, a division of the CIB, during the arrest of notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in a joint sting with the FBI in 2008.

Why the high profile arrests and why now? There is much conjecture in Thailand and much of it cannot be spoken. The government suggest this is part of a wider anti-corruption purge. Others that it is removing pro-Thaksin supporters from the police force. But many suggest that the arrests are not part of anti-Thaksin or even anti-corruption purge.

It is very hard to report on these events. Thailand has a law which outlaws any critical comment on monarchy. Those inside Thailand must take care not to break it. Those outside Thailand can of course report freely – but hard facts on this issue are v difficult to find.

News agencies in Thailand have trouble reporting a version that makes much sense. There is too much they can neither say or ask.

Meanwhile analysts say the latest arrests are evidence of Prayuth fortifying his position rather than tackling corruption. A staunch royalist, the 60-year-old appears to be targeting the institution of the police, which is known to largely support the powerful family of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

However, others say the purge is more related to the sensitive subject of royal succession. Deposed CIB chief Pongpat is known to be close to the Crown Prince he frequently wears a pin with a photo of the royal couple’s son, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti. Pongpat is the uncle of the Royal Consort Princess Srirasm — and three of his associates arrested Wednesday are also her relatives, including her brother, Natthapol Akkharaphongpricha.

Many accuse Thailand’s police department of being one of the country’s most corrupt institutions. Indeed.

The purge will weaken and neuter the police as a center of pro-Thaksinism. But there is likely to be much more to follow on this story.

Amnesty: UAE in unprecedented clampdown on dissent

18 November 2014

For the most obvious of reasons I will be cautious in my comments here.

In a new report published today Amnesty International reports that the United Arab Emirates has quietly mounted “an unprecedented clampdown on dissent” since 2011, with more than 100 political activists jailed or prosecuted for calling for political reforms.

The full report can be found here.

It is important that Amnesty’s work is not ignored. Even the UAE authorities must realise that constantly promoting the glitz and glamour of Dubai can only do so much to cover up other issues that require their attention and that are part of the debate about the governance and future of the nation.

I have in the past defended the UAE and Dubai strongly against some of the less-evidence based attacks from western media. But Amnesty International is an oranisation that I support; that does important work throughout the world and reports events that should be heard and acted upon.

The nearly 80-page report said that the Western-allied Gulf state projects an image of glitz and glamour, but that beneath this facade lies “a much uglier reality, where activists who dare to challenge the authorities or speak out in favour of greater democracy and government accountability are thrown into jail”.

The UAE, home to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, is ruled by families, like much of the energy-rich Gulf. There are no political parties and foreigners greatly outnumber locals.

Amnesty International said there was a “huge gulf between the public image the UAE tries to project of a dynamic, modern and burgeoning economic power, home to luxury hotels, skyscrapers and designer shopping malls; and the darker reality of activists routinely persecuted and subjected to enforced disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment.”

The London-based rights group said authorities responded to its report – titled “‘There is no freedom here’: Silencing dissent in the UAE” – by saying that the promotion of human rights is an “ongoing process”. The UAE currently serves as a member of the UN Human Rights Council.

The clampdown began after 133 people signed a petition calling for the right to an elected parliament in 2011. The move coincided with Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Soon after, a mass trial of 94 people with alleged links to the Islamist al-Islah, or Reform, group saw 69 defendants convicted and given prison sentences ranging from seven to 15 years. They were accused of seeking to seize power. Some were stripped of citizenship.

Arguably this is a domestic issue. An Emirati issue. But in a nation where over 80% of residents are foreigners it is important to project an image both of control and of transparent and open leadership.

A Kingdom in Crisis

17 November 2014

A Kingdom in Crisis – Andrew MacGregor Marshall – Zed Books

Perhaps the most depressing thing about Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s new book – A Kingdom in Cirisis – is that no one – except perhaps for the author – emerges from this sorry tale with any credit. It is a tale of greed, oppression and power. There is not a single likeable character.

It is hard in 220 pages to share every detail of the history, back-deals, political about-turns, scheming and subterfuge that has underpinned Thai politics in the 21st century. There are moments in the book when the reader hopes for a more detailed explanation or evidential support of Mr. Marshall’s statements. Yet their is no doubt that the author has a detailed knowledge of his subject; that he has a wide range of sources and that he has pulled his difficult material together into an engaging and compelling tale.

Perhaps the other issue with the book is that it is addressing a moving target. The final chapter is still to be written, and the book’s last chapter “What the future holds” is the weakest chapter of the book because it depends upon speculation; albeit informed speculation.

Distribution and possession of the book in Thailand has already been banned by the Thai police.

That is a terrible shame. The only way for Thailand to successfully move forward is to have a wide and open debate about the respective roles of the monarchy, the army and the people. That is not going to happen in a climate of fear.

Mr. Marshall is excellent in debunking the army’s myths about the need for the 2014 coup.

” to give spurious legitimacy to their coup, the junta insisted democracy in Thailand was not working, due to intractable positions of politicians on all sides….in fact democracy had not failed in Thailand. It had been wilfuly sabotaged by the traditional establishment, and Suthep Thaungsuban’s extremist street movement and the acquiescence of the military. They had conspired to make Thailand ungovernable…Paranoid, authoritarian and repressive, the junta hunkered down to cling to power….”

Mr. Marshall’s vision of the future for Thailand is far from encouraging; effectively pitting two elite sides against one another. His note of optimism lies with the people….concluding that “for a country cursed by the legacy of its history, just looking to the future at all – and talking about it openly – represents a victory over the dead hand of the past.”

This is a book that could not have been written in Thailand. It is a book that no news agency or media outlet in Thailand can review. But it is a book that anyone interested in the future of Thailand should read. And, to be honest, it should be a book that all Thais have access to. While Thais may not agree with Mr. Marshall’s analysis it gives them an insight that no Thai text book can or will provide.

More self-serving insights on Dubai from Oxford Economics

17 November 2014

Emirates and Dubai Airports have both issued press releases announcing an update on the 2011 Oxford Economics report on the impact of the aviation sector on Dubai\s economy.

The trouble with this report is that it is far from independent. As Emirates says on its own website – “In a joint-project with Dubai Airports, Emirates commissioned a report from leading global research firm Oxford Economics to assess the impact the aviation industry has on the Dubai economy. The study examines the aviation sector’s contribution to GDP and employment. This is an update from the 2011 report, and presents results for 2013/14 as well as forecasting for 2020 and 2030.”

So – lets get this right. A third party has been paid to tell Emirates and Dubai Airports how valuable they are to the Thai economy.

Calling Oxford Economics a leading globall research firm is stretching credibility. They are a for hire firm that appears to carry out commissioned work rather than acting as independent research analysts with research made available to market participants.

Here are a few highlights from the report:

Emirates airline, Dubai Airports and the aviation sector as a whole contributed $26.7 billion to the Dubai economy in 2013, which was almost 27% of Dubai’s GDP and supported a total of 416,500 jobs accounting for 21% of the emirates’ total employment.

For every $100 of activity in the aviation sector, a further $72 is added in other sectors of the local economy from supply chain connections and expenditures. For every 100 jobs created in aviation, an additional 116 jobs are created elsewhere in Dubai.

Using industry growth forecasts and modelling projections based on current expansion plans for Dubai International (DXB) and Al Maktoum International at Dubai World Central (DWC), it is estimated that the overall economic impact of both aviation and tourism related activities will rise to a robust $53.1 billion in 2020. This will be equivalent to 37.5% of Dubai’s GDP, supporting over 754,500 Dubai-based jobs.

By 2020, it is estimated that Emirates will fly 70 million passengers, and the airline and its partners are already progressing plans for the right infrastructure to be in place to support and capitalise on passenger growth. The same year, Dubai expects to welcome over 20 million visitors for Expo 2020. Projects to support the six month mega-event in Dubai are already underway. This includes a sizable increase in airport capacity which encompasses expansion of airspace, airfield, stands and terminal areas to allow Dubai International to accommodate 60% more aircraft stands by 2015, and service 90 million passengers by 2018. By 2020, Dubai International is estimated to receive 126.5 million passengers, almost 30% higher than its original 2010 assessments.

Looking further ahead, the total economic impact of aviation by 2030 is projected to grow to $88.1 billion and will support 1,194,700 jobs.

The trouble with this report is that it is in no way independent however Emirates and Dubai Airports try to dress it up. It is as though the facts and data were produced locally and a third party was asked to put its name to the report to give it credibility.

It is interesting; but it is just more of the typical Dubai self-congratulation.

And maybe Dubai Airports could do something about its customer service as marketing and reality are so very different.

Last night EK106 landed at 10pm and parked at a remote gate. We were taken by bus to the concourse building. There was no one to greet the bus and people did not know whether to head left to arrivals or right to transfer. There needs to be someone there to direct and help passengers.

The bags eventually appeared at 11.10pm.

The airports wifi – 30 minutes free if you can get connected. I cannot be the only one who cannot get connected.

Reality check needed Dubai Airports. Not good enough.

Cabin crew life

15 November 2014

One day – after we leave Dubai – I will publish more thoughts on the role of cabin crew at Emirates and how they are managed.

Suffice it to say for now that there is little evidence of management. Crew are rostered; crew are instructed; crew are not managed. Management is by stick not carrot. Management appears to be by threat rather than motivation. And to be honest I doubt EK cares; there are plenty of people lining up to take the job of every leaver.

In the meantime the pilots at pprune.org have recently been sharing some thoughts on how the cabin crew are treated and it is worth repeating a few notes here. These are quotes directly from the web site.

“If we as pilots screw up and get called into the office it is marked as duty (IV) in our rosters. Cabin crew on the other hand seem to be called in frequently on their days off, even during required ULR rest, without any record of it. Is this legal?”

“I (personally) don’t think it is but the cabin crew are all too terrified to say or do anything about it. Until they stand up for themselves and say, “No, I won’t come in on a day off (especially a legally required day off).” nothing will change. Heck, they won’t even call in sick when they can barely stand up.

“I’m not entirely blaming the crew for this – it is exactly the scenario their management have worked very hard to cultivate.”

“From what I’m hearing from several sources, the cabin crew are indeed starting to stand up to EK by leaving… to the tune of 900 per month! Have flown with several FG1’s who were not happy that the Nov roster had them flying as G2’s the entire month and after asking why, were told because we have a shortage of G2s. Just what I’ve heard from the crews…”

“On a similar note, I do know for a fact that the cabin crew are going for the fatigue reports big time. There is a real push amongst pursers for crew to fill in these forms and they’re being submitted in increasingly large numbers. Numbers needed for next 4-5 years are around 8000 new cabin crew. With 1000 now leaving for every new 2000 that join, that would mean a recruitment target of over 12,000 in 4 years. That’s 2/3rd of our current cc workforce recruited in 48 months, give or take. Now that will be interesting to watch!”

“What the Company needs to do is start treating them like adults and human beings, rather than robots. TD is filtering feedback, even from other VP’s and his managers so that he can eek out another few years of big pay and bonus before he retires. The chaos he created will become all too obvious when he eventually departs! It’s so messed up in that department, it’s not funny.”

The average length of employment for EK cabin crew is about four years. It is not a career. Just a short term opportunity. It is a shame.

Hong Kong’s umbrella protests are here to stay

13 November 2014 Ian Rowan in the Guardian

The movement is cosmopolitan, inclusive, and networked – and Beijing’s scope for a Tiananmen-style crackdown is limited

As world leaders meet in Beijing for the Apec forum, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy umbrella movement continues. Even if the tens of thousands of protesters who poured on to the streets after the police launched 87 rounds of teargas at students on 28 September have shrunk in number, the occupations have endured far longer than anyone expected.

Although the protest’s goals may not be met before the next major election, in 2017, it has already succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its originators. None of them expected the occupation to get this big or last this long.

More cosmopolitan, inclusive, and networked than previous social movements in the region, the umbrella revolution is arguably “the first ever genuine movement for freedom on Chinese soil,” as a visitor from Beijing put it to me last week. We were speaking next to my tent, in the Admiralty occupation, where I have been camping in order to conduct research on mainland Chinese people’s engagement with political protests and to examine what that entails for the future of the region.

While the endgame still remains just out of sight, new shades of local colour have come into view. On 5 November, a contingent of Cantonese speakers wearing red-tinted Guy Fawkes masks paraded through the streets. The next day, a group of yellow umbrella-bearing secondary students, organised informally via WhatsApp instant messenger, formed the shape of the Chinese character for “umbrella” and sang odes of freedom to media crews.

As rain fell on Friday night, middle-class families distributed ginseng tea to occupiers huddled in makeshift but well-stocked supply stations.

History was made the next day, when Hong Kong’s annual gay pride parade culminated in Tamar park, adjacent to the Admiralty occupation. Entering a sea of rainbow umbrellas, leaders from the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), the most prominent of the pro-democracy activists, joined the event, linking their call for genuine universal suffrage to wider concerns for social justice.

Sunday ended with a march to the China Liaison Office, responsible for coordinating the policies of the Beijing leadership with the Hong Kong administration, where an estimated 1,000 protesters placed yellow ribbons around the railings.

The same day in grey Beijing the embattled Hong Kong chief executive, CY Leung, who protesters have demanded steps down, received a public vow of support from the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.

A day prior to that, the former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, who students had hoped would help open communication channels with the Chinese Communist party, had said the central leadership would not change its position.

And most recently, on 11 November, the acting chief secretary, Carrie Lam, Leung’s second-in-command, told reporters there was no room for negotiation. The situation thus remains a stalemate, at least until the protesters or the government take some major action.

Such a move will not be easy for either side. Beijing’s aspersions about sinister western forces aside, no one group is directing this occupation. Although HKFS was recently found to be the territory’s most popular political group in a Hong Kong University poll, receiving more public support than any pro-Beijing or pan-democrat party, they are not in charge. Even if they or Scholarism – another prominent student group, led by the 18-year-old Joshua Wong – issued calls to retreat, it is far from certain that all demonstrators would heed them.

The government also has its hands tied. Given the high degree of international media attention Hong Kong received after earlier police actions, an immediate, Tiananmen-style crackdown is unlikely. Teargas and pepper spray might just send more people back into the streets.

While the Leung administration may be preparing to clear the occupation with force, it could just as well be betting that it will win a war of attrition. But subtropical Hong Kong is not New York, where Occupy Wall Street faltered when it faced a cold winter and a lack of clear demands.

Although the numbers of people protesting in Hong Kong may fluctuate or dwindle, the occupation is still unlikely to be cleared without force or a significant concession from the government.

All options bode badly for leaders in Beijing still trying to stage manage the appearance of China’s “peaceful rise”. While they may attempt to dismiss the dreams of Hong Kong’s youth and the sympathies of a strained civil society, they do so at their own peril. The occupation cannot last forever. But neither can a regime ignore the demands of a population that has demonstrated its capability to carry out a sustained campaign of civil disobedience.

Trams arrive in Dubai

13 November 2014

The Dubai Tram opened to the public at 6.30am on Wednesday this week, offering a trip every 10 minutes during peak hours and every 12 minutes during non-peak hours.

The service will travel on a loop from Al Sufouh up to Dubai Marina, around the development and back again, on a track that runs 10.6km in total. Each journey will pass 11 stations, including Dubai Knowledge Village, Dubai Media City, Dubai Internet City, Dubai Marina and Al Sufouh Road, and the entire vehicle will carry up to 405 commuters at any one time.

The tram is integrated into the general tranport network, connected with Dubai Metro at two stations in Dubai Marina – Damac station and Jumeirah Lakes Towers station. The network is also linked to Palm Jumeirah’s Monorail at Palm Jumeirah station, which is also equipped with an extensive parking area, taxi lay-bys and a footbridge.

With one Gold cabin, four Silver cabins and two cabins for women and children, each tram has a capacity to carry 405 passengers.

A Silver class trip on the tram will cost AED3 irrespective of the distance travelled, while the Gold class fare will be AED6. As with all modes of transport, payment of fares for Dubai Tram will be made only through the Unified Automated Fare Collection system, Nol.

The route’s current incarnation is only at phase one. Tenders for phase two – expanding the network by 5km to reach the Burj Al Arab and Mall of the Emirates – will be taken next year, with the entire project set to be completed before 2020.

Emirates posts continued growth

12 November 2014

Emirates Airline today reported a half year net profit of AED1.9 billion ($514 million), a year-on-year increase of 8 percent, despite issues such as the disruption caused by the upgrading of the Dubai airport runway and the cancellation of some flights to Africa due to the Ebola outbreak; although the impact of the Ebola outbreak is primarily on travel since 1 October 2014 and could impact the second half of the year.

During the first half of the financial year 2014-15, Emirates reported continued business growth, with revenue of AED44.2 billion, a rise of 11 percent year-on-year.

Capacity measured in Available Seat Kilometres (ASKM), grew by 6.5 percent, whilst passenger traffic carried measured in Revenue Passenger Kilometres (RPKM) was up 9.8 percent. The airline carried 23 million passengers during the six month period and Passenger Seat Factor (PSF) averaged 81.5 percent, compared with 79.2 percent last year. The volume of cargo carried also increased by 5.4 percent.

There has been a slow down in the rate of increase in passenger numbers from 13% for the full year to 31 March 2014 to the 7% reported for this half year. That can be attributed to the Dubai runway closures and a reduction of some 26% in Emirates flights; although larger aircraft were used where possible to maintain capacity.

During the first six months period, Emirates received 13 wide-body aircraft – 6 A380s, 7 Boeing 777s, with 11 more new aircraft scheduled to be delivered before the end of the financial year in March 2015.

In terms of destinations, Emirates expanded its global route network by launching services to four new destinations – Abuja, Chicago, Oslo, and Brussels – bringing its total number of destinations to 146 across 83 countries, up from 137 cities in 77 countries last year. There must have been five new cargo destinations to generate this number.

Parent holding company, The Emirates Group, reported overall half-yearly revenues reached AED47.5 billion ($12.9 billion) for the period, up 12 percent year-on-year. As a result, net profit rose 1 percent to AED2.2 billion.

Its travel services operation, dnata, reported revenue rose 24 percent to AED4.6 billion, while overall profit dropped 26 percent to AED339 million, mainly due to the impact of the runway works at Dubai International Airport and the costs incurred to set up and launch handling operations at Dubai World Central.

Overall, The Emirates Group reported its employee base had increased 5 percent to over 79,000 in the six months.

Emirates Issues U.S. Challenge as Superjumbos Pour Over Atlantic

12 November 2014 via Bloomberg

Emirates, the biggest airline on international routes, said it will deploy Airbus Group NV (AIR) A380s to more and more U.S. cities as it swells the world’s biggest superjumbo fleet with 13 new planes through the end of 2015.

Dubai-based Emirates switched to A380s on its Dallas route on Oct. 1 and will upgrade San Francisco and Houston flights in December, with further U.S. destinations set to get the double-decker, Chief Commercial Officer Thierry Antinori said today.

Emirates also added three wholly new U.S. routes in 2012, followed by Milan-New York in 2013, and has opened Boston and Chicago this year. The move to A380s on services established using smaller Boeing Co. (BA) 777s will challenge U.S. and European carriers that have dominated trans-Atlantic flying for decades while employing capacity constraint to keep prices buoyant.

“In the future we will continue to open destinations and introduce A380s in more cities because the market just wants and likes this airplane,” Antinori said, adding that U.S. demand is increasing both for Gulf flights — with Dubai “developing strongly” — and onward services to locations such as India.

Emirates will have 68 A380s in operation by the end of 2015 compared with 55 today, having boosted the fleet from 44 as of Jan. 8. The carrier has orders for a total of 140 superjumbos after topping up an initial contract for 90 planes with a $20 billion deal for 50 more at the Dubai Air Show last November.

Antinori, who spoke in Dubai, said that it’s not simply the case that Emirates has stripped traffic away from Western network carriers such as his former employer Deutsche Lufthansa AG, but that the A380 has also stimulated demand.

Whereas the top 20 European airlines carrying 400 million passengers a year have 30 A380s between them — in service with three carriers — Emirates has almost double that number.

“We did that by stimulating the market,” he said. “It’s not shifting business from the competition, our competitors are not smaller than before. But I think we give good reason for people to fly more.”

The wall came tumbling down

9 November 2014

25 years ago today the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and the city and its country were re-united as one.

The Berlin Wall had gone up in August 1961. It was the ultimate symbol of the cold war. Of distrust between people. Of different ideologies. Of the state versus the individual.

The wall divided families, a city, a nation and a Continent.

The wall was meant to halt the tide of defectors from the repressive and communist East Germany into West Berlin. Over the years, at least 138 people would die trying to cross the no man’s land dividing the city.

“The horror of the wall is hardly imaginable for young people today,” said Frank Ebert, a former East German dissident and one of the organizers of the balloon event on Sunday, called the Lichtgrenze — or border of light. Ebert, although only 19 at the time of the fall of the wall, had already been arrested several times.

East German authorities, hit by massive protests and a resurgent flood of defectors, ultimately agreed to allow crossings starting Nov. 10, 1989. But an announcement a day earlier caused a flood of East Germans to rush the wall on Nov. 9, with shocked guards watching on as scores of civilians scaled its ramparts.

Its fall was not a triumph of western values or a victory for freedom. It was a win for people who wanted to change the system from Russian Premier Gorbachev to families in East Berlin.

Tonight 8,000 balloons were released into the night sky over Berlin. But 25 years after the fall of the wall that divided the city for three decades we appear to still be mired in a new cold war.

Speaking at a symposium near the Brandenburg Gate yesterday morning Mikhail Gorbachev strongly criticised the west for having sown the seeds of the current crisis by mishandling the fallout from the collapse of the iron curtain.

“Instead of building new mechanisms and institutions of European security and pursuing a major demilitarisation of European politics … the west, and particularly the United States, declared victory in the cold war,” said the man behind the Soviet Union’s glasnost and perestroika reforms.

“Euphoria and triumphalism went to the heads of western leaders. Taking advantage of Russia’s weakening and the lack of a counterweight, they claimed monopoly leadership and domination in the world.”

Remember Gorbachev has been a strong critic of Vladimir Putin so his views are worth listening to and likely reflect the feelings of the majority of his countrymen and women.

Such strong words of criticism, voiced by the man still affectionately known as “Gorbi” to many in Germany, came at the end of a week which has seen the value of the rouble tumbling dramatically as a result of western sanctions.

The celebrations in Berlin, attended by some 2 million Berliners on a freezing cold night, mark the culmination of a remarkable chain of events which resulted in the opening of border checkpoints in Berlin on the night of 9 November 1989.

The centrepiece of the festivities was the installation of 8,000 white balloons that had been pegged to the ground along the former border. After sunset, they lit up to form a 15km-long “wall of light”. Tonght the balloons were released into the air one by one, to the music of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

Something there is that does not love a wall…

Mr. Obama should speak up in support of Hong Kong protesters

9 November 2014 – Washington Post editorial

More than five weeks after they blocked roads into three of Hong Kong’s most prominent districts, pro-democracy protesters haven’t given up or gone away. Hundreds are encamped in neat rows of tents on a highway in the Admiralty district, near government offices, and any move by police to clear the site would likely bring out thousands more. A recent poll showed that the Hong Kong Federation of Students, a leader of the protests, has become the most popular political organization in the city.

Despite their staying power and political success, the students are understandably frustrated. In their sole negotiating meeting two weeks ago, local authorities rejected demands that China’s Communist rulers be petitioned to revise rules for the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive that exclude candidates not approved by Beijing. Consequently, student leaders are discussing whether to travel to the mainland in an attempt to “have a direct dialogue with Beijing officials,” as student leader Alex Chow told reporters last week. Mr. Chow and his fellow students are evidently hoping to impress not just President Xi Jinping but also the leaders he will host next week at an Asia-Pacific summit — including President Obama.

Most likely the pro-democracy students won’t be allowed anywhere near the summit — or Beijing, for that matter. But Mr. Obama, who pledged in September to step up support for pro-democracy movements, even when it “causes friction,” ought to take a cue. Though he can’t oblige Mr. Xi to listen to the students, he can make clear that the United States supports their call for genuinely free elections.

Remarkably, the president and his administration so far have failed to do that. On the contrary: A statement issued by the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong in September declared that “we do not take sides in the discussion of Hong Kong’s political development, nor do we support any particular individuals or groups involved in it.” A subsequent State Department statement, intended to correct that shameful dodge, was choked with convoluted wording. “The legitimacy of the chief executive would be greatly enhanced,” it timidly ventured, if the election “provides the people of Hong Kong a genuine choice of candidates representative of the voters’ will.”

Mr. Obama and national security adviser Susan Rice were reported in another statement to have raised “developments in Hong Kong” with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at an Oct. 1 White House meeting. That communication, too, was weak: The “universal suffrage” Mr. Obama was said to have called for is already part of the regime’s controlled election plan.

U.S. officials flinch from raising the topic of Hong Kong democracy because they believe it will bring a furious response from a regime that already claims that the Hong Kong protests were instigated by the United States. But as Mr. Obama put it in September, it is important to speak up even when doing so is uncomfortable — and even when it may not bring immediate results. Mr. Xi may not be moved by Mr. Obama, but the president’s support for the students — spoken clearly and in public — would encourage and inspire pro-democracy advocates all over Asia. Silence will do nothing for U.S.-China relations — only embolden those who favor a crackdown in Hong Kong.

The Blair money machine in Thailand

7 November 2014

Tony Blair, once British PM and now available for hire, arrived in Bangkok last week. Blair was in Thailand as keynote speaker of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (Thailand). But the office of Prime Minister and coup-leader Prayut was quick to take advantage of the visit for a handshake and some creative news report writing.

Sadly Mr. Blair does not get out of bed unless he is being paid to do so. But what on earth was he thinking by shaking hands with the Thai coup leader and dictator. Prayut was shunned by western leaders at the ASEM meeting in Milan. His only friends appear to be in Myanmar, Cambodia and possibly in China.

But Blair’s handshake gives Prayut some credibility. Or perhaps it was the other way around!

In a news release the Thai government said that the two mostly discussed the Thai political situation and the Thai government’s future plans. The report noted that Blair wanted to introduce himself to the new Thai premier and bolster the friendship between Thailand and the UK.

The government report said that:

“On this occasion, Gen Prayut gave Mr. Blair a warm welcome and lauded him for his roles in the resolution of global conflicts.

The Thai Prime Minister then spoke of recent political happenings in Thailand, saying the deep-rooted conflicts had long been an obstacle to national development and economic growth. Therefore, he saw the need to take action to urgently address the problem and restore national stability as well as public safety.

In response, the former British premier confirmed he understood the reasoning behind Gen Prayut’s move to seize power and the urgency of resolving the national conflicts. He expressed confidence in the government’s ability to move the country forward in all dimensions while encouraging it to continue clarifying its plans for future political and economic directions to the international community.”

Now this is a press release from the Thai military government so inevitably much of it is make believe.

But the Blair team was obviously concerned enough to issue its own statement on the meeting suggesting that Mr Blair offered a less than ringing endorsement of Prayuth’s government.

“Statement by the Office of Tony Blair on the meeting with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha

Tuesday, Nov 04, 2014 in Office of Tony Blair

Tony Blair met with the Thai Prime Minister during the course of his visit to Thailand. In line with EU and UK Government policy, he stressed the need for democratic elections in 2015 and a return to civilian rule; restoration of the normal legal framework and the necessity for the government to abide fully by its human rights standards under the ICCPR.

Tony Blair and the PM discussed the situation in Thailand, its political complexity and the challenge of ensuring stability whilst returning to the democratic path. The PM asked for understanding of the position of Thailand.

Mr Blair has visited Thailand several times since leaving office, he has taken a keen interest in its political troubles and participated in the 2013 Conference in Bangkok convened by the then Government to try and find a way to unify the country.

Tony Blair and the PM discussed the situation in Thailand, its political complexity and the challenge of ensuring stability whilst returning to the democratic path. The PM asked for understanding of the position of Thailand.

Mr Blair has visited Thailand several times since leaving office, he has taken a keen interest in its political troubles and participated in the 2013 Conference in Bangkok convened by the then Government to try and find a way to unify the country.”

The trouble is Blair may think he is helping. In fact he just finds himself being used.

Blair jets around the world in a black and gold livery Global Express BD-700 owned by an unnamed individual and hired out by Hampshire-based leasing company Aravco. Blair is like damaged goods and is very unpopular in the UK. But in his pomp he was the man who almost single-handedly rescued the Labour Party and lead it to successive election victories.

His disastrous support of GW Bush and the Iraq invasion may end up as his legacy. For some years he embodied liberal hawkishness and democracy promotion, now he is shilling for ugly dictatorships around the world. He was a pious, moralistic leader who wagered his career on bringing down Saddam Hussein through a war he portrayed as a humanitarian imperative. Now the contrast with his public sector service is striking.

In 2008 Blair accepted an advisory post at the American investment bank JP Morgan. According to the Financial Times in 2012, it “pays him about £2.5m a year”. In 2011, through a consulting firm he swiftly created after Downing Street, Tony Blair Associates, he began advising oil-rich, authoritarian Kazakhstan.

Visiting Egypt, Blair defended the 2013 overthrow of the elected government of Mohamed Morsi: “The fact is, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to take the country away from its basic values … The army have intervened, at the will of the people, but in order to take the country to the next stage of its development.

Blair is now shaking the hand of the Thai dictator.

In Blairland, there is a sense of: ‘I have become part of the Davos global elite. But I haven’t been able to earn properly until now.'”

Blair post politics career has certainly lined his pocket. Since moving out of Downing Street, Blair’s London home has been a capacious cream and dark brick terrace in Connaught Square, near Hyde Park, with a substantial mews house behind and armed policemen perpetually guarding both. His country residence, acquired in 2008, is even grander: a Queen Anne mansion in Buckinghamshire called South Pavilion, with swimming pool and tennis court.

The Blair empire does have some high-minded elements. His website lists the Tony Blair Faith Foundation (“to promote respect and understanding about the world’s major religions”); the Tony Blair Sports Foundation (“to increase participation in sport … particularly by those who are currently socially excluded”); work on “African governance” and “breaking the climate deadlock”; and his role as representative of the international quartet, on behalf of the UN, EU, the US and Russia, to try to find a peaceful settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Blair is not paid for any of these roles, which generally receive less press attention. He argues that his richly rewarded commercial work is undertaken mainly to subsidise them.

The problem is, his credibility as a sort of freelance super-diplomat in the Middle East and elsewhere is damaged already. His almost unqualified support for Israel as prime minister, his crucial backing then for the invasion of Iraq, his fundamental agreement with the bellicose foreign policy of George Bush – all this historical baggage follows Blair around. “It would be hard for him to move into working for more liberal international institutions,” says a former ally, “because he’s toxic.”

‘Indefinite Resurrection’
Who are the Umbrella Movement protesters remaining on the streets of Hong Kong?

6 November 2014 Foreign Policy

“I’m ready to stay for as long as the protests last,” said the 20-year-old pro-democracy protester Dicky Chu, expressing a commitment common among the hundreds of resolute protesters who are driving Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement well into its second month.

Chu volunteers with the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the key groups spearheading the six-week-old massive sit-ins in the city, and he is one of the few hundreds of long-term occupiers who sleep on the streets and take care of daily operations on the ground. “I don’t know what to expect from occupying long-term,” Chu said, “but we can’t just leave before the government responds to our demands for democracy.”

“I have turned down five production project offers in order to be here,” said 34-year-old assistant film director Nikki Lau. “I decided to spend a year on the streets right at the beginning of the protests. I’m not going anywhere until the government convinces me that it is sincere about resolving the political crisis.”

Since sovereignty of the former British colony transferred back to mainland China in 1997, many Hong Kong residents fear what they see as Beijing’s gradual encroachment upon their relative political freedom. After Beijing issued an edict in late August stipulating that candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive position must first be vetted by a nominating committee stacked with pro-Beijing interests, pro-democracy groups staged a mass protest that continues to cripple key districts in the Asian financial center.

After the Oct. 21 talks between Hong Kong authorities and protest representatives failed to reach any consensus, police have not attempted to clear sites or escalate the conflicts. Authorities are likely trying to avoid a repeat of Sept. 28, when Hong Kong police deployed tear gas against protesters, triggering an outpouring of support and international media coverage.

This switch from aggressive clearance to defensive maintenance might also be partly due to the resilience demonstrated by protesters — described by locals as “indefinite resurrection” — when police or thugs with alleged ties to pro-Beijing groups tried to remove them. On several occasions when the police cleared the streets in Mong Kok, one of the three protest zones, nonviolent demonstrators reclaimed the streets almost immediately. Previous frontline clashes also exposed police abuse and mishandling, which intensified public anger and boosted the bargaining power of the protesters.

The government’s lack of response since Oct. 21 fuels the protesters’ anxiety. They are acutely aware of the delay tactic deployed by the authorities to weaken public support but are determined to hold their ground. “Hong Kong people have tried all possible ways to fight for democracy over the last few decades, and we are resorting to civil disobedience now because none of these have worked.” said Alvin Wong, a high school student who started a political reform concern chapter at his school as part of the citywide students’ strike in mid-September. “If we leave now, it would have a demoralizing effect on the entire movement because essentially it is saying that nonviolent resistance doesn’t work.”

Most protesters seem to share Wong’s view, saying that they would only leave if the government gives what some have called a “reasonable response” to their demand for an unrestricted electoral system.

An informal survey conducted by Reuters in late October found that nearly 9 out of 10 protesters are prepared to stay on the streets for more than a year. The preliminary data of a survey conducted at the protest sites by Alex Tang, a doctoral candidate in journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, found that 79.5 percent of 755 protesters would only leave if the new electoral system includes civil nomination — meaning that candidates can be nominated by any citizen rather than only by than Beijing’s stipulated method, the 1200-member nomination committee — while 48.4 percent insisted that the Hong Kong government resubmit the current political reform plan to Beijing. Only 6.2 percent of respondents agreed that they would end the protests unconditionally.

But even many of those who insist on staying doubt that the Hong Kong and Beijing governments will allow more public participation in the chief executive nomination process. “I don’t think Beijing will change its mind over the political reform plan even if we continue occupying,” said Alex Kwok, a 48-year-old lifeguard union leader well known among protesters for his active involvement as a crowd control volunteer. “But I’m staying, because there’s no alternative plan.”

Some have quit their job in order to participate long term, while many of those with regular jobs visit the protest sites after work and during the weekend. Though Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man, co-organizers of Occupy Central with Love and Peace, resumed their teaching work at their respective universities on Oct. 31, Tai has asked protesters to adjust their lifestyle accordingly in order to sustain long-term occupation. The two organizers have stated that they will turn themselves into the police “at an appropriate time,” as a gesture to emphasize their support for rule of law in Hong Kong.

Though prepared for long-term occupation, many protesters worry about waning public support if the deadlock and anti-occupy smearing continue.

Hoping to move on to the next stage of the movement, protest leaders are carefully weighing different options to reach a breakthrough. Pro-democracy lawmakers are considering promoting by-elections and a de-facto referendum to gather public opinion on political reform. Student leaders have announced a plan to protest at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to be held in Beijing from Nov. 5-11, to convey the protesters’ demands directly to top officials. World leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, are attending the summit.

But Ming Sing, political science professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said that the students would most likely be denied entry to the mainland. Hong Kong citizens need to apply for a special travel permit issued by mainland authorities in order to travel into China, and Beijing can revoke the permit at any time. “Putting Beijing in an embarrassing position will not help the movement,” said Sing. “However, perhaps the student leaders want to use Beijing’s rejection to justify a switch of tactics from ‘occupying main roads’ to ‘occupying the community’ — that is, public outreach to galvanize more support for democracy. ” Sing, like many local opinion leaders, believes educating locals about the importance of democratic rights will be more effective than staying on the streets indefinitely.

The specter of imminent crackdown is never far from the protesters’ thoughts. “It is unlikely Beijing would react during the APEC summit,” said international relations scholar Simon Shen Xu-hui. “But the protests cannot continue indefinitely either. If the authorities were to clamp down on the protesters, they might do it after APEC.”

Eugene Lai, a 28-year-old psychiatric nurse who returned from the United States to Hong Kong in late September for the protests, shares similar concerns. “I think a violent crackdown is possible after APEC because occupiers are undecided on the next step,” Lai said. “Public opinion might eventually turn against them and police would be less concerned about losing the public relations war.” Lai, who goes to the protest sites almost every day, added that the recent large-scale police rehearsal of site clearance and introduction of pepper fog machines might indicate that authorities are prepared to forcibly remove protesters within the next few weeks.

For now, occupiers are enjoying a moment of peace. The “occupy villages” continue to draw thousands of protesters every day, inspire artists, and spark discussions over the political future of Hong Kong. Protesters exchange ideas and share their democratic aspirations with one another. Occasionally, encouraging stories emerge of protesters winning the understanding of disapproving onlookers.

Uncertainty is inevitable, but a faint hope, perhaps paradoxically, prevails in this battle of the mind.

Despite the pessimism over the government’s next move, protesters are far from losing hope. Their continued resistance takes a variety of forms: in their slogans such as “reclaim our future” and “stand up against injustice;” in the large volume of artwork produced throughout the protests; in vibrant online discussions over local politics; and in the strong sense of community developed at the occupy sites that symbolizes their vision of an empowered civil society. A common local expression sums up their attitude: “It is not because we believe there is hope that we persist, but because we persist that there is hope.”

Staying is settling – why you need to move at least 5 times in your life

5 November 2014 Elite Daily

Time to leave now, get out of this room, go somewhere, anywhere, sharpen this feeling of happiness and freedom, stretch your limbs, fill your eyes, be awake, wider awake, vividly awake in every sense and every pore. – Stefan Zweig

Turn around, look at your life and decide right now if this moment, this place makes your pulse race and your heart bend. If there’s not a fluttering feeling in the deepest part of your soul, questioning and absorbing everything around you, get out right now.

If you feel comfortable, content and unchallenged… stand up and walk away. Make plans or don’t make plans, but whatever you do, leave this place and find somewhere new.

There’s a reason the word “leaving” sounds so nice. Like saying “see you later” instead of “goodbye,” it puts you at ease. It signifies a fresh start, a departure from the old and overrun. Because leaving is just the precursor to arriving, and there’s nothing better than a fresh start.

Whether it’s a new apartment or a new city, starting over isn’t about changing your scene, but the way you’re living in it. It’s about opening your eyes again, walking to the ledge and looking up, down and across, once again comprehending the vastness of life that sits openly waiting for you.

Life has a tendency to get stale. Like your favorite food, it loses its edge after a while, that special quality that made you love it so much in the first place. We, like the places we confine ourselves to, become as dull and boring as our surroundings.

New experiences are the reason we live. They are the reason we get up every day, the reason we carry on. While we enjoy comfort, we crave experience. The point of living is not to resign yourself to one part of life, but to continually redefine yourself. It’s to baptize yourself, over and over again, in new waters and new experiences.

You have your entire life to be comfortable, to sit in your house and bask in the familiarity of it. But right now, while you’re young and uncomfortable, keep going, keep challenging yourself. Keep making yourself uncomfortable. Because it’s only when we’re uncomfortable that we are growing and learning.

To truly understand yourself, your purpose and those around you, you must keep moving. You must move at least five times; five times to open your heart and dip your toes into something new, fresh and life changing.

  1. To get away from what you know

Your first move is like taking flight for the first time. Like learning to fly, you realize the only thing stopping you from the world is yourself. You don’t have wings, you have legs, airplanes and trains. You have buses, cars and ocean liners. You have the world in front of you, with nothing but open sky and limitless possibilities.

But first you must leave the nest. You must say goodbye to everything you grew up with, the small world you once considered enough. You must unlatch yourself from the comforts of the familiar and place yourself in the middle of chaos.

This first move is the hardest. It’s the moment you willingly decide to be uncomfortable, scared and alone. It’s making the decision to become a foreigner, an outsider, a refugee. It’s abandoning everything you once cherished for the idea that there’s something better out there.

  1. To find new experiences

The second move you make should be one of restlessness. You should be tired of the same flavors of your now comfortable surroundings. This move is about feeling again. It’s about accepting that you can’t possibly know everything, but you are going to try.

You are going to have experiences, adventures and an unforeseen future. You don’t know who you’ll meet, what you’ll find or how you’ll get there, but you will do it. You will jump into it blindly and openly.

You will make new friends, find new flavors and reignite that passion for life that came with your first move. You will not rest until your hungry soul is placated. You will leave your old friends for new ones, your first language for another and that idea that you’re home for that invigorating feeling of homesick.

  1. To chase love

To chase love is to chase happinesses. It’s to decide that you will throw yourself into the swirling, maddening and restless chase we’re all trying to enter. Because love is the ultimate destination, is it not? It’s the reason we move, every day.

It’s the reason we get up and fight through the bad. It’s the reason we keep going, trudging on, meeting person after person. It’s the last goal, the final frontier and the only thing worth moving for.

If you think you’ve found it… in a person, a city, a job, you must move for it. If your dream job awaits in Spain, you must move there. If your heart yearns for the pink beaches of Bermuda, you must go there.

If you fall in love on the dunes of the Cape with a man you barely know, you must follow him. Chasing love is not irresponsible, it’s honest. It’s admitting that there is no greater chase, nothing more important. Because if you’re not chasing love, what are you running after?

  1. To escape that love

Love isn’t infinite. It can be found in a moment, a single dose or a fleeting romance. It can be a year of perfect love with someone who isn’t supposed to stay in your life. It can be in beaches that bring you peace until your heart years for something new. It can be in the first bite of pasta and over with its last.

Love isn’t defined by its length but its capacity to touch you and change you. Just because it doesn’t last doesn’t mean it wasn’t real. You must leave for love but you also must realize when that love no longer remains.

You must be strong enough to walk away from finished love to find new love. You must flee the suffocation that comes from stifled love and keep your heart open for more.

You must never settle, never give in to the idea that you can’t have another one. Because the world is full of things to throw your heart into, things to make you weep and realize (yet again) why you’re alive.

  1. To begin all over again

You must resist the confines of comfort. You must defy the idea of settled. You must never resign yourself to the ordinary or the easy. You must challenge tranquility for the promise of something greater.

To live is to be born and to continually live is to be reborn, again and again. As a new person, new lover, new friend, you must willingly evolve and transform into new versions of yourself.

You must never allow the new place you’ve created to become the final place. You must consistently defy the idea of comfort for the idea that you’ll never be fully satisfied unless you’re exploring, changing and moving.

Britain soft on China over Hong Kong crisis, says Chris Patten

5 November 2014 The Guardian

Britain is not putting enough pressure on China to stick to its side of an agreement on the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty because it is worried about damaging trade links, the former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten has said.

China took back control of the former British colony in 1997 through a “one country, two systems” formula that allows wide-ranging autonomy and specifies universal suffrage as an eventual goal.

But Beijing said in August that it would effectively screen candidates who want to run for city leader, a decision that has prompted weeks of street protests by pro-democracy activists who said it rendered the notion of democracy meaningless.

David Cameron was criticised by China after saying it was important for the people of Hong Kong to enjoy the freedoms promised to them. But the British prime minister has not directly criticised China publicly and the Foreign Office has not escalated the matter.

Patten told a British inquiry into Hong Kong’s democratic timetable: “When China asserts that what is happening in Hong Kong is nothing to do with us we should make it absolutely clear publicly and privately that that is not the case.

“There has always been quite a strong group in government and the business community which believes that you can only do business with China if you carefully avoid in all circumstances treading on China’s toes or saying anything the Chinese disagree with,” he said. “It encourages China to behave badly that we go on doing that.”

Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong before the 1997 handover, said China’s actions were “spit in the face” of the 1984 Joint Declaration on the conditions under which Hong Kong would be handed over.

“It is amazing that when they say that sort of thing the [British] Foreign Office doesn’t make a fuss – because the Joint Declaration provides obligations on China to us for 50 years. [It] is the Joint Declaration, not the Chinese declaration,” he said.

In September the British parliamentary committee rejected demands by the Chinese ambassador to Britain and the National People’s Congress foreign affairs committee to shelve their inquiry.

Patten criticised the government for not summoning the Chinese ambassador to Britain over the situation and said the British government should have spoken up in June when China issued a “white paper” policy document on Hong Kong underscoring China’s sovereignty and ultimate authority over the city.

He said he believed China’s moves were in breach of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.

“Without throwing verbal hand grenades we could actually have made it plain that we thought what was happening in Hong Kong was, to put it blandly, extremely unwise,” he said. “In some ways we may have made it more difficult to resolve.”

Britain should be doing more to help the governments of Hong Kong and China settle the situation, he said, calling on Hong Kong’s leaders to offer more concessions to the protesters to encourage them to back down.

Land – how to get rich quickly in Thailand

5 November 2014

Of course ownership of land does not just help people to get rich in Thailand. It is a global issue. But in Thailand the rules of land ownership, sale, declaration and taxation are distinctly muddy.

Now the Thai Prime Minister and junta leader has found that these issues of unusual wealth and land ownership are subject to scrutiny as soon as you put yourself on a pedestal and start telling everyone that you are on some sort or moral crusade and setting standards for everyone else to behave.

Now it appears that our so called “good men” running Thailand have a few skeletons in their own cupboards.

Asset disclosures by members of Thailand’s military-dominated post-coup Cabinet reveal they are quite well-off, a trait shared with the civilian politicians they accused of corruption.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission last Friday released the asset declarations of the 33 Cabinet ministers, 25 of whom are millionaires in dollar terms.

Allegations of corruption and inappropriately gained wealth have played a major role in the country’s fractious politics in the last decade. The current government has made fighting corruption a priority, though its critics believe the policy is being wielded mainly as a weapon against its political rivals, particularly those connected to the elected government it ousted.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who as army commander led a May coup d’etat, listed 128.6 million baht ($3.9 million) in assets and 654,745 baht ($20,000) in liabilities. Under the disclosure laws, assets belonging to spouses and children under 21 must be included. He also reported the transfer of 466.5 million baht ($14.3 million) to other family members.

Before his retirement at the end of September, the general received a 1.4 million baht ($43,000) annual salary as army chief. His assets include a Mercedes Benz S600L car, a BMW 740Li Series sedan, luxury watches, rings and several pistols.

Not bad on a general’s salary. Note the transfer to family members. We will come back to that.

According to Isra News Centre, Gen Prayut’s asset declaration includes a deposit of 540 million baht on May 10 last year. The money was transferred to his bank account by his father, Col Prapat Chan-o-cha, after the sale of land plots.

Isra News Centre revealed Gen Prayut transferred certain amounts to his father and brother and gave some of his portion to his children.

The land was sold to a company called 69 Property. It had been registered 7 days before the sale and was registered in the British Virgin Islands. Nothing doubtful there then!

Later it was revealed that the company was connected with royalist tycoon Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi.

When a reporter asked Prayuth bravely asked about the land sale, The Dictator “shot back that the media has no business questioning him on the matter.”

He declared: “The land has belonged to me since I was a kid, it belonged to my father. So what’s the problem?…. Please stop criticising me already.”

Earlier, when asked about his wealth, Prayuth stated: “I don’t know. I don’t remember,” Gen. Prayuth said on 1 November. “I am not a businessman. Please don’t ask me about this.”

Prayut has said that the purchaser wanted the land for “investment” purposes and asked: “The company wouldn’t have bought the land out of foolishness, don’t you think? If they can’t invest in the land, why would they buy it?”

Now remember back to 2008 when the Supreme Court ruled that Thaksin broke the law by giving his wife official consent to buy state-owned land in Ratchadaphisek.

Some simple facts: The court never found Thaksin guilty of any collusion on the bidding. There was no injury to the state. There was no criminal conspiracy to defraud the public. MR Pridiyathorn Devakula signed off on the deal and testified in Thaksin’s favor. Potjaman (Thaksin’s wife) was never found guilty of any crime and didn’t have the land confiscated.

In fact, Thaksin was compelled under the then Thai law to sign the land transfer documents because Thailand is a community property country.

Pojaman returned the land and was refunded the purchase price. The land was then sold for a much lower price. So Pojaman had in fact overpaid, rather than underpaid as the prosecution alleged.

It just goes to show how dabbling in land deals can bring down a Prime Minister especially one who appears to have wealth far beyond his means.

Hong Kong’s umbrella movement and hope for the future

3 November 2014

Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement is a call to be listened to and a call for action. Where it will lead to is unknown. But the sense of opportunity, civic awareness and purpose will not go away in a hurry.

Now in its 37th day the movement basically started as a call from Hong Kong’s students for genuine participation in the future governance of Hong Kong. Beijing had used a very narrow interpretation of their commitment to universal suffrage in Hong Kong that ensures that the next governor will be handpicked by Beijing. Beijing’s intent is to pick the candidates and then let Hong Kong people vote for one of the chosen PRC loyalists.

Many people expected the student action to be short-lived. The use of tear gas and pepper spray by the police in the early days of the protest appeared to harden the student resolve and gained them a great deal of support from other sections of Hong Kong society – well almost all. Maybe not the folks who think they are already running Hong Kong and whose financial well-being, and rule of the city, is dependent on Beijing’s goodwill.

Over a month later the protest camps are well developed into self-sufficient villages in their own right.

The Causeway Bay site adjacent to the SOGO crossing is the smallest. It is a strange site. Half the road is occupied. The other half is open to traffic and buses. Their are a few tents. It cannot be comfortable. Polluted; noisy. It seems unnecessary. It may be more effective to combine the protest resources at Admiralty.

The Mongkok site is also smaller, but it is symbolic, as it is the only site on Kowloon side. In Mongkok it is also a site that attracts a great deal of curiosity from mainland visitors. Their reaction is interesting. Some must be upset that their leader is the subject of mockery. Some must wonder what all the fuss is about. And some must wonder what would happen if there were ever similar protests in mainland China.

The Mongkok site is confined by the limited available space in Nathan Road and in part by an unwillingness to cause too much disruption in the most populated part of Hong Kong. While Nathan Road is closed for a distance around Mongkok the side and parallel roads are open and most businesses appear be continuing largely unaffected and some maybe benefiting from the crowds.

The main protest site is at Admiralty on Hong Kong island adjacent to the Legislative Building and ironically the PLA’s Hong Kong base.

Here is a tented city. Here are students studying through the day. Classes operating. Students studying. The site is surprisingly quiet. There is a woodwork shop making furniture for the site’s residents.

The atmosphere is relaxed but purposeful. There is a small main stage that is used primarily for press briefings and there are tv crews waiting throughout the day. There are a few gathering points around the site where impromptu speeches are made and small crowds gather.

The lack of a main stage and platform seems to me a problem. There really is no place for speeches and large audiences. No place for a rallying call. Maybe with the use of social media a large central meeting place is less necessary.

Policing is very unobtrusive. It is more visible in Mongkok. It is in Mongkok where there have been confrontations with anti-protest protestors. Most of these appear to be hired thugs bought to cause disruption.

Meanwhile in Admiralty people are talking to eachother who would never otherwise do so. New friendships are being made. Values are shared. Hope is shared.

You access the protest zone via jerry-rigged stairs crossing over the highway divider. It is like entering an art fair or a music festival. Protesters sit on the pavement cross-legged, strumming guitars and checking their smartphones. Others rest in their own tents or tents that are available for free use on a first some basis. Hong Kong residents and many tourists amble through the crowd, lots of pictures are taken; at night the crowd changes and many supporters gather to hear speeches.

Many protesters have homes nearby and full-time jobs; they come and go as they please. Others spend their days at the site, contributing to a vast collection of sculptures, posters and banners reiterating the protesters’ demands for a more democratic electoral system. Almost everyone leaves a “post-it” note with a message on the Lennon wall.

But what is fascinating is that the protest site feels so normal. There are people in suits. There are families walking. There are older people walking together and looking at the messages and artwork. There are dozens of students hunched over textbooks and tablets in their “study corner” beneath a makeshift tent running along the highway divider. Rows of lamps burn into the night, powered by a donated generator. Volunteer tutors offer help with English and maths. WiFi is available. The nearby washrooms are cleaned and heavily stocked with a range of toiletries. Everything is carefully recycled and/or composted. Volunteers hand out donated biscuits, coffee, toilet paper, face masks and bottled water from well-stocked supply stands.

There is a civic pride at the protest sites. Recycling is important. There are health and sanitary guidelines. There are regular organised cleaning activities.

There may be more protest site visitors than there are true protestors during the daytime. But that is OK. Anyone visiting the site can only be impressed by its organization and the determination of those present. And almost everyone visiting the site is doing so because they have some interest in and in many cases support for the objectives.

What also struck me is that this is not an anti China protest. This is a pro Hong Kong protest. No one at the site is expressing anti-mainland sentiment; the focus is simply on electoral reform, their demands for democracy, and an emerging sense of Hong Kong identity.

An older Hong Kong resident came up to me and asked if I spoke English and where I am from. We had a lovely conversation. Did he ever expect to see anything like this in Hong Kong. Never. How did he feel about what was happening. Proud.

He has two adult daughters – one in England, one in Los Angeles in the USA. But he stays in Hong Kong with his wife. He could leave any time but this is home. His wish is that that Hong Kong retains it’s own identity, it’s laws, it’s decency. He was proud of the demonstrators though concerned about what might happen next.

Of course not everyone is supportive. Another lady said that it was wrong for the roads to be closed – for the streets to be occupied. But at the same time she said she comes to the site every day after lunch. She likes to walk around the site and see what has changed. And she was willing to listen.

That in itself sets her apart. There is a sense that people are willing to talk – an acceptance that the protestors have a genuine cause and accepting that may be the beginning of compromise.

Inevitably it is easy to draw comparisons with the red shirt protests in Bangkok. What comes through is the calmness in Hong Kong and the quiet. No constant noise and haranguing speeches. And the remarkable lack of commercial activity. There is no one trying to sell t-shirts; clappers; whistles. There are no commercial activities of any description.

It is also clear that protestors can come and go. No one is paid to be there. There is no organised transportation to the site. No one is being shipped in from other provinces. These are Hong Kong people protesting for Hong Kong.

However, a reality check is still needed. 98% of Hong Kong’s population are not at the protest sites. Many are either unaffected or uninterested or simply concerned with day-to-day living. Are the protestors speaking for Hong Kong? Are the protestors representative of Hong Kong? That is hard to answer. But my quick and limited poll of working people that I talked to shared the protestors objectives. The receptionist at my hotel said “we need to be doing something.” At the airport check-in I was told “I wish I could join them.”

Despite media hype about the affects of the protests it is also very clear that most of Hong Kong’s businesses continue without being in any way affected by the protests. There is some disruption to traffic; but the city copes adequately.

The hotels are still busy and expensive. Try getting a room for later this week. Tourists have not been put off. Maybe some mainland tour groups are being discouraged from coming to Hong Kong but that may have more to do with what they might see and hear rather than any potential threat.

Following a visit to Hong Kong, Stephen Roach, a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a former Morgan Stanley Asia economist, said that while the protests were still causing a little inconvenience, they were “not a big deal” in terms of economic impact. He added that as long as the confrontation did not lead to “extreme” police action, “the reputational impact will be minimal”.

These are parts of Hong Kong that have been reclaimed by the people. You can walk on Connaught Road through Admiralty. It is a wonderful freedom. That maybe one of the legacies of the protests. At some point the protests will end. But returning the city to the people; maybe just every Sunday would be a strong legacy. Let the MTR and the other roads handle the traffic. Give Admiralty, Nathan Road and Causeway Bay back to the people.

One other legacy of the protests will be the artwork; from the Lennon Wall to the work of Mark Chui. How this is preserved I do not know. Maybe through the Hong Kong Museum or Gallery of Art or through corporate support.

The trouble is what happens next? There is a stand-off at the moment. A calm before a potential storm. At some time the authorities will want to clear the protest sites. Chief Executive CY Leung said yesterday that social order and the rule of law should be restored in Hong Kong as soon as possible.

He said Hong Kong has been troubled with a social order problem recently, as some people have been damaging the rule of law by breaching the law and ignoring court injunctions requiring Occupy Central protesters to clear the roads.

The threat is there – and to be honest clearing the Mongkok and Causeway Bay sites would require harsh determination but could probably be doe relatively quickly. The Admiralty site is far too large and well established to be cleared in any way other than by a negotiated agreement.

Business has lined up with the government – including a rare from Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest man, who urged the students to return home. “We understand student passion, but your pursuit needs to be guided by wisdom,” the Hong Kong tycoon said recently. “It would be Hong Kong’s greatest sorrow if the rule of law breaks down.”

So far, few protesters appear to have listened, partly because one of their main concerns is that the Chinese plan allows the elites who wield power in Hong Kong to retain far too much influence at the expense of the public.

How this plays out over the next few months is far from clear. There is a fear among protestors that the government will wait to take action after the November APEC meeting in Beijing.

Overall I fear that the objectives of the protestors will not be met. That in time the sites will be cleared. Some small concessions will be made but there may also be harsher laws that restrict public demonstrations to certain locations such as Victoria Park. There is simply too much at stake for Hong Kong’s elite, not to mention China as a whole, to ever risk letting Hong Kong slip out Beijing’s firm grasp. A hardline pursuit of full-fledged democracy will ultimately be a losing battle.

Given the diversity of business and political interests in Hong Kong, some form of compromise stands as the most logical outcome—one that will ensure that protestor’s efforts will not have been in vain while allowing Beijing to save face and still get a Chief Executive that has Beijing’s support.

As a final note do note be surprised if CY Leung is quietly replaced as part of that compromise.

Another stroll around Admiralty

Here is another commentary on the Admiralty protest site from a long-term HKG commentator

3 November 2014 From The Big Lychee

Another week, another round of calls from the Hong Kong establishment for pro-democracy protesters to leave the streets. Some of the pleas come from hand-wringing moderates like Executive Council member WK Lam, desperately trying to convince the students – and probably themselves – that some sort of dialogue and push-button-for-instant-harmony solution is feasible. Some come from usually-apolitical business leaders like Swire Pacific’s John Slosar, dutifully trotting out the official line with little obvious enthusiasm.

The Hong Kong government, meanwhile, helplessly bats away pro-dem proposals totally unacceptable to Beijing while promising vague progress if only the demonstrators pack their tents. To keep things on the boil, the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front continues its orchestrated mouth-frothing, claiming to have collected what market analysts would style an ‘aggressive’ figure of 1.5 million signatures against the Occupy Central/Umbrella movement.

The government’s tactic (or default position in the absence of one) is to wait it out and hope the tent-dwelling occupiers of the streets will finally overstay their welcome and bow to growing community hostility. As well as the hired thugs and bussed-in anti-Occupy losers, some of the great Hong Kong public are sincerely pissed off at the protestors. At the same time, many share the students’ anger at the cronyism and bad governance and are supportive. (A pure guess: maybe 30-40% of the population would clearly declare themselves pro-Occupy versus 20-30% who are anti.)

Some people’s opinion of the movement might not simply reflect their views of the political and socio-economic factors, but of the methods and style of the protest. A stroll around the Admiralty encampment yesterday underlined how a genuine community with its own quirky culture has evolved in the last few weeks. Today’s South China Morning Post examines the tent management, carpentry, supplies, first-aid and other facilities that keep the settlement going and forge a sense of neighbourliness among recent strangers that is all but unknown in Hong Kong.

No residential or other urban area of the city is like this. It is extremely low-rise, with most dwellings being no more than 4ft tall. It is traffic-free, so you can walk and sit where you want. Most bizarrely: there is space to do things, and you don’t have to pay any rent. It is this latter unique feature that largely enables the villagers young and old to express their feelings and hopes through various educational, artistic and other cultural activities. It’s a fascinating experiment: what happens to a bit of Hong Kong when you take the bureaucrats and landlords (and cars) away? Answer: the flowering of a happy, creative and relaxed ambience, without a Burberry or Louis Vuitton outlet in sight, and locals and tourists love it.

Well, some locals and tourists. Not everyone gets it. To some, the fun and the novelty are an affront because of the underlying political aims, which oppose the national authorities and smack of foreign ways. Some middle-class types whose self-identity as establishment material feel a need to parrot official disapproval. Many others, I suspect, view the gentle anarchy and youthfulness of the tent village with distaste and loathing simply for what it is. They are miserable (probably old, probably little-educated) wretches who ate bitterness without complaint their whole lives and resent the idea that the next generation is able and willing to demand better. And this rather pitiful demographic could be the government’s prime source of support as it tries to increase public contempt for the protesters. Sad or what?

The lie of the populism scare

2 November 2014 SCMP

It is back in fashion in the business community, and now in the writings of members of China’s Communist Party, that democracy leads to welfarism, debt and decline. Leung Chun-ying has the same opinion, as revealed in his recent interview.

It is a self-interested assertion that, if repeated often enough, comes to be believed by those who want to believe it. It is amazing coming from a party which purports to be Marxist but now represents profits and monopoly capitalism against the interests of the workers.

The United States, for all its social and other ills, stands as the primary example of a nation that has had nearly universal suffrage for 200 years and is still going strong, with relatively low tax rates and a debt burden which is hardly unsupportable and anyway owes more to defence spending than welfare entitlements.

Other developed Western countries with long histories of votes for all show very varied levels of welfare spending. Australia’s, for example, is quite high but the public debt is miniscule. Australian debt is almost all in the private sector, corporate and household.

Take the poster child of welfarism in northern Europe, Scandinavia. Sweden has remained near the top of global income league for decades, despite taxation to pay for income transfers currently equal to 53 per cent of gross domestic product. Its public debt to GDP is a mere 40 per cent. It once hit 73 per cent, at which point the voters decided to cut spending and tighten up on welfare. Much the same happened in other democratic countries, such as Canada.

Those who cite southern Europe as indicating the link between welfare and debt also talk nonsense. Welfare standards in Greece were always low. Its troubles stemmed from a bloated, self-promoting civil service similar to those found in Communist Party-run states, and a ubiquity of tax evasion by the rich. Debt in the likes of the UK and Ireland arose from financial crises caused by poor regulation, not populism.

So what about Asia? Japan spends relatively little on welfare. Its public debt, by far the biggest as a percentage of GDP among rich countries, is a direct consequence of the banking crisis created by excessive private sector investment and poor banking regulation, and by the need for massive infrastructure spending to offset a collapse in consumer demand and private investment.

Or South Korea? It democratisation, far from causing economic instability, helped rescue the country from massive debts caused by excessive, foreign-funded private investment. A push for higher wages and welfare spending created a much more balanced economy and spurred industry to the greater efficiency and inventiveness we see today.

Taiwan has popularly elected governments at national and local levels for more than 20 years and has seen gradual increases in welfare spending, but public debt is only 40 per cent of GDP and Taiwan has long had one of the world’s most stable floating currencies and lowest inflation rates. As in Korea, democracy led to big advances in health, education and clean air – public interest gains at the cost of some private profit.

In all these advanced economies, consumer spending generally and welfare spending in particular have risen over time while investment has fallen. But that is mostly a natural consequence of ageing populations and low work-force growth.

A bigger problem for the democratic developed world at present is the hoarding of corporate profits, now at very high levels in Japan, Europe and the US, often used for share buy-backs, which reward the few, rather than in new investment or employee wages. This acts as a major drag on the economy. It has nothing to do with democratic populism and a lot to do with self-serving board interests.

Nor does the developing world show any particular general trend to populism. In Asia, Indonesia under popular rule has seen constant reductions in public debt despite the burden of a fuel subsidy which mainly benefits the car-owning class.

In Thailand, populist Thaksin Shinawatra spent a lot on health and help for farmers, but the government debt ratio declined significantly during his terms in office. The Philippines, likewise, despite a reputation for slow growth and weak government, has run very conservative fiscal policies for more than a decade.

For sure, India spends too much on subsidies for the poor and too little on infrastructure, but China is the opposite and has a much higher overall debt level.

For Hong Kong, the danger is not excessive spending on welfare for an ageing population. It is spending on uneconomic boondoggles for certain sectors – for example, the HK$75 billion high-speed railway – and the failure to spend a fraction of that on pollution reduction. The long-term health of the population counts for little compared with the more immediate interests of tycoons and top officials.

Meanwhile, too, the very high profit-to-turnover of the local oligarchies is partly the result of wage suppression. Some profits go to shareholders in dividends but much is invested in the low-growth, mature democracies that the likes of Leung deride for welfarism. What hypocrisy!

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator

The city on the hill – democracy, human rights and all that take a back seat in America’s Asia policy

1 November 2014 Banyan in the Economist

When Barack Obama ducked out of two summits in Indonesia and Brunei a year ago, the credibility of the “pivot to Asia” he had proclaimed, giving the region greater importance in American foreign policy, took a big knock. This month he is due to show up at back-to-back gatherings in Beijing, Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar, and Brisbane in Australia, giving him a chance to hammer out the dent. It will be a struggle. The centrepiece of the economic aspect of the pivot, a regional free-trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), is still not a done deal. Some Asians remain unsure about whether the strategic, military pivot really amounts to much. And there is yet another difficulty: the perception in Asia that America’s faith in the universality of its ideals of freedom and democracy has weakened.

American leaders used to raise the issues of human rights and democracy in Asia at almost every opportunity, especially where China was concerned, but also in Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam and elsewhere. That they no longer hector so loudly is welcome to many governments. But it seems to jar with American professions of continued leadership.

The reticence reflects two trends. One is that the world seems to be in flames elsewhere. The rise of Islamic State (IS), the spread of Ebola and the forced partition of Ukraine: all have hijacked America’s attention. When American leaders have microphones thrust in their faces, questions about Asia are not the first they have to answer, and when they look at Asia it is through the prism of other global problems.

The other is that America’s strategic and economic ambitions in Asia have a higher priority than promoting American political values. Take America’s muted reaction to a number of recent political developments around Asia. In Hong Kong, where student-led protesters this week marked a month of sit-ins on big thoroughfares, American officials have voiced support for their main demand of genuine universal suffrage in the election for the territory’s chief executive in 2017, rather than the sham version offered by China.Yet Mr Obama has held his tongue on the protests. To speak out might encourage the paranoid tendency in China that sees the unrest as part of an American-led plot to weaken and ultimately topple Communist Party rule. To stay silent, however, suggests that Mr Obama does not see Hong Kong as important enough to risk adding yet another complication to a fraught relationship with China.

America’s president will also have to think hard what to say about Myanmar when he goes to the East Asia Summit held there. Liberalising reforms since 2011 have been held out as the great success of his “unclenched-fist” policy towards the country, with the strategic benefit of forging a partnership with a place that had been stuck in China’s orbit. But the mood has soured. Hopes have faded of amending a constitution that guarantees the army a blocking minority in parliament and bars the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, from the presidency. Some now doubt that the general election due next year will even take place. To emphasise the many positive changes in Myanmar may look starry-eyed; to harp on about the setbacks would blur a rare foreign-policy bright spot.

Even in Thailand, where the army staged its latest coup in May, America’s position has not been entirely clear. It has condemned the putsch, called for the restoration of democracy and suspended a modest amount of military aid to its old ally. But it has stepped back from a threat to move the annual “Cobra Gold” joint Thai-American military exercises out of the country next year. America’s links with Thailand have withstood countless changes of government. It would not want to jeopardise them entirely, and push Thailand deeper into China’s embrace.

Similarly, American policy toward Malaysia has been coloured by realpolitik. Opposition politicians and others identify a worrying repressive tendency in the government, with an archaic sedition law used to hound its opponents. And this week saw the culmination of a ludicrous trial on charges of sodomy of the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim (whose coalition won the popular vote, though not a majority of seats, in last year’s general election). America, however, has been largely silent about all this, and, in Malaysia in April, Mr Obama did not even find time to meet Mr Anwar. Najib Razak, the prime minister, is an important regional ally—an elected, moderate Muslim ready to speak out against IS, and to take on domestic lobbies to bring Malaysia into the TPP. Moreover, Mr Obama and he are said to get on.

A more natural partner might be another moderate Muslim democrat, Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, the new president of Indonesia, whose ascension to power as an outsider buoyed by grassroots support recalls Mr Obama’s own. America’s secretary of state, John Kerry, did attend the inauguration last month, and held a 30-minute meeting. But it seems he concentrated on America’s agenda—climate change, IS and Ebola—rather than Jokowi’s, or on how America might assist his shaky new administration.

Softly, softly

Playing down contentious issues of domestic politics in favour of international co-operation seems to make sense at a time of shifting global power and heightened tension. But it has a cost: it squanders part of America’s “soft power”, a great asset. Many in Asia believe that China is the waxing power and America the waning one. But America remains the place that far more young people want to visit and hope their own country can emulate. For all its flaws and mis-steps, it represents not just economic and military might, but an ideal to aspire to, in a way that China does not. And when American leaders appear to give less weight to that ideal, they not only diminish America’s attractions, they also lend more credence to the idea of its relative economic and military decline.

Virgin Galactic has serious long-term setback

31 October 2014

A suborbital passenger spaceship being developed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic crashed during a test flight today at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, officials said.

Two pilots were aboard the spaceship, which was undergoing its first powered test flight since January. It was not immediately known if they were able to parachute to safety.

More than 800 people have paid or put down deposits to fly aboard the spaceship, which is carried to an altitude of about 45,000 feet and released. The spaceship then fires its rocket motor to catapult it to about 62 miles (100 km) high, giving passengers a view of the planet set against the blackness of space and a few minutes of weightlessness.

The spaceship is based on a prototype, called SpaceShipOne, which 10 years ago won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first privately developed manned spacecraft to fly in space.

Friday’s test was to be the spaceship’s first powered test flight since January. In May, Virgin Galactic and spaceship developer Scaled Composites, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman Corp, switched to an alternative plastic-type of fuel grain for the hybrid rocket motor.

The accident is the second this week by a U.S. space company. On Tuesday, an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded 15 seconds after liftoff from Wallops Island, Virginia, destroying a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station.

This must bring into question the whole Virgin Galactic venture. The first passenger flights were due to start in 2015. The crash is a major setback for Virgin Galactic, a U.S. offshoot of billionaire Branson’s London-based Virgin Group. SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger, two-pilot spacecraft is aiming to make the world’s first commercial suborbital space flights.

Other companies developing passenger suborbital spacecraft include privately owned XCOR Aerospace, which is building a two-person spaceplane called Lynx, and Blue Origin, a startup space company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Virgin Galactic also plans to use its White Knight Two carrier jets to launch small satellites and payloads into orbit.

Have yourself a very blue Christmas

30 October 2014

I do not like Christmas records. I do not like the religious overtones. I do not like what is almost a sense of self-righteousness that pervades so many of them. And I do not like songs which sound really dumb when you play them in August.

But my favourite band thinks differently and Blue Rodeo are realeasing a holiday album “A Merrie Christmas to You” both physically and digitally on Tuesday (November 4) through Warner.

Although the album includes a couple of well-known Christmas tunes — “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” — the rest are a slightly more modern. There are covers of Joni Mitchell, Big Star, Paul Simon, Gordon Lightfoot, the Band and more. There are also two Blue Rodeo originals: Jim Cuddy’s brand-new “Home to You This Christmas” and a re-recording of Greg Keelor’s “Glad to Be Alive.”

The album was recorded in a week at their very own Woodshed Studio in Toronto. Each song was captured live.

“The songs are as much about the season as they are about the actual day,” Cuddy said in a statement about the selection of material. “The criteria for choosing material were to find songs that we could actually sing and make our own.”

The cover art comes from an illustration by Keelor’s great-uncle, who made greeting cards back in the ’20s. The tracklist is below, and the name of the artist who wrote each song is in parentheses.

A Merrie Christmas to You:

  1. Jesus Christ (Big Star)
  2. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane)
  3. If We Make It Through December (Merle Haggard)
  4. River (Joni Mitchell)
  5. O Come All Ye Faithful (traditional)
  6. Getting Ready for Christmas Day (Paul Simon)
  7. Glad to Be Alive
  8. Home to You This Christmas
  9. Song for a Winter’s Night (Gordon Lightfoot)
  10. Christmas Must Be Tonight (The Band)

Hong Kong protests reach polite impasse

28 October 2014 from Reuters

The most surprising thing about Hong Kong’s pro-democracy campaigners is that they are still there. A month after a small group of students stormed a space outside the government’s head office, the protests now known as the “umbrella movement” have confounded predictions of chaos, apathy or a violent crackdown by China. Though a compromise on democratic reform remains as distant as ever, Hong Kong’s mostly civil activists have changed the city’s political geography for good.

In the months before what was originally known as Occupy Central got underway, Hong Kong politicians and business leaders forecast that civil disobedience would cause disruption and chaos. In fact, apart from the clouds of tear gas at the start of the protests, and subsequent scuffles between protesters, their opponents, and the police, the movement has been overwhelmingly civil.

The three-lane highway that passes in front of Hong Kong’s central government buildings has been transformed into an impromptu city-centre campsite. Wandering between the hundreds of numbered, multicoloured tents on Harcourt Road feels more like attending a nerdy music festival than a hotbed of political agitation. Each evening, scores of students diligently complete their homework at specially-constructed desks, as protest leaders deliver speeches nearby.

Not all enjoy the festivities – the blockade has disrupted traffic and made it harder to move around what is normally an easy-to-navigate city, while taxi drivers, retailers and restaurants in the protest areas have reported lost revenue. Yet Hong Kong’s large financial district has mostly continued to operate as normal. Stock market investors worry more about the slowing Chinese economy than disruption in the former British colony. According to the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, just one bank branch remained closed as of Oct. 27.

The protesters have also defied predictions that they would quickly lose interest. The government’s clumsy and sometimes heavy-handed attempts to end the protests have helped. The use of tear gas; the decision to call and then cancel talks with student leaders; the policemen caught on film beating up a handcuffed protester – all have spurred crowds to return to the streets.

The other surprise is that China has not ordered a crackdown. The ruling Communist Party’s harsh response to protest at home would suggest little tolerance for pro-democracy activists waving banners, umbrellas and smartphones in defiance of Bejing on Chinese soil. Yet while state media has condemned the protests, and China’s leaders are clearly watching events closely, their strategy so far appears to be to ignore rather than injure the protesters.

Beijing’s relative tolerance does not mean it is prepared to meet the movement’s requests, however. China has stuck to the proposed system for selecting Hong Kong’s chief executive that ignited the protests in the first place. Any candidate must win the support of at least half the members of a 1,200-strong nominating committee stuffed with loyalists before he or she can contest the popular vote. The protesters’ main wish – that members of the public be allowed to nominate the candidates – is as unlikely to be granted today as a month ago.

Beijing has also continued to support Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s unpopular chief executive, despite his hapless handling of the protests and revelations that he received but did not disclose payments from an Australian engineering firm.

The result is that Hong Kong is stuck in a kind of polite impasse. The movement has little hope of achieving its aims, while the government has little to offer by way of compromise. The protesters can stay in their tents for a while – the weather in November is ideal for camping. But as the city adapts and the global media turns its attention elsewhere, the protests risk losing their sense of urgency.

However the standoff eventually ends, the umbrella movement will have achieved a great deal. It has shown that significant chunks of Hong Kong’s youth are articulate, organised and determined. Their willingness to defy politicians and police to mount peaceful but disruptive protests will be something that future Hong Kong leaders will have to consider, regardless of how they are chosen.

Expert challenges MH370 story

27 October 2014 Aviation Business Magazine (An Australian pubication)

What happened in the first four hours when MH370 disappeared?

Answers to this simple question are confused or not in the public domain. Why not? If proper protocols had been followed we would not be looking for the aircraft today.

I am watching with some amazement, the amount of money being expended in the search of the southern Indian Ocean for MH370. I am not convinced by the official version of the final moments of MH370. Nor am I convinced that it is anywhere near the southern Indian Ocean and I am quite familiar with Doppler effect, satellite handshakes and all the other high tech stuff that is being promulgated!

SBS TV aired an excellent program on 5th Oct, dealing with the disappearance of MH370. It was a BBC documentary called Where is Flight MH370.

It is one of the best documentaries I have seen on the subject and it covered most of the detail and circumstances known to the general public at this point.

However, as with almost every other commentary made to date, the program studiously avoided reference to that four-hour period immediately after the aircraft disappeared. The omission of any reference to this period was blindingly obvious and made me wonder again why it is being avoided in the media and in any official commentary. Perhaps it is lack of understanding of what should have happened.

Many facts are missing, but many are available and should be released. We know that the initial period was filled with confusion and even misinformation from the airline itself which, at one stage, told ATC that it had contact with the aircraft in Cambodian airspace. This was found to be completely incorrect and the flight had never entered Cambodian airspace. In any case, it was not valid for the air traffic controllers to accept this information if they had not been in contact with the aircraft and had not given a clearance for it to deviate from its track.

The BBC documentary did refer, briefly, to the stunning inaction of the Vietnamese controller, in Ho Chi Minh centre, who took 17 minutes to ask the Malaysian controller why MH370 had not transferred to his radio frequency as had been expected.

That should have happened within two to three minutes of the expected transfer time when MH370 was instructed to establish contact with Ho Chi Minh control at the boundary of their airspace.

There has not been any explanation as to why the Vietnamese controller took so long to check on the aircraft for which he was then responsible. This is a serious matter and needs to be explained!

An explanation is also needed as to why the controller in Kuala Lumpur did not initiate a call to Ho Chi Minh centre when he saw the MH370 data block disappear from his screen. Did he not want to know why that had occurred?

The BBC documentary made no further reference to that lack of coordination and the program continued with diagrams and reference to the Malaysian military having tracked the aircraft across the Malaysian peninsula, out to the MalaccaStraits and then the AndamanSea.

The program reported the Malaysian authorities as saying that there had been heavy security issues surrounding the tracking of the aircraft so they had not been able to reveal this immediately.

We have also been told that the military determined that it was a civil aircraft and, therefore, of no concern to them.

Frankly, that is absolute RUBBISH either way you look at it!

Every professional pilot and military person knows that EVERY country maintains surveillance of its airspace to the best of its technical capability. Everyone knows that Malaysia has a military radar system which monitors ALL flights in its area of responsibility. The ex-Deputy PM, Anwar Ibrahim, who the current authorities keep trying to silence, recently stated on BBC TV that he had authorised a state of the art military surveillance system to be installed whilst he was Deputy PM of Malaysia.

So, what secret was there and what were they so protective about? What needed to be kept secret from the world even when 239 people were lost?

What should have happened, under international protocols that are well established and published in various operational documents, was that the Malaysian Air Force should have investigated the then unidentified aircraft they were tracking to ensure that it was not a threat to Malaysia.

The first action would have been for the military air defence officer to contact the civil air traffic controller and discuss the unidentified radar target to try to establish its identity. In any case the civil controller should have contacted his military counterpart to ask him to assist with finding MH370. The military system does not need a transponder to be operating on the aircraft and can identify a blip on its system without any transmission from the aircraft.

This simple coordination between military and civil officers should have solved the issue then and there. It is hard to believe that this did not occur.

Did the military air defence officer make an assumption that he was tracking a civil aircraft that posed no threat to Malaysia, or did he know?? If he was certain, we need to ask how he knew? If he was making an assumption, then he was prepared to risk the security of his nation.

Did the civil air traffic controller not think to ask the military for their assistance in tracking his missing aircraft? It is very difficult to believe that he would not have used all possible resources available to him to find MH370 at that point. A blindingly obvious resource would be the military air defence radar system. One of the civil ATC officer’s first actions should have been a call to his military counterpart to ask if he had any unidentified aircraft on radar.

The next action is that both military and civil personnel should have attempted to establish radio contact with the unidentified aircraft. The Vietnamese controller should also have been doing this on his own radio frequency. They did ask another Malaysian Airlines flight to try to contact MH370 but this was not successful.

If no communication was established, then the Malaysian Air Force should have sent an interceptor aircraft to allow the military pilot to identify and follow the unidentified aircraft to find out where it was headed. There should not have been any consideration, at that point, of shooting the intruder out of the sky, as was suggested by the Malaysian Defence Minister on BBC TV. It was purely a matter of identification.

If they had done so, we would not be looking for the aircraft now, the families would know what had happened and millions of dollars could have been saved.

There is absolutely no secret about the Malaysian Air Force ability to track an aircraft in their airspace, so why did they withhold vital information for several days? Why did they not assist in the search and reveal that they tracked it on radar flying out to the AndamanSea?

What is the secret they were guarding??

What prevented them from tracking the aircraft and sending up an interceptor aircraft to follow it and try to communicate with it?

Why is there still no information in the public domain about what happened that night during the first four hours?

Some of the answers to this conundrum are readily available but are being withheld.

The Malaysians released the voice record and transcript of the conversations between the aircraft and the KL air traffic controllers. I believe they thought this would satisfy people, and it probably has in many cases. However, what we all need to understand is that everything is recorded in the operational environment.

That first four hours is all on official record and will explain much of what occurred.

There are several recordings which have not been released and they are all on separate recorders / hard disks.

  1. There is the pilot / air traffic controller recording which we have all heard and read in the media.
  2. There is a separate recording of the voice coordination between the air traffic controllers in Kuala Lumpur and in Ho Chi Minh City. This coordination is done via a voice / data link between the control centres and the pilots do not hear it. This is fully recorded and kept for a minimum of 30 days.
  3. There is another recording of the communications between the military air defence officer who was tracking the “unknown” aircraft and anyone else he talked to. There would definitely be a recording of any conversation between him and the civil air traffic controller in the KL control centre, if they did in fact talk to each other. If they did not talk to each other in these circumstances I would call it criminal negligence.
  4. All telephone conversations into and out of the military centre and the civil ATC centre are recorded also. So, any conversations between Malaysian Airlines and the ATC centre would be recorded and available.

It is important to understand that all of this information is available and should be carefully examined by the air safety investigators who are charged with finding out what happened to MH370. However, it should, in these circumstances, also be made available to the families or their independent investigators to allow an assessment of what happened.

Given that the Australian tax payers are now funding a massive search in the southern Indian Ocean, I believe that this information should also be made available to improve our understanding of what happened.

Nobody can tell us that the recordings do not exist. The communications technology used is very sophisticated and operates through an unbreakable, system known as a Voice Switch. The recording is the ground-based equivalent of the Flight Data Recorder and Cockpit Voice Recorder (black boxes) on board the aircraft and the first thing that should have happened on the morning after the disappearance of MH370 is that the hard disks containing the recordings should have been taken out of the system and stored securely for examination by the investigators. There should not be any possibility of loss of data or of it being over recorded by later data.

There has been no reference to these ground-based systems and it seems that the Malaysian authorities will have to be pushed into releasing those recordings.

Therein lies the issue. Neither Malaysia nor Australia seems to wish to make this information public and could be accused of covering up vital information which would help the families and independent investigators to work out what happened.

Des Ross has been in the aviation industry for more than 35 years, as a pilot and air traffic management specialist. In that time he has been at the forefront of aircraft safety and security. Most recently he was an aviation advisor with theEU in South Sudan. He has been a global commentator on the MH370 mystery since the aircraft disappeared, appearing regularly on international media.

Conspiracy Oracle Backs Beijing from Bangkok

27 October 2014 by John Berthelsen for Asian Correspondent

For weeks, the China Daily and other top Chinese news organizations have been reporting on “secret meetings” between Hong Kong democracy advocates and US organizations such as the Washington, DC-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and its subsidiary, the National Democratic Institute.

The “secret meetings,” which have actually been reported routinely in Hong Kong’s press, supposedly have been uncovered by what is described as an authoritative and respected Bangkok-based researcher named Tony Cartalucci. The problem is that as nearly as can be told, there is no such person as Tony Cartalucci. And what “Cartalucci” appears to have done is to have created a chain of biased or bogus online stories that travel in a circle from Bangkok to Moscow to Beijing to Hong Kong in an effort to discredit the Occupy Central movement.

“Tony Cartalucci” is believed to be a pseudonym made up by Michael Pirsch, who in an abbreviated biography on the website Truthout.com, describes himself as a former “union activist and union organizer for more than 25 years and a DJ on Berkeley Liberation Radio, a pirate radio station” who now lives “as an economic refugee from the United States in Thailand.”

Repeated efforts to contact Pirsch/Cartalucci by email at his Bangkok blog “Land Destroyer” and to his personal email address failed to elicit a reply. Land Destroyer is published not only in English but Arabic, Russian and Thai, indicating a considerable amount of resources.

The leaders of Occupy Central have reacted to Cartalucci/Pirsch’s allegations with irritation, saying they are perfectly capable of running their own protest and they don’t need advice or funding from US agencies.

However, in recent days Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has picked up the allegations, telling reporters that “it is not entirely a domestic movement, for external forces are involved.” He will identify the “external forces” when the time is right, he said. Pro-government politicians Regina Ip and Starry Lee, both stalwarts of the Establishment, have made reference to an “online source” for the rumors and Cartalucci’s allegations have been widely circulation within Hong Kong’s police force and repeated by Lau Nai-keung, a leader of the anti-Occupy movement and frequent commentator in the South China Morning Post.

If indeed Leung and the others are depending on Cartalucci/Pirsch’s reporting, there is plenty of it, a lot of it recycled to Moscow through a website called New Eastern Outlook, a propaganda outlet of the Russian Institute of Oriental Studies, a division of the Russian Academy of Sciences. New Eastern Outlook, where Cartalucci is a prolific writer, delivers a daily menu of reports charging the West with a long string of terrible things. On Oct. 25, for instance, the site intimated that the British SAS special forces are behind the ISIS beheadings of British and American hostages, that the US is lying in various permutations about the Ebola virus, that it is a “documented fact” (by Cartalucci) that the US is behind ISIS, that the young Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai “was set up…as a part of a propaganda ploy by British news network, the BBC.”

Other Cartalucci articles are cycled through GlobalResearch, a leftist Canadian website that, for instance, reported on Oct. 1 that “as the US admitted shortly after the so-called Arab Spring began spreading chaos across the Middle East that it had fully funded, trained, and equipped both mob leaders and heavily armed terrorists years in advance, it is now admitted that the US State Department through a myriad of organizations and NGOs is behind the so-called Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong.”

That is news to the US State Department, which as nearly as we can see has never made any such assertions.

In Cartalucci’s eyes, as reported in Land Destroyer, GlobalResearch and New Eastern Outlook, “The goal of the US in Hong Kong is clear – to turn [Hong Kong] into an epicenter of foreign-funded subversion with which to infect China’s mainland more directly.”

The Congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy, which assists a myriad of civil society groups including some in Hong Kong, is a favorite target of pro-Beijng and pro-Moscow conspiracy theorists but in fact its budget is modest and it constantly battles to maintain its funding.

New Eastern Outlook’s current home page has a story saying, “Protesters of the ‘Occupy Central’ movement in Hong Kong shout familiar slogans and adopt familiar tactics seen across the globe as part of the United States’ immense political destabilization and regime change enterprise. Identifying the leaders, following the money, and examining Western coverage of these events reveal with certainty that yet again, Washington and Wall Street are busy at work to make China’s island of Hong Kong as difficult to govern for Beijing as possible.”

Cartalucci identifies all of Occupy Central’s leaders as stalking horses for the US. Tackling one of the lead organizers of the movement, he writes, “Benny Tai regularly attends US State Department, National Endowment for Democracy [NED] and its subsidiary the National Democratic Institute [NDI] funded and/or organized forums. Martin Lee, Jimmy Lai, and [Cardinal] Joseph Zen are all confirmed as both leaders of the ‘Occupy Central’ movement and collaborators with the US State Department.

“Martin Lee, founding chairman of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong, would even travel to the United States this year to conspire directly with NED as well as with politicians in Washington.”

Although Cartalucci describes the meetings by Lee and former Hong Kong Chief Secretary Anson Chan as “secret,” they have been widely reported in Hong Kong’s press including the South China Morning Post and Chinese-language papers.

Cartalucci has other targets as well. He is a staunch defender of the Thai army’s coup and In 2013, he excoriated Thomas Fuller of the New York Times for allegedly showing bias towards the forces controlled by Thailand’s fugitive billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, but adds: “I admit it is difficult for a journalist employed by the NYT to write a story that doesn’t conform to the narrative of the US Empire… Thaksin allowed torture centers to be operated by the Empire, and he sent Thai troops to fight in Iraq. Both decisions are unpopular in Thailand. Therefore, the protestors must be misrepresented and their goals ridiculed.”

On the Truthout website, he also took after former Reuters correspondent Andrew MacGregor Marshall, the author of an authoritative new book on the Thai kingdom, alleging he was too closely connected to Robert Amsterdam, Thaksin’s London-based lawyer. Marshall forced him into a retraction.

Also listed on Land Destroyer’s website is Nile Bowie, described as “an independent journalist and political analyst based in Kuala Lumpur” whose articles “have appeared in numerous international publications, including regular columns with Russia Today and newspapers such as the Global Times, the Malaysian Reserve and the New Straits Times.” Bowie is also described as a researcher with the International Movement for a Just World, an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur and founded by activist professor Chandra Muzzafar.

But as with Cartalucci in Bangkok, few people in the small journalistic community of Kuala Lumpur appear to have ever heard of Nile Bowie despite his description of himself as a journalist, leading to questions whether Bowie’s name is a nom de plume as well. His affiliation with Global Times, however, puts him in company with the most virulently anti-western English-language publication in China.

A Banner on a Hong Kong Landmark Speaks of Democracy and Identity

24 October 2014 reporting from the New York Times

The giant yellow banner hanging on Thursday from Lion Rock, a rugged granite outcrop named for how it seems to crouch, lion-like, over the city of Hong Kong, carried a clear message: “I Want True Universal Suffrage.” It also conveyed an unmissable message about cultural identity.

In a video posted on YouTube, a group calling itself “The Hong Kong Spidie” said it had hung the banner, which echoed the key demand of the pro-democracy protests roiling Hong Kong. “Today we are occupying Lion Rock,” it said. (The beginning is in Cantonese. The brief English section starts at 1.33.) Its name appeared to be a hybrid of “spider” and “kiddie.”

The group said it wanted to show the world that Hong Kong was not about just money, but also spirit:

“Through this action, “The Hong Kong Spidie” aims to redefine the beauty of the “Spirit of Hong Kong people” — not merely shown in the city’s economic growth but in the recent Umbrella Movement to demand for democracy and universal suffrage.”

The location of the banner was highly symbolic: Lion Rock Hill, one of the hills that give Kowloon, the mainland part of Hong Kong, its name (Kowloon means “Nine Dragons”), has come to stand for Hong Kong’s special identity, one that is stirring deep loyalty among the young people who form the backbone of the pro-democracy movement that has consumed the city since late September.

Starting in the early 1970s, a television series titled “Below the Lion Rock” expressed that identity. It ran on and off for decades, exploring daily life, migration, work and love. Its message was that life was bittersweet, with its ups and downs, but that Hong Kong people, forged by colonialism, economic struggle and the challenges of the approaching handover to Chinese rule in 1997, were all “in the same boat below the Lion Rock.” The theme song, sung by the late Roman Tam, became a Cantopop classic.

The cultural meme of the lion is figuring elsewhere in the protests.

The Hong Kong police moved quickly to remove the banner on Thursday.

And here’s the written message on the “Spidie” video, explaining the group’s aims:

“Up on the Lion Rock: Universal Suffrage for Hong Kong!

22 Oct 2014 Today, a group of climbing enthusiasts, namely, ‘The Hong Kong Spidie’, unfurled a 6mX28m banner on the top of the Lion Rock. Symbolizing the toughness and persistence spirit of Hong Kong people, the Lion Rock is a famous Hong Kong hill located in Kowloon. Through this action, ‘The Hong Kong Spidie’ aims to redefine the beauty of the ‘Spirit of Hong Kong people’ – not merely shown in the city’s economic growth but in the recent Umbrella Movement to demand for democracy and universal suffrage.

Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying recently reiterated his position that free elections were impossible, and said it would result in the city’s many poor dominating politics. Andreas, one of the members of ‘The Hong Kong Spidie’ said, ‘We were shock by C.Y. Leung’s view point that the poor should not have equality in election, and hope this action would be able to call public attention on the importance of universal suffrage.’

‘The Hong Kong Spidie’ planned this action a week ago, and spent a few hours this morning to climb up the Lion Rock and unfurled the banner. ‘The Hong Kong Spidie’ demands the Hong Kong SAR Government to listen to the voices of the Hong Kong people, to stand up and negotiate with the Chinese government on a true democratic universal suffrage for Hong Kong.”

Here’s a classic rendition of “Below the Lion Rock,” sung by Ruby Wong. The video includes historic images of Hong Kong:

Leung lays bare the truth of Hong Kong elites’ anti-democratic stance

23 October 2014 from the SCMP

(This is worth a read as it is essentially the same argument that is used by thePDRC/yellow shirt movement in Thailand and that is now being reinforced by the Thai junta)

At last Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has done something really useful. Everyone sort of knew what Hong Kong’s elite really thought about democracy but now Leung has actually voiced these thoughts in public and said out loud that he does not like democracy and most certainly doesn’t trust it.

Speaking to foreign media representatives, he said that if Hong Kong were to have full-scale democracy, then the polls would be determined by people who earn less than HK$14,000 per month and “you would end up with that kind of politics and policies”.

To put this as bluntly as it deserves putting, Leung is saying that if there was anything like genuine democracy, instead of the current plans for a mutant democratic system, it would mean that the great unwashed would call the shots and end up supporting the kind of social welfare and pro-poor policies that the ruling elite have managed to keep at bay.

We can try and disentangle the flawed logic that lies behind these remarks later but, for the time being, let’s focus on the cat that Leung has let out of the bag.

He is reminding us that it was neither accident nor oversight that produced the current plans for highly controlled universal suffrage.

Instead, it was a deliberate plan to ensure that Hong Kong-style democracy would be stripped of the essential element of allowing the people to choose their government.

Where does this leave the serried ranks of both well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning people who are urging us “to pocket” the current proposals, arguing that they are some sort of step forward?

The answer is now clear because, although the proposed system might well be capable of highly marginal trimming around the edges, its essential anti-democratic nature will, if Leung has anything to do with it, stay in place.

Some commentators are already seeking to minimise the damage wrought by Leung’s remarks, trying to present it as some kind of public relations gaffe, but the reality is that Hong Kong’s chief executive is quite capable of saying what he means and, more importantly, of parroting the thinking of the real bosses in Beijing.

So, let’s have no more of this farcical bleating about how the constitutional reform proposals represent some kind of progress: they do not and are not designed to do so.

Meanwhile, let’s consider the logic of Leung’s remarks.

Clearly, he has never bothered to study the history of electoral politics, otherwise he would know that some of the most conservative voters in democratic systems are among the least well-off.

There is no such thing as an axiomatic relationship between poverty and so-called “social welfarism”.

Yet he is not entirely wrong because a genuinely democratic system does exert pressure on the rulers to go beyond looking after the interests of the elite. The question, as ever, is how far and how soon?

Leung adequately reflects the contempt he has for the ordinary people of Hong Kong and fails to understand that in this community, largely composed of immigrants and the offspring of immigrants, the work and self-help ethic is very strong indeed.

The people he and his colleagues despise are pragmatic and sensible.

So why, then, does he believe that they would rush like sheep into an orgy of emptying the public coffers?

Yet there is a group that greatly fears any change in government spending and adjustment of policies that would drain their revenues and hit their privileged position.

There are no prizes for guessing who they are and for understanding the unholy alliance that exists between them and the rulers in Beijing.

But, for now, thank you Mr Leung for at least being honest.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur

Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama’s midterms

19 October 2014 – The Independent

Contrary to what you might imagine, Ebola the physical disease has thus far barely made an appearance in the US. But two mutant strains of the sickness, Ebola, the panic virus and Ebola, the political virus, are rife. The consequences for November’s midterm elections now barely a fortnight off, and for Barack Obama’s place in history, could be momentous.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for Obama right now. No president is perfect, but for this one, misfortunes not of his making are arriving – like London buses – in convoys. There’s Islamic radicalism and Islamic State which have drawn him into a new Middle East conflict that his foreign policy objective was to avoid at all costs.

Then the economy finally starts yielding decent figures – on growth, unemployment and the national finances – yet last week’s news that the budget deficit had fallen to its lowest since 2007, a meagre 2.8 per cent of GDP (a figure most European governments would kill for) was obliterated by the tumble in US and global stock markets. And now Ebola.

Yes, mistakes in handling the threatened pandemic have been made – by all parties. The World Health Organisation was guilty of initially underestimating the danger. Western governments were (and still are) slothful in providing real help on the ground in West Africa. Here in the US, the federal government and the Atlanta-based Centre for Disease Control, similarly dropped the ball. “We’re stopping it in its tracks in this country,” Thomas Frieden, CDC’s chief, assured us only three weeks ago.

For its part, the Dallas hospital, which treated the only person who has so far died from the disease on US soil, made egregious mistakes as well. First, the patient’s condition was misdiagnosed; then two nurses who tended him were found to have the disease, despite the strictest theoretical precautions. Unbelievably, the second of them, already showing early signs of fever, was permitted by the CDC to take a commercial flight from Cleveland to Dallas last week, along with 132 passengers who are now being frantically sought by the authorities.

It could be that for all the criticism he now faces, Dr Frieden will be proved right. Despite the saturation coverage, just one person (a Liberian visiting relatives in America) has died, and only two people (the nurses) have thus far been infected. As Frieden has warned, there will surely be others. But if anybody has the capacity to stop Ebola in its tracks, it is the US, boasting the most advanced medical technology on earth.

And even as a potential health scourge, the disease hardly rates. Every year alcohol kills some 88,000 Americans and tobacco close on half a million. Some 30,000 people are killed, or kill themselves, with firearms annually, and thousands more die from the common flu. But that is to reckon without the panic factor, born of fear of the unknown – be it IS, possible economic collapse, and now Ebola.

Glance at the headlines and you’d think Dallas is a city about to fall to the silent enemy within. Worst-case scenarios abound, The New York Times quotes academic experts on “public hysteria”, and a New York company reports soaring sales of gasmasks and other “survival systems”. On Doom and Bloom, an online store, you can buy a “Deluxe Ebola Pandemic Kit” complete with goggles, coveralls, masks, and biohazard bags for $59.99 (£37), according to the Daily Beast news website.

In an election season, where there’s potential panic, there’s politics. Anxious to be seen as “in control”, the President last week cancelled political trips outside Washington, to attend to the crisis with his top advisers. On Friday, he appointed an “Ebola tsar” to co-ordinate the federal government’s response, and signed orders for national guardsmen to go to West Africa to help fight the epidemic.

But this “drop-everything else” tactic by the President, whose approval rating has sunk to a George W Bush-like 40 per cent – may backfire, creating the very panic it seeks to avoid. And even if the Ebola menace is extinguished in the US, Obama probably won’t get any credit. If it isn’t, he’ll certainly get the blame.

Indeed, Ebola is already being portrayed by the President’s Republican foes as a “Obama’s Katrina”, a failure to react to a disaster as fatal to his reputation as was Bush’s incompetence in handling the hurricane that devastated New Orleans. That is nonsense, as is the counter-charge from the Democrats that the crisis stems from CDC funding cuts (to which the Democrats agreed during the recent budget showdowns in Washington).

On 4 November, Ebola may not sway votes directly. But indirectly, it surely works to the Republicans advantage, feeding into a pervasive sense of national unease, reinforcing a perception of drift and weakness.

If so, then we could be heading for a Democratic disaster that would weaken Obama further. The party long since gave up all hope of making gains in the House of Representatives, where Republicans are set to enlarge their majority. The sole question of these midterms, a de facto referendum on the man who is not on the ballot, is whether the Democrats can cling on to the Senate. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to have a majority, and a fortnight ago it seemed they might come up short. Now the tide is running in their favour. Three GOP gains are all but certain: West Virginia, Montana and South Dakota. Add Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Colorado, where the Republican is leading, and it’s seven.

True, a couple of Republican-held seats in Kansas and Georgia look wobbly, and the Democrats may cling on to Louisiana, another Republican target. But consider this. Ebola’s incubation period is around 21 days. If so, and new cases do come to light, it could be right around the election day itself. Cui bono? Surely the Republicans.

Stability will only return when Hong Kong ends its property tyranny

15 October 2014 South China Morning Post

Sky-high property prices are the root cause of the ongoing social instability in Hong Kong. When the average household would have to put aside all their salary for 10 years to afford to buy the space for a bed – never mind eating and drinking, and other living expenses – or that incomes have grown by only 10 per cent in a decade, where is the hope for ordinary people, especially the young? Unless Hong Kong restructures its property market to serve the people, instead of milking them to the last drop, the city won’t see stability again.

Hong Kong has been run like a medieval city state. A business elite at the top has the dominant voice on how wealth and income are created and distributed. Hong Kong’s system encourages people to make money with maximum economic freedom and low taxes.

Tight land supply adds to the problem – often a result of hoarding by a few of the big boys. The banking system is structured to load people with a mountain of debt, which means people must work even harder to keep their tiny apartment.

The system worked when incomes were rising rapidly. When China was not fully open up to the world, Hong Kong had plenty of opportunities as a bridge between the two, and could charge a hefty premium for the service. After China joined the World Trade Organisation, those opportunities as a middleman vanished. Taxing people with ever higher property prices couldn’t work anymore. But Hong Kong’s system didn’t adjust to the new reality. The ensuing instability is hurting everyone. The city’s ruling elite, through uncontrollable greed, have done themselves in.

In contrast, Singapore has been run like a proper dictatorship. The system doesn’t do stupid things to hurt its ruling class. It focuses its greed on foreigners and distributes the spoils among the people through good public housing, quality education and health care, and a nice pension. Most Hong Kong people seem to like Singapore.

When you think about it, medieval city states like Florence and Venice flourished using the same policies. They used strong militaries to protect their trade monopolies and, sometimes, just looted others when opportunities arose. Because their ruling elite had the wisdom to distribute the loot among all contributors, their enterprises or scams lasted for centuries. Their luck finally ran out when rising nation states built bigger militaries.

Both Hong Kong and Singapore are leftovers of the British colonial era. They have enjoyed much higher incomes than their giant neighbours by arbitraging their inefficiencies. The business model is not so different from Venice or Florence centuries ago. As their neighbours change, they must adapt to sustain their income premium. Instead of building ships or making semiconductors, Singapore has switched to casinos and private banking. Maybe these businesses don’t smell so good, but they bring in the money to buy social peace.

Hong Kong hasn’t adapted. When the old model doesn’t work, the instinct here is to squeeze supply further. When the price is too high, let’s carve a flat into several smaller ones. Wouldn’t that make housing affordable? Hence, mini-flats have now become popular for speculators. But, even mini-flats are unaffordable. What’s next? Should people learn to sleep standing up or hanging upside down?

The usual excuse against change is that Hong Kong doesn’t have land. This is a big lie. Only 4 per cent of Hong Kong’s land is given over to residential use. There is the same amount of reserved development land, and big developers hold a considerable chunk of it. Singapore has been developing mainly on reclaimed land. It has a real physical shortage, but has kept public housing cheap and spacious. Land isn’t a constraint to Hong Kong’s development.

What stands in the way is Hong Kong’s ruling elite, a leftover from the colonial era, hanging onto the old model no matter what. Since they don’t have other sources of competitiveness, changing would mean the end to their privileged status. This is why meaningful change won’t happen through consultation among the elite. Some force has to impose the change. If Beijing wants stability in Hong Kong, it must focus on property, which means ditching its business friends.

In addition to artificially controlled land supply, interest rates play a role in the price cycle. But this confuses the debate. The interest rate cycle introduces volatility. So, if the US Federal Reserve raises rates to 3 per cent within three years, Hong Kong’s property prices may fall by 50 per cent over that time.

Yet housing still wouldn’t be affordable. When the price begins to fall suddenly, the debate will surely shift, and political support for limiting supply will return. Hong Kong could repeat the cycle.

Ruling Hong Kong requires a long-term vision, not the zig-zagging we’ve seen since the handover. During the Asian financial crisis, Hong Kong abandoned its expanded, but still modest, public housing programme, laying the seeds for today’s instability. Policy responses now should focus not only on short-term issues.

Andy Xie is an independent economist

Tim Clark is totally dissatisfied with the MH370 investigation

10 October 2014

The fate of MH370 is “downright suspicious” and the Malyasia Airlines jumbo may not even be in the Southern Indian Ocean, according to Emirates chief Sir Tim Clark.

In an interview with Der Spiegel seven months after the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, Sir Tim has cast doubt on the official version of events.

In an extraordinary interview with the German magazine he challenges the Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s conclusion this week that MH370 flew south over the Indian Ocean on autopilot for five hours until it ran out of fuel and fell out of the sky, forcing 239 passengers into a watery grave.

Clark called for every “fact” about the tragedy to be challenged as investigators comb an area of the southern Indian Ocean seabed. He also voiced concern that efforts to get the truth might slacken, leading MH370 to become an unsolved mystery.

Clark said: “My own view is that probably control was taken of that airplane. It’s anybody’s guess who did what. We need to know who was on the plane in the detail that obviously some people do know.

“We need to know what was in the hold of the aircraft. And we need to continue to press all those who were involved in the analysis of what happened for more information.”

Revealing he feels “totally dissatisfied” with the progress of the investigation, Clark said he remains to be convinced that MH370 was even to be found in the southern Indian Ocean.

“I am saying that all the “facts” of this particular incident must be challenged and examined with full transparency. We are nowhere near that. There is plenty of information out there, which we need to be far more forthright, transparent and candid about.

“Every single second of that flight needs to be examined up until it, theoretically, ended up in the Indian Ocean — for which they still haven’t found a trace, not even a seat cushion. Our experience tells us that in water incidents, where the aircraft has gone down, there is always something.

“We have not seen a single thing that suggests categorically that this aircraft is where they say it is.”

Two hundred and thirty nine passangers died when MH370 vanished in March, en-route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpar.

Leading the search for the Malaysia Airlines craft is the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

Emirates Head Critical of MH 370 Investigation

10 October 2010 Der Spiegel interview conducted by Andreas Spaeth

Why is there still no trace of flight MH 370? In an interview, Sir Tim Clark, head of Emirates Airline, is sharply critical of the investigation thus far. He believes someone took control of the plane and maintained it until the very end.

Tim Clark has been a senior manager at the airline Emirates since 1985 and has been instrumental in developing it into one of the world’s largest airlines. Today, the 64-year-old is seen as a knowledgeable expert and critic of the aviation industry. His view of the vanished Malaysian Airlines flight MH 370 is a provocative one. The plane that disappeared was a Boeing 777 and Emirates operates 127 such aircraft, more than any other airline in the world.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: It’s now October, seven months after the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH 370, and we still don’t know what happened. What can still be done to gain some degree of clarity?

Clark: MH 370 remains one of the great aviation mysteries. Personally, I have the concern that we will treat it as such and move on. At the most, it might then make an appearance on National Geographic as one of aviation’s great mysteries. We mustn’t allow this to happen. We must know what caused that airplane to disappear.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And what do you think happened?

Clark: My own view is that probably control was taken of that airplane.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: By whom? What do you think happened?

Clark: It’s anybody’s guess who did what. We need to know who was on the plane in the detail that obviously some people do know. We need to know what was in the hold of the aircraft. And we need to continue to press all those who were involved in the analysis of what happened for more information. I do not subscribe to the view that the Boeing 777, which is one of the most advanced in the world and has the most advanced communication platforms, needs to be improved with the introduction of some kind of additional tracking system. MH 370 should never have been allowed to enter a non-trackable situation.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you mean by that?

Clark: The transponders are under the control of the flight deck. These are tracking devices, aircraft identifiers that work in the secondary radar regime. If you turn off that transponder in a secondary radar regime, that particular airplane disappears from the radar screen. That should never be allowed to happen. Irrespective of when the pilot decides to disable the transponder, the aircraft should be able to be tracked.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What about other monitoring methods?

Clark: The other means of constantly monitoring the progress of an aircraft is ACARS (Eds. Note: Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System). It is designed primarily for companies to monitor what its planes are doing. We use it to monitor aircraft systems and engine performance. At Emirates, we track every single aircraft from the ground, every component and engine of the aircraft at any point on the planet. Very often, we are able to track systemic faults before the pilots do.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How might it have been possible to disable that tracking system?

Clark: Disabling it is no simple thing and our pilots are not trained to do so. But on flight MH 370, this thing was somehow disabled, to the degree that the ground tracking capability was eliminated. We must find systems to allow ACARS to continue uninterrupted, irrespective of who is controlling the aircraft. If you have that, with the satellite constellations that we have today even in remote ocean regions, we still have monitoring capability. So you don’t have to introduce additional tracking systems.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What, then, are you proposing?

Clark: My recommendation to aircraft manufacturers that they find a way to make it impossible to disable ACARS from the flight deck. And the transponder as well. I’m still struggling to come up with a reason why a pilot should be able to put the transponder into standby or to switch it off. MH 370 was, in my opinion, under control, probably until the very end.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: If that is the case, then why would the pilots spend five hours heading straight towards Antarctica?

Clark: If they did! I am saying that all the “facts” of this particular incident must be challenged and examined with full transparency. We are nowhere near that. There is plenty of information out there, which we need to be far more forthright, transparent and candid about. Every single second of that flight needs to be examined up until it, theoretically, ended up in the Indian Ocean — for which they still haven’t found a trace, not even a seat cushion.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does that surprise you? The possible crash area west of Australia is vast and the search there only began following considerable delays.

Clark: Our experience tells us that in water incidents, where the aircraft has gone down, there is always something. We have not seen a single thing that suggests categorically that this aircraft is where they say it is, apart from this so-called electronic satellite “handshake,” which I question as well.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: At what point on the presumed flight path of MH 370 do your doubts begin?

Clark: There hasn’t been one overwater incident in the history of civil aviation — apart from Amelia Earhart in 1939 — that has not been at least 5 or 10 percent trackable. But MH 370 has simply disappeared. For me, that raises a degree of suspicion. I’m totally dissatisfied with what has been coming out of all of this.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What can be done to improve the investigation’s transparency?

Clark: I’m not in a position to do it; I’m essentially an airline manager. But I will continue to ask questions and make a nuisance of myself, even as others would like to bury it. We have an obligation to the passengers and crew of MH 370 and their families. We have an obligation to not sweep this under the carpet, but to sort it out and do better than we have done.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Malaysia Airlines has experienced two tragic catastrophes this year, the disappearance of MH 370 and the apparent shooting down of MH 17 over eastern Ukraine in July. If you led the company, what would you do?

Clark: Very difficult one. None of us has been in such a situation before, having to deal with two tragedies within a few months of each other. It will be very difficult for Malaysia Airlines to deal with the stigma. They need to take a fresh look at what they do, revisit their business model, possibly (consider) a rebranding. We as an industry need to find a way to help these guys sort out their problems. But with that kind of brand damage, it’s extraordinarily difficult.

Shambles at the Vic

9 October 2014

Most managers last on average around a year nowadays but Watford FC have remarkably appointed Slavisa Jokanovic as their 4th manager of the season after just 11 League Games and 7 weeks into the new season.

They started off the season with Giuseppe Sannino who had been in charge since December 2013 but after just 3 weeks of the new season he left Vicarage Road with The Hornets sitting in 2nd after an impressive start, stating there was conflict between him and the players. He is now managing in Italy’s Serie B with Catania.

After him it was the turn of Spaniard and former Brighton Manager Oscar Garcia who only on the touchline in one game because of ongoing health problems, and in the end this forced him to leave the Hertfordshire based side after just 27 days.

The last man who exited the revolving door was Billy Mckinlay who managed just 2 games with 8 days in charge before leaving the club. The former coach at Fulham and Assistant at Northern Ireland said he had been waiting 10 years for his chance in management; sadly his first job didn’t last as long as his wait. He did though leave the club with an unbeaten record with 4 points from his 2 games in charge. It is as of yet unclear why he left, there are though rumors linking him with the Fulham job .

The latest man to enter Vicarage Road is Slavisa Jokanovic who comes in from Spanish 3rd division side Hercules. Jokanović started his managerial career at Partizan Belgrade in 2008. He won the league and cup with them in the same year, and was selected as ‘Best Coach in Serbia’, but refused to receive the award because Partizan fared poorly in the UEFA Cup.

In the following season, his first full season, Jokanović again won the league and cup, this time winning the league by 19 points. He was the first coach in the club’s history to successfully defend both league and cup.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, he then left the club by mutual consent at the start of the following season.

Since then, Jokanović has managed in Thailand, winning the league and going unbeaten with Muangthong United F.C. in 2012-13. He had a short spell as manager of Bulgarian team PFC Levski Sofia following this, but was sacked due to poor results after a few months, and is currently in charge at Spanish third-tier side Hércules CF, whom the Pozzos have had dealings with in the past through loaning out players from Granada.

Despite all the behind the scene changes at the club Watford sit in 3rd place in the Championship, level on points with the top two. The players appear to have handled all the changes calmly but now they must be hoping for a bit of consistency with Jokanovic in charge.

The main question is what is going on behind the scenes at Watford why all these changes?

October 6 remembered

6 October 2014

Today is the 38th anniversary of the October 6, 1976 massacre of students at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. Details on Wikipedia.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thammasat_University_massacre

Commemorations of that event have been banned by the ruling junta this year.

The massacre took place at Thammasat University when right-wing militia and border police attacked a peaceful gathering of student activists and protesters who had been protesting against the return of Field Marshall Thanom Kittikajorn, a military dictator, who returned to Thailand in disguise as a Buddhist monk.

Thanom, who ruled Thailand from 1958-1973, was ousted in a popular uprising that took place three years before the massacre.

Students were set on fire with petrol and a lifeless body was hung from a tree in Sanam Luang while being beaten by a chair with the right-wing crowd looking extremely happy.

Officially the day took the lives of at least 46 protesters and pulled the country back to years of military rule. Unofficially the death count is much higher.

The massacre which ended with the military coup d’état brought the political division to another level. Hundreds of books were banned. Student activists were hunted down, forcing many who were not even Communists to join the People’s Liberation Army of Thailand (PLAT), the armed wing of the Communist Party of Thailand. The conflict between the PLAT and the military government lasted for a decade until the amnesty programme in late 1980s.

Student activism and involvement in politics has also been largely passive since that date.

As shown again in 2010 the Thai establishment is ready to use violence on Thai citizens if they perceive a threat to their control.

In doing so they readily justify state violence as a necessary response to opposition that they brand as being un-Thai.

In seeking comparisons between Thailand and events in Hong Kong this last week it is reasonable to compare 1976 Bangkok to 2014 Hong Kong….hopefully with a very different outcome.

On the Oregon Trail with Blue Rodeo

4 October 2014

The Oregon Trail is a 2,200-mile (3,500 km) historic east-west wagon route and emigrant trail that connected the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon. It was one of those great romantic western adventures that in reality must have been terrifying and dangerous.

The eastern part of the Oregon Trail spanned part of the future state of Kansas and nearly all of what are now the states of Nebraska and Wyoming. The western half of the trail spanned most of the future states of Idaho and Oregon.

The Oregon Trail was laid by fur trappers and traders from about 1811 to 1840 and was only passable on foot or by horseback. By 1836, when the first migrant wagon train was organized in Independence, Missouri, a wagon trail had been cleared to Fort Hall, Idaho. Wagon trails were cleared further and further west, eventually reaching all the way to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. What came to be called the Oregon Trail was complete, even as improved roads, “cutouts”, ferries and bridges made the trip faster and safer almost every year. From various “jumping off points” branched in Missouri, Iowa or Nebraska Territory, the routes converged along the lower Platte River Valley near Fort Kearny, Nebraska Territory and led to rich farmlands west of the Rocky Mountains.

From the early to mid-1830s (and particularly through the epoch years, 1846–1869) the Oregon Trail and its many offshoots were used by about 400,000 settlers, ranchers, farmers, miners, and businessmen and their families. The eastern half of the trail was also used by travelers on the California Trail (from 1843), Bozeman Trail (from 1863), and Mormon Trail (from 1847) before turning off to their separate destinations. Use of the trail declined as the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, making the trip west substantially faster, cheaper, and safer. Today, modern highways such as Interstate 80 follow the same course westward and pass through towns originally established to service the Oregon Trail.

Blue Rodeo did not follow the Oregon Trail but for two nights last week they were in the American Northwest playing in Seattle and Portland.

In Seattle, on 1st October, Blue Rodeo played the Nordstrom Recital Hall at the home of the Seattle Symphony orchestra. The venue set the tone. It is the smaller venue at the symphony’s home seating 500. Blue Rodeo welcomed about 450 concert-goers – ageing, well-dressed and polite. Uniformed ushers on crowd control. Cinema style seating. No interval. It all felt very professional. A bit sterile. And rather muted.

This is the Seattle set list:

Head over Heels
What am I doing here?
New morning sun
Mattawa
Tell Me Again
Diamond Mine
Rose Coloured Glasses
Bad Timing
Disappear
Photograph
To Love Somebody
Summer Girls
After the Rain
My Dark Angel
You’re Everywhere
5 Days in July
Hasn’t Hit me Yet
Try
Till I am Myself Again
Lost Together

Then onto Portland on 2nd October. First up – what a nice town this is. It genuinely seems to work. Modern, efficient; good public transit. Vibrant arts scene. A downtown university keeps the city young. Great food culture. Multinational food trucks. The only thing missing is better and more affordable downtown hotel accommodation.

The Aladdin Theatre in Portland is a 600 seat music venue and was originally the Geller’s Theatre when it opened in 1928. It became the Aladdin in 1930 starting as a vaudeville house, then a family cinema and in the 70′s and 80′s served as an adult movie theater.

The Aladdin was purchased and renovated by Paul Shuback, of Shuback’s violin shop, and from late 1993) it has been a concert and comedy venue.

It has character. It also has a bar and basic food. The good news is that you can take your food and drinks into the concert.

The room was about half full for Blue Rodeo. But it was a lively and noisy crowd. Fun people. And therefore a more enjoyable concert than in Seattle. I also prefered the sound at the Aladdin. Simply more vibrant than the muffled sound of the recital hall.

Perhaps reflecting the venue the set list was a little more upbeat as well.

Head over Heels
What am I doing here?
English Bay
New morning sun
Tell me again
Rose Coloured Glasses
Rena
Disappear
Jesus Christ was born today (from BR’s upcoming Christmas Album) – as a side note JC has the same initials
It could happen to you
5 days in July
Mattawa
Diamond Mine
Summer Girls
After the Rain
To love somebody
You’re everywhere
Hasn’t hit me yet
Till I am myself again
Lost together

So I got my fix of Blue Rodeo. My first concerts since two years ago in Spain. Greg Keelor was in good and strong voice. Colin Cripps seems part of the furniture and I would pay good money to watch a Mike Boguski solo concert. Jim Cuddy is still the guy that the girls want to be seen with.

My only wish is that the shows were a little less predictable. There are some great Blue Rodeo songs that simply never make it to the concert stage.

In the USA Blue Rodeo are a bit like Chocolate Turtles. Both are great Canadian products yet appear little known south of the border other than to a devoted, often expatriate Canadian following. But it is also a great opportunity to see the band in smaller, more personal, venues.

The Party v the people

2 October 2014 The Economist

Of the ten bloodiest conflicts in world history, two were world wars. Five of the other eight took place or originated in China. The scale of the slaughter within a single country, and the frequency with which the place has been bathed in blood, is hard for other nations to comprehend. The Taiping revolt in the mid-19th century led to the deaths of more than 20m, and a decade later conflict between Han Chinese and Muslims killed another 8m-12m. In the 20th century 20m-30m died under Mao Zedong: some murdered, most as a result of a famine caused by brutality and incompetence.

China’s Communist Party leaders are no doubt keen to hold on to power for its own sake. But the country’s grim history also helps explain why they are so determined not to give ground to the demonstrators in Hong Kong who want to replace the territory’s fake democracy with the real thing (see article). Xi Jinping, China’s president, and his colleagues believe that the party’s control over the country is the only way of guaranteeing its stability. They fear that if the party loosens its grip, the country will slip towards disorder and disaster.

They are right that autocracy can keep a country stable in the short run. In the long run, though, as China’s own history shows, it cannot. The only guarantor of a stable country is a people that is satisfied with its government. And in China, dissatisfaction with the Communist Party is on the rise.

Bad omens

Hong Kong’s “Umbrella revolution”, named after the protection the demonstrators carry against police pepper-spray (as well as the sun and the rain), was triggered by a decision by China in late August that candidates for the post of the territory’s chief executive should be selected by a committee stacked with Communist Party supporters. Protesters are calling for the party to honour the promise of democracy that was made when the British transferred the territory to China in 1997. Like so much in the territory, the protests are startlingly orderly. After a night of battles with police, students collected the plastic bottles that littered the streets for recycling.

For some of the protesters, democracy is a matter of principle. Others, like middle-class people across mainland China, are worried about housing, education and their own job prospects. They want representation because they are unhappy with how they are governed. Whatever their motivation, the protests present a troubling challenge for the Communist Party. They are reminiscent not just of uprisings that have toppled dictators in recent years from Cairo to Kiev, but also of the student protests in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago. The decision to shoot those protesters succeeded in restoring order, but generated mistrust that still pervades the world’s dealings with China, and China’s with its own citizens.

In Hong Kong, the party is using a combination of communist and colonial tactics. Spokesmen have accused the protesters of being “political extremists” and “black hands” manipulated by “foreign anti-China forces”; demonstrators will “reap what they have sown”. Such language is straight out of the party’s well-thumbed lexicon of calumnies; similar words were used to denigrate the protesters in Tiananmen. It reflects a long-standing unwillingness to engage with democrats, whether in Hong Kong or anywhere else in China, and suggests that party leaders see Hong Kong, an international city that has retained a remarkable degree of freedom since the British handed it back to China, as just another part of China where critics can be intimidated by accusing them of having shadowy ties with foreigners. Mr Xi, who has long been closely involved with the party’s Hong Kong policy, should know better.

At the same time, the party is resorting to the colonialists’ methods of managing little local difficulties. Much as the British—excoriated by the Communist Party—used to buy the support of tycoons to keep activism under wraps, Mr Xi held a meeting in Beijing with 70 of Hong Kong’s super-rich to ensure their support for his stance on democracy. The party’s supporters in Hong Kong argue that bringing business onside is good for stability, though the resentment towards the tycoons on display in Hong Kong’s streets suggests the opposite.

Yet the combination of exhortation, co-option and tear gas have so far failed to clear the streets. Now the government is trying to wait the protesters out. But if Mr Xi believes that the only way of ensuring stability is for the party to reassert its control, it remains possible that he will authorise force. That would be a disaster for Hong Kong, and it would not solve Mr Xi’s problem. For mainland China, too, is becoming restless.

Party leaders are doing their best to prevent mainlanders from finding out about the events in Hong Kong (see article). Even so, the latest news from Hong Kong’s streets will find ways of getting to the mainland, and the way this drama plays out will shape the government’s relations with its people.

The difficulty for the Communist Party is that while there are few signs that people on the mainland are hungering for full-blown democracy, frequent protests against local authorities and widespread expressions of anger on social media suggest that there, too, many people are dissatisfied with the way they are governed. Repression, co-option and force may succeed in silencing the protesters in Hong Kong today, but there will be other demonstrations, in other cities, soon enough.

A different sort of order

As Mr Xi has accumulated power, he has made it clear that he will not tolerate Western-style democracy. Yet suppressing popular demands produces temporary stability at the cost of occasional devastating upheavals. China needs to find a way of allowing its citizens to shape their governance without resorting to protests that risk turning into a struggle for the nation’s soul. Hong Kong, with its history of free expression and semi-detached relationship to the mainland, is an ideal place for that experiment to begin. If Mr Xi were to grasp the chance, he could do more for his country than all the emperors and party chiefs who have struggled to maintain stability in that vast and violent country before him.

Hong Kong Is Ready For Democracy, But China Isn’t Ready for a Free Hong Kong

29 September 2014 Anson Chan for Time magazine

China is not ready for a democratically governed Hong Kong it fears it cannot totally control

For me the most heart-breaking aspect of the current unrest in Hong Kong has been to see our police force, kitted out in full riot gear like Star Wars Stormtroopers with gas masks donned, firing pepper spray and tear gas indiscriminately into the faces of crowds of very young unarmed student protesters, most of whom had their arms in the air to show that they were not holding any weapon. These pictures have shamed our city and its government in front of the whole world.

Hong Kong has a long tradition of peaceful protest, dating back to the outpouring of grief following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, and now including annual June 4 candlelight vigils, and pro-democracy marches that take place each year on the July 1 anniversary of the return of sovereignty to China. Hong Kong protesters don’t hurl rocks and Molotov cocktails, they don’t burn tires or set fire to police vehicles, they don’t smash windows and loot shops. Fulfilling their side of the bargain, they have trusted that the police will fulfill theirs by managing the demonstration with a light touch and supporting their right to peaceful demonstration.

In a few short hours last Sunday, our police sacrificed decades of goodwill; their mandate having clearly changed from one of supporting freedom of expression to acting as a tool of an increasingly repressive and authoritarian government that seems committed to rule by law, rather than the rule of law. These sorts of tactics may be par for the course in Mainland China; they are totally unacceptable under the policy of “one country, two systems” laid down by the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration — the treaty signed by China and Britain that paved the way for Hong Kong to be handed back to Chinese rule in 1997.

As I write, the protest is ongoing. This is no longer just about the Occupy Central movement, which planned to block roads in Hong Kong Island’s main business district. Peaceful sit-ins have spread up-town and across Hong Kong Harbor to Kowloon. The numbers of students are being swelled by supporters of all ages and walks of life.

For the time being, our government seems to have recognized the error of its ways. Riot police have withdrawn and the mood of the crowds is more relaxed.

The question now is can trust be repaired? What will it take to defuse the current stand-off?

First, the governments in Hong Kong and Beijing must acknowledge that Hong Kong’s people have a right to be angry. Our constitution, the Basic Law, promises that we will have the right to elect our head of government and all members of our legislature by universal suffrage. Yet, 17 years after the return of sovereignty to China, we are still being told that we are not really ready for full democracy. We can have one person, one vote — to elect our next head of government in 2017 — but the two or three candidates allowed to stand for election must all be pre-screened by a nominating committee loaded with pro-Beijing sympathizers.

Having waited so long, Hong Kong people are outraged at this insult to their intelligence. Not surprisingly, it is young people, the students, who are most incensed. They can see that Hong Kong is slipping down a perilous slope toward becoming just another Chinese city. This is about their future, the preservation of their way of life and the core values and freedoms they want to be able to pass on to their children and grandchildren.

The truth is Hong Kong is more than ready for democracy; it is China that is not ready for a democratically governed Hong Kong it fears it cannot totally control.

Hong Kong’s Government has paved the way for the current crisis by acquiescing in a phoney process of public consultation on constitutional reform, the results of which were completely ignored by Beijing. The vast majority of protesters want nothing less than for our current head of government, C.Y. Leung, and his senior ministers, to step down. Realistically, this won’t happen — at least anytime soon. In the meantime, he and his team must come up with something that will give the protesters a reason to pack up and go home. And they must come up with it soon.

Anson Maria Elizabeth Chan Fang On-sang, GBM, GCMG, CBE, JP (born 17 January 1940) is the former Chief Secretary in both the British colonial government of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government under the Chinese rule. She was also an elected member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong for Hong Kong Island between 2007 and 2008

ANA – another night awake

29 September 2014

A few thoughts on two flights yesterday long haul in Economy with ANA.

I flew on NH806 – the 06.50am departure from Bangkok to Narita and then on NH1078 from Narita to Seattle.

The first flight was an older 777-200 and the second flight a new 787-800.

The only thing consistent between the flights were the friendly and very efficient cabin crews. They are also quiet and unobtrusive. Very different from too many Emirates crews who seeem to have a party in the galley on many flights.

The 777-200 had an old style 3-3-3 configuration with good legroom but a first generation small-screen IFE that was pretty well useless for anything other than the flight map.

Oddly despite the 06.50 departure the only breakfast served was a very small banana muffin.

A hot lunch was then served 2 hours out of Narita – about 4 hours into the flight. If you have been awake since 3.45am and have not eaten at the airport you will be hungry.

I had to clear immigration at Narita to change planes – just a function of the ticket I was using. Arrivals was very speedy; departure immigration a bit of a shambles with just 5 of 14 desks working and 20 to 30 minute queues.

Online check in was available for the flight from Narita but not from Bangkok.

The 787 may be the most over-hyped plane in modern aviation. Yes it has bigger windows. But the cabin is not quiet – certainly not at quiet as the A380.

That is it. ANA used a 3-3-3 configuration for this airplane. The seats are small, short, limited in legroom and have the smallest of armrests. They are very like the Emirates 777 seats but without the extra legroom that EK offers which compensates in part for the lack of seat width. These are not seats that you sleep in.

The aisles are narrow adding to the sense of claustrophobia.

For a new airplane ANA’s IFE is very disappointing. A small choice of international films; no boxed set dramas and no wi-fi.

Good job the crew are as capable and unobtrusive as they are.

Too Young to Die, Too Old to Worry

29 September 2014 – The New York Times

This weekend, the singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen is celebrating his 80th birthday — with a cigarette. Last year he announced that he would resume smoking when he turned 80. “It’s the right age to recommence,” he explained.

At any age, taking up smoking is not sensible. Both the smoker and those who breathe his secondhand smoke can suffer not only long-term but acute health problems, including infections and asthma. And yet, Mr. Cohen’s plan presents a provocative question: When should we set aside a life lived for the future and, instead, embrace the pleasures of the present?

At the start of the 20th century, only one-half of 1 percent of the United States population was over the age of 80. Industrialized nations were preoccupied with infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and polio. Many of the common diseases of aging, such as osteoporosis, were not even thought of as diseases.

Today, 3.6 percent of the population is over 80, and life is heavily prescribed not only with the behaviors we should avoid, but the medications we ought to take. More than half of adults age 65 and older are taking five or more prescription medications, over-the-counter medications or dietary supplements, many of them designed not to treat acute suffering, but instead, to reduce the chances of future suffering. Stroke, heart attacks, heart failure, kidney failure, hip fracture — the list is long, and with the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ plan to prevent Alzheimer’s disease by 2025, it grows ever more ambitious.

Aging in the 21st century is all about risk and its reduction. Insurers reward customers for regular attendance at a gym or punish them if they smoke. Physicians are warned by pharmaceutical companies that even after they have prescribed drugs to reduce their patients’ risk of heart disease, a “residual risk” remains — more drugs are often prescribed. One fitness product tagline captures the zeitgeist: “Your health account is your wealth account! Long live living long!”

But when is it time to stop saving and spend some of our principal? If you thought you were going to die soon, you just might light up, as well as stop taking your daily aspirin, statin and blood pressure pill. You would spend more time and money on present pleasures, like a dinner out with friends, than on future anxieties.

When it comes to prevention, there can be too much of a good thing. Groups like the United States Preventive Services Task Force regularly review the evidence that supports prevention guidelines, and find that after certain ages, the benefits of prevention are not worth the risks and hassles of testing, surgeries and medications. Recent guidelines for cholesterol treatment from the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association, for example, set 79 years as the upper limit for calculating the 10-year risk of developing or dying from heart attack, stroke or heart disease. They also suggest that, after 75, it may not be beneficial for a person without heart disease to start taking statins. But that doesn’t mean everyone follows this advice.

Besides, isn’t 75 the new 65? Age seems a blunt criterion to decide when to stop. Is Mr. Cohen at 80 really 80? In his mid-70s, he maintained a rigorous touring schedule, often skipping off the stage. Maybe 80 is too young for him to start smoking again.

Advances in the science of forecasting are held out as the answers to these questions. Physician researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, and at Harvard, have developed ePrognosis, a website that collates 19 risk calculators that an older adult can use to calculate her likelihood of dying in the next six months to 10 years. The developers of ePrognosis report that frail older adults want to know their life expectancy so they can not only plan their health care but also make financial choices, such as giving away some of their savings.

Even more revolutionary is RealAge, a product of Sharecare Inc. that has quantified our impression that as we age, some of us are really older, while others are younger than the count of their years. It uses an algorithm that assesses a variety of habits and medical data to calculate how old you “really” are.

Websites like these can be a convenient vehicle to disseminate information (and marketing materials) to patients. But complex actuarial data — including its uncertainties and limitations — is best conveyed during a face-to-face, doctor-patient conversation.

We are becoming a nation of planners living quantified lives. But life accumulates competing risks. By preventing heart disease and cancer, we live longer and so increase our risk of suffering cognitive losses so disabling that our caregivers then have to decide not just how, but how long, we will live. The bioethicist Dena Davis has argued that emerging biomarkers that may someday predict whether one is developing the earliest pathology of Alzheimer’s disease (like brain amyloid, measured with a PET scan) are an opportunity for people to schedule their suicide. Or at least start smoking.

Our culture of aging is one of extremes. You are either healthy and executing vigorous efforts to build your health account, or you are dying. And yet, as we start to “ache in the places where [we] used to play,” as one of Mr. Cohen’s songs puts it, we want to focus on the present. Many of my older patients and their caregivers complain that they spend their days going from one doctor visit to the next, and data from the National Health Interview Survey suggests one reason. Among older adults whose nine-year mortality risk is 75 percent or greater, from one-third to as many as one-half are still receiving cancer-screening tests that are no longer recommended.

I don’t plan to celebrate my 80th birthday with a cigarette or a colonoscopy, and I don’t want my aging experience reduced to an online, actuarial accounting exercise. I recently gave a talk about Alzheimer’s disease to a community group. During the question and answer session, one man exclaimed, “Why doesn’t Medicare pay us all to have dinner and two glasses of wine once a week with friends?” What he was getting at is that we desire not simply to pursue life, but happiness, and that medicine is important, but it’s not the only means to this happiness. A national investment in communities and services that improve the quality of our aging lives might help us to achieve this. Perhaps, instead of Death Panels, we can start talking about Pleasure Panels.

Jason Karlawish is a professor of medicine, medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

Flying High – The Improbable Rise of the Gulf Airlines

23 September 2014 – By Jim Krane for Foreign Affairs magazine

“Shiraz or Chardonnay?” the stewardess asked, brandishing a bottle of each. Our London-bound Emirates Airline flight had recently left Dubai. I glanced out the window and noted a sprawling city amid the jagged landscape below. The seat back map told me we were flying over Shiraz, Iran.

“Shiraz, please,” I responded, in sympathy for those inhabiting the city below, not many of whom were being offered a similar choice.

The socially conservative Persian Gulf is not a region generally associated with free-flowing wine or, at least until recently, the finer side of air travel. The relentless rise of its state-owned airlines thus comes as a surprise, especially given the region’s tendency toward political unrest. Indeed, one might have been forgiven for thinking that a rise in air piracy was a more likely outcome. But for the executives of legacy carriers across the developed world — think British Airways, Lufthansa, and Qantas — the competition from airlines flying out of the Persian Gulf is already causing a good deal of indigestion, and probably ulcers. Gulf airlines have steadily added routes, grabbed passengers, and poached crews, while leveraging their buying power to successfully demand discounts and impose design preferences on the latest Boeing and Airbus planes.

In the United Arab Emirates, homeland of two of the September 11 hijackers, two state-owned airlines are amassing huge fleets unabashedly adorned with Arabic calligraphy. Next month, they will fly tens of thousands of pilgrims in their white ihram robes to Saudi Arabia for the annual pilgrimage — hajj — to Mecca, steering around Syrian airspace along the way. But they will also carry on with hundreds of flights outside the region, on schedule as usual. These carriers, the so-called Big Three — Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways, Dubai’s Emirates Airline, and neighboring Qatar Airways — have already become major global brands associated with hospitality, convenience, and safety. Their arrival has been to the airline business what the dreadnought battleship was to naval supremacy: a game changer.

TAKING OFF

The Gulf carriers owe their recent success to a host of factors, including geography, state involvement, new aircraft technology, and economic forces that are tilting the market their way.

The story starts nearly two decades ago, in 1985, with Dubai’s frustrated crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. Unable to attract enough international traffic to Dubai’s modest airport, he decided to launch his own airline. Sheikh Mohammed, now Dubai’s ruler, leased a plane from Pakistan International Airlines, and donated a Boeing 727 from his own family’s private fleet. He tasked his chain-smoking uncle, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum, with running the operation and hired Maurice Flanagan, a retired British airline executive, to advise him. He gave the two men $10 million in seed capital, and they succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.

Emirates’ maiden flight linked Dubai to Karachi. By 1990, the airline was flying to 21 cities, including Frankfurt, London, and Singapore. A year later, Sheikh Ahmed made the first of what would become a series of dramatic gestures, slapping down $64.5 million for seven Boeing 777s. In 2001, he capitalized on the panic following September 11 to secure big discounts on 58 aircraft, including Airbus’ double-decker A380, the world’s largest passenger jet.

Now Emirates is the world’s fourth-biggest international airline. It has 227 planes flying 143 routes, most of them of the lucrative long-haul variety. In terms of passengers flown it ranks ahead of British Airways, but behind Lufthansa and budget carriers Ryanair and EasyJet. Last year, Emirates was the top-ranked airline in terms of passenger-kilometers flown.

How could an upstart in what is portrayed as a low-margin business take such a commanding position?

The region’s geographical advantage is undeniable, an analogue to the providential geology that allowed an underdeveloped backwater in the 1950s to quickly became the crucible of global energy. The Big Three Gulf carriers are located in a sweet spot for air traffic, astride the most direct pathway connecting the major population centers of Europe and Asia. Two-thirds of the world’s population lives within an eight-hour flight, and nearly 90 percent of humanity resides within the range of an A380 or 777 departing from the Gulf. By this measure, the skyscrapers of Doha and Dubai stand at the center of the world.

Studies show that flights of around seven hours are the most profitable for large carriers. Much shorter and the market favors budget airlines with stripped-down services. Much longer and the weight of additional fuel impinges on efficiency. As it happens, all of Europe and much of Asia lies within that ideal five-to-nine-hour range from the Gulf.

A route map comparison underscores the Gulf’s competitive advantage. Frankfurt and London are to the north, at the far end of the prevailing southeast–northwest traffic flow. Hong Kong and Singapore sit at the far southeastern end of that flow. The U.S. hubs are simply on the wrong side of the globe.

For Americans flying to Asia, it makes more sense to layover in Abu Dhabi, Doha, or Dubai than to make a northerly detour to Europe. Given the increasing numbers of U.S. cities served by Gulf carriers, analysts such as London-based Chris Tarry expect North America–Asia routes to shift from layovers in Europe to those in the Gulf. For similar reasons, Gulf carriers are capturing passengers flying from Europe to Australia and Southeast Asia. They are also poised to vacuum up traffic on the “commodity” routes from Northeast Asia to Africa and South America. The hubs of legacy carriers are simply in the wrong spots. “It’s tough to siphon away others’ traffic when you’re at the far end of everybody’s route map,” says Richard Aboulafia, an industry analyst with the Teal Group in Washington.

What’s more, the parts of the world the Gulf airlines serve best, such as Africa, northeast Asia, and India, also happen to be those experiencing the world’s fastest economic growth. It’s not just air traffic, but trade, investment, and political attention that are shifting toward emerging markets. By comparison, developed countries and their carriers look stagnant, with aging infrastructure built for a previous era, and high legacy costs in the form of health benefits and pensions.

IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL

Geography and demographics don’t tell the entire story. Other countries with the same locational advantage, such as Iran and Yemen, are not vying for the rich world’s air traffic. And some of the Gulf airlines, such as those in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and probably Oman, are unlikely to make the same leap. Given the proliferation of competing carriers, some may not even survive. Money-losing Gulf Air, once owned by a consortium of regional governments, has been left to cash-strapped Bahrain.

Part of what has distinguished the Big Three has been well-timed infrastructure investments. A few decades ago, Dubai’s airport was a flyblown strip next to an open shed where sweaty officials hand-stamped passports. The airport now processes 66 million passengers a year, vying with London’s Heathrow as the busiest international hub. Dubai bet big on the double-decker A380, designing an entire terminal around the lumbering plane that causes traffic tie-ups at older airports. Dubai handles nearly 300 A380 departures per week, far more than anywhere else.

Doha, meanwhile, has attempted to woo elite travelers by building separate infrastructure for business class and economy passengers — including separate terminals and shops — so that the two groups need not mingle at all. Abu Dhabi has ingratiated itself to U.S.-bound passengers by offering pre-clearance through U.S. immigration, while Etihad is training 500 of its personnel as “flying nannies” to entertain children.

Bosses of competing airlines allege that Gulf carriers’ advantage is built on unfair subsidies on fuel or other perks. In the case of Emirates, it’s probably safe to conclude that the airline gets no state subsidy beyond the cash, planes, and facilities Sheikh Mohammed handed over in its early days. In fact, money more often flows the other way: Emirates makes periodic contributions to the government budget. Other Gulf carriers, however, have sometimes counted on state financial support to cover losses; this past May, reports surfaced that Etihad had received an interest-free $3 billion loan from the Abu Dhabi ruling family.

The state provides more crucial support in other ways, however. The Gulf airlines benefit from favorable labor migration policies, which cut costs in ways unavailable to their competitors. Since there is no minimum wage in the Gulf, the airlines recruit cabin and ground crew from such countries as Ethiopia and India, paying wages based on prevailing rates in their home countries. Gulf airlines also benefit from the lack of taxation in their home countries.

High oil prices help Gulf carriers in two ways: they increase cash flow into the region, which, in turn, allows the state to invest in airport infrastructure; and they translate into higher fuel costs, which intensifies the efficiency advantages of the well-placed Gulf carriers over their rivals.

Another factor driving the airlines’ 15–20 percent yearly growth has been the ability to gain coveted landing rights in some of the world’s busiest airports, which Aboulafia credits to their huge purchases of Boeing and Airbus jets. The Gulf carriers have taken full advantage of favorable financing from the U.S. Export-Import Bank, which provided $8.3 billion in loan guarantees last year that Boeing used to ease its sales to overseas customers. If congressional Republicans succeed in their effort to block the bank’s reauthorization, Gulf airlines and other Boeing customers will have to turn elsewhere for their financing. In Europe, Emirates’ purchases of Airbus A380s in particular are said to be keeping production of that money-losing aircraft afloat, and authorities there have rewarded Gulf carriers with landing slots. Aboulafia argues that these benefits have enabled Emirates to siphon away passengers from the likes of Air France/KLM, Lufthansa, and British Airways. The seamlessness of the process carries an air of inevitability.

“Europe is subsidizing the aeronautical rope that Emirates is using to hang European airlines,” he writes.

At the same time, Gulf states, and especially Dubai — the only post-oil state in the Mideast — have more at stake than their counterparts elsewhere. The aviation sector is a key piece of their economic strategies. Dubai’s tourism- and investment-driven economy would collapse without its air hub. That is why Emirates is managed directly by Sheikh Ahmed, a member of the ruling family who also controls Dubai’s civil aviation authority. He makes sure both get what they need.

Can the airlines keep up the pace? Two factors could dampen the trend. A drop in world oil prices could undercut their cost advantage. This factor is compounded by the arrival of long-range planes like the Boeing 787 that link far-flung markets — such as London and Sydney — without a stopover. However, most signs point to the Gulf carriers’ continued and improbable rise.

FASTEN YOUR SEATBELTS

There are, of course, broader issues behind what looks like a synchronized launch of Arab business competition with the West. Aside from less tangible gains in prestige and influence, strong air links to the world are crucial to the Gulf states’ development strategies. As post-oil Dubai has demonstrated, airlines are the bedrock elements of the monarchies’ larger plans to diversify their economies and reduce their dependence on fossil fuel rents.

Without its shiny new fleets, the UAE would be unable to host real estate conferences, fill its beach resorts, or attract players in its growing financial services sector. Abu Dhabi would struggle to host its Formula 1 races or bring visitors to its Ferrari World theme park. Qatar would have trouble hosting its diplomatic summits involving Hamas and the Taliban, while crews from Doha-based Al Jazeera might find it more difficult to gather news in regional conflict zones.

Further, air travel is a greater necessity in the Gulf than elsewhere. The same geography that provides an advantage for long-haul flights is hostile to overland travel. The Gulf monarchies lie on a long peninsula, hemmed in by sea and sand. Travel is made more difficult by tetchy borders, civil strife, and a lack of rail networks and other land-based options.

Travelers bring their wallets with them, and Dubai, especially, has leveraged its airline to create lucrative side businesses that are anathema to certain Arab sensibilities. It dabbles in the diamond trade, which inevitably links it to Israel. It engages in sea-and-sand tourism, which forces it to host drunken and promiscuous Europeans. And it maintains friendly and extremely profitable trade relations with Iran, despite attracting the umbrage of neighbors and allies. Nearly 10,000 Iranian companies are registered in Dubai, and more than 300 flights a week flow between Dubai and Iran, many of them on Emirates. Outside Tehran, Dubai is arguably the most important city to the Islamic Republic. The U.S. State Department has placed its so-called Iran Regional Presence Office, a mission focused exclusively on the Islamic Republic, in Dubai to capitalize on its role as a regional hub.

Imagine, for a moment, that the state-owned airlines of the Gulf allowed foreign investors to buy shares. One of the first questions a potential investor might ask would relate to the business effects of regional unrest. Does civil war in Iraq and Syria, revolution in Egypt and Libya, or Arab Spring disorder in Bahrain impinge on business? From outside the region, such events certainly appear threatening. But from within the region, they take on a different hue. Nearby unrest has long been a boon to the more stable political economies of the Gulf. When tourism in Egypt is off limits, hotels in the UAE and Oman are overbooked. When Iran falls prey to revolution or sanctions, its businessmen move their operations across the Gulf. Saddam Hussein’s misadventures in Iran and Kuwait made millionaires in Dubai, exiling educated refugees and their businesses. And when the Pentagon sends not just one but two carrier battle groups to the Gulf, the U.S. Navy makes twice as many resupply calls at Dubai’s Jebel Ali port. In other words, political stability in the Gulf monarchies has created safe havens for foreign investment.

A few years ago, I asked Essa Kazim, the chair of Dubai’s stock exchange, how the country’s business climate might be affected by a terrorist attack. It wasn’t one of his top worries. “We’ve never had sustainable periods of peace and tranquility in the region. But Dubai is still here and we’re growing. So what’s the worst that can happen?” he said.

A Dubaian looks at regional unrest in the same way that a Floridian looks at an alligator in his yard. What might be alarming in one context is part of the landscape in another. But things could get more complicated as travelers grow more dependent on the Gulf’s carriers and airports. Conflicts that affect their performance or viability could drag down the global economy.

For now, the Gulf carriers are enhancing the efficiency of international travel, thereby providing an increase in global productivity. At the same time, the world economy is growing even more exposed to the Middle East, relying on not only energy commodities, but also travel and logistics services. In the long run, it is probably a good thing for everyone if the Middle East becomes more integrated with the global economy. Over the short term, however, there could be hiccups. After all, the Gulf monarchies have not always been responsible stewards of oil. But if the inevitable patches of turbulence subside, there’s all the more reason to hope for a complimentary upgrade.

How Victory in the Scottish Vote is Tearing the UK Apart

22 September 2014

At the end of the movie Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, when it looks like our hero has the upper hand, he lets his adversary Moriarty get a stranglehold on him. This causes both men to fall to their doom in the Reichenbach waterfall.

That, more or less, is what David Cameron just tried to do to Ed Miliband and the opposition Labour Party.

To recap the plot: Scotland voted “No” to independence, but not by a massive margin. To help win the referendum, the British Conservatives, led by Cameron, had to promise major tax devolution powers, which they had opposed until the eve of the vote.

So instead of stability, we have constitutional chaos. Like a family in a soap opera, politicians are now bickering over issues that were previously containable.

The UK’s faultlines exist because one of its four nations –- Scotland –- has oil, a left-leaning electorate, but little real power. Meanwhile the biggest nation, England, has more power and is showing disturbing signs of veering towards nationalist, anti-European politics.

That the argument broke out over Scotland was only due to the timing. Now it has moved to this core issue: who does Westminster really represent?

All three main parties in the Westminster parliament –- Conservatives, Liberals and Labour –- opposed Scottish independence. But because the Conservatives have weak support in Scotland, they left it to Labour to run the campaign.

The campaign was a disaster. Labour, its activists partly bussed in from other parts of the UK, could not really hear what young, tech-savvy Scottish people were saying to them. They mobilized the over 65s with scare stories of lost pensions and economic doom, but still only managed to get a 55% no vote in the referendum.

To win, they had to promise further devolution of tax powers. Now, as a price for that, David Cameron wants Scottish MPs in the British parliament to be shorn of the right to vote on issues that only affect England.

To understand why this is emotive, think: healthcare, welfare, student tuition fees and criminal justice. All these areas of government are devolved to Scotland.

With 85% of the UK population living in England, English MPs have long asked –- why do the Scottish lawmakers get a say on English-only stuff?

So now there is big political pressure in England to make “English votes” a precondition for extra Scottish tax powers. You get more power in Scotland, but you lose the power to swing votes in Westminster, goes the argument.

This is a curveball for Labour leader Ed Miliband. Scotland is one of Labour’s heartlands, and barring 59 Scottish lawmakers from voting on the English law, healthcare and education system is a big deal. It fragments British sovereignty into the four separate nations of the UK and makes it more difficult for Labour to form a government.

Suppose Labour wins a national election, including Scotland, but then can’t get its programme for England through the English-only process in Westminster. If that happens, you have split power with the national parliament being in charge in name only. This is not some theoretical scenario: it is highly likely.

By proposing “English votes in Westminster”, Cameron gained the initiative -– but it’s not clear if he will win.

On another level, he is weakened. Cameron has been quietly vilified by English Tories for a) nearly losing Scotland and b) failing to make English-only votes a precondition for giving Scotland more powers.

And here’s the biggest challenge for Cameron. At the European elections in May, which people tend to use for protest votes, the United Kingdom Independence Party won with 27%. UKIP stands for leaving the EU, a crackdown on migration and numerous other right-wing, anti-globalisation policies.

Up to now, UKIP has been an insurgent party of the hard right. But this month one of Cameron’s MPs crossed over to UKIP, resigned from parliament, and is standing in a by-election he is tipped to win. So from October UKIP may have a member of parliament going in to the 2015 election, potentially splitting the Conservative vote.

Overshadowing the whole spat about Scotland and English parliamentary votes is Cameron’s plan to hold an in-or-out referendum on the EU in 2017. He wants to stay in Europe; many of his voters want to leave, as do many of his MPs and ministers.

This is why Cameron has emerged victorious, but weaker, in the wake of the Scottish vote. He has lost an MP to a party he described as “fruitcakes”; he nearly lost a territory containing 1/3 of Britain’s land and all its nuclear weapons. He had to offer in haste -– almost scrawled on the back of an envelope -– a level of tax devolution to Scotland he had previously opposed.

So like Sherlock Holmes, Cameron gets Miliband in a chokehold on the issue of English-only votes in parliament, and they plunge together into the foaming torrent to see who comes up alive. As in Sherlock Holmes, this is all done with decorum and politeness. But just as in the movie, it is life or death.

Ultimately, the people who will decide how weakened Cameron is are the electorate. Right now, many are simply confused, deluged in detail erupting from a question they were told was no big thing until it exploded two weeks ago.

If the British vote Cameron in for a second term, they get –- probably –- a fragmentation of the powers of the Westminster parliament and then a referendum on leaving Europe.

So maybe the best strategy for the Tories is just to pull their enemies over the balustrade, into the waterfall, where a constitutional crisis can drown the weakest and leave the strongest alive.

That’s what happened in Sherlock Holmes. Except in the movie, the hero had a secret oxygen supply. In British politics, it’s anyone’s guess who has one of those, or what it even looks like.

Paul Mason is Economics Editor at Channel 4 News in London. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulMasonNews.

Scotland’s missed opportunity

21 September 2014

So Scotland voted to retain its umbilical cord to England and the union.

I have been thinking a lot about this over the last few weeks and I still fear that the Scottish people have missed a glorious opportunity to build a better future for their country and its people; a future where they control their own destiny.

Yes the links to Britain would always be there – as a member of the Commonwealth of nations – and linked by trade, language, and a shared history.

Two weeks before the referendum a poll suddenly suggested that the “yes” supporters had maybe just enough momentum for an independent nation.

Suddenly Westminster sprung into action. Political leaders of all parties flooded over the border in a last-ditch, stoic defence of the union. Two weeks of sudden interest after a “no” campaign that was both confused and weak.

Suddenly Westminster was promising the one thing that was not on the referendum ballot – the so-called devo-max – giving much greater self-government to Scotland. There were no clear plans – just a promise that something would be done. Meanwhile the rest of the establishment provided enough fear mongering over currency, passports and the migration south of business to persuade a small majority to give Westminster a chance.

At the start of the campaign the no campaign expected a rout. In the end PM Cameron had to rush north, in realisation that his abiding political legacy might be the end of the union.

The vibrant and euphoric yes movement, which, during the debate, evolved from a small base to come within a whisker of a sensational victory, will be massively disappointed that they didn’t manage to get it done.

The supporters of independence will wait for some time but anybody believing they’ll stop now is indulging in wishful thinking. Why would they? Support for independence rose during the campaign from around 30% to 45%. And the no votes were dominated only in a declining constituency of elderly voters. Yes may have lost this battle, but the war is being won.

Polls taken after the vote indicate that had voting been restricted only to the under 55s the yes vote would have won. Remarkably Scotland’s future was decided by those people who have the least vested in the future.

Without a major change in the way Britain is governed Scottish independence has been postponed only – maybe 10 years – maybe 20 years. But the time will come again.

Forty-five percent of the Scottish people still voted to leave the union. That is an astonishingly high figure. This union is more than 300 years’ old. If just five voters in a hundred had voted the other way, the independence campaign would have won.

As part of the same Westminster panic, politicians promised that if Scotland voted ‘no’ to independence the country would get substantial and continued subsidies from the rest of Great Britain. It is a sweetheart deal. Yet 45% of voters in Scotland still rejected it. And that deal is now, understandably, causing resentment and a backlash in England. Politicians in Westminster may even renege on the pledge. It would not be the first time.

The referendum could be a disaster for Westminster’s politicians. The Tories, at least had enough self-awareness to realise how detested they are in Scotland, stood aside to let Labour run the no campaign. But for Labour, the outcome may be costly; when the dust settles they will be seen, probably on both sides of the border, to have used their power and influence against the aspiration towards democracy. Labour voters moved from the no to the yes tea in large numbers and it may be that the Labour leadership has acted as recruiters for the SNP.

The simple fact that Labour was acting as a proxy for the Conservative government will alienate voters. It provided more (and probably decisive) evidence of just how the party has been co-opted by the establishment.

Worryingly at the 2015 election the main benefactors in England of the failure of the Tory and Labour parties could be the fringe groups such as UKIP. Xenophobia at its worst.

Cameron was at first absent and uninterested, then finally fearful. Miliband looked just as ineffective and totally lost during this campaign.

Others dancing the no tune included senior officials of banks and supermarkets dancing and of course the London press. They will have few friends among the yes generation.

The problem for the establishment is that the narrow no decision and the promises they were compelled to make now demand and require action. The referendum galvanised and excited Scots in a way that no UK-wide election has done. Like it or not, unless they come up with a winning devo-max settlement, every general election in Scotland will now be dominated by the independence issue.

And devo-max for Scotland means what for Wales, Northern Ireland and England? And there lies just one of the problems – and one of the major stumbling blocks to taking any action.

Wise yes campaigners see independence as a process, not an event. And they are right. The referendum is a beginning only. a permission to proceed. A rematch is almost inevitable.

The biggest problem for the Westminster elites now is not just to decide what to do about Scotland but, crucially, to do it without antagonising English people – who might justly feel that the 10% no majority (5 votes in every 100) is now starting to wag the dog of the rest of the UK.

Some of my friends will no doubt think differently but the yes campaign excited Scots to the possibilities of people power; the no campaign showed the political classes at their worst with a campaign based on negativity and manipulative celebrity “love-bombing.”

Last week the Scots struck a blow for democracy, with an unprecedented 97% voter registration for an election the establishment had wearily declared nobody wanted. One way or another the old empire is broken.

The no campaign found enough momentum to win the day; but for Scotland this was their day on the world stage. There will be more ahead.

(One final thought – having campaigned so actively for Scotland to remain in the Union it is not without irony that Cameron will campaign in 2015 on a promise for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union – where it is likely that the politicians in Westminster will be less active in their attempts to save the Union. And to be honest the Europeans are unlikely to miss us and will happily go on led by the French and Germans.)

The Guardian view on the Scottish referendum: a big moment that demands a big response

20 September 2014

Scotland’s historic verdict was clear and decisive. So much so that, within hours, it toppled the man who has dominated Scottish politics for a decade. By 55% to 45%, a larger margin than polls had implied, Scots looked independence squarely in the eye on Thursday and said no. Most parts of Scotland voted no. The no side won 28 out of the 32 local government areas, with the majorities particularly strong in the Borders and in the northern islands. The vote sliced dramatically across electoral lines. SNP electoral strongholds in the north-east overwhelmingly rejected independence, while Labour’s deepest heartlands in the west equally emphatically embraced it. The fact that Scotland’s largest and traditionally reddest city, Glasgow, should have voted to leave the United Kingdom is particularly resonant, even though the conclusive votes for the union in so much else of Scotland – including Edinburgh, Aberdeen and the Highlands – delivered an incontrovertible final result.

That was a welcome outcome. It should settle the issue beyond argument. A narrow win for either side would have hung over Scotland for years to come, perhaps dooming the Scots to have to revisit the issue too soon. That is now unlikely, and was surely one of the reasons why Alex Salmond announced his exit from the political stage Friday afternoon. Second, the whole process was so positive. The energy and commitment of the campaign has dazzled not just Scots themselves, but the rest of Britain too. Turnout on Thursday, at 85%, was awesome, a reprimand to fashionable political fatalism. The opening of the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds has also been thoroughly vindicated. Third, Britain can indeed confront its many defects better together than apart. The yes side may have run the better and certainly the noisier campaign, but the no side had the more solidly based arguments. Finally, the result, while decisive, was close enough to mean the minority cannot be brushed aside. When 45% of your citizens tell you they want out, they are saying that the system needs changing, as it must be and will be.

A new Scottish settlement

In April 1865, when General Grant met General Lee at Appomattox to bring the American civil war to an end, the Union commander told his Confederate counterpart that he wanted Lee’s men to keep their horses, because they would need them for the spring ploughing. An equivalent reaching out and healing spirit was required from Britain’s politicians on Friday after the union’s near-death experience – and in many cases they rose to the occasion. Mr Salmond was right to say that the SNP government would work with the UK government to deliver promised new powers. Alistair Darling, who has had a rollercoaster campaign, was right to stress what Scots have in common in a victory speech which scrupulously avoided any triumphalism. And even David Cameron, who has got many things wrong over Scotland, was right to make it clear that he too was in the business of honouring campaign commitments on the new powers. This is a good start.

Mr Cameron is one of many UK politicians who has promises to keep to Scotland. It would always have been unforgivable if a no victory in the referendum had led the UK government to pull up the duvet and forget about Scotland. As it turned out, that option disappeared two weeks ago when an opinion poll put the yes campaign briefly in front, triggering a furious campaign fightback from the no side. The commitments to further powers that were then set out by Gordon Brown were clearly influential with many voters. They must now be honoured. But they need to be honoured in the same spirit that the campaigners brought to the Scottish referendum – openly, generously and rationally.

To the extent that Mr Cameron recognised this in his Downing Street statement on Friday morning, he has done the first part of what he ought to do. Scotland will now get further taxing and governing powers, he confirmed, in addition to the new powers that are due to come into force in 2016. The parties differ on important details of these powers, including the proportion of revenue to be raised by the devolved parliament and the policy areas to be brought under Holyrood’s control. Compromise on these differences is surely achievable. What is crucial, in the Guardian’s view, is that the new plans give greater control to Holyrood in as many areas as practicable while continuing to give the UK government a meaningful role in defending the things that bind the people of these islands together. That means retaining at least some ties of social and tax policy as well as those in defence and foreign affairs. Mr Brown’s ideas on this are a good basis on which to begin detailed discussions.

The English question

The political parties are also committed to coming up with a wider set of constitutional reforms affecting the rest of the UK. Reforms of this kind are undoubtedly needed. But they must not be stitched up in private between the parties. Most of all, they should not be driven through the Commons for partisan advantage. This is now a real danger. Too many Conservative politicians are far more interested in the politics of England than in those of Scotland or the UK as a whole. This would be a terrible response to a contest in Scotland which has again exposed the disconnect between the political parties and the people – a problem that is particularly stark for Labour, and that may get worse if the leftwing and popular Nicola Sturgeon replaces Mr Salmond. It would be much better for parliament to embrace the McKay commission’s sensible proposals on the handling of English affairs at Westminster – proposals which involve no major legislation – while taking time to get the bigger, possibly federal, approach right.

Characteristically, however, Mr Cameron seems to have decided to take the partisan route, in the hope that he can calm his rightwing English backbenchers and seize an initiative from Ukip. This is in every way the wrong and short-sighted approach. The political parties should open up this process not close it down. They should embrace proposals from the Institute for Public Policy Research, the Green party and others for a constitutional convention. The Scottish model from the 1990s, involving civil society groups as well as parties, with the purpose of reaching a settled and shared proposal, is a good pattern. This one could also draw, as IPPR has suggested, on Irish citizens’ jury experience. It should not be rushed. The better balanced the process, the better balanced the outcome.

In the end, though, we should not kid ourselves. The grievances that animated this campaign were above all material rather than constitutional. The economic model which dominates the lives of Scots is broken. Nationalism offered an escape, but it was one with too many risks. Yet the economic model is still broken and is still at the root of discontents that should unite England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, not force them apart.

Guardian says no to Scottish independence

13 September 2014

Here is the editorial headline – “The Guardian view on the Scottish referendum: Britain deserves another chance – Nationalism is not the answer to social injustice. For that fundamental reason, we urge Scots to vote no to independence next week.”

This is a link to the editorial.

The trouble with the Guardian’s position is that it promises jam tomorrow – with no evidence of any real change being forthcoming from Westminster’s cosy establishment. The Guardian argues that “in Britain, in Europe and even in the world as a whole, we are indeed better together not better apart” arguing that “voting no cannot be a vote against change, and there is now at last the real hope that it can be a vote for reform and decentralisation in Britain.”

The Guardian suggests that we are better together – yet the Tories have promised a referendum on Europe in 2017. The connection between these two events is already intriguing. If Scotland votes yes, it’s possible that Scotland will be knocking on Brussels’ door, asking to join the EEC, just as the residual UK is heading out.

So much for better together – the Tories argue that Britain is better together but that Britain is better outside the European community. How does that make sense?

There is no plan for reform and decentralization in Britain. I am surprised by the Guardian’s position – but then this was the newspaper that in 2010 endorsed the LibDems as a way of keeping the Tories out of power. So their finger is not exactly on the political pulse.

A few comments following on from the editorial are worth quoting:

  • the Guardian is singing from the Establishment hymn sheet
  • Time and again the press, media and the UK establishment fail to understand what this referendum is about. It’s about self determination. It’s about a people getting the representation it votes for. It’s about striving for democracy. It’s not about nationalism.
  • I am disappointed that a paper which recognises the great social injustices in this country would not support Scotland breaking away from the Westminster elite who propagate and worsen them
  • From the paper that urged us to vote liberal to keep the Tories out….
  • The Scottish vote isn’t about nationalism. It is about freeing themselves from the neo-liberal consensus in westminster, a consensus that this paper has done very little to hold to account.
  • I am from England, but the Yes camp has my moral support. I look forward to the positive example they will provide to English political parties after independence
  • So basically, the UK needs two major reforms (a political system which targets inequality, rather than running for London and the City; and federalism/localism), neither of which is realistically going to happen. And Scotland should vote to stay in it … why? There’s nothing approaching a case for the union from Scotland’s perspective here, only a hint of why EWNI might be worse off without Scotland

Our obligation to the memory of the victims of 9/11

11 September 2014 – Jon Snow (Channel 4 news)

Thirteen years on have we learned from 9/11? Could any of us have imagined that the attack on America by mainly Saudi-born radicals on this very day thirteen years ago, would represent one of the most defining events of modern history?

From my own experience reporting sporadically across the region for over three decades, my fear is that we have not learned.

For most of the years since the second world war the contract has been clear: Gulf oil for the west in exchange for Western weapons, security, banking and commerce – no questions asked. Across the west our generous gates have allowed the most radical Muslim preachers to criss-cross the globe carrying their Wahabi messages of extremism.

Pakistan, once so recognisable a legacy of Empire, now represents the most unstable nuclear power in the world – its landscape dotted with radical Madrassas and Mosques. A whole generation of Muslim children far beyond Saudi borders, from Birmingham to Bombay, know no other view of the world than the Saudi-spawned Wahabi view of their faith.

11 US r w Our obligation to the memory of the victims of 9/11
Thirteen years after 9/11, an English speaking voice articulates the beheading of an American hostage. There are hundreds of western Muslims in the ranks of Islamic State (IS).

In waging unwise and horrific war themselves in Iraq, western powers have forfeited their capacity overtly to bolster moderate regional forces in Syria and Iraq.

In spite of the warrior pose President Obama deployed on Wednesday night, his instinct is still for the regional powers around Syria and Iraq to resolve the Islamic State madness themselves.

One is tempted to ask how many of the 1,700 military jets that the collective west has sold to Saudi and Gulf states down the years, have yet left the ground in anger against IS. How many of the Sandhurst trained officers from the region have yet been spotted in the field?

We may be part of IS’s target, just as New York and Washington were the targets of other regional radicals on 9/11.

But this time those same regional states from which the 9/11 gang sprang, know that they are now the targets too.

Watching regional events from Iran in the last week, I observed a quiet acceptance that the Shia forces in Iraq needed leadership, strategy, and gumption that only Iran’s revolutionary guard and ancillary resources could provide – and providing it they are.

And let us not forget what a top Iranian Foreign Ministry official told me which I reported several years ago; “you think we sit here in Iran fearing Israel, or America. We don’t, our fear is the radical implosion of Pakistan and nuclear implications of radical Sunni Muslims with their hands on nuclear weapons firing them at Shia Iran”.

There is a fire raging in Arabia today, which we in the west are not competent to extinguish. There is regional power to do the job, and we should not interfere with them getting on with it.

But those same regional powers should know, should even be told, that they cannot enjoy our friendship, our open gates, our Mayfair Hotels, our city finance unconditionally. Our condition must surely be that they distinguish themselves from the extremist forces that some of them knowingly, or unknowingly, have spawned, and deal with the effluent that is IS.

If the 3,000 dead of 9/11 are to be remembered with honour, we have an obligation to get this crisis right this time.

On the brink

10 September 2014

In the interests of balance this is today’s better together editorial in the FT.

Scotland’s fateful choice. The case for union is overwhelming. The path of separation is a fool’s errand

Today has felt like the beast awakening – London politicians and media suddenly realizing that they are about to preside over potentially the biggest event in the history of the British Isles since WW2. Sky News has Kay McBurley on the streets of Edinburgh; the three stooges came for a photo-op; MacPrescott talked about a combined Scotland-England football team beating the Germans (he is delusional). The FT reminds us of our shared history and hints at the potential economic issues ahead. Mark Carney, a Canadian, tells Scotland, it cannot have the pound basically saying that currency union is not possible. Yet despite is flaws (mainly due to poor oversight and weak rules enforcement) the Euro works well for a much larger ad disparate group of nations.

It all feels a bit desperate; after years/decades of being taken for granted the rallying cry from an embarrassed and complacent Westminster is please don’t leave me and we promise (though we do not know how) to make it up to you.

Even if the vote next week is “no” the cause of independence has found its voice and I am not sure that can be calmed by any form of devo-max. It has also sent a message across the rest of Britain that the current political system is unsustainable….

Better together keeps reminding me of a Rick Astley song – another reason to vote Yes!

Brits, booze and airplanes can be a toxic mix

10 September 2014

A Dubai court today heard that an airline passenger threatened to kill an Emirates Airline flight attendant after she refused to serve him more alcohol.

Briton AM, 40, assaulted the attendant before telling her he would chop her into pieces, Dubai Criminal Court was told on Wednesday.

The incident on June 2 took place on board a Dubai-bound Emirates flight from London.

The defendant ordered alcohol before take off, and then again 20 minutes into the journey, said prosecutors.

“He was eating and throwing away food on the floor, then eating off the floor,” said BS, 30, an Indian flight attendant.

“I went to him and asked him to return to his seat and have his meal there. I then brought a garbage bag and started picking up the food he threw away.

“He also threw food on passengers around him and jumped from his seat to the aisle and started making a mess. Some passengers asked to change seats from near him,” she said.

As she cleaned up after him, said B S, A M pulled her shirt so hard she felt pain. When she asked him to stop touching her, he got up from his seat and began insulting her.

“He stood up and told me I was trash and a sex slave,” she said, adding AM also insulted some of her colleagues.

The verbal abuse continued, with AM threatening to slap BS, kill her and chop her up if she did not provide more alcohol. Fellow attendant EM, 26, from Egypt said: “I was ordered to attend to the problem and, when I did, I saw him jumping on his seat and pulling BS from her shirt, then insulting her with very bad words.”

After the other members of the crew tried and failed to calm AM down, the court heard, he proceeded to the toilet where he lit a cigarette, setting off the fire alarm and alarming his fellow passengers.

AM fell asleep shortly before the plane landed in Dubai, though not before making further insults when told he would be met by police upon his arrival, court records showed.

He denies all the charges, including one of illegal consumption of alcohol.

Why is it always the Brits – there is something toxic about the British, alcohol and airplanes?

But why do airlines even serve alcohol? Drunk passengers are a hazard in an emergency and regularly cause unnecessary unpleasantness for crew and other passengers. Airlines banned smoking. Now ban alcohol. It really is not so hard to travel for 8 hours without a drink.

And finally why is he being charged for illegal consumption of alcohol. That makes no sense at all. Emirates serves alcohol; indeed almost encourages its use. It is also unlikely that the passenger ever expected to enter Dubai as he was presumably seeking to transit to another destination.

If consuming alcohol is illegal on a flight to Dubai then Emirates is an accessory to a crime that is committed tens of thousands of times every day.

The case was adjourned until September 24.

Preliminary Dutch report offers nothing new

9 September 2014

The first official report on the fatal 17 July 2014 crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the Ukraine-Russia border concludes what many already suspected: It was struck in mid-air by “high-energy objects from outside the aircraft.”

But the preliminary report released by the Dutch Safety Board on Tuesday did not say that the plane was hit by a missile, and it did not point the finger at anyone.

The Dutch Safety Board’s report will offer little consolation to the families of the victims. Dutch investigators have not been able to access the crash site. They have not been able to examine significant parts of the wreckage.

Their report is based on evidence from photographs; discussions with Ukrainian and Malaysian investigators who have accessed the site and on analysisi of the flight data and cockpit voice recorders.

The likely explanation of the crash near the village of Hrabove, which killed 298 people, remains that the plane was shot down by a Buk missile fired by rebel forces with or without Russian support.

The report says quite simply that “flight MH17 … broke up in the air probably as the result of structural damage caused by a large number of high-energy objects that penetrated the aircraft from outside … There are no indications that the MH17 crash was caused by a technical fault or by actions of the crew.”

“The cockpit voice recorder, the flight data recorder and data from air traffic control all suggest that flight MH17 proceeded as normal until 13:20:03 (UTC), after which it ended abruptly. A full listening of the communications among the crew members in the cockpit recorded on the cockpit voice recorder revealed no signs of any technical faults or an emergency situation. Neither were any warning tones heard in the cockpit that might have pointed to technical problems. The flight data recorder registered no aircraft system warnings, and aircraft engine parameters were consistent with normal operation during the flight. The radio communications with Ukrainian air traffic control confirm that no emergency call was made by the cockpit crew. The final calls by Ukrainian air traffic control made between 13.20:00 and 13.22:02 (UTC) remained unanswered.”

The CVR transcript is the saddest part of the report.

“The pattern of wreckage on the ground suggests that the aircraft split into pieces during flight (an in-flight break up). Based on the available maintenance history the airplane was airworthy when it took off from Amsterdam and there were no known technical problems. The aircraft was manned by a qualified and experienced crew.”

“As yet it has not been possible to conduct a detailed study of the wreckage. However, the available images show that the pieces of wreckage were pierced in numerous places. The pattern of damage to the aircraft fuselage and the cockpit is consistent with that which may be expected from a large number of high-energy objects that penetrated the aircraft from outside. It’s likely that this damage resulted in a loss of structural integrity of the aircraft, leading to an in-flight break up. This also explains the abrupt end to the data registration on the recorders, the simultaneous loss of contact with air traffic control and the aircraft’s disappearance from radar.”

The board’s report is the first one coming out of the official investigation into the crash, and its cautious assessment is also due to the fact that the Dutch aviation investigators who made the report have yet to gain full access to the site where MH17 crashed to the ground, due to the ongoing conflict in the region.

The report, while not fully conclusive in establishing the cause of the crash, should but will not end some misleading, and in some cases offensive, conspiracy theories.
The report is clear… there was no pilot error. No aircraft problems. No
warnings. No issue with flight route.

Reality – 298 people were murdered. Probably not intentionally. Mistaken identity and a trigger happy, untrained, missile crew. But the families deserve to know what really happened. Someone or some group does know. If they had any respect for the bereaved the truth would be known.

The initial report is here: Dutch Safety Board Preliminary Report on MH17 Crash

Spiritual spruce-up for Thai PM’s compound

9 September 2014 The Financial Times

Thailand’s ruling junta has pledged to wage war on government waste – but that hasn’t stopped it setting aside a little money to make sure it can rule in suitable style.

As General Prayuth Chan-ocha, coup leader and prime minister, prepares to host his first cabinet meeting on Tuesday in an office in the midst of a near-$8m revamp, officials are playing down reports that the changes are driven by feng shui.

Perhaps as revealing as the disclosures is the muted public reaction to them in a country where a military that has long portrayed itself as the guardian of the nation does more or less as it pleases, including forbidding criticism of the four and a half month old junta’s actions. Reverence for the supernatural in the everyday has also long loomed large in Thai society and politics, making even Gen Prayuth’s assertion last week that his opponents were now targeting him with black magic an unremarkable addition to a long tradition.

“No matter which administration is in power, one constant seems to be their belief in superstition,” tweeted Pravit Rojanaphruk, a journalist detained for almost a week by the junta after May’s coup, on Monday. “Not a good sign for Thailand.”

The makeover of the prime minister’s vast Bangkok canalside offices and residence, whose large grounds host state occasions such as the king’s birthday, comes courtesy of a $7.9m provision in a junta budget that saw funding slashed for departments including tourism and finance. The refurb had already caused some raised eyebrows late last week, when government officials unveiled the installation of almost 200 multimedia conference units, complete with anti-snooping software, at a cost of as much as $4,500 each.

Now fresh claims have emerged from a reporter historically close to the military of feng shui masters offering to oversee a modernisation spree that has included the replacement of the prime ministerial chair and the building of a Buddhist shrine. Red flowers have allegedly been replaced with yellow blooms, the colour of Thailand’s monarchy and of a pro-military conservative political movement that has long battled “red shirt” supporters of the ousted civilian government.

A government spokeswoman played down the reports, saying the compound’s refurbishment was planned under the toppled administration and was needed because the building was old. While some of the claimed alterations were “beyond the truth”, she said a new chair had been designed by the prime minister’s secretariat “to be more unique and suitable for the leader” and that the main building was being repainted yellow only because it had always been that colour. However, she said she had not yet spotted any yellow flowers and there was “no sign of feng shui as now”.

What is undeniable is that Gen Prayuth has in the past shown a taste for auspicious symbols, such as being acclaimed as prime minister by the country’s puppet parliament on August 21 – a good number for a man who served in the 21st Infantry and was born on March 21.

And the sprucing up of the premier’s offices also adds to the weight of opinion that the army chief turned premier plans to stick around, as he himself hinted in his latest weekly television broadcast to the nation last Friday.

“You do not have to love us a lot,” he signed off, echoing the words of a famous Thai folk singer. “But please love us for a long time.”

Burj Al Mars

9 September 2014

A law formally establishing the UAE Space Agency has been signed by Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE.

The agency was announced in July with the goal of sending an unmanned mission to Mars by 2021.

The law, which was published in the Official Gazette, stated that the agency would have its headquarters in Abu Dhabi and have a branch in Dubai.

The first meeting of the UAE Space Agency was held in July and was led by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, who directed all government institutions to provide maximum support.

The unmanned probe will travel more than 60 million kilometres in nine months and will be launched to coincide with the UAE’s 50th anniversary.

“We aim for the UAE to be among the top countries in aerospace by 2021,” Sheikh Khalifa has said. “We have a great belief in the talents of our young people and the strongest determination, the greatest ambitions and a clear plan to reach our targets.”

DWC plans announced

8 September 2014

It is late – by about 10 years – but at last there is some direction about the expansion of and future for the AED120bn (US$ 32bn) expansion of Al Maktoum International at Dubai World Central (DWC) which will ultimately accommodate more than 200 million passengers a year.

Originally planned for initial completion by around 2015/2016 the build out of the new airport was delayed dramatically by the 2008/2009 financial crisis. Instead the existing Dubai international airport has been expanded well beyond its original capacity with a view to generating cashflow to fund future construction at DWC.

Al-Maktoum International airport was launched before the global financial crisis hit Dubai in 2009, with plans to build the world’s largest airport, featuring a 160-million-passenger capacity and six runways.

The ambitious plan appeared to have been put on the back burner due to the crisis, and the airport instead opened operations for cargo only in 2010, while small passenger operations began in October 2013 after repeated delays.

The development is anticipated to be the biggest airport project in the world and will be built in two phases. The first phase includes two satellite buildings with a collectively capacity of 120 million passengers annually, accommodate 100 A380 aircraft at any one time and will take between six and eight years to complete. The entire development will cover an area of 56 square kilometres.

For what its worth I do not like the design. Every passenger will need to take a train to a remote gate. Inevitably this means escalators and elevators, waits for over-crowded trains that are standing room only and at busy times some healthy pushing and shoving – together with a longer walk than the designers suggest.

It is not just the airport build that is critical and will need to commence at the earliest date. There are also plans for rapid rail transit from the city and surrounding area to the airport that are under preparation with the Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority.

The rail connections are critical given the airport’s remote location from downtown Dubai – being some 60kms away from DXB.

At the moment DWC has a single runway and a temporary terminal with hard stands only and a capacity of about 5 million passengers a year. There are only a handful of passenger flights each day.

The airport authorities suggest that the new airport’s uniqueness lies in a radically new approach to ensure that the latest technology and efficient processes will cut the time spent completing travel formalities and reduce walking distances, enabling passengers to make fast and efficient connections between hundreds of destinations worldwide.

The decision follows months of planning by the key stakeholders in the aviation sector, including Dubai Airports, Dubai Airports Engineering Projects, Emirates airline and dnata, to ensure that a design was selected that facilitates the future growth of Dubai’s aviation industry.

The expectation is that Emirates would relocate their intercontinental hub operations to DWC by the mid-2020s. Today’s announcement makes no mention of the future plans for the existing airfield at DXB.

Timing will be critical. DXB has seen capacity maximised with the construction of Concourse A (completed in January 2013), the doubling of capacity at Terminal 2 (by the end 2014), the construction of Concourse D (2015), Concourse C upgrade (after completion of Concourse D) to accommodate Emirates as the sole user, combined with associated stand upgrades, enhancements to airfield and air traffic control capacity, as well as the upgrading of existing facilities to improve the passenger experience.

The trouble is there is no room for a third runway and the existing runways are too close to allow simultaneous operations. So DXB will reach a limit of around 100 million passengers a year.

Dubai Airports expects passenger numbers at DXB and DWC to exceed 100m passengers a year in 2017. Therefore passenger facilities will also continue to be expanded at Dubai World Central (DWC) to accommodate traffic that cannot be accommodated at DXB. Dubai airports is forecasting 126 million passengers in 2020 which means DWC will need to accommodate over 20 million a year by that date. That becomes a signficant operation.

It does not take much maths to realise that at 120m passengers a year when opened DWC will not be able to handle all passenger traffic into Dubai which will require DXB to remain open. The logical move is for Emirates and flyDubai to operate from one airport and all other carriers from the other airport. Since EK’s business is substantially about taking passengers from A to B via a change at its Dubai hub it will make more sense for EK and flyDubai to occupy the new airport.

Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports, thanked Sheikh Mohammed for his visionary support of the project, and described the new airport as a vital investment in the future of Dubai. He confirmed that the aviation sector was projected to remain a cornerstone of Dubai’s economy, and was expected to support more than 322,000 jobs and contribute 28 per cent of Dubai’s GDP by 2020.

“Our future lies at DWC. The announcement of this AED120bn development of DWC is both timely and a strong endorsement of Dubai’s aviation industry. With limited options for further growth at Dubai International, we are taking that next step to securing our future by building a brand new airport that will not only create the capacity we will need in the coming decades but also provide state of the art facilities that revolutionise the airport experience on an unprecedented scale,” said Griffiths.

Dubai Airports have launched a new website giving more details of the planning for DWC.

Ultimate Airport Dubai is back and hopefully better

8 September 2014

Well the first series looked more like an advertisement for Emirates Airline. There was barely a mention of Terminals 1 and 2 and who would have known that flyDubai is a hometown airline.

Like it or not it did appear that there was a very heavy hand controlling what we were allowed to see in Ultimate Airport Dubai season 1. But here we go again. National Geographic Channels International (NGCI) has selected Arrow Media to produce a second series of Ultimate Airport Dubai, following outstanding ratings for the show’s first season across territories in Europe, Asia-Pacific and Latin America.

Ultimate Airport Dubai will air its new 10-part season later this year on National Geographic Channel in 170 countries and 45 languages.

In Ultimate Airport Dubai, NGCI goes behind-the-scenes of Dubai International, the world’s second busiest airport for international passengers.

With unprecedented access to all facets of the airport season two follows the renovation of both the airport’s runways – a tricky enterprise that has the airport operating using only one runway for several months with huge pressure to finish the build on time. The series will be at the heart of passenger operations, customs, the control tower and flight services to see how the teams cope during a particularly stressful and demanding time.

Actually the airport fared rather well with a significant reduction in flight delays.

“Ultimate Airport Dubai is a great hit for us, which rated in all markets. The show offers a fantastic blend of airport docu-soap and mega engineering show – all set against the backdrop of a highly modern, 21st century city filled with exciting innovation. The high level of access, which the production team secured makes this show different and we are delighted to have it back in our schedules,” said Hamish Mykura, executive vice president and head of international content.

The struggle for Hong Kong

The territory’s citizens must not give up demanding full democracy—for their sake and for China’s

6 September 2014 – The Economist

Chinese officials have called it a “leap forward” for democracy in Hong Kong. Yet their announcement on August 31st of plans to allow, for the first time, every Hong Kong citizen to vote for the territory’s leader has met only anger and indifference. Joy was conspicuously absent. This is not because Hong Kong’s citizens care little for the right to vote, but because China has made it abundantly clear that the next election for Hong Kong’s chief executive, due in 2017, will be rigged. The only candidates allowed to stand will be those approved by the Communist Party in Beijing, half a continent away.

At its worst, this risks provoking a disaster which even China cannot want. Democrats are planning protests. It is unclear how many people will join in, but the fear is that the territory’s long history of peaceful campaigning for political reform will give way to skirmishes with police, mass arrests and possibly even intervention by the People’s Liberation Army. That would disrupt one of Asia’s wealthiest and most orderly economies, and set China against the West. But even if, as is likely, such a calamity is avoided, this leap sideways is a huge missed opportunity not just for Hong Kong but also for the mainland. A chance to experiment with the sort of local democracy that might have benefited all of China has been missed.

China’s announcement marks the end of an era. No longer is it possible to argue that the development of democracy in Hong Kong can forge ahead even in the absence of political reform in Beijing. The arrangements, set out by China’s party-controlled parliament, the National People’s Congress, were needed because of a pledge to grant the territory a “high degree of autonomy” and eventually “universal suffrage” when it took over from Britain in 1997. To most people, that meant having the right to choose their leader themselves.

China has stuck to the letter of its promise, but not the spirit. In 2012 the chief executive was appointed by a 1,200-strong committee stacked with the party’s yes-men from among Hong Kong’s business and political elite. The proposal for 2017 is that a similar committee will select candidates who will then be presented to all Hong Kong’s voters for election. In theory the committee could allow through candidates of many political stripes. In practice, pessimism is more than justified. Only two or three candidates will be allowed, and each must win the support of at least half of the committee. Under this arrangement, democracy will mean little more in Hong Kong than it does elsewhere in China, where every adult citizen can vote for local legislators—as long as the party approves.

This is bad for Hong Kong. The territory’s four leaders since the handover in 1997 were all chosen in Beijing and rubber-stamped into office. All of them, including the incumbent Leung Chun-ying, proved highly unpopular. Under a government in thrall to Beijing, the press has been subdued by intimidation and by pressure from advertisers. The judiciary fears that it may face a test of loyalty to the mainland. Some Hong Kongers complain that even the postal service is compromised—it refused to deliver leaflets urging civil disobedience.

The story may not be over. Activists in Hong Kong have vowed to launch a campaign of civil disobedience which they call, disarmingly, “Occupy Central with Love and Peace”, but whose declared mission is to paralyse the territory’s main financial district with sit-ins. This would be the first large-scale flouting of the law by the pro-democracy camp.

The activists’ aim is correct and their courage impressive, but their tactics may be mistaken. If the unrest gets out of control and troops are deployed, it would be a calamity for Hong Kong—and would probably set back the activists’ cause. Better to stick to what the democrats have always done best: staging the kind of peaceful protests that have made the territory a model of rational political discourse in a part of the world where it is often sorely lacking. And there is another form of peaceful protest available: Hong Kong’s legislators can reject China’s proposals, even though that would mean reverting to the equally undemocratic system used in 2012. Only a few dozen democrats now sit in the electoral college. They should, in future, boycott it. There is no point in propagating a falsehood.

If Hong Kong’s people keep marching without damaging the territory’s economy, China may well simply shrug. But not necessarily. It was thanks in part to a huge and orderly protest in 2003 that Hong Kong’s puppet government shelved plans to introduce an anti-subversion bill and that the hapless chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, stepped down. Rather than break the law, Hong Kong’s democrats would do better to wield the weapon of embarrassment.

But it is not only in Hong Kong that China’s decision to strangle the territory’s democratic aspirations will be felt. China’s government has alienated opinion in Taiwan, which it dreams of bringing under its umbrella in the same way. The party appears to have concluded that the damage done to the prospects of union with Taiwan is less important than the threat that one of its opponents might win an election in Hong Kong and stoke demands across China for political reform. The territory would also become independent in all but name. That, the government worries, would encourage separatists around China’s periphery, from Tibet to Xinjiang.

But discontent is growing all over China, and Beijing cannot just sit on it. The huge new middle class is becoming increasingly frustrated with its powerlessness over issues such as education, health care, the environment and property rights. In terms of their day-to-day worries, mainlanders have a lot in common with Hong Kong’s citizens. China’s government is going to have to work out a way of satisfying their aspirations for more control over their lives. Hong Kong would have been a good place to start.

Xi Jinping, the party chief and president, had the opportunity to use Hong Kong as a test-bed for political change in China. Had he taken this opportunity, he might have gone down in history as a true reformer. Instead, he has squandered it.

NATO’s Welsh invasion

5 September 2014

So the two day NATO summit in Cardiff is over. There are 28 NATO member countries though the meeting was attended by leaders from 60 countries. Seven warships, including the destroyer HMS Duncan. An army of 10,000 assorted police and guards. A twelve kilometer ring of steel around the Celtic Manor venue and Cardiff Castle.

A city under lock down.

A banquet in Cardiff castle.

This summit was originally called to discuss the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan after 13 years of fighting Taliban militants there. There are questions over how many, if any, foreign soldiers will remain after the 2014 deadline. There are even bigger questions about Afghanistan’s future.

Instead the conference saw statesmen making empty threats at Russia and Islamic State, who are currently dismembering Ukraine and Iraq, two nations the west claimed only recently to have “liberated”.

The Russian intrusion into Eastern Ukraine may have re-enforced NATO and re-established its purpose. Article five of Nato’s constitution says an attack on one member country is an attack on all member countries. Ukraine of course is a partner rather than a member of Nato; a convenience for Nato.

But Nato’s defence forces have been stimulated by a recent article by Russian strategist Andrey Piontkovsky which argues that Mr Putin’s aims were “the maximum extension of the Russian world, the destruction of Nato, and the discrediting and humiliation of the US”.

It added that Nato countries such as the US and Germany would not stand by the Baltic republics, and that, if necessary, the Kremlin would carry out a limited nuclear strike in Europe in order to break apart the two sides of the Atlantic alliance.

While Mr Piontkovsky was not writing in any official role – far from it – his pronouncements were considered a sufficiently accurate assessment of some of the more extreme thinking in the Kremlin.

Meanwhile Ukraine and Russia have negotiated a ceasefire; agreed by Russia on the very day of the Nato summit just as Nato was announcing new sanctions. There will be no ceasefire. Neither side is going to back down now.

Meanwhile delegates ploughed on with discussions on the Middle Easat but without the presence of any Arab leaders who could provide support or balance. After all the west’s incursions into Libya and Iraq have not exactly provided for stability or peace. Instead they appear to have fermented extremism.

Obama’s in his closing statment said that “we are going to achieve our goal. We are going to degrade and ultimately defeat [Isis], the same way that we have gone after al Qaeda. You initially push them back, you systematically degrade their capabilities, you narrow their scope of action, you slowly shrink the space, the territory that they may control, you take out their leadership, and over time they are not able to conduct the same kinds of terrorist attacks as they once could.”

Mark Urban for the BBC noted on twitter an “interesting rumour on margin of #NATOSummitUK No UK bombing in Iraq until after Scotland votes. Seen as possible gift to Salmond.”

Somehow it feels like more talk in a world that in 2014 appears to be more dangerous than at any time since the cold war.

So our leaders stopped talking and had a dinner instead. Thursday night’s three-course meal kicked off with smoked salmon from the Black Mountain Smokery and Cardigan Bay Crab served with avocado and lemon jelly.

For their main, the world leaders enjoyed roast saddle of Brecon Beacon lamb with Welsh new potatoes, heirloom tomato and Wye Valley asparagus.

The meal was finished off with a jar of Welsh fruit summer pudding and Neal Yard’s Creamery creme fraiche.

As a reward for attending heads of state and government were also given bumper willow baskets packed full to the brim of gifts.

They include Welsh cakes, whiskey, Welsh rugby balls, a book of selected poems, woollen journals and even socks.

There really was little time to discuss anything of substance let alone agree anything decisive. Next time try Skype.

Playing down the pomp and dealing with the circumstances would do so much more to impress the people of Europe and the Americas.

New statement on fight against ISIS from UAE

5 September 2014

This is a just released statement from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).. about the fight against ISIS.. and Islamic extremism overall. (statement comes from the UAE Ambassador to the USA)

This is strong language from the UAE which is the first Arab country to issue such a statement.

FROM UAE: Statement of Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba On Challenging Regional Extremism

Islamic extremism is a Middle East problem but it is quickly becoming the world’s problem too. It is a transnational challenge, the most destabilizing and dangerous global force since fascism.

For certain, the United States and the West have a big interest in this battle. But no one has more at stake than the UAE and other moderate countries in the region that have rejected the regressive Islamist creed and embraced a different, forward-looking path.

Now is the time to act. The UAE is ready to join the international community in an urgent, coordinated and sustained effort to confront a threat that will, if unchecked, have global ramifications for decades to come.

Any action must begin with a clear plan for direct intervention against ISIS but must address the other dangerous extremist groups in the region. It is also critical to tackle the support networks, the entire militant ideological and financial complex that is the lifeblood of extremism.”

Something incredible is happening in Scotland

1 September 2014 The Guardian

You could tell it was getting serious when Gordon Brown made friends with Alistair Darling; and when the Scottish Daily Mail began running doom headlines about the future of the Union. I don’t know whether the narrowing of the poll lead for the no campaign was just a blip, but it doesn’t feel like it.

Something incredible is happening in Scotland. The little pin badges – Yes or No – that people wear are sparking open conversation: in the pub, the swimming baths, the post office queue. An entire country of 5 million people is asking itself, sometimes quite vociferously, what it wants to be.

It’s even more incredible if you consider the possible outcome. If enough people tick the yes box, then come 2016 the flag of Great Britain will have to go minus a whole colour.

It probably won’t happen. But few south of the border realise how volatile the outcome is. Yes, the polls reflect bookie William Hill’s confidence that there’s just a one in five chance of a majority for independence – but the variables are bigger than for most political events.

Having spent last week in Glasgow, I would say the biggest variable is going to be turnout. When political enthusiasm reaches the relatively apolitical world of the council estate, the pub, the nightclub and energises people, turnout can do weird things to poll predictions. Alex Salmond claimed there would be 80% turnout. I think the chances are even higher – and if the polls actually cope with such volume, every percentage point above normal introduces volatility not captured by normal polling.

At the Sub Club, a world-famous nightspot in Glasgow, the debate was remarkably coherent, even at 2am among the intoxicated smokers huddled outside. If I could distil the vox pops among those under-30s to a single thought it would be: “We want to run our own country.”

They have heard all the dire macro-economic warnings – about the pound, the banks, the debt, the non-reliability of oil money. Set against the idea of making a clean break with Westminster politics and neoliberal economics, these are risks many of them are prepared to take.

One reason the political class is not hearing the debate properly is that, on each side, there are mismatched political leaderships and tin-eared campaign groups. On the yes side, many of the young people I spoke to despise Alex Salmond. On the no side, it’s fair to say Alistair Darling is not hugely representative of a coalition that includes people from the Orange lodges and the Scottish Tories, and the gay clubbers I met who were firm no voters.

If, on the morning of 19 September, we wake up and that 4/1 horse of independence has come in, the levels of shock in official circles will be extreme. The Conservatives will have presided over the breakup of the Union. Even compared with handing Zimbabwe to Zanu-PF, and Hong Kong to the Chinese Communist party, that will be a major psychological moment.

Even more traumatised will be Labour. The prospect of a majority Labour government at Westminster after 2016 will be remote. The party in Scotland will likely go into meltdown, with a Podemos-style left emerging among the pro-independence Labour camp, the Greens and the progressives around groups like Common Weal.

There will be immediate ramifications beyond the UK: in Madrid and Brussels there will be outcry; in Barcelona public joy; in Moscow quiet glee.

But the official narrative does not allow us to consider the possibility of a yes victory. The political class – and I include Salmond’s SNP in this – is like the tightroper wobbling on a wire between two skyscrapers. Its members can’t allow themselves to think of the consequence of falling off. The old certainties will be so dead anyway that it will scarcely matter.

What we can say, already, is that the no campaign – for all its resilience in the opinion polls – failed in its plan to turn the referendum into an issue of macro-economic risk. If it has worked, it is among the older population and not the majority of the young.

The most coherent of the young people I spoke to understood the macro-economic risk. But they weighed it against two increasingly intolerable burdens: the inability of Scotland’s relatively left-leaning electorate to influence Westminster; and the inability to budge Scottish Labour away from the free-market and pro-austerity policies associated with Brown and Darling.

What this means is, even if the yes vote fails on 18 September, scoring somewhere in the mid 40s, the pattern of all future Scottish independence debates is set.

Independence has become a narrative of the people against big government; about an energised Scottish street, bar and nightclub versus the sleazy elite of official politics.

And in response, the left part of the pro-union camp has had to develop its own, “more radical than Darling” rationales. It’s not something you hear from the Westminster parties, but via social media I have picked up a strong meme among Scottish trade union members that independence under the SNP is “not radical enough to bother”.

Once established, political psychologies like this do not go away. History shows they intensify until something gives, and at some point it is usually the borders of a nation state.

What we know already is that a significant number of Scottish people have a dream: where statehood, social justice and cultural self-confidence fit together into a clear and popular project.

The rest of Britain may be stunned, but should not be surprised if the enthusiasm for this dream propels enough people into the voting booths to give the yes camp a narrow victory.

If it happens there’ll be a lot of finger pointing, but it’s obvious in advance where the biggest problem lies: it’s become impossible to express opposition to free market economics via the main Westminster parties.

Some English and Welsh voters think they’re doing it by voting Ukip. But the referendum offered Scottish voters a way to do it by destroying the union. Whether you think that’s illusory or mistaken, it’s formed the narrative on the streets.

That’s where we should be watching now; the high-camp shouting match of men in suits is a diversion.

Paul Mason is economics editor at Channel 4 News. Follow him @paulmasonnews

Grumpy, green, yellow, old and male…and unelected

1 September 2014

Grumpy, unelected. old men. It is hard to find a better description of Thailand’s junta appointed cabinet.

The new cabinet is dominated by the military junta who have 13 Ministers including the PM and control over most of the key positions ranging from PM, Defence, Education, Transport, Interior, Justice, Foreign Affairs and Commerce (only key ones they don’t have are Public Health, Finance, and Agriculture). Essentially, Prayuth and his clique dominate.

Prayuth’s former superior General Prawit Wongsuwan is deputy PM and Defence Minister, while another of his ex-superiors, General Anupong Paochinda, is Interior Minister.

Four of the premier’s former classmates have portfolios. General Dapong Ratanasuwan was appointed Natural Resources and Environment Minister, General Tanasak Patimapragorn is deputy PM and Foreign Minister, Gen Chatchai Sarikalya was named Commerce Minister, and permanent secretary for defence General Surasak Kanjanarat is the Labour Minister.

Prayuth’s ‘junior’ friends from pre-cadet school days, Navy chief ADM Narong Pipatanasai and Air Force chief ACM Prajin Juntong, were appointed Education Minister and Transport Minister respectively.

The Navy Chief as Education Minister will oversee a curriculum that goes back to traditional Thai values – ie know your place; rather than develops critical talents for a globalised world.

The premier’s subordinates from the armed forces who will help him administer the country include deputy Army chief General Udomdej Sitabutr, the Deputy Defence Minister, and assistant Army chief General Paiboon Koomchaya, the Justice Minister.

Other posts are taken up by former bureaucrats mostly with strong yellow shirt credentials”

Don Pramudwinai (Deputy Foreign Minister) He was a career civil servant with the Foreign Ministry. His final posting was as Thai Ambassador to the UN. An experience diplomat but still number two to General Tanasak Patimapragorn; appointing a general as the Foreign Minister is hardly going to help the junta’s credibility with the international community though no dount Burma and China will approve.

Sommai Phasee (Finance Minister) Was Deputy Finance Minister in the amt appointed post 2006 coup Surayud government.

In each of the Education, Interior, Foreign Affairs, Transport and Commerce ministries the junta controls the main minister position, but a current/former civil servant is the deputy.

Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul is Tourism and Sports Minister and was previously. She was Chairperson of Toshiba Thailand. Strange appointment as she appears to have no relevant experience.

Wissanu Krea-Ngam is Deputy Prime Minister and was a NLA member and Constitutional Drafter of the 2007 Constitution .

MR Pridiyathorn Devakula is Deputy Prime Minister; he was spokesperson for PM’s Office under Chatchai, Deputy Minister of Commerce under the Anand and Suchina governments, BOT Governor under Thaksin, and Finance Minister in Surayud government.

There are noticeably few people from the business world. The cabinet are almost all 60+ years old and are current and former bureaucrats and those who have been in the sphere of the bureaucracy and periphery of politics. It is a very Bangkok-centric cabinet. There is no room for alternative voices.

It is basically a rubber stamp cabinet – the NCPO is in charge and that is where decisions will be made.

Thailand’s military run government

31 August 2014

So Thailand has a new government with the King’s endorsement of junta leader Prayuth Chan-Ocha’s new cabinet.

Military men are in charge of almost every key ministry. Not one of them has been elected.

Prayuth, who took power in a May 22 coup, placed 11 military officers in the 32-member cabinet, including as defense minister, foreign minister, interior minister, commerce minister, education minister and justice minister. The new finance minister is a civilian, Sommai Phasee, who was part of the government installed by the Thai army following Thailand’s last coup in 2006.

The appointments, which include two former army chiefs from Prayuth’s faction of the military, indicate that Prayuth will continue to rely on those close to his junta.

Even those not from the military are “at least people who are devoted to one side of the political divide and see themselves as more righteous leaders,” said Andrew Stotz, chief executive officer of A. Stotz Investment Research in Bangkok. “These people may see a rebalancing of power as a higher priority” than a rush to elections, he said.

There will be no rush to elections. Let us be clear here. There will be no election until after the next succession. And the electoral map will be rewritten such that there can only be one winner of the election….and that will not be the red shirts, Thaksin or anyone affiliated to them.

The junta and its appointed bodies have to write a new constitution and enact unspecified measures to “reform” Thai politics and society.

Several members of Prayuth’s new cabinet were also members of the government appointed after the 2006 coup. Pridiyathorn Devakula, a former Bank of Thailand governor who will serve as Prayuth’s deputy premier for the economy, was finance minister after that coup. Sommai, the new finance minister, served as Pridiyathorn’s deputy before resigning in 2007 after a court convicted him of abuse of power over suspension of state agency official three years earlier.

“Recently, Sommai Phasee has said he would focus on tax reforms and boosting the economy,” said Tim Leelahaphan, an economist at Maybank Kim Eng. “We believe it is hard to see exciting policies from him or this interim cabinet that focuses on economic reforms rather than populist policies.”

From the military, Prawit Wongsuwan, a former army chief and defense minister, will be a deputy prime minister and defense minister, Thanasak Patimaprakorn, the supreme commander of the armed forces, will be a deputy prime minister and foreign minister and Anupong Paochinda, a former army chief, will be interior minister.

Prajin Juntong, the air force chief who has overseen the economy for the junta since the coup, will be transport minister, Chatchai Sarikulya, the assistant army chief, will be commerce minister, Paibool Khumchaya, the army assistant commander-in-chief, will be justice minster, and Narong Pipathanasai, the head of the navy, will be education minister, for which he is clearly well – qualified!

The NCPO has control over the ministires that have always been considered the wealthiest for the people in power – transport, interior and finance.

The new cabinet has only two female members, Tourism and Sports Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul and Deputy Commerce Minister Apiradi Tantraporn.

Protests in Macau – chipping in

28th August 2014 The Economist

Known for its casinos and conservative society, the city-state of Macau is a magnet for the rich in search of decadent fun. It is rarely the site of political protest. But on August 25th around 1,000 of Macau’s dealers and servers took to the streets to demand pay hikes and better working conditions. They are among those who support an unofficial referendum on Macau’s political future, which began on August 24th at polling stations and online.

Jason Chao, a 29-year-old software developer and the president of the Open Macau Society, a local pro-democracy group which helped sponsor the poll, hoped it would “help people draw connections between things like inflation and high cost of housing and the political system.” The poll asked residents if they support universal suffrage by 2019; and whether they have confidence in Macau’s current chief executive, Fernando Chui, who is running unopposed for re-election later this week, on August 31st—the same day the poll results are due to be released.

Protests in the city-state began in May, when 20,000 Macanese marched against a bill that would give lavish benefits to retiring officials. The government dropped it. Activists then began pushing for better government accountability, inspired by Hong Kong’s Occupy Central, a civil disobedience movement during which 800,000 people voted in a poll in June to demand “genuine” universal suffrage in the city’s next elections.

But on the first day of unofficial voting in Macau, police dashed hopes for reform when they arrested five polling-station volunteers, including Mr Chao, for failing to comply with a government order to halt the referendum. All five were released, but Mr Chao now faces a legal battle after prosecutors charged him with “serious disobedience with police”. Maya Wang, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch, says the arrests appear to be politically motivated.

The former Portuguese colony is governed by China but maintains separate legal and economic systems, as Hong Kong does. The leaders of both territories are elected by appointed committees. The Chinese government’s local liaison offices in Hong Kong and Macau have denounced both informal referendums and insisted that administrative regions have “no authority” to organise such activities.

Polling will continue online in Macau until August 30th. As of August 26th, around 6,700 people had cast their votes, according to the event’s official website. But low participation so far makes the project little more than a public-relations exercise. Unlike in Hong Kong’s case, the Chinese government has not promised Macanese residents eventual universal suffrage. Activists in Macau say their best chance for democracy is if it is granted to Hong Kong first, perhaps allowing Macau to negotiate similar rights.

The Chinese government has maintained that it would honour its promise of allowing the selection of Hong Kong’s next leader, in 2017, through universal suffrage, but has ruled out public nomination for candidates and insisted that only candidates who “love China” should be eligible. The government is expected to release a decision by next week on how Hong Kong’s next leader will be elected. Occupy Central leader Benny Tai said his group is prepared to protest if the decision does not meet international standards for democracy and if it allows no room for further negotiation. A short ferry ride away, more Macanese citizens will be watching developments with anticipation.

The return of Kate Bush

26 August 2014

On stage in London tonight in her first live show for 35 years:

The GCC-U.S. Relationship: A GCC Perspective

26 August 2014 The Middle East Policy Council – Abdullah K. Al Shayji

“The drift and incoherence of U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration has not gone unnoticed in the Arab world and the Middle East, especially among America’s Arab Gulf allies. Former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman could have been channeling Gulf elites when he said: “Americans no longer command the ability to shape trends in the Middle East. Almost no one expects us to do so.”1 The United States and its strategic allies in the Gulf have increasingly divergent visions of how regional politics should operate. The “marriage” between Washington and the Gulf has been long and beneficial to both sides, though not without its ups and downs. Neither side really wants a divorce, but Gulf elites increasingly worry that this episode of tensions is qualitatively different from those that came before. They fear that, this time, Washington not only disagrees with their view of the region, it does not care about their opinions, because America’s strategic commitment to the Gulf, and the Middle East more generally, is no longer solid. For them, the “pivot to Asia” looks increasingly like a retreat from the Middle East. The renewed talk in American policy circles about “energy independence,” this time with more credible evidence to back it up, just adds to Gulf worries that Washington has downgraded the Gulf region and that the pivot is really a retreat.

Moreover, there is a growing fear among America’s allies in the region that the United States is preoccupied with its domestic agenda. This has been apparent since it pulled out of Iraq and is drawing down its forces in Afghanistan. As Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues, “Foreign policy begins at home….The biggest threat to the United States comes not from abroad but from within.”2

The differences between the Obama administration’s view of the region and those of its Gulf allies are not just about tactics. The more important splits are over basic strategic understandings about the most important threats to regional stability. Washington is turning a new page with Iran, concentrating on resolving the nuclear issue. While Gulf leaders would be happy to see Iran pushed back from a nuclear breakout capability, they worry that the price of such a deal is American acceptance of Iran’s hegemonic regional ambitions. Tensions between the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, and the United States over policy toward Syria, Iraq and even Bahrain are part of a general divergence of views over the true nature of the Iranian threat. The fact that the recent success of ISIS in Iraq seems to have pushed Washington and Tehran closer together just confirms Gulf worries about a possible American-Iranian geopolitical deal in the region as a whole.

The Gulf states and Washington also have a profound disagreement over their assessments of the so-called Arab Spring. Gulf leaders generally see it as disastrous, leading to chaos and increased Iranian meddling in Arab affairs. Washington sees it as an imperfect but important step toward greater democracy in the Arab world. This difference is reflected most seriously in the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia and a number of Gulf states, with the UAE at the forefront (Qatar has a very different position), see the Muslim Brotherhood and the prospect of elected Islamist governments in Arab states as a serious threat to their own domestic security. They also worry that Muslim Brotherhood-led governments in the Arab world will make common cause with Iran. The United States was more than willing to deal with Mohammad Morsi, the elected Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, and criticized the Egyptian army for removing him from power (while never actually calling that removal what it was, a coup). Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait committed billions of dollars in aid to the military-backed Egyptian government once Morsi was ousted.

To some extent, the tensions in the American-Gulf relationship are structural, built into the nature of an alliance between a great power and its weaker allies. The weaker always worry that the stronger will ignore their interests, either by being too bellicose and drawing them into conflicts they seek to avoid or by making deals over their heads with potential adversaries. This dynamic has characterized relations between Washington and the Gulf in the past and has been managed by the parties. The current differences do not necessarily have to lead to a complete break in the U.S.-GCC relationship, but they need to be brought into the open. The United States needs not only to understand the depth of GCC concerns about the direction of its Middle East policy; it also needs to pay them more heed.”

Thailand – Asia’s crackdown hub

26 August 2014

The Chiang Mai city news is reporting that the junta will to enforce harsh measures regulating the advertising and promotion of alcohol, in a move that will affect thousands of businesses throughout the country.

Initially it appears that this crackdown is focused on Chiang Mai – but the rules appear to be intended nationwide.

Chiang Mai city news, along with around 30 hoteliers and members of the media, met with the army yesterday to clarify the nuances of the law and to be given warning as to their immediate enforcement.

Second Lieutenant Taweesak Jintajiranan explained that:

All alcohol products must carry health warnings and a list of ingredients.
Sales are banned to anyone under the age of 20.
Initiatives promoting alcohol – such as happy hours, free ice and mixers, and the use of ‘beer girls’ – are banned.
No drinking is allowed after midnight in bars or restaurants.
No sales of alcoholic beverages are allowed by automated machines, non-location-specific sales are banned (ie. no mobile bars or wandering around selling),
No alcohol logos are allowed on glasses, ashtrays and other paraphernalia.
Bars will not be allowed to display posters or bottles – even old ones – featuring such logos.
Bar staff cannot wear T-shirts with alcohol logos.
It is illegal to promote events such as wine and beer tastings.
Alcohol logos – or even images accepted as representative of brands, such as a deer head for Benmore or red stars for Heineken – are not allowed to be displayed in sponsorship or any kind of advertising or promotion.
Promoting alcohol through word of mouth is also illegal, so if a waiter is asked to recommend a particular brand of beer he would be breaking the law if he responds.
All printed photographs of glasses or bottles in the media must have visible brands and logos blurred.
No images of alcoholic drinks, including photography, and logos in any language which “invite” the public to drink alcohol are allowed.
For television, movies, video, electronic formats and all advertising mediums showing images, logos must not be bigger than 5 percent of all advertising space. The time in which the logo is shown cannot be more than 5 percent of total advertising time and no longer than two seconds. Advertising can only be done between 10pm and 5am, and the logos can only be shown at the end of the advertisement.
Adverts must include one of five permissible warning messages. According to our translations, they are as follows: Alcohol can cause cancer; alcohol can lower sexual abilities; alcohol may lead to paralysis or death; alcohol is the cause of argument and crime; alcohol damages families and societies.

Officials have also vowed to strictly enforce laws on alcohol advertising.

The authorities are using an existing law, the Alcohol Control Act of 2008, to crack down.

So let me see – in promoting happiness the junta is banning happy hours.

Tourists and residents will not be allowed to drink in bars, restaurants or clubs after midnight – thereby killing off much of the hospitality industry in Bangkok and other urban centers.

And if you are in a bar or restaurant the staff cannot make any recommendations and must remove all promotional material.

What happens when Everton – with Chang as their shirt sponsors are playing football on TV? What about the other extensive sports and community sponsorship in Thailand such as the Heineken Jazz Festival?

Ill-thought through and probably being rushed through by local army functionaries trying to impress their Junta bosses. Expect this to be rolled back and clarified over the next month or so. Or it could just be the beginning of a much more extensive crackdown.

UAE’s Libya airstrikes show extent of regional conflict

26 August 2014

Twice in the last seven days, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have secretly launched airstrikes against Islamist-allied militias battling for control of Tripoli, Libya, four senior American officials have told the New York Times, in a major escalation of a regional power struggle set off by Arab Spring revolts.

The United States, the officials said, was caught by surprise. Which may indicate just how disconnected the USA is to events in much of the Middle East.

Egypt and the Emirates are both close allies and military partners of the USA yet they acted without informing Washington.

Egyptian officials explicitly denied to American diplomats that their military played any role in the operation. The UAE authorities have not commented.

The Guardian in its analysis noted that “shaken by the turbulence of the Arab spring, the UAE has emerged as the most assertive of the conservative Gulf monarchies. It does not share the traditional reticence of Saudi Arabia, especially when it comes to combatting what both now see as the most dangerous challenge to the status quo – the rise of Islamists at home and abroad.”

The first signs of the UAE’s new role emerged in 2011 when the UAE joined NATO air operations in Libya and backed rebels fighting to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. The UAE chose its allies on a regional and tribal basis, singling out militias in Zintan in the west. Qatar, its Gulf neighbour and rival, funnelled its support to Islamist brigades, especially in Misrata.

The UAE, alongside Saudi Arabia, is a leading supporter of Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi, who ousted the democratically elected but unpopular Mohamed Morsi last summer – a grievous blow to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood that delighted all the Gulf states except Qatar. The Emiratis have since bankrolled Egypt and advised it on economic reform – with the help of Tony Blair.

On the domestic front, the UAE has cracked down hard on dissent and the threat of Brotherhood “subversion”. Emiratis also point to concerns about Libyan involvement with Isis in Iraq and Syria – these days an even bigger worry than the Brotherhood.

So far the air attacks do not appear to have not been effective: Tripoli airport and the capital as a whole are now under the control of Islamist fighters. The US, UK and France who went to war to overthrow Gaddafi in 2011 now are insisting that military support for Libya’s warring factions will not help restore desperately-needed stability and that only dialogue can succeed. The Emiratis and Egyptians clearly disagree.

There is also a regional powerplay at stake with Turkey and Qatar appearing to support the Islamists. US officials said the government of Qatar has already provided weapons and support to the Islamist-aligned forces inside Libya, so the new strikes represent a shift from a battle of proxies to direct involvement. It could also set off a regional arms race, although arguably that has been going on for some years.

“In every arena — in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Libya, even what happened in Egypt — this regional polarization, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, or U.A.E., on one side and Qatar and Turkey on the other, has proved to be a gigantic impediment to international efforts to resolve any of these crisis,” said Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Middle East specialist at the State Department.

The officials said the U.A.E. — which hosts one of the most effective air forces in the Arab world, thanks to American equipment and training — provided the pilots, warplanes and aerial refueling planes necessary for the fighters to bomb Tripoli out of bases in Egypt.

Libya’s government has repeatedly called for the militia groups to disband and join the national army. But so far, few have shown a willingness to disarm.

More: Libya Dawn takes upper hand in civil war, as regional powers intervene – Middle East Eye
Libya could be just the beginning for a newly proactive Gulf – The Guardian

The 10 things a perfect city needs

25 August 2014 The Guardian

(Love this article – have wondered for some time what would be a suitable repost to the annual Monocle perfect city nonsense. Maybe we also have to get away from the idea that the perfect citys needs to be large, or a country or regional capital). Could the perfect city be a Malaga, a Folkestone, a Newcastle (too cold); a Portland or a Catania?

Anyway read on:)

For the Economist, it’s Melbourne, Vienna and Toronto; for Monocle magazine, it is Melbourne, Tokyo and Copenhagen; for the global recruitment consultancy Mercer, the index of “most liveable cities” begins with Vienna, Zurich and Auckland.

When I read these lists, which are nearly always topped by cities in Australia, Canada and Scandinavia, I imagine them being compiled by a terrified, monogamous young couple dressed head to toe in Uniqlo or Gap. Their typical criteria – low crime rates, cheap private schools and access to world-class outdoor sports – always seem to match those of the stereotypical modern salaryman, not the complex real-world individual.

The Economist’s 2014 Liveability Ranking, released last week, reported a five-year fall in overall quality of city life, primarily driven by political unrest. More than half the cities surveyed had seen a fall in living standards, due to “heightened unrest in the wake of the global economic crisis, which has undermined many of the developmental gains that cities may have experienced through public policy and investment”.

Though you can see their point when it comes to Damascus, Tripoli or Donetsk, equating political instability with negativity is perverse. The unrest that has swept many cities in the so-called emerging market countries, from Rio to Kiev to Istanbul, is actually a measure of how the new middle classes in these countries aspire to make things better.

Speaking from experience, Istanbul during the Taksim Square protest and Athens during the indignado camp of 2011 became, momentarily, better places to live. You could argue that New York City after the Occupy movement experienced a positive change in social atmosphere, a democratisation of artistic space, and a revival of its radical mojo.

George Orwell once imagined an ideal pub – which he called the Moon Under Water – that embodied the 10 key qualities no real pub possessed, from barmaids who call you “Dear” to serving stout on draught. In that spirit, and as an antidote to league tables that judge cities against Ikea-like qualities, I will describe the city I would like to live in.

First, it is near the sea, or another body of water warm enough to swim in.

Second, it has entire neighbourhoods designed around hipster economics. Though currently maligned, hipsters are crucial signifiers of a successful city economy. Their presence shows it is possible to live on your wits even as neoliberalism stagnates. Such neighbourhoods (I am thinking of Little Five Points in Atlanta) typically contain: vintage clothes stores, a micro-brewery, a gay club, burger joints, coffee bars not owned by global chains, and a lot of small workshops for creative microbusinesses. In the ideal form, these areas are home both to hipsters and ethnically diverse poor communities, who refrain from fighting each other.

Third, the finance sector has to be big enough to mobilise global capital and local savings, but not so big that it allows the global elite to run things through their usual mixture of aristocratic men’s club and organised crime.

Fourth, and this is crucial, it has to have theatres. Not just big ones, such as the Vienna State Opera, where the elite can parade their jewellery and their furs, but tiny theatres, in warehouses or open courtyards (this ideal city is somewhere sunny). The city has to have a recognisable demos: you have to be able to go somewhere and, as in the Paris of Zola’s Nana, point across the stalls to celebrities and statespeople, misbehaving in public.

Fifth, bicycle lanes and trams. The most touching thing about the Chinese city of Tianjin, when I first visited in the mid-2000s, was its bike lanes separated by concrete kerbs from the traffic: on cold nights, young couples would ride home side by side holding hands. Equally important to trams and bike supremacy is a heavily regulated taxi system, as efficient as Uber but under the control of old-style London working-class cabbies, who’ve been persuaded to give women and ethnic minorities equal access to the trade, and who are banned from giving you their opinion.

Sixth, a massive ecosystem of gay, lesbian, transgender, BDSM and plain old sleazy heterosexual hangouts: clubs, bars, dancehalls, cabarets and all the dim-lit alleyways and grassy knolls inbetween. For it is a truth unacknowledged by those who make the official league tables that Joe Corporate, with his squash racquet and sober suit, and Joanna Corporate, with her nanny and pushchair, really want to live many other secret and parallel lives, and the ideal city is one big, analogue version of Craigslist.

Seventh – like Orwell’s mythic pub – it must be happy with its Victorian and Edwardian architecture, and with anything salvagable that used to be a factory or warehouse. Harlem in New York, Fitzroy in Melbourne, Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin all derive an intangible positive atmosphere from their combination of brick, ornament, renovation and re-use.

Eighth, it must be ethnically mixed and tolerant and hospitable to women. Some of the “safest” cities on these world league tables are actually ones where women can’t live an equal or modern life, because whole areas are locked down by religious conservatism, or harsh policing of minorities. The city of Gijon, in northern Spain, has a government that plasters the streets with ever more inventive propaganda against sexual harassment, domestic violence and general sexism. Stuff like that.

Ninth, any slums have to be what UN Habitat calls “slums of hope” – staging posts for upward mobility, self-policing and non-chaotic (ideally you would have no slums at all).

Tenth, indispensably, is a democratic political culture the inhabitants are proud of, that calls them regularly to the streets, to loud arguments in small squares, keeps their police demilitarised and in check, and allows them to assimilate the migrants that will inevitably flow inwards, and to self-identify as products of the city as they themselves navigate the global labour market.

As with Orwell’s pub, no one city has all these qualities. Athens, Lima and Barcelona would come close if they could sort out corrupt political oligarchies, racism, sexism and, of course, poverty. Vienna lacks diversity, downtown Melbourne needs a better theatre scene and in truth the sea there is bloody freezing.

If you could cut and paste everything east of Bondi Junction on to London’s Soho and Barcelona’s Raval, giving the whole city a feminist government recruited in Scandinavia, you might come close. But you can’t so you have to dream. And remember it was the imagination of those who built the best of the world’s cities that made these global league tables possible: not the housing market or planning regulations but exalted visions of urban space transformed. So dream on.

Paul Mason is economics editor of Channel 4 News. Follow him @paulmasonnews

Etihad’s control of Darwin Air questioned at last

25 August 2014

Sometimes the Swiss do appear to be a bit slow.

The Swiss federal office for civil aviation has at long last realised that Etihad’s one third share of Darwin Airline may in fact give the Uae based airline defacto control of the company.

I wonder what the big clue was. Maybe the fact that the airline and the fleet of airplanes had been re-branded Etihad regional.

Darwin Airline has now been given a deadline of September 30 by FOCA to provide details of how it wants to adjust its company structure to comply with regulations that state all Swiss carriers need to be both majority owned and controlled by Swiss or EU citizens.

According to a report by Swiss business newspaper Handelszeitung, Darwin, operating as Etihad Regional, is not considered by FOCA to be meeting this requirement with its proposed shareholder and company structure.

Based on a review of the cooperation agreements between Etihad and Darwin, FOCA believes that the proposed structure of these agreements could lead to control of Darwin/Etihad Regional by Etihad which would violate Swiss law. It has notified Darwin accordingly and set a deadline for a revision of the proposed arrangements with Etihad.

FOCA will review changes proposed by the two carriers again at that time but Reymond said that the authority would consider all options including a possible revocation of Darwin’s air operator certificate should it find that Darwin’s ownership or control structure would violate legal requirements.

The Thai junta’s anti-majoritarian rule

Newly instituted laws show a disdain for electoral politics and will reduce power of majority voters

23 August 2014 by Puangthong Pawakapan for AlJazeera America

On Aug. 20, Thailand’s rubberstamp parliament appointed junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha as the country’s prime minister, paving the way for the formation of a new interim government. In late July, nearly two months after ousting former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s democratically elected government in a bloodless coup, the military junta running Thailand declared an interim constitution that gave Prayuth sweeping powers. The unconstitutional dispensation of power has drawn comparisons to 2006’s military takeover, which tried and failed to ban then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his political party from Thai politics. As in 2006, the 2014 coup alleged Yingluck’s rule was corrupt. The latest attempt similarly promises to end corrupt politics in all forms and drastically reform the country’s electoral democracy.

While Prayuth’s appointment by a legislature he handpicked is simply procedural, the ongoing constitutional politicking suggests a dangerous backward slide into the kind of authoritarianism not seen in the country since the 1970s. The coup leaders have in essence forced Thailand back to being a bureaucratic polity, where the military, bureaucrats and business elite maintain unchecked political power over elected representatives.

The constitution already awards Prayuth the power to issue orders and suppress protests. It also allows the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – the governing body formed after the coup – to claim that its own power is lawful while its opponents are violating law, peace and order.

There is a historical precedent for the NCPO’s totalitarian power grab. After staging a similar coup in 1959, military strongman Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat instituted martial law; section 17 of the 1959 constitution carried statutes similar to section 44 of the new constitution. Though he ruled over a dark time for Thai democracy, Sarit was popular among the people for revitalizing the Thai economy. The NCPO hopes to replicate Sarit’s model by galvanizing popular support.

However, unlike Sarit, Prayuth has yet to earn the respect and awe of the public. For example, while critics in Thailand have largely remained quiet for fear of repercussions, anti-coup activists on social media continue to poke fun at the general’s lack of charisma. The NCPO’s repressive measures against peaceful anti-coup activities — barring people from eating sandwiches, reading George Orwell’s classic novel “1984” or showing symbols of resistance such as a three-finger salute in public — have drawn public ridicule. Moreover, unlike in the 1960s, Thais today understand participatory politics and are well aware of their political and economic rights. Sooner rather than later, such stringent suppression will likely face popular challenges.

The junta’s constitution reveals its strong distaste for politicians and electoral politics. This is unsurprising: It was drafted by members of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) who were singlehandedly chosen by the junta; of 200 NLA members, 106 are military generals. It bars members of political parties from being appointed to the Cabinet until they have been party members for more than three years. It also prohibits all active politicians and voters from participating in the country’s future design, leaving political power exclusively in the hands of the military and top bureaucrats.

Such anti-democratic sentiments and distrust of politicians, particularly among the urban middle class, have long dominated Thai politics. The trend began in the late 1980s, when then-Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan’s Cabinet was ridiculed as a highly corrupt “buffet.” The military toppled his government in 1991 after two and a half years, to little public opposition. Since 1992, several elected governments have faced corruption scandals and were similarly forced out of office before serving full terms.

Military intervention has traditionally been seen as an effective step to end corruption. For example, protests led by the yellow-shirted People’s Alliance for Democracy repeatedly urged the military to intervene and end entrenched corruption in Thaksin’s government, a wish that was fulfilled by the 2006 coup. However, despite concerted efforts by the judiciary, army, Democrat Party and media to ban Thaksin and his allies, Thaksinite parties made a comeback, winning a parliamentary majority in the 2007 and 2011 elections.

“Even if it strengthens check-and-balance mechanisms on corrupt politicians as promised, the junta’s reforms will likely erode Thailand’s electoral democracy by reducing the power of majority voters. ”

Popular support from rural communities played a large role in ensuring Thaksinite parties’ electoral successes. This is another familiar political grievance: Rural voters are generally viewed as unqualified to vote, prone to selling their votes in exchange for short-term personal gains. Conservative elites have long alleged the rural regions of northern and northeastern Thailand are susceptible to “vote buying.” (During last year’s protests, the anti-Thaksin movement led by Democrat leader Suthep Thuagsuban, which paved the way for the latest coup, loudly echoed these sentiments and managed to obstruct early elections planned for February.)

Most of these allegations are not true. A number of recent studies confirm (PDF) that vote buying is no longer a decisive factor in election results and that voters are increasingly motivated instead by development projects. For example, schemes such as universal healthcare coverage and rural-based funding projects have significantly enhanced the livelihood and political participation of local people. But inflammatory political rhetoric from Bangkok-based intelligentsia and media continues to paint a picture of rural voters easily bribed by populist policies, which in turn fuels the middle class’s distrust in electoral politics.

The junta has taken several steps to pre-empt future populist politicians and policies — at all levels. On July 3, shortly after the coup, it ordered its legal arm to include permanent constitutional measures preventing populist policies that it claimed could endanger the Thai economy. On July 15, the NCPO issued another order suspending local administrative elections, including provincial, sub-district and Bangkok’s district council elections. Instead, it appointed government officials to replace members of these agencies when the current officials’ terms expire.

The 1997 constitution and 1999’s Decentralization Act mandate local agencies to provide public services to their constituents. Research shows that their work has improved local services and the quality of living, as well as increased public participation. But the media, anti-democracy academics and the anti-graft agencies continue to lament widespread corruption and nepotism in community-based projects run by local administrative units.

Prayuth plans to undertake yearlong political reforms and reconciliation before holding a new election in late 2015. Even if it strengthens check-and-balance mechanism on corrupt politicians as promised, the reforms Prayuth is trying to create will certainly erode Thailand’s electoral democracy by reducing the power of majority voters. It will ensure that rural voters will not have a say in who represents them in government. Unfortunately for these voters, the military regime will remain stable as long as its suppressive machinery is intact. The prosperity the junta promises to create will serve elites and the urban middle class in Bangkok. It will also deepen the precarious social rifts in Thailand.

Puangthong Pawakapan is associate professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand.

Coup leader, army chief, prime minister

21 August 2014

As of today Thailand has a new prime minister. He is not a party politician. He was not elected. He is also the head of the army, the head of the NCPO and the leader of Thailand’s most recent coup.

He was profiled by the Hindu newspaper back in 2010 when he was appointed army chief:

“Thailand’s king on Thursday officially appointed a hardliner as the country’s next army chief, deemed a politically powerful post in the coup—prone kingdom. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in his capacity as head of state, signed a royal command appointing the current deputy army chief Prayuth Chan—ocha as the new army chief, television reports said.

He will replace the current army chief, General Anupong Paochinda, on October 1. The appointment was part of the annual army and civil service reshuffle.

Gen. Prayuth is considered a hardliner within the military, and was the leading proponent of using force against the anti—government protestors who laid siege to parts of Bangkok in April and May.

Political analysts said Gen. Prayuth’s appointment might reduce the likelihood of further street violence in the near future.

“With hardliners in the military, the establishment is strong now,” said Chaturon Chaisaeng, a veteran politician with close ties to the opposition. “In the very near future, I don’t see much likelihood of violence.” General Anupong put Gen. Prayuth in charge of implementing the main offensives against the protest sites. Altogether 91 people died, including 11 soldiers and police, and more than 1,800 were injured in clashes and street battles during the demonstrations.

Gen. Prayuth is seen as a staunch royalist and opponent of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon—turned—politician who was the main financier of the protest movement. Mr. Thaksin has been a fugitive since 2008 to avoid a two—year prison sentence for abuse of power. He was prime minister for two terms between 2001 and September 2006, when he was ousted in a coup. Thailand has had 18 coups since 1932, when a group of Thai officers overthrew the absolute monarchy and installed a democracy under a constitutional monarchy. Like Gen. Anupong, Gen. Prayuth is a protege of General Prem Tinsulanonda, a former Army chief, who was prime minister between 1980 and 1988 and now heads the king’s privy council.”

Thailands’ Asian values – looking inward

20 August 2014 The Economist

Sam is the son of immigrants from China, who came to Thailand early in the 20th century. Sitting on a bench facing Bangkok’s Chinatown, he speaks in American-inflected English to tell of a job he worked at Paramount’s studios in Hollywood of the 1960s, back when Sean Connery was the real James Bond. The Chao Phraya flows by in the background, the “River of Kings”, artery to a nation whose wealth is built on trade with generations of foreigners. Wat Arun is a short distance upriver: a famous temple pieced together at the start of the Chakri dynasty from broken Chinese porcelain; also the Royal Palace; and then the hospital where Thailand’s king, an ailing 86-year-old, spends his days.

For the whole country a period of inward-looking inspection and great uncertainty lies ahead. The king is unwell, the crown prince unpopular and their kingdom is unquiet. An old prophecy holds that the Chakri dynasty will only last nine generations. King Bhumibol Adulyadej happens to be Rama IX. In May a coup brought to an end a series of elected governments that had been run by a clan of civilians. The army men in charge of the new dictatorship say their aim is to build a “Thai-style democracy”. Their intervention looks more interested in reviving a system of tutelary democracy, in which a bunch of royalist elites control the state, though the new regime denies it. Their alternative explanation, based on a notion of Thai uniqueness, seems to have been pulled out of a hat like a rabbit.

There is an obvious resemblance to the concept of “Asian values”, such as were espoused by Mahathir Mohamad, who ran Malaysia for 22 years. That idea tends to preclude robust democracy, and to justify itself on the back of economic development. It has proven useful to governments like Singapore’s and these days its champions tend to point approvingly to China. Internationally, Thailand’s current experiment with dictatorship, or so goes the conventional view, will benefit China, at the expense of relations with America and Japan.

The leaders of the coup have been hoping to play a “China card” in their game with the Americans. This takes the form of a threat: that they will seek closer ties with China, if America persists with its objections to the coup. And so they talk of upgrading ties with China “at all levels”. The Chinese leadership, for its part, has lent moral support to the Thai generals by using the conditions which led to their coup as an example of the chaos that comes with “Western-style” democracy.

There have also been signs of closer economic ties between China and Thailand. Weeks after the coup China Mobile, which is owned by the Chinese state, bought into True Corp, a big telecoms firm backed by Dhanin Chearavanont, a Thai billionaire who is of Chinese descent (as are nearly all of Thailand’s billionaires). The junta has sanctioned two high-speed railways worth $23 billion that are seen as vital future links to China. And it has waived visa fees for Chinese tourists.

But how real are China’s gains? The story has plenty of appealing elements for both governments, both politically and economically, but it also has the outline of a myth.

While it may take longer than usual, eventually Thai public opinion is bound to turn against the junta. The Chinese government is well aware of this and will see little benefit in taking a long position on a short-term condition. Better relations with China are likely in the near future, but the Chinese will not want to invest too much in a regime whose future is deeply uncertain. Its only source of legitimacy is its blessing by the monarchy.

Thailand’s military officials have “a deep distrust of China”, notes Paul Chambers an expert on the Thai army at the Institute of South-East Asian Affairs, which is affiliated with Chiang Mai University. After all, says Mr Chambers, “it was China which helped subsidise the Communist insurgency against Thailand’s constitutional monarchy from 1965 to 1983”. That is some time ago, but the period gave shape to today’s army and to the thinking of the ageing arch-royalists who lead it.

Thailand’s upper and middle classes may have fallen out of love with democracy. But in every other way they choose America over China. They fervently want their offspring to get into Harvard and Eton and are unlikely to replace their love for America and Britain with a similar affection for China. Even if the soldiers were to stick around for years, Thais emigrating to China are likely to remain the aberration; relatively few of the kingdom’s students will head for universities in China.

But surely with a bit of help from the generals, China’s vast economy could come to the aid of Thailand’s, to help nudge along a new ideological ally? Even here the strength of connection between the two countries disappoints. The busy lanes of Bangkok’s Chinatown are already filled with imports from China, as are indeed most markets on earth. But they represent only part of total consumption, and not what makes Thailand’s economy tick. These days it relies instead on manufactured exports, and China can take only limited amounts of them.

If Thailand’s economy could be said to belong to any foreign country, it would be Japan’s. In the mid-1990s a new Japanese factory opened in Thailand every three days. Even now roughly two-thirds of every dollar invested in Thailand comes from Japan. After floods devastated Thailand’s industrialised core in 2011, Japanese firms poured in nearly $30 billion to rebuild their favourite production base in Asia. That is more investment in three years than everything that American firms have poured in since the Vietnam war—combined with everything Chinese firms have ever invested.

The backbone of the Thai economy cannot be made much more Chinese without incurring enormous costs. It is hard to see why anyone would wish to try. Chinese labour-intensive industries have little incentive to move to Thailand, whose economy is no bigger than that of China’s Hunan province but whose workers enjoy much higher wages. For the foreseeable future, most of China’s industrial output will be produced in China and very much of it will be sold there too; the size of America’s consumer market might lure Chinese production at some point, but not Thailand’s.

America has a longer uninterrupted relationship with Thailand than with any other Asian country—181 years. At times it resembles a marriage of nostalgia, surviving on memories of a happier past. But if America were to lose its role as Thailand’s chief patron, it would not be because China displaced it. People looking for a concrete expression of America’s waning influence point to its former consular building in the southern Thai city of Songkhla, which is now home to the Chinese consulate. Others stress the waning influence of the king himself. When the army ousted Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 the embassy was still chummy with the old Thai establishment—the American ambassador used to jam with the jazz-loving king. The Americans enjoy no such rapport with his courtiers.

According to a recent survey on “Power and Order in Asia” published by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, respondents in Thailand were the least convinced of any in the region that American leadership in Asia would benefit their country. Only respondents from China were more opposed to the American “pivot” to Asia.

The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was founded in Bangkok in 1967, is going to be at the heart of any united front that might emerge against China’s claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea. But Thailand itself is not a territorial claimant. And so, unlike most of ASEAN (all but Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia), Thailand does not automatically fall in line. John Brandon, a director at the America-based Asia Foundation, says America is treading a fine line: wanting to chastise the junta for staging the coup, while not alienating Thailand by making it the “odd man out” of its strategic rebalancing in Asia.

The junta really has no China card to play. Even if it did, playing it would be grossly impractical. Nonetheless Western governments have fallen into the grip of a genuine fear that Thailand could fall into China’s orbit. The consequence is a wash: an anti-coup posture on the part of the Western countries—but no willingness to follow it up with meaningful action.

The Observer view on Obama and the limits of presidential power

16 August 2014 Observer editorial

Six years ago, when Barack Obama ran for president, he did so on the back of two audacious claims – he would be the man to end the war in Iraq and he would heal the nation’s glaring social and political divisions. Last week – in two disparate places, worlds apart, Ferguson, Missouri, and Iraq’s Mount Sinjar – Obama was reminded, once again, of how difficult it has been to keep his campaign trail promises.

While Obama was able to bring US troops home from Iraq, he, like so many recent US presidents, has been sucked into yet another conflict there – and has found himself prisoner to events on the ground that he can only marginally control.

The challenge of healing America’s political and social division has run even deeper and been far less successful. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Centre: “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.”

This mistrust is reshaping American politics and American governance. Politically engaged liberals and conservatives are more likely to see the other as threatening the “nation’s wellbeing”; they are more likely to prefer living among fellow ideologues and are less inclined to compromise. This polarisation and the refusal to reach across the aisle (a phenomenon, it must be said, exhibited almost exclusively by Republicans) explains much of the dysfunction in Washington today.

On the issue of race, which is America’s original sin, the election of an African American president has not done nearly enough to improve race relations. By some accounts, Obama’s victory made it worse. And last week’s events in Ferguson are a reminder that the social inequities that challenge African Americans, from geographic segregation and economic inequality to police targeting and rampant bias, both conscious and unconscious, remain a pervasive element of US society.

All this might seem like the ultimate indictment of Obama’s presidency. On the surface, it is an indication of how little he has been able to accomplish and how unfulfilled his promises remain, nearly six years into his presidency. There are plenty on the right – and some on the left – who have and will make just this charge. But, if anything, it should be a more pungent reminder of precisely how little power the US president actually enjoys and the extent to which he or she is constrained by forces far outside their control.

This might seem like a surprising conclusion, particularly when one considers the extraordinary pomp and circumstance that surround American presidents. Obama’s every utterance and action is analysed to the minutest detail. When tragedies such as the shooting in Ferguson occur, no one looks to the speaker of the house to calm the nation. The next presidential election is more than two years away and already newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic are filled with speculation about Hillary Clinton and her potential Republican opponents. But this omnipresent focus on the presidency offers a distorted view of American politics.

To be sure, US presidents are far from powerless. They can issue executive orders and implement federal laws, often as they see fit. They can influence debates in Congress, drive national attention toward a specific policy agenda and, perhaps most importantly, begin wars in faraway lands.

But just because a US president can wield America’s awesome military might to start wars doesn’t mean they can necessarily end them satisfactorily. Even while occupying Iraq with more than 100,000 troops, the US could not force Iraqi leaders to bend to their will. Obama has dealt with similar frustrations in trying to handle Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, even as more than 1,000 US troops have died to help keep him in office.

If Obama wanted to send troops to Iraq to wipe out the Islamic State (and it’s unlikely he does), he would face sizable domestic opposition; he would be distracted from his oft-expressed goal of focusing on “nation-building” at home and, above all, he would have little reason to believe that such an action would bring success. It was hard enough just to get Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to surrender power, which happened last week, and only after Isis threatened more military gains.

At home, Obama can preach the message of unity over and over – he did it again, ironically, last week when commenting on the situation in Ferguson. But there is little reason to believe it would have a dramatic impact. Indeed, the more he talks about reconciliation and pushes his political priorities, the more likely he is to receive a negative response fromRepublican partisans, even if they agree with him on the specifics. The American “bully pulpit” is often described as a tool for rallying the country, but it can just as often be a tool for furthering divisions. Moreover, the US president can lay out his issue agenda, travel the country advocating for it, cajole members of Congress, and if the opposition party wants nothing to do with it, then the president has no lever to force them to do his bidding. That’s one fact this president and his Democratic allies need no reminder of.

This is even truer on the issue of race, where the divides among whites and blacks are so ingrained that it would take a national exorcism to rid America of them. For all the millions who viewed Obama’s election with great pride and believed that it signalled that the US was on the path to racial reconciliation, there was a significant minority that viewed Obama’s win as a reason for trepidation and fear.

Obama played his part in forming the mythology that exists around America’s highest office. In his inaugural bid for the White House, he fed sky-high expectations about what he could achieve as president; as things didn’t work out as he and his supporters hoped, he is now trying feverishly to roll back that perception. But without raising such hopes – and if he had been more honest about the challenges that come with implementing “hope and change” – Obama would likely still be a member of the US Senate.

Obama’s presidency has been anything but six years of missed opportunities. For the passage of healthcare reform alone, his legacy is clear. But if he can remind his fellow citizens of both the limits of US power and the folly of believing one man (or woman) can singlehandedly remake a nation of 300 million distinct souls, he would be doing a genuine service to both America and the world.

Dubai360 launched

13 August 2014

Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of Dubai Executive Council has revealed, through his Instagram and Twitter accounts, the soft launch of Dubai360.com that is intended to showcase full 360 degrees virtual tours of Dubai.

On his Instagram page, Sheikh Hamdan posted: “Soon, we will launch Dubai360.com, the world’s leading immersive virtual city tour. It is a groundbreaking website that will enable you to explore Dubai from anywhere in the world.”

Integrating the latest technologies, the website presents fully interactive 360 degree panoramic timelapse video showcasing Dubai’s cultural and modern attractions.

Debuting on the website, Dubai360.com is a 12-minute long timelapse of the runway activities at Dubai International Airport – one of the world’s busiest international airports.

Viewers can control the direction and zoom of the camera as the time-lapse plays, virtually exploring the airport in an unprecedented manner.

In the Dubai International Airport time-lapse, viewers are offered the chance to transport themselves to the very center of one of the world’s busiest airports.

They can see planes from more than 125 different airlines flying to and from over 260 destinations across six continents.

With nearly 1,000 aircraft movements captured over the 24 hour period, there is non-stop action taking place regardless of which direction the viewer chooses to look.

Featuring groundbreaking technology, the Dubai360 project will be the world’s largest and highest quality virtual city tour that exclusively uses fully interactive and immersive 360 degree panoramic photo, timelapse and video content.

I do hope the site remembers that it is the people that build and make Dubai; the city is so much more than the buildings that people live and work in.

US just not sure who to bomb in the Middle East anymore

10 August 2014 Pan Arabian Enquirer (the best satire is the closest to reality)

WASHINGTON, US – An exhausted looking Barack Obama told US citizens Friday that after weeks of meetings with senior military officials he was still “mostly clueless” about who he should bomb in the Middle East. The statement days after US forces began air strikes against Islamic State forces in Iraq, despite their opposition to Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad, who the US also consider an enemy and have considered bombing.

“People of America, up till now, choosing which bad guy from the Arab world to drop hundreds of thousands of tons of explosives on was a simple, clear cut decision,” he said in a live televised address. “But making a choice about who to unleash the full force of US military might has become fraught with difficulties.”

The US president also revealed that “bombing the shit” out of Libya in the final months of Colonel Gaddafi’s rule hadn’t “exactly resulted in the peaceful, democratic state we had been hoping for”, while America’s involvement in Iraq could result in a new US bombing campaign “every four to five years”.

“Sure, we may be bombing ISIS now, but just as they emerged from the ashes of Saddam’s dictatorship, which we bombed the crap out of, whatever comes next will inevitably have to be bombed to fuck in the future,” he said, adding that concerns regarding the effectiveness of US bombing in the Middle East were “irresponsible”.

Ending the speech on a lighter note, Obama joked that he was “just pleased to have bought shares in Raytheon”.

Etihad takes effective control of Alitalia

8 August 2014

Abu Dhabi based Etihad has concluded its 49% investment deal with AlItalia.

The agreement was finally signed this morning and exceeds the investment levels expected with a total $2.35bn injection to build what Etihad described as a “reinvigorated Alitalia as a competitive sustainably profitable business.”

Speaking at a press conference in Rome this afternoon, the Abu Dhabi airline’s president James Hogan said that Etihad would become a minority shareholder with 49% with a €560million ($750m) investment.

Etihad has also taken over AlItalia’s Heathrow landing slot rights and leased them back to the Italian national carrier as part of the investment.

Its total investment also includes €112.5 million ($151m) to acquire a 75 per cent interest in Alitalia Loyalty Spa, which operates MilleMiglia, the airline’s frequent flier programme.

The 51% core shareholders have added a further €300 million ($402m) of investment and an additional €598m ($802) of financial restructuring (basically a debt waiver) of short and medium term debt has come from the Italian financial institutions along with a further €300million of new facilities.

The transaction is due to be completed on December 31, 2014.

The Italian airline had earlier this year tried to secure more capital from Air France-KLM, a shareholder, but a disagreement over debt restructuring led to the French-Dutch group allowing its 25 per cent stake to be diluted to 7 per cent.

James Hogan had met protests when he arrived in Italy on Tuesday to conclude the negotiations and was asked at the press conference if he realized what was in store. “We have asked all the hard questions already. It is going to be tough but it will result in a win-win-win deal for Italy, for Alitalia and for Etihad,” he said.

Just worth noting here that Etihad flew 11.5 million passengers last year to Alitalia’s 24 million.

Hogan continued: “For Etihad Airways, this is a strategic, long-term commercial investment. On completion, we are committed, with the other shareholders, to build a reinvigorated Alitalia as a competitive, sustainable and profitable business that can operate successfully in the global air travel market. We believe in Alitalia. It is great brand with enormous potential. With the right level of capitalisation and a strong, strategic business plan, we have confidence the airline can be turned around and repositioned as a premium global airline once again.”

Hogan said that AlItalia would be undergoing a full rebranding in the first quarter of next year as the first stage of the three-year turnaround plan. “Ultimately it has to work as a business, and the goal is for sustainable profitability from 2017.”

What is clear is that Etihad’s series of investments in loss making carriers must be a major distraction on management time. Is etihad truly able to lead change where the airlines’ own management have failed? Alitalia is similar to British Airways owned Iberia in that it needs dramatic change if it is ever to become a profitable airline.

The investment in Alitalia is the biggest to date that it has ever done; far larger than the Air Berlin and Jet Airways investments. But Etihad has so far failed to turnaround Air Berlin. And Alitalia’s unions and Italian labour laws are going to make change at Alitalia a long term headache.

Gabriele Del Torchio, Alitalia’s CEO said: “This is an excellent outcome for Alitalia. We have had to take some tough decisions in a very robust negotiation process but we have achieved the consensus we require to create the right shape and size for Alitalia in the future.”

Hogan’s long term vision appears to be to “knit together our network with those of our existing equity partners, including airberlin, Air Serbia, Etihad Regional, Jet Airways, Virgin Australia, Air Seychelles, Darwin (Etihad Regional) and Aer Lingus, and of course our strategic codeshare.” Remember that Etihad does not have a majority stake in any of these airlines.

An early step in the strategic change will be to reduce some short haul flights and expand long haul – including an increase in frequency between Abu Dhabi and Rome and the start of flight between the UAE capital and Milan which Etihad said will open up “a range of new connecting opportunities for passengers of both airlines”.

A quick look at Alitalia’s long-haul network (routes over 6,000 kilometres) shows lots of room for growth considering Italy’s ranking of 11th among global economies (Source: IMF) in 2013. Just 14 long-haul services are operated non-stop from Italian airports to 11 destinations, with only Tokyo Narita served from three airports. Only the Rome to New York service is served with at least two daily flights.

•From Milan (MXP) to New York JFK and Tokyo Narita
•From Rome (FCO) to Boston, Buenos Aires, Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles, Miami, New York JFK, Osaka Kansai, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo Guarulhos, Tokyo Narita, Toronto Pearson
•From Venice (VCE) to Tokyo Narita

Japan is currently the only country served in Asia (Osaka and Tokyo) with Alitalia not operating any services to such important economies as China or India. Out of the 54 weekly flights from Asian airports to Rome, Alitalia’s two Japanese routes account for just 12 of them.

How much red ink will be shed before that happens and how many jobs are lost in unknown. But based on evidence to date it will not be pretty.

What the investment may do is keep Emirates out of further growth in Italy – and in other markets – as European governments seek to protect their remaining investment and to show goodwill to their new investors.

Does it make sense? Well there is no doubt that Abu Dhabi can afford the investment. But Alitalia is estimated to have cost Italian taxpayers €6.5bn since 2008. Turning this around is a massive challenge, it is not a hobby.

Some of the European airlines will not be happy. Alitalia is a Skyteam partner – but the KLM/Air France shareholding in the airline is now diluted to just 7% (from 25%). International traffic that would have routed through Paris or Amsterdam will now be routed through Abu Dhabi.

Eithad is owned by the government of Abu Dhabi. EU rules do not allow a non EU investor to hold more than 49% of a European airline.

Here is the official Alitalia/Etihad press release.

CAPA Analysis: Etihad & Alitalia agree and affirm their partnership vision. Protectionist voices will become louder

To dare to dream

8 August 2014

And so the Championship starts again in English football – over nine grueling months of football. This has to be the toughest league in football. 24 teams without a whole lot to choose between them and any team in the league capable of creating a surprise. Over such a long season a strong squad is needed together with in-form strikers and no shortage of luck.

Watford boss Beppe Sannino is starting the season in charge for the first time ad has said his side’s heavy recruitment over the summer has raised the expectation of winning promotion.

The Italian has brought in 11 players to Vicarage Road over the summer.

Sannino, a former Siena and Palermo head coach, replaced Gianfranco Zola in December 2013 and went on to take the Hornets to a 13th-place finish last season. For a while it looked like they would finish higher but there was a serious drop off in form losing the last four games of the season

It has been two years since the Italian Pozzo family, who also own Granada and Udinese, took ownership of Watford and their policy of taking players from within their network of clubs, as well as the rest of Europe, has continued.

Striker Matej Vydra has returned from Udinese, along with Odion Ighalo, while Jaun Carlos Paredes has arrived from Granada, as has Essaid Belkalem, although the Algerian has gone straight out on loan to Trabzonspor.

Parma pair Daniel Toszer and Gianni Munari have also come in on loan from Parma.

New signings include Heurelho Gomes (the jury is very much out on whether he is good enough) as a goalkeeping replacement for Manuel Almunia who was released by the club. Craig Cathcart, Gabriel Tamas, Lloyd Dyer and Keith Andrews have also been signed.

The return of Vydra is a huge boost after a less than successful season at West Bromwich Albion. Vydra is re-united with Troy Deeney but for how long is uncertain.

Leicester, QPR and Burnley have all been linked with Deeney, who has scored 43 league goals in the last two seasons.

But Watford are standing firm over their asking price, thought to be £8million, and have rejected the highest offer of £7.5m from Leicester.

The other issue for Watford will be stemming the calamitous ability to concede goals in the last ten minutes of games. Nothing about the defense gives much confidence of a change.

Watford open their 2014/2015 campaign at home to Bolton.

INS: Keith Andrews (loan, Bolton), Essaid Belkalem (undisc, Granada), Juan Carlos Paredes (undisc, Granada), Craig Cathcart (free, Blackpool), Lloyd Dyer (free, Leicester), Odion Ighalo (loan, Udinese), Heurelho Gomes (free, Spurs), Gabriel Tamas (free, Doncaster), Daniel Tozser (loan, Parma), Matej Vydra (loan, Udinese).

OUTS: Javier Acuna (undisc, Club Olimpia), Manuel Almunia (released), Bobson Bawling (free, Crawley), Reece Brown (undisc, Barnsley), Marco Cassetti (rel), Ollie Cox (free, Hemel Hempstead), Fitz Hall (rel), Ross Jenkins (rel), Lucas Neill (rel), Nyron Nosworthy (rel), Albert Riera (rel), Gary Woods (free, Leyton Orient).

100 years on

4 August 2014

On August 1st, 1914, the German Empire had declared war on Russia. At the same time, in his famous “balcony speech,” Emperor William II portrayed himself and the German people as victims: “If our neighbors do not give us peace, then we hope and wish that our good German sword will come victorious out of this war.” Two days later, Germany declared war on France and invaded neutral Belgium. Those shots marked the beginning of the First World War

100 years ago today Britain declared war on Germany. And so began over 4 years of appalling slaughter for reasons that no one who took part ever fully understood but which they largely accepted made war just and their duty necessary.

The war would last four years, kill more than 15 million people and leave more than 20 million injured. The First World War engulfed Europe in bloody battles, and it turned the entire world upside down.

To call it World War 1 is a little misleading; this is the European war that has defined the rest of the 20th century. One can argue that, without this war, there wouldn’t have been World War II, probably no National Socialism, no Stalinism and no Bolshevik takeover in Petrograd. It would have been a completely different century. In this sense, the term “Great War” seems more appropriate.

There is nothing great about the loss of a generation.

As a young boy I used to walk with my grandmother down Folkestone’s Road of Remembrance to the old harbour. A hundred years ago British and commonwealth soldiers would march down this road, whistling and singing, as they set out in boats to France, to the trenches. Most probably not even thinking that they would never return. 10 million service men marched through Folkestone and off to war.

My grandfather Henry Walter Albin, was born in 1889. He enlisted. He went to war. Gassed. He was sent home. His lungs never recovered and eventually he died in 1958. Yet after his death my grandmother went to live near her other family members in the village of Hawkinge (itself famous for the airfield’s role in the battle of Britain) just outside Folkestone. Every time we walked to the harbour must have evoked memories.

Jeremy Paxman’s observations are helpful here: “The First World War is the great punctuation point in modern British history, as consequential as the Fall of Rome, the French Revolution, the invention of the nuclear bomb or the Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center. The carnage that accompanied four years of bitter fighting took the lives of 750,000 British men, as well as many women and children. Throughout it all, the resolve of the British people did not weaken. They endured to victory. To understand how this was possible, we need to get beyond the trite observations and recognise why so many people at the time believed the war to be not only unavoidable but even necessary.”

Some reading:

The first world war and the colour of memory

Witness to war: 1914-18 remembered in personal photographs and journals

In Europe 1914 every leading player had his hand on a smoking gun

The Great War and education

1914: An eager march into catastrophe

‘1914 was a complete break with the past’

Remembering Great War’s ‘man-eater mountain’

50 days and counting

1 August 2014

In fifty days time the Scottish people have a date with destiny when they vote yes or no to becoming an independent nation.

I will state my bias up front. If I were Scottish (I am just one eighth) I would be voting yes to independence. I would consider myself Scottish first. Britain is not a nation; it is a compromise.

The referendum is on September 18 and 4.1 million people will address a simple set of six-words, “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

The referendum is a pivotal moment in the history of Scotland and the United Kingdom, the results of which will profoundly alter the British Isles, for better or for worse.

Historically the Kingdom of Scotland had been a sovereign state for eight centuries prior to the Act of Union in 1707, which saw the establishment of a single parliament in Westminster, which of course is in London, England.

It was not till the 19th century that the Scots found themselves desiring an administrative devolution that was given to them as a Scottish Office in Whitehall; again in London, England. Yet the idea of an independent Scotland never re-entered the political mainstream till a century later.

A referendum was held in 1979 to establish a Scottish Assembly, but the measure never passed. In 1997 a vote allowed the establishment of a Scottish Parliament but it would be dependent on grants from Westminster.

A vote on independence never seemed possible. It was only in 2011 when the Scottish National Party, which promised an independence referendum as part of its manifesto, won a majority vote in the Scottish parliamentary elections, that the idea of an independent Scotland seemed possible. The Scottish First Minister and SNP leader, Alex Salmond, has since been the main proponent of Scottish independence.

Salmond has long been disenchanted with the unionist bureaucracy, maintaining that Scotland has always been an afterthought for Westminster. His simple view is that those with Scotland’s best interests at heart should be the ones managing her affairs. After all a government that the Scottish rejected, the Tories propped up by a few Lib-Dems, presently governs the United Kingdom.

Learning from those before him Salmond’s bid for independence is built on pragmatism rather than sentimentality, a chance to “change Scotland for the better.” In today’s desperate fiscal climate the appeal of independence lies purely in its economic and social benefits. But it is more than that. It is also an emotional calling. It is a historical right. It is for many a centuries old destiny.

The more pragmatic Scots will see a break from Britain as economic suicide; but it is uncharted territory. Think of it like a smaller version of Canada and the USA. Two countries with so much in common but with different cultures, ideals and economies. Yet hugely inter-dependent. The USA is Canada’s biggest trading partner. The same would be true for Scotland and England.

Last year the Scottish Government published a 670-page document outlining their case for sovereignty and the measures they would take to oversee it. North Sea oil has been central to the argument for independence, as the Scottish Government believes they would lay claim to 1.5 trillion pounds worth of oil left in the reserves.

So far the trend in polls has been roughly 60-40 in favour of a ‘No’ vote. But I suspect there are many who are undecided and also many who will say No to the pollsters but may say Yes at the ballot.

Chairing the unionist Better Together campaign, Alex Salmond’s main opponent, Alistair Darling, asserts that being a part of the United Kingdom brings security, a strong inter-dependent economy and more importantly a currency union. The three largest British political parties, the Tories, Labour and Lib-Dems, have united in the avowal that a currency union is incompatible with an independent Scotland and that the pound would not be theirs to keep. Salmond has reduced such claims to being an attempt at scaremongering, assuring his voters that they will keep the sterling.

If Scotland wants true independence then it should already be planning an alternative to sterling. Aligning with the Eurozone – adopting the Euro and adopting the Schengen treaty would be a giant step in the right direction.

In fifty days a Yes vote annuls a 307-year old political union. A No vote would see Scotland remaining a part of Britain. But for how long. The notion of an independent Scotland will be incessantly lingering north of the border. The question of “what if?” will forever entice.

So forget the what if. Vote yes for independence, for nationhood and for Scottish pride.

Dubai’s flawed real estate market

23 July 2014

Why is Dubai’s real estate market in such a mess? Due to grossly misleading and irresponsible emails like this from people who have no right to my personal contact details:

“Dear Mr Robert,

We have just been informed that Emaar is conducting a road show in London in coming week for below projects.

Projects included are:
Burj Vista
Fountain Views
Boulevard Point
Vida
Boulevard Crescent

This is the BEST OPPORTUNITY in Dubai Real Estate Market to make instant money.

All these projects are already Selling at Minimum 20% premium in the market.

If you are interested to make money in Dubai Real Estate, then please send me your passport copy & I would like to meet you tomorrow to explain the procedure.

TIME IS VERY SHORT AND THIS OPPORTUNITY WILL NOT COME AGAIN

Look forward to hearing from you,

Thank You & Best Regards”

xxx (name removed)
CLIENT RELATIONSHIP MANAGER
LA CAPITALE REAL ESTATE

Thailand Junta Retains Sweeping Power Under Interim Constitution

22 July 2014 – Bloomberg

Thailand’s junta announced an interim constitution that gives the military oversight of a hand-picked legislative assembly as well as amnesty for staging their May 22 coup.

The military will choose a 220-member legislature, which will pick a prime minister and 35-strong cabinet, according to a statement in the Royal Gazette. General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, leader of the National Council for Peace and Order, received the endorsed charter from King Bhumibol Adulyadej yesterday.

The constitution reflects the demands of a protest group led by former opposition lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban that staged a six-month street campaign to oust the administration of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Suthep urged the army to seize power and appoint a reform council to wipe out the influence of Yingluck and her brother Thaksin, whose parties have won the last five elections.

The constitution “will help solve the crisis and return the situation to normal, restore security, unity and solve economic problems,” according to the statement. The reform council will draft “political rules to prevent and suppress corruption and investigate abuses of power by the state before handing the mission to new representatives and the government.”

The constitution, which replaces the one annulled by Prayuth after the coup, is Thailand’s 18th since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932. The charter also calls for the formation of a 250-member reform committee that will need to approve a permanent constitution to be written by a 36-strong drafting committee before elections can be held.

Members of existing political parties will be ineligible to join the legislature or the reform council, according to the charter, which gives the NCPO power to appoint members to both groups.

“The NCPO will continue under this constitution,” according to the statement. “The NCPO can call a joint meeting with the cabinet to discuss any affairs and problems involving national security.”

Bhumibol, 86, granted an audience yesterday to Prayuth at the Klai Kangwon Palace in Hua Hin, 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Bangkok, and presented the army chief with the endorsed interim charter, according to a palace statement broadcast on local television. The NCPO will give more detail about its powers under the constitution at 10 a.m. local time today.

Thailand’s military has carried out a dozen coups since the end of direct rule by kings in 1932, with three governments overthrown since 2006 by the army or judicial action. The latest putsch came eight years after army ousted Thaksin, dissolved his party and banned about 200 political allies from holding office for five years. Thaksin later fled abroad to escape a 2008 jail sentence from charges brought by a military-appointed panel.

“The point of the constitution is to add palace legitimacy to the coup through the king-endorsed enshrinement of new laws,” said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai. “Almost every Thai constitution has included an amnesty for the military. In fact, amnesty for militaries has been a major rationale for most Thai constitutions. This allows and encourages coup after coup after coup.”

Prayuth has said he had no choice other than to seize power after meetings called by the army among key figures from both sides of the political divide failed to find a solution to six months of sometimes violent unrest.

Since taking power on May 22, the NCPO has silenced critics by outlawing protests and threatening the media with sanctions for content critical of the coup. Hundreds of activists, academics, opposition politicians and journalists were summoned and detained by the military in the weeks following the putsch.

Prayuth has restarted payments to rice farmers and vowed to accelerate state spending after gross domestic product fell 0.6 percent year-on-year in the first quarter as political turmoil restricted the ability of the previous government to borrow. The junta capped fuel prices and approved handouts to the tourism industry, efforts that it said would “return happiness to the Thai people.”

The baht climbed to a eight-month high yesterday and sovereign bonds rose as global funds bought Thai assets on optimism spending will revive growth. The currency strengthened to as much as 31.779 per dollar, the strongest since Nov. 22. The benchmark SET Index (SET) of stocks has gained 8.9 percent since the coup.

Prayuth said June 27 that a Cabinet and National Legislative Assembly would be in place in September and a National Reform Council would begin work a month later to discuss changes to the nation’s electoral rules. A permanent constitution will be drafted by July 2015 and an election could be held three months after its promulgation, he said.

DXB resumes full operations

22 July 2014

Dubai International Airport said that it resumed full operations on July 21, Monday after an 80-day upgrade programme.

Flights that were temporarily diverted to Al Maktoum International Airport at Dubai World Central will now return to Dubai International, airport authorities confirmed in a statement.

Airlines that have moved flights back to Dubai International include flydubai, Malaysian Airlines, Royal Brunei and PAL Express as well as selected flights from Qatar Airways and Gulf Air.

Four airlines will continue to offer flights from DWC including Wizz Air, Gulf Air, Qatar Airways and Jazeera Airways.

The number of flights to the airport surged 31 per cent following the opening of both the runways, Dubai Airports said.

Lasting more than two months, the project involved the resurfacing of the entire 4,000-metre long northern runway as well as the upgrading of runway lighting and construction of additional taxiways and rapid exits on the southern runway.

The upgrade of the runways will allow the airport to accommodate more aircraft while improving operational flexibility during the peak traffic period, the statement said.

“I am pleased that our planning and preparations over the past year not only ensured that the impact on passengers during the 80-day period was minimal but that we were able to resume full operations and accommodate increased traffic at the end of the programme without a hitch,” said Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports.

Dubai International Airport, one of the world’s busiest, had to reduce 26 per cent of flights during the upgrade with Emirates taking the brunt. The airline had to slash flights to 41 destinations, incurring a loss of Dhs1 billion in revenues.

Passenger traffic in Dubai International dropped 2.5 per cent in May when the refurbishment work began.

The refurbishment was part of the airport’s $7.8 billion 10-year master plan, which aims at expanding its capacity to accommodate more than 103 million passengers by 2020.

Emirates calls for airlines summit on ‘outrageous’ MH17 attack

21 July 2014 Reuters

The head of one of the world’s largest airlines has called for an international meeting of carriers to agree a response to the downing of a Malaysian airliner, including a potential rethink of the threats posed by regional conflicts.

Tim Clark, president of Dubai’s Emirates, the world’s largest international airline by number of passengers, also said domestic regulators worldwide may decide to be more involved in giving their carriers guidance on where it is safe to fly.

“The international airline community needs to respond as an entity, saying this is absolutely not acceptable and outrageous, and that it won’t tolerate being targeted in internecine regional conflicts that have nothing to do with airlines,” Clark told Reuters in a telephone interview.

He said the International Air Transport Association could call an international conference to see what changes need to made in the way the industry tackles regional instability.

The head of the Geneva-based group, which represents about 200 global airlines, said last week they depended on governments and air traffic agencies to advise which airspace is available.

But Clark – who described himself as “incandescent with rage” when he heard of the attack on the airliner and its almost 300 passengers – said IATA and a United Nations body, the International Civil Aviation Organization, could take action.

“If you go East to West or vice-versa between Europe and Asia, you are likely to run into areas of conflict,” Clark said.

“We have traditionally been able to manage this. Tripoli and Kabul were attacked, Karachi was attacked and we have protocols and contingencies and procedures to deal with this,” he said.

“That was up until three days ago. Now I think there will have to be new protocols and it will be up to ICAO and IATA and the aviation community to sort out what the protocols have to be.”

He dismissed suggestions that airliners should be equipped with anti-missile devices, an idea previously aired when an Airbus A300 cargo plane was struck by a shoulder-launched missile after taking off from Baghdad in 2003.

“Some people say planes should be armed with counter devices. That will go absolutely nowhere. If we can’t operate aircraft in a free and unencumbered manner without the threat of being taken down, then we shouldn’t be operating at all.”

A spokesman for IATA was not immediately available for comment but industry sources said it was consulting airlines.

Founded in Havana in 1945, IATA began as a quasi-official body and helped to shape the modern aviation industry.

It has evolved into an industry lobbying group while maintaining a role in setting standards – including the urgent search for better tracking systems after the disappearance of another Malaysia Airlines jet, MH370, in March this year.

The U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization oversees aviation as one of the many diplomatic organizations born out of World War II, but has few direct policing powers and does not have the right to open or close national airspace.

“They can’t (close airspace), but they can issue advisories and they may be a little more active,” Clark said.

Additionally, he said, national regulators “may start getting involved a little more than they have. They have perhaps left airlines to their own devices”.

He said he was not aware of any warnings from outside the industry about the escalating threat in Ukraine, which would change the way airlines think about ground-based conflicts and the risk of flying over some of the world’s flashpoints.

“Yes, the airline industry was aware there was shooting at a low level and assumed these were low-grade surface-to-air weapons,” he said.

“This was wrong as we now know. Nobody in their wildest dreams thought anybody could have done (such a) calculating act of mass murder.”

Clark, who is viewed as one of the airline industry’s most influential leaders, said the Ukraine disaster should not be allowed to eclipse or diminish efforts to find MH370, an identical Boeing 777 which disappeared with 239 people on board.

The disasters, and with them more than 500 deaths, have plunged the industry into intense introspection that is expected to lead to changes in the way passenger aircraft and the threats surrounding them are monitored and assessed.

Deprivation in Gaza Strip

20 July 2014 – Boston Globe – Sara Roy

In almost three decades of research and writing on Gaza, I have often asked myself, “Is there a language to really express the torment of Gaza and the way in which the world’s unflinching indifference and heartlessness contribute to it?

Gaza’s present anguish did not emerge in a vacuum nor in response to a single terrible event as the Israeli government would have us believe. Instead, it emanates from a context of ongoing occupation and repression that has transformed Gaza — the center of Palestinian nationalism and resistance to Israeli occupation — into one of the most impoverished, imprisoned areas of the world.

Gaza’s deterioration, however, was not accidental or inadvertent. To the contrary, the devastation of Gaza’s economy (and environment) was deliberate and planned by Israel, imposed through separation and isolation and through a destructive economic blockade, which entered its eighth year last month. The blockade — which has been supported by the United States, the European Union, and Egypt in particular — virtually bans access to markets outside Gaza and confines the overwhelming majority of people to the Strip. This has ended all normal trade upon which Gaza’s tiny economy depends and has disabled the private sector and its capacity to generate jobs, preventing any viable recovery of Gaza’s productive sectors.

Unemployment in Gaza stands at 40.8 percent, a dramatic increase from 18.7 percent in 2000; however, for those people between 15 and 29 years of age, the unemployment rate is almost 60 percent. Because of this, poverty has increased with almost 80 percent of Gazans made dependent on humanitarian aid to survive although they are able and desperate to work.

Another way to understand the impact of the Israeli blockade is this: In 2000, UNRWA (the UN agency responsible for Palestine refugees) was feeding 80,000 people in the Gaza Strip; today it feeds over 830,000 people. Yet, UNRWA’s food aid to almost half the population is now under threat as some international donors such as Canada have inexplicably defunded UNRWA or fund at levels that do not meet Gaza’s burgeoning need. Without an increase in financial support to cover a $22 million shortfall, UNRWA may have to eliminate its food distributions by the end of 2014. If this happens there should be no doubt that Palestinians in Gaza will face starvation for the first time in their history, and the violence that will ensue from their deepened agony and abandonment will be calamitous.

The profound deprivation that has long defined life in Gaza is intensifying. Israel is deliberately targeting and bombing civilian infrastructure with the aim of ensuring Gaza’s continued decay. Even before Israel’s ground invasion, water and sewage treatment facilities in 18 different locations sustained damage, and presently, 900,000 people — half of Gaza’s total population — have no access to water. Fifty percent of sewage pumping and wastewater treatment systems are no longer operational, largely affecting Northern Gaza, Gaza city and Rafah. Damaged pipelines have resulted in the mixing of sewage and water, raising the risk of water borne diseases, a serious public health hazard. Several power lines have also been disabled by bombardments, leaving 80 percent of the population with only four hours of electricity a day, and critically disrupting the delivery of basic services, especially in hospitals.

Israeli warplanes have destroyed or severely damaged between 1,660 and1,890 homes and have inflicted significant damage to at least 1,420 more, displacing around 50,000 people, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs; 48,000 of the displaced are sheltering in 43 UNRWA facilities. Israeli airstrikes have also attacked a range of institutions including: UNRWA installations, hospitals, health clinics, nursing care centers, rehabilitation centers for the disabled, schools, sports clubs, banks, mosques and office buildings.

Hamas’s targeting of Israeli civilians is also criminal and has achieved little for Palestinians. Instead of stopping Israel, Hamas rocket fire provides a continued rationalization for Israeli aggression on a nearly defenseless population.

Yet the terrible violence now engulfing Gaza, which has left more than 270 (predominantly civilian) dead and over 2,300 injured, feels somehow different say some of my Palestinian friends. There is an unfathomable quality to the violence from which Gaza’s people, especially children, can find no refuge. Raji Sourani, a prominent human rights lawyer in Gaza, recently wrote me, and his message demands to be shared: “Gaza is a totally unsafe place. Day and night the same: shock and terror . . . Airplanes do not leave Gaza’s skies and they are throwing death to children and women. I visited the intensive care unit at Shifa Hospital and you cannot imagine the scene; most of them will die soon. Even medicines do not exist — almost 40 percent shortages. The hospital is full of women and children; many lost [body] parts and limbs. The ceasefire will not last without ending the siege [and] opening the crossings . . . People here have nothing to lose except misery and humiliation . . . We want to live a normal life, with dignity. I believe this will go on for some time, I am sure we will pay heavily for it, but freedom has a price.”

Sara Roy is a senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University.

On the MH17 crash site

19 July 2014

Max Seddon is a foreign affairs reporter without portfolio @BuzzFeed. formerly of @AP moscow.

His comments from the MH17 crash site tell a desperate story. His article for Buzzfeed is here: “Chaos At Malaysia Airlines Crash Site Leaves Victims By The Roadside”

OSCE constantly remind reporters that they are monitors, not establishing guilt/cause over #MH17. Makes lack of real investigation so stark.

OSCE: “Some of the equipment seems to have been moved” from #MH17 site. No clue which rebels control the site. No idea where black boxes are.

The #MH17 passenger manifest. 298 dead. malaysiaairlines.com/content/dam/ma…

Some rebels seem as shocked as everyone else. “How could they let a plane fly over here?” said a man with a huge sniper rifle at checkpoint.

At one point several cameramen were filming behind a large piece of fuselage. Easily could have stepped on a body mangled in it. No cordon.

The most troubling thing about the #MH17 site is what isn’t there: many personal effects and parts of the plane. One can only speculate.

A gunman named after one of the Seven Dwarves from Snow White blocking OSCE convoy. #MH17 investigation in a nutshell

At this stage, any talk of a credible #MH17 investigation is ridiculous. It’ll be a small miracle if relatives get the bodies semi-intact.

Nobody doing much with the bodies. Ambulances carrying rebels to and from #MH17 site. Aid workers seemed to have been drinking overnight.

Counted 82 bodies at #MH17 site. Some in body bags by the side of the road. Others decomposing in the heat. Parts being shoveled into sacks.

No sign of black boxes. No sign of missile debris. No sign of aviation or military experts. No idea where the bodies are going. #MH17

I’ve counted at least 58 bodies lying around #MH17, plus dozens mangled together and charred. Nobody will say where they’re going.

These guys are “experts” from local police. Not seen any hint of actual aviation experts here. #MH17 pic.twitter.com/cwRvV1N9IH

Basically, the OSCE are only allowed 30m further than they were yesterday. Grumpy won’t let them onto the field where debris and bodies are.

Emergency services say they have removed 65 bodies from this part of the site. I count at least 21 others lying around, many in the open.

OSCE team arrives at #MH17 site. Rebels say they won’t let them through and block off site. OSCE makes to leave, then rebels change minds.

One of the rebels casually threatens to kneecap reporters every five minutes. Another is wearing a beekeeping suit and reeks of alcohol.

Ukraine security council: Emergencies ministry has explored 18 of 25 square km at #MH17 crash site; 186 bodies found – @Reuters

Rebels have a thing for Disney nicknames. The end of the #MH17 crash site where we are is run by Grumpy. Baloo was on a military tribunal.

Rebels denying access to #MH17 crash site until “investigative brigade” finishes work. Won’t say where the bodies are being taken.

DNR guys from “prosecutor’s office” at #MH17 site have no idea about buffer zone, or who the prosecutor is. Rebels taking bodies to morgue.

Kiev, DNR have agreed on a 20km buffer zone around the #MH17 crash site so Ukraine can recover the festering bodies. slon.ru/fast/world/kie…

The longer #MH17 crash site remains a mess, OSCE say, the tougher the investigation will get. Shelling heard nearby, perimeter not secure.

OSCE have no idea who is controlling #MH17 crash site. Appears to be several small rebel groups with no leader. Fate of black boxes unknown.
via Twitter Web Client

OSCE on #MH17 crash site: bodies lying everywhere decomposed, some burnt, others mangled together. Nobody removing them for cold storage.
via Twitter Web Client

Dutch response becomes stronger

19 July 2014

The Dutch foreign minister said that the Netherlands was “angry, furious” by reports that bodies were being dragged around the crash site.

At a meeting with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, Frans Timmermans said: “We are already shocked by the news we got today of bodies being dragged around, of the site not being treated properly … People are angry, furious.”

He told the Ukrainian leader that the Netherlands wanted to know who was responsible for shooting down the plane on Thursday. “Once we have the proof, we will not stop before the people are brought to justice. Not just the people who pulled the trigger but also those who made it possible. I think the international community needs to step up its efforts in this respect.”

About two thirds of the passengers killed were Dutch

Mr Putin and his murderous puppets

19 July 2014 The Melbourne Age (in a strong editorial)

Sometimes it is difficult to imagine why an insurgency on the other side of the world, waged by militants with intensely parochial ambitions, would have any bearing on our lives here in Australia. The brutal jousting that gains them, from one day to another, a few more kilometres of territory seems so far from our peaceable lives that to draw a connection seems futile. But the savage act that blasted a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet from the skies above eastern Ukraine has drawn us all a little closer to the hostilities in that region.

All 298 people aboard the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur died when it was shot down by what is believed to have been a Russian-made and Russian-supplied ground-to-air missile. Twenty-eight Australians were on board. Among the passengers were 108 medical researchers, healthcare workers and AIDs activists, who were en route to Melbourne for the 20th International AIDS Conference this weekend. Among them was the renowned HIV/AIDS researcher and former International AIDS Society president Joep Lange. In this random and reckless act of violence, the world has lost some wonderful and inspiring people.

In the days and weeks ahead, there will be much blame-laying. Some of that must go to Malaysia Airlines for flying a civilian aircraft over a war zone. In the past week alone, the Ukrainian government lost three aircraft, which it says were shot down either by Russian military aircraft or by ground-to-air missiles fired by Russian-supplied insurgents. The warnings could not have gone unnoticed. Malaysia Airlines is not the only airline to fly over Ukraine, but considering this has come four months after the unexplained loss of flight MH370, this disaster is cause for an independent and internationally scrutinised examination of everything that Malaysia Airlines is doing in terms of passenger safety and flight policy.

Yet, absolute blame for this latest tragedy should rest where it rightly belongs: on those who fired the missile and those who supplied it. What links those notions is Russia. It is early days, but this appears to have been a diabolical act of state-sponsored terrorism. The shooting down of a civilian aircraft may not have been intended, but reckless carnage of this order must be categorically condemned.

We do not detect such condemnation from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who suggested this incident would not have happened if Ukraine was not addled by war. Well, yes, Mr Putin. Ukraine’s eastern regions are infested with quasi-military units of insurgents, who take their cues from Russia and their weaponry from Russia. Their dangerous brand of hubris is fuelled by assurances that they remain in lock-step with Mr Putin’s policies. As we said in April, Mr Putin is the puppeteer in all this, orchestrating the action from afar.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott says Australia will push the United Nations to establish an independent investigation into the causes of the crash. And in unusually strong language, he appeared to chastise Russia for its regional aggression: ”The bullying of small countries by big ones, the trampling of justice and decency in the pursuit of national aggrandisement, and reckless indifference to human life should have no place in our world.”

Whatever an investigation may find, The Age believes the international community cannot afford to be ambiguous in its response. The insurgents who have wreaked havoc inside Ukraine appear to have caused a catastrophic loss of life. They must be brought to justice. At the same time, Russia’s territorial ambition must be curbed. Mr Putin may not have his fingerprints on the missiles, but he nevertheless remains culpable.

BBC’s Fergal Keane at the MH17 crash site

19 July 2014

Fergal Keane@fergalkeane47 9 mins

MH17 all bodies uncovered here. Unspeakable.

Fergal Keane@fergalkeane47 11 mins

MH17 A cornfield, low clouds, birdsong, thunder in distance, a woman’s body, a child’s body.

Fergal Keane@fergalkeane47 16 mins

MH17 the bodies splayed in the awful unnatural postures of violent death.

Fergal Keane@fergalkeane47 18 mins

MH17 At crash site. Body parts strewn in field. Obscenity of war at its most graphic

Fergal Keane@fergalkeane47 1 hr

MH17 So far separatist c/points less hassle than before.

Fergal Keane@fergalkeane47 1 hr

MH17 Pravyi Sektor insignia on shoulder patches. Unfriendly and v thorough search.

Fergal Keane@fergalkeane47 1 hr

MH17 last night passed thru c/point of Pravyi Sektor far right Ukranian nationalists an hr of west of Donetsk

Fergal Keane@fergalkeane47 1 hr

MH17 On way to site.Back to the sullen c/points of E Ukraine

And in the Guardian this morning:

MH17 plane crash site: sunhats, sweets … and stakes marking body parts

19 July 2014

For miles around, you can see them, strips of white cotton attached to wooden stakes in the fields of eastern Ukraine. Each stake marks a victim from flight MH17, or at least a body part. There are a lot of stakes.

But then there is a lot of debris, a vast wash of metal, charred remnants, and the surreal paraphernalia of international long-haul travel, smeared over a ruined 15-square mile area. Handbags. Footwear. Passports amid the sunflowers.

You can tell some of the passengers had been on holiday. Scattered across the crash site was the unmistakable jetsam of vacation: sunhats and suntan lotion, summer clothing, duty free shopping, the occasional poolside novel. You could also tell that children were here from the unopened packets of Haribo sweets, the fistful of playing cards, a first-year drawing scrawled in a notebook, a small black-and-white stuffed monkey abandoned in the grass.

Some of the bodies are perfectly intact, some ruined beyond recognition, some partly disrobed by the G-force of falling to earth. One woman lies partly burned, a hand raised above her head, stripped of all but her undergarments.

It was not just the human passengers that died. An unlikely menagerie of dead pets lay strewn across the scene in the grass, bright blue and yellow macaws, a cockatoo, a random giant St Bernard dog curled peacefully where he fell.

The sticky Ukrainian summer will not be kind to the bodies. Warm sunshine gave way to rain and humidity on Friday. By late afternoon, the sharp tang of kerosene had been overpowered by something altogether more macabre: the cloying smell of death.

They’re getting used to death here. This is a de facto war zone. Explosions rang out every few minutes as a reminder. And when the separatist rebels first saw the debris falling on Thursday afternoon, their initial thought was that they might be under attack from paratroopers.

“Initially I thought it was a paratrooper descending from the plane but then realized that there were people falling from the sky in the passenger seats,” said one of the rebels Vladimir, 45, holding a Kalashnikov in his hands.

Rescue workers were overwhelmed by the scene. Volunteer miners combed the long grass for bodies; some of the first emergency workers on the scene bizarrely happened to be a unit trained in scuba diving search and rescue.

“This isn’t our area of expertise,” said Boris, 41, an experienced diver who drove his unit to the scene in a Soviet-era Gaz military vehicle. “We have no idea where anything is, we have a huge task ahead of us. We’ve not experienced anything like this, nothing on this scale.”

The shooting down of Malaysian MH17

18 July 2014

Yesterday afternoon over war torn Eastern Ukraine Malaysian flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down by a ground-to-air missile.

The flight was on a regular air route at 33,000 feet. The airliner was a Boeing 777. There were 283 passengers and 15 crew onboard. The flight would have been about 2 hours into its 12 hour flight; passengers would probably still be finishing lunch; watching movies and feeling safe and excited as many headed for holidays and others for a conference in Australia.

A group of international HIV/Aids experts flying to Melbourne were among those killed. Over half of the passengers were Dutch citizens.

There are no survivors with wreckage strewn over a large 4×6 mile site.

The USA has pointedly criticised Russian arming of rebels in Ukraine as the world demanded answers. Though the White House stopped short of directly blaming Russia for the plane’s destruction but linked its remarks on the disaster to the Kremlin’s support for separatists in Ukraine, urging Vladimir Putin’s government to stop inflaming the situation in the country and take “concrete steps” towards de-escalation.

Leaders from around the world reacted with shock and anger to the shooting down of the jet. The US said it had intelligence showing a surface-to-air missile was used

Hillary Clinton interviewed on US television said that “there should be outrage in european capitals.”

Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, said that if MH17 had been shot down it amounted to an “unspeakable crime” and a full international investigation must be allowed to take place.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said Ukraine bore responsibility for the crash, but he did not accuse Ukraine of shooting the plane down. “This tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in south-east Ukraine,” he said, according to a Kremlin statement issued early on Friday. “And, certainly, the state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy.”

Which is of course nonsense as this whole crisis started with the annexation by Russia of the Crimean region of the Ukraine and further aggression in the Eastern Ukraine.

Air safety experts have criticised Malaysia Airlines for flying over Ukraine airspace but the company maintains that the flight path was deemed safe to travel by civil aviation authorities. The plane was traveling 1,000ft above the no-fly zone. Other airlines have said they either began avoiding the airspace above the troubled region several months ago, or have now joined Malaysia Airlines in diverting all aircraft away from it.

Singapore Air, Eva Air and Air India all had airplanes over Eastern Ukraine at the time of the crash.

Many airlines avoided Ukraine immediately after the crash, as the flight data map shows below, and Ukraine on Friday closed airspace over the east of the country.

If there is proof of Russian involvement then the world is moving into dangerous territory. Extended sanctions would be needed. Russia would have to be removed from future international gatherings such as the G20. But public anger would and should demand more. Removal of international events, such as the 2018 World Cup, from Russia should be demanded. World leaders need to lead and to be strong.

Anyone that have instructions to shoot the plane down and who fired the missile will need to be brought to justice.

There are some graphic details of the crash site in this article: Fallen Bodies, Jet Parts and a Child’s Pink Book

United Arab Emirates detains two Qatari citizens on spying charges

10 July 2014 The Financial Times

The United Arab Emirates has detained two Qatari citizens amid accusations of spying, in a move that threatens to sour already tense relations between the two western allies.

Al-Khaleej newspaper, based in the emirate of Sharjah, reported that two Qataris had been arrested on charges of spying in the UAE, after another report in Qatar’s Al Arab newspaper that three Qataris had been detained in Abu Dhabi.

A UAE official declined to comment on the reports, but described them as credible. The two reports are believed to concern the same individuals, with one of the three Qataris being later released, according to activists.

The detentions underscore the increasingly fractious relationship between Abu Dhabi and Doha, in part explained by their sharply contrasting attitudes to the rise of Islamist movements in the region.

While Qatar has given financial and political support to the Muslim Brotherhood, the UAE is deeply hostile to the pan-Arab movement.

In the wake of the Arab spring, security-conscious UAE cracked down on domestic dissent, arresting scores of people for membership of a society allegedly linked to the Brotherhood – which culminated in the sentencing of 69 Emiratis to jail terms of up to 15 years.

A Qatari citizen was also detained last year at Dubai airport and later sentenced by an Emirati court to seven years in prison on charges of supporting Al-Islah, a group the UAE says is a branch of the Brotherhood.

Qatar insists its support for the Brotherhood is a rational backing of a popular movement. Analysts say Doha’s leaders, while paradoxically threatened by the movement’s doctrine, have decided to seek influence within the Brotherhood, which as the vanguard of political Islam is likely to be a powerful force in regional politics for decades.

The UAE, which has emerged as the leading Arab voice against Islamist extremism, by contrast sees the Brotherhood as not only a radicalising force within Islam, but an existential threat to the monarchical systems of the conservative Gulf states.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have sought to pressure Qatar to drop support for the Brotherhood, removing their ambassadors from Doha in March. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have also backed Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who ousted the Brotherhood’s Mohamed al-Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president.

In April the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council member states agreed to end their rifts by pledging to stop interference in each others’ affairs. Emirati officials interpreted the so-called “Riyadh declaration” as a promise by Qatar to constrain the Brotherhood’s activities in Doha and muzzle the Al-Jazeera TV channel, which is accused by many of harbouring Brotherhood sympathies.

The UAE official quoted in the Al-Khaleej report said Qatar’s foreign policy was threatening Doha with further “isolation.”

Doha has insisted it does not dictate Al-Jazeera’s coverage. While the Qatari foreign ministry insisted it would protect its citizens, it said it would not comment on the detentions until they were resolved.

Spy cases between Gulf states are rare. In 2011, Oman said it had broken up a ring of officials spying on behalf of the UAE security services. The incident sparked a bilateral diplomatic furore, which was resolved via Kuwaiti mediation.

A mall too far?

6 July 2014

In the latest bigger and best news from Dubai the city has announced its intent to build the world’s largest mall; and to build it under a retractable giant glass dome.

It is part of a strategy to boost Dubai’s burgeoning tourism economy by providing more options for visitors amid searing summer temperatures. Not a bad strategy – but another mall?

Dubai Holding, the conglomerate that owns Jumeirah Group, intends to develop a 8 million square foot Mall of the World along Sheikh Zayed Road on a site across the highway from the Mall of the Emirates, already one of the biggest shopping destinations in the region.

It would connect to 100 hotels in what is described as the world’s first “temperature-controlled city” – covered by a dome that would open during the winter months. Plans also include a 3 million sq ft wellness district to cater to medical tourists, 7 kilometres of shop-lined streets and a cultural district inspired by the Ramblas in Barcelona and London’s Oxford Street.

The entire project, sprawled across 48 million sq ft, also claims what would be the world’s biggest indoor theme park.

“We announced recently that we plan to transform Dubai into a cultural, tourist and economic hub for the 2 billion people living in the region around us; and we are determined to achieve our vision,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

Tourism is a key driver of the Dubai economy, and the emirate’s leaders want Dubai to be a year round destination.

But the project has no financing details and no start and finish dates.

Dubai’s economic rebound has revived interest in the sort of larger-than-life megaprojects that featured widely before the dramatic collapse of property prices in late 2008.

The Mall of the World is the latest in a slew of retail and leisure-based developments to be announced over the last year that aim to capitalise on improving investor sentiment towards the emirate, helped by the rapid appreciation of property prices.

But some analysts have warned that the property revival could unravel unless more measures are put in place.

“We expect policymakers to monitor closely the developments in the real estate sector to guard against unsustainably rapid price rises and risks of a sharp correction,” said Bank of America Merrill Lynch in a report released on Thursday. “The central bank suggestion that foreign, cash-based, non-GCC investors are a driving force behind renewed strength of the residential market suggests a speculative element and vulnerability to the global liquidity cycle.”

95 years on from Alcock and Brown

4 July 2014

95 years ago Captain John Alcock (pilot) and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown (navigator), in a modified Vimy IV, made the first non-stop aerial crossing of the Atlantic.

Alcock and Brown’s aircraft was built mainly of wood with a fabric covering, by the Vickers factory in Weybridge, Surrey, England. The price of the aircraft was £3,000. The twin-engined Vickers Vimy plane, named after a famous WWI battle, had two 360 horse power Rolls-Royce Eagles VIII engines. Additional tanks increased its fuel capacity to 865 gallons and gave the aircraft a range of 2,440 miles. The nose cockpit was faired over, and the pilot and navigator sat side-by-side in the main cockpit.

They took off from Lester’s Field, near St. Johns, Newfoundland on June 14,1919, and landed June 15,1919, just outside Clifden in Ireland. The time for the crossing was sixteen hours, twenty-seven minutes.

That simple sentence belies an amazing story of courage and airmanship that ended rather ignominiously in an Irish bog and is commemorated by a simple egg like stone near the landing site.

The news of the adventure spead like wildfire and the two men were received as heroes in London. For their accomplishment, they were presented with Lord Northcliffe’s Daily Mail prize of £10,000 by Winston Churchill, who was then Britain’s Secretary of State. A few days later, both men were knighted at Buckingham Palace by King George V, for recognition of their pioneering achievement.

The first transatlantic cargo was a bundle of 197 letters that Dr. Robinson, Postmaster in Newfoundland, had entrusted to the fliers.

After three weeks of exhaustive preparation, Alcock and Brown departed on 14 June 1919 from Lester’s Field in St John’s, Newfoundland. The sky was overcast. It was 1:40 p.m. as the Vimy, with the throttle wide open, and both engines at full power, taxied over the bumpy ground at Lester’s Field. Alcock headed his aircraft into the west wind. “Depressingly slowly the Vimy taxied toward a dark pine forest at the end of the airfield,” Brown reported. “The echo of the roaring motors must have struck quite hard against the hills around St. John’s. Almost at the last second Alcock gained height. We were only inches above the top of the trees.” Alcock’s recollections were rather more brief: “At 1:45 p.m. we were airborne,” he said.

1,890 nautical miles of open sea and sixteen hours of flying time lay ahead of the Englishmen.

Alcock turned the aircraft eastwards, in the direction of Ireland. The biplane gained height, and the coast of Newfoundland was left behind. The altimeter soon read 1,300 ft.

For four hours, the Vimy flew peacefully in the open sky, and the difficult takeoff was forgotten. Alcock and Brown’s ambition was to fly the Atlantic non-stop. Although they would not be the first to make the crossing, they aimed at being the first to do so, without intermediate stops.

They battled on through fog banks; noise from a split exhaust pipe and an engine shooting naked flames into the slip-stream; without heating in their leather flying suits; an open cockpit exposed to rain, hail and biting cold; flying from fog into clouds that threw the plane like a leaf.

In the clouds the altimeter reading fell from 4,000ft to a mere 65ft. above the waves as Alcock managed miraculously to regain control of the Vimy. Alcock had opened the throttle to the full. He swung the plane through 180 degrees onto its old course, pulled back the joy stick and climbed slowly to a height of 7,200 ft.

The long-distance flight routine continued. Checks were made regularly on the revolution rate of both engines, on the cooling system temperature, on the oil pressure, and on the fuel consumption as they switched from an empty tank to the next full one. This gave Brown a task for which he was thankful: it made him warm. Before the tanks which directly fed the engines were empty, they had to be refilled by vigorous pumping from the main tank in the fuselage.

Midnight came and went. It was now June 15, but there was no relief for the fliers. At 12:05 a.m. Brown wrote to Alcock: “Must see stars now.” Their altitude was 6,500 ft. and they were surrounded by clouds and darkness. The only illumination was the green glow of the control panel lighting and the bursts of flame from the starboard engine. Alcock pulled the joy stick back lightly and opened the throttle. The clouds went on without end.

At 12:15 a.m., Alcock dug his fingers into Brown’s shoulder, and pointed above his head. There was the moon, Vega, and the Pole Star, Polaris! At 12:25 a.m., their position was 50 deg 7′ latitude north, 31 deg longitude west. They were already nearly half way across, but were still flying a little too far to the south. Brown made further calculations. They had already flown 850 nautical miles, which meant that about 1,000 more still lay ahead. Their average speed had been 106 knots.

At one stage Alcock reported that “In any case the altimeter wasn’t working at that low height and I think that we were not more than 16 to 20 ft. above the water.” Snow covered the wings, fuselage, the struts, even the engines. Ice formed on the engine parts, and Alcock needed all his strength to move the rudder. Something drastic had to be done.

Brown grabbed a knife and swung his legs out onto the nose. The limping lieutenant gradually removed the ice from the inlet connections and cautiously cleaned the inspection window of the fuel intake. The slip-stream tugged at him, and frost nibbled at the flesh on his hands. Brown cleared the air filters of snow–then he had to go back again, back and over the nose to the other wing and the other engine.

Meanwhile, Alcock had more than enough to do to keep the plane as steady as he could–flying at 8,000 ft. over the Atlantic in a snowstorm! One false move and Brown would have been plunged to his death, and his own number would undoubtedly have been up soon afterwards.

With astonishing bravery, Brown repeated his acrobatics, not once, but four times. Not a single step or a single movement of the hand was free from risk.

At 6:20 a.m. as day broke, the lateral controls were not operating. They too had iced up. An hour later the Vimy was flying approximately 3,800 ft. higher (at 11,800 ft.) when the sun appeared. For the last time the navigator stripped the gloves from his aching fingers and took up the sextant. His calculations showed that they were still on course. But it was obvious that the plane had to be lowered into warmer air if the elevator and other controls were to be prevented from freezing. Alcock moved the joy stick forward; the plane descended and was engulfed in cloud. Again the fliers had no visibility.

Both men were soon sitting in a puddle; in the cockpit, too, the snow was melting. At 1,000 ft. above the ominously rough ocean, Alcock reopened the throttles, and the engines responded; both ran smoothly. Twenty minutes later, the men were triumphant: they had sighted land. Brown searched on his map. It was not Galway, for which they had been heading, yet Brown knew that the land must be Ireland. Then he saw the top of Connemara, identified the town of Clifden, and scribbled his observations into the log book which he held up for Alcock to read.

Harry Sullivan twitched his ears. The seven-year-old leapt from his bed and ran out onto the streets. ‘I was just in time to see this greyish-coloured machine swooping over the main street’, he recalls. ‘Its huge wings nearly touched the top of the church. I watched as it roared away towards the bog, its wings swaying up and down’.

Alcock had hoped to fly all the way to Brooklands but with the mist-shrouded mountains of Connemara rising before him, he wisely decided to land.

After flying toward the small town at a low height, Alcock circled over the streets and looked for an outlying meadow on which to land. He made a slow curve, found nothing suitable, then headed towards the Marconi radio-station just south of Clifden. Beyond the transmitter’s tower he noticed an invitingly green meadow. The men in the transmitter building waved and gesticulated in vain. Below the deceptive green covering lay the extremely dangerous swamp, Derrygimla Moor. Alcock thought that the people in the tower were waving a welcome, and he brought the Vimy down–into the swamp. The plane ploughed a short, deep four-track furrow and buried its nose far into the mud. After 1,890 miles and 15 hours 57 minutes of flying time the heroes had landed in a bog. They had to remain seated, held fast by their safety belts.

The men who had watched the Vimy land rushed toward the plane, jumping from one grass tuft to another through the swamp. A man by the name of Taylor was the first to reach the fliers and he asked breathlessly:

“Anybody hurt?”

“No.”

“Where are you from?”

“America.”

After the trans-Atlantic flight, Teddy Brown (by now Sir Arthur Whitten-Brown) got married and headed for the U.S. on his honeymoon in October 1919. Brown died in 1948.

Alcock died in a plane crash in late 1919 delivering a new Vickers plane to Paris.

Their flight is legendary. One of the most significant and dramatic flights in aviation history. Nobody repeated the feat for eight years. America and Britain were now less than a day apart.

The 100th anniversary in five years deserves to be a special celebration.

The Atlantic Challenge

First Non-stop Trans Atlantic Crossing

Seventeen years on…..

1 July 2014

On this day seventeen years ago Britain returned Hong Kong to China.

It was raining, heavily. The parties of the previous night gave way to more sombre parades and speeches.

But the tanks did not roll in and people got on with their lives.

Chris Patten gave way to the awful, Beijing-puppet, Tung Chee-Wah. And one country-two systems began its fifty year social experiment.

Seventeen years on it is working and it is not working.

Today is the annual 1 July demonstration pro-democracy demonstration. And this year 500,000 people were likely to take part – a protest possibly even larger than the 2003 demonstration, when a record-breaking turnout caused Beijing to repeal a controversial proposal for “anti-subversion” legislation. Police have said that they will dispatch 4,000 officers to oversee the march

The demonstration’s catchy (!!) slogan is “Defending Hong Kong Authority: No fear of Beijing’s threat of comprehensive control,” according to its main organiser, the Civil Human Rights Front. Marchers will depart from Victoria park in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay area at about 3pm and end several hours later at Chater Road.

The marchers’ demands centre on achieving “true universal suffrage” for the region by 2017. On Sunday night, the pro-democracy movement Occupy Central with Love and Peace wrapped up an unofficial referendum in which nearly 800,000 people voted – more than 10% of Hong Kong’s population. The vast majority requested that Hong Kong’s 7.2 million residents be allowed to choose their own leader. China’s state-run media has shown no indication that Beijing will consider such demands.

Meanwhile Hong Kong officials held a morning flag-raising ceremony to celebrate the 17th anniversary of the region’s return to mainland control on 1 July 1997 after 156 years of British colonial rule. At a reception afterwards, the region’s pro-Beijing chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, warned protesters against doing anything to damage the territory’s “prosperity and stability”. The same message that the accounting firms have embarrassingly issued.

Many Hong Kong residents fear that Beijing – which governs the region under the principle of “one country, two systems” – has been encroaching on their civil liberties, free press and independent judiciary.

On 10 June, the Communist party’s state council issued an unprecedented white paper saying that Hong Kong only has “the power to run local affairs as authorised by the central leadership”, a move that infuriated residents.

From national treasure to convicted sex offender

30 June 2014

Rolf Harris, Jimmy Saville, Stuart Hall. All guilty. It is simply inconceivable that managers and colleagues at the BBC did not know what was happening. It is a depressing endightment of their status and of the prevalent culture of the time that no one took any action while these entertainers used their status to sexually abuse people..

So now decades later it is let to the courts to try to exact some justice for girls who were abused decades ago by these predators.

Rolf Harris was today found guilty of indecently assaulting four victims. Harris thought his celebrity status placed him above the law, police said today. “Rolf Harris has habitually denied any wrong doing forcing his victims to recount their ordeal in public,” Detective Chief Inspector Michael Orchard said outside court.

The jury at Southwark crown court convicted Harris of 12 counts of indecent assault, from 12 initial charges dating over nearly two decades from 1968.

•One of the alleged victims was a childhood friend of his daughter, Bindi. Another was aged seven or eight.

•The court heard evidence from 10 different women about alleged assaults by Harris, none of whom knew each other aside from a mother and daughter who claimed they were groped together. Many of the women described similar experiences.

Once seen by a UK audience as a national treasure, Harris became one of the biggest names in the high profile sex crime investigation Operation Yewtree. Dozens more alleged victims have come forward during the trial, including several in Australia, and Scotland Yard has been in touch with their counterparts in the Australian police, but it is not yet clear whether they are pursuing any investigation in Harris’s home country.

The NSPCC said it has received 28 calls relating to Harris to date, involving 13 people who claim they fell prey to the performer.

Equally depressing Harris used his fame and money to try to stop the story of his crimes becoming public; he was first questioned by police in November 2012 but not named by the media until April 2013. His lawyers tried to stop his name coming out aggressively citing Leveson and threatening the media.

Harris was known as the ‘Octopus’ within sections of the entertainment industry; but no one did or said anything to stop him.

Two Older Planes That Airlines Won’t Let Fade Away

28 June 2014 Bloomberg Business Week

Sometimes aerospace engineers just nail it: Size, range, and operating cost all come together in an airplane that fits a market need like a leather glove. Boeing’s 757 medium-range airplane has that type of cozy feel for the U.S. carriers that fly it to Europe. And Airbus has a similarly well-suited product with its widebody A330, which has won a devoted market among international airlines.

Airbus and Boeing have focused their recent efforts on advanced composite airplanes that are lighter and burn less fuel. But both manufacturers have found a vocal group of airline customers keen to see updated versions of those two classics instead. Exotic technology might be wonderful for future cost savings, but it’s also expensive. Sometimes it’s wiser for an airline to squeeze marginal financial improvements from a plane that is known, liked, and cost-effective.

Boeing and Airbus, of course, need to weigh the sales potential of their newer products against the design costs—and likely lower profit margins—of older models in need of a tweak. Airbus has decided to proceed with a new-engine version of the A330, Reuters reported on Friday, in a nod to the model’s popularity on trans-Atlantic routes; an announcement of the A330neo could come as soon as the Farnborough Air Show next month. But there is also the risk that updating an old plane could damage sales of its new A350 family. “There is no decision yet,” Airbus spokesman Martin Fendt said in an e-mail.

At Boeing, meanwhile, an update to the venerable 757 could fill the product gap between its largest 737 and the smallest 787 Dreamliner, says Scott Hamilton, an aerospace analyst with Leeham. That gap is large and one reason Boeing has heard calls from customers to launch a 757 replacement. The latest came on Thursday when the president of Kazakhstan-based Air Astana told Bloomberg News that Boeing would “soon” announce a new aircraft with the 757′s profile to fill its product gap.

Boeing stopped building the 757 a decade ago, but it’s hardly a distant memory: Delta, American, and United all still fly large numbers of 757s, which have become a mainstay on many European routes from the East Coast. (Carriers also love the plane’s cockpit similarities to the larger 767—pilots trained on either airplane can fly both.) Airlines are replacing the plane on domestic routes with new, far more fuel-efficient versions of the Airbus A321 and Boeing’s 737 MAX. But neither of those planes has the range to replace the 757 across the Atlantic. “There is still life left in the younger 757s so there isn’t a burning need” for Boeing to rush a decision, Hamilton wrote on Friday in an e-mail.

Big Four Sell Out Hong Kong

28 June 2014 Bloomberg

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement better hope it never needs an accountant in Hong Kong because, as of this morning, the Big Four audit firms have gone on the record in opposition to it. Their fear and ire, expressed in a joint statement published in three of the city’s most prominent newspapers, was prompted by the possibility that Occupy Central, a pro-democracy group, will hold a protest in Central Hong Kong next month, thereby paralyzing at least part of the downtown (assuming anybody shows up). Notably, the event has yet to be scheduled and — according to the organizers — it may not happen.

So why, then, would Deloitte, PwC, Ernst & Young and KPMG bother to issue their letter now? For the past several months, Hong Kong’s political scene has been riled by a Chinese government proposal that would introduce universal suffrage into the semi-autonomous city in 2017 — but only so long as the Chinese government gets to choose the candidate for election. In response, Occupy Central organized an unofficial referendum in which Hong Kong citizens can vote on three alternative proposals for selecting candidates for election — all three of which involve public participation. Since the poll opened on July 20, more than 750,000 citizens have voted — an astonishing turnout.

After the poll closes on July 29, Occupy will forward the winning suggestion to Hong Kong’s government and await a final election decision. If that proposal doesn’t meet what Occupy is calling an “international standard,” the protest will happen.

The audit firms, however, aren’t willing to wait for the Hong Kong government to reject the referendum. Instead, they issued their statement in the midst of the voting, leaving little doubt that they hope to influence it — if only by helping to suppress the incredible turnout, which increases the poll’s legitimacy by the hour — in a manner that better comports with the strong preferences of China’s ruling Communist Party. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the auditors raise the specter of social chaos and economic ruin that China’s state-run newspapers so like to invoke and highlight when democracy movements in places like Egypt fail. In this sense, Hong Kong’s accountants sound no better than propagandists:

“If Occupy Central happens, commercial institutions such as banks, exchanges and the stock market will inevitably be affected. We are worried that multinational corporations and investors will consider relocating their headquarters from Hong Kong or even withdrawing their businesses.”

This is fear-mongering and hysteria, at best, and it completely glosses over just how necessary Hong Kong is to the global financial order, and to China’s business community. Needless to say, the Big Four know these on-the-ground facts well. None of them will uproot from one of the world’s global financial hubs as a result of a pro-democracy movement, and neither will the clients who pay them. They’re all in Hong Kong for the long-term, benefiting from its ever-greater economic integration with China.

Along the way, however, the Big Four are not above singing for favors from the authorities who control access to so much of China’s economy. In this, they’re not alone. Last month the Canadian Chamber of Commerce joined its Indian and Italian counterparts in condemning the unscheduled Occupy protests; the U.S. Chamber, to its credit, has remained silent.

A free Hong Kong gives institutions the right to protest against protests -– though one that they’re under no obligation to exercise. After all, U.S. and European corporations that operate in China and Hong Kong aren’t known for being politically outspoken on Hong Kong or any other issue — it’s not in their interests. That they would choose this delicate moment — when Hong Kong’s democratic future is very much on the line — to break that silence is shocking and shameful. Hopefully, it’s an act of cowardice that won’t soon be forgotten in Asia — or in the democratic countries that these accounting firms still like to call home.

The new working class

26 June 2014 The Economist

It is one of the crueller ironies of politics that that few things as predictably increase the pressure on politicians to behave inauthentically as the perception that they are inauthentic. The response to Labour’s broadly disappointing results in the European and local elections of May 22nd bears out that old verity to a fault. Observing that the party did well in London and lost support to UKIP elsewhere, MPs and commentators of various hues have warned that it should, in effect, try to sound at least a little more like UKIP. They are completely wrong.

Emblematic of the genre is John Mann’s recent piece for Prospect. The MP for Bassetlaw warns that: “We cannot form a government without white working class Britain behind us”. Then he goes on to advocate a crackdown on (often exaggerated) abuses by foreigners in Britain designed to appeal to such UKIP-inclined voters. Luke Akehurst, a Labour councillor and normally astute commentator, echoes such sentiments in a recent post for LabourList. In it, he warns against “giving up on the white working class”. “Labour’s strength and resilience,” he argues, “has been because of the distinctive nature of the party as a party rooted in a class, the working class, and organisationally linked to it via the trade union link.”

Even if such analyses were right about the problem, their solution stinks. They avow that the generally older, male voters most drawn to UKIP are concerned about bread-and-butter issues rather than immigration per se. As Mr Mann puts it: “These voters are rarely racist. Their concern is about security of employment, access to housing, quality of education.” In that case, Labour should talk about these well-founded concerns and, whatever else it does, avoid corroborating the notion that the problems are fundamentally rooted in immigration rates (they are not). It should heed the work of George Lakoff, an American academic who warns politicians against adopting their opponents’ conceptual “frames”. By doing so, he argues, they only strengthen these, and thus their opponents. Yet Labourites like Yvette Cooper make precisely that mistake when they call on colleagues to “listen” to voters’ “concerns” about immigration when they (presumably) mean: “promote measures to boost the supply of housing and good jobs”.

And if they insist on banging on about immigration, do they really think defectors to UKIP will take it seriously? Voters are sharper than such prescriptions allow. They look at Labour and see a party leagues ahead of its rivals in embodying the multi-coloured patchwork of British society in 2014. It is completely incredible to suggest that such a party will seriously address the “unsettling” effects of immigration (which, insofar as UKIP support entails susceptibility to such views, would amount not only to slamming the door but to encouraging immigrants already here to leave). And voters know that. In fact, inauthentically pandering to their views—however gingerly—will if anything accentuate support for UKIP, which thrives on the trope of venal politicians willing to say anything to get elected.

But these errors are as nothing compared with the basic misunderstanding of the market for social democratic politics in 21st-century Britain—one which wrongly conflates working-class identity with disaffected, anti-immigrant sentiment. The BBC’s 2013 study of the modern class system shows how outdated this conception is. The study defines the traditional working-class as: “the surviving rump of the working class”. But, it adds, “they now only comprise 14 per cent of the population, and are relatively old, with an average age of 65. To this extent, the traditional working class is fading from contemporary importance.” In fact, it continues, the old class definitions (upper, middle and lower) together account for only 39% of the population. The remaining 61% is accounted for by new categories—neither as blue-collar as the traditional working class nor as established as the traditional middle class—like ‘emergent service workers’, the ‘technical middle class’ and ‘new affluent workers’.

“The ‘new affluent workers’ and the ’emergent service workers’ are an interesting focus. They seem, in many respects, to be the children of the ‘traditional working class’, and they might thus be said to exemplify the stark break in working-class culture which has been evident as a result of de-industrialisation, mass unemployment, immigration and the restructuring of urban space. They show high levels of engagement with ’emerging cultural capital’ and have extensive social networks, so indicating that they are far from being disengaged in any conventional sense. To this extent, new social formations appear to be emerging out of the tendrils of the traditional working class.”

So the question of how a “working class” party should position itself on matters like Europe and immigration has more to do with age than traditional class boundaries. This is borne out by the latest YouGov poll of voter-defined “important issues”, which shows the difference in outlook between working- and middle-class voters to be consistently smaller than that between old (60+) and young (18-24) ones. On immigration, for example, the class gap is 12 points; the age one is 44 points. On housing, one point divides working and middle class; six points divides old and young. Support for UKIP follows a similar pattern.

Partly, age is itself explains the difference. Generation Y, the “Easyjet generation”, is more pro-business, internationalist and culturally unsentimental than its predecessors. “As the Pre War cohort shrinks as a proportion of the population, therefore, we can expect the balance of opinion in the population as a whole to move in a more liberal direction.” So concludes Generation Strains, a magisterial study into generational differences by Demos and Ipsos MORI.

But broader demographic shifts are at play too. Groups and areas traditionally regarded as middle-class are taking on political characteristics traditionally associated with urban working-class (and thus Labour-voting) groups. Thanks to globalisation and the rise of the service economy, they are more likely to be economically insecure (explored in depth in this indispensable Policy Network essay). Thanks to housing pressures in city centres, they are more likely to include younger voters. Thanks to the cross-generational evolution of immigrant groups, they are more ethnically diverse. As Richard Webber and Trevor Philips note: “There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that any emerging volatility amongst the UK’s five million ethnic electors may turn out to be at least as significant as the three million who tell pollsters they might support UKIP in the forthcoming election.”

In short, the country (and particularly electorally decisive bits of it like the suburbs of big cities, the Midlands and new towns) is coming to look more like inner London. Indeed, for all the talk of Labour’s “metropolitan strongholds” in the capital, they party’s most-celebrated victories in the local and European elections were not among the Guardian-reading artichoke-chompers of Islington or Southwark but in suburban Croydon, Merton and Redbridge. The party’s success in such places was the culmination of years of steadily shifting demographics there.

As a political party, failing to anticipate and respond to long-term demographic trends is a recipe for decline (just ask Republicans in the United States). For the Labour Party, then, this means recognising that its future as a party of the “working-class” (accepting that the term is fluid) depends on its ability to win over young voters, urban and suburban voters, university graduates, ethnic minority voters and service workers—precisely those voters generally not drawn to UKIP. This is the new working class: more internationalist, better educated and much more ethnically diverse than the older generation, but in many cases more economically insecure.

And just as—as Mr Akehurst notes—the union movement bound the traditional working class to the party, so single-issue campaigns, online fora like Mumsnet, NGOs and alt-labour organisations provide political channels to the new working class. It is no coincidence that the most resonant moment of Labour’s otherwise calamitous 2010 election campaign was Gordon Brown’s address not to a trade union audience but to Citizens UK, an alt-labour network. The speech topped the YouTube charts and was credited with helping Labour keep seats it would otherwise have lost.

All political parties should, of course, seek to build election victories on broad-based coalitions of voters. But eventually they are confronted by zero-sum calculations. The cultural differences between the traditional working class and the new working class are no exception. Labour can only go so far towards one group of voters without losing some in the other.

The paper Labour’s Next Majority by Marcus Roberts of the Fabian Society provides a fine overview of the choices available to the party ahead of next year’s general election. In it, Mr Roberts argues that the party’s “core vote” is about 27.5% of the electorate. To this, he elaborates, it can add 6.5 points by winning over former Liberal Democrat voters, a further five points from new and former non-voters and one final point by winning over former Tory voters.

The result is a very credible “40% strategy”. But it rests on the assumption—thrown into doubt since the paper’s publication by the results of the European and local elections—that although UKIP is competing with Labour for former non-voters, it is “not drawing significant support in terms of Labour 2010 voters”. Based on current YouGov polls, however, UKIP appears both to be eating about two to three points of this pool and to be doing especially well among non-voters. This risks knocking the election-winning 40% down to the hung-parliament territory of 35% (less if rates of Lib Dem-Labour conversion are lower than expected). This begs the question: could Labour add enough support from the new working class to get into clear majority territory? And how big would the pool available to the party be?

There are two obvious places to look for such voters. The first is the stream of Britons turning 18. These voters are—by definition—typical of the long-term attitudinal trends affecting the British electorate, and well disposed towards Labour. The 18-24 age group was the only one to support the party over the Conservatives in 2010. But turnout was low, at 44%, so this counted for less. If Labour could increase this rate to the national average of 65% (through its campaigning activities, or through methods like this intriguing one from Lord Andrew Adonis) it might add two to three points to its support—and perhaps two more if it could do the same to the other below-average-turnout group, the 25-34-year olds.

Tory voters from 2010 constitute the second pool. They, it is worth noting, are worth double to Labour (in Tory-Labour marginals, at least) what voters of other parties are. Some in Labour rightly observe that this group is relatively small (after all, David Cameron did not even win a majority). But look at the proportion made up of sub-groups broadly or potentially well disposed to Labour, and it seems more promising. One in five Conservative voters in 2010 rent their homes, for example, and only 37% own them outright. About one in ten are ethnic minorities. About one in five are under 35. Pre-election polling suggested that many work for SMEs. Add to that research by the pressure group Class showing that comfortable majorities of Tory voters in 2010 support left-of-centre policies, and YouGov polling showing that 41% of them are (to one degree or another) open to voting Labour in the future. Is a Labour pitch aimed at splitting off such sub-groups from the Tory base, to the tune of 5-6 points of the electorate, so unrealistic?

Of course, this is seriously back-of-the-envelope stuff, but it is nevertheless fair to suggest that these two groups of voters—additional new voters and 2010 Tories—could increase support for Labour by up to 10 points. On top of its shrinking base and its pool of Lib Dem converts, this gives the party a potential 45% electorate if it pursues new working class voters (even if, in the process, it loses some current and potential support to UKIP).

Mr Akehurst’s firmest objection to such an approach is that it betrays Labour’s traditions as a party of “the working people”. This erects an unhelpful wall between communitarian values on the one hand and cosmopolitan ones on the other, plonking the Labour Party, its “natural” voters, history and tradition squarely on the side of the former. It overlooks a rich liberal seam in Labourism that unites Keir Hardie, the Attlee government, The Future of Socialism, the Jenkins reforms, the Kinnock-Smith-Blair project and some of the best aspects of the contemporary Labour Party.

At every stage (apart, perhaps, from the early 1980s) the party has—like the Conservatives—sought to present itself as a One Nation outfit uniting disparate parts of the country. Like the Tories, however, it has spent the decades in a near-permanent debate about precisely which voters should constitute its natural base—those on whom it should rely for a mandate to govern effectively and with stability. In truth, and to a greater extent than Mr Akehurst allows, the answer is in the party’s hands. In the sage words of Mr Roberts, “the voters we pursue dictate the policies we get.” That dictum presents today’s party with an increasingly stark choice. If it wants to win power to fight a rearguard action against the forces of globalisation, then it should chase UKIP voters and the UKIP-inclined with all its might. But if it wants to a mandate to make the most of globalisation’s opportunities, it might want to start elsewhere.

The electoral coalition outlined above is but one of many possible permutations. Readers may well have well-founded doubts or objections about it. But it is, at the very least, broadly consistent with the current experience of the wider North Atlantic centre-left. Where Labour’s sister parties are doing fairly well (the United States, Italy and Sweden come to mind), they are responding to the international rise of the new working class. Where they are not (France, Germany and Spain being obvious examples), they are seeing their old electoral coalition fragment; with right- and left-wing populists, Greens, moderate Christian Democrats and single-issue parties hoovering up the bits. Your correspondent ventures that Britain, though politically distinctive, is not so different from these countries as to render such examples entirely inapplicable.

EU Council bans official visits to Thailand

24 June 2014

The EU Council* has adopted the following conclusions today:

“1. The European Union and Thailand are bound together by strong and longstanding ties, ranging from trade, tourism, investments and culture, to people to people contacts.

  1. It was therefore with extreme concern that the Council has followed recent developments in Thailand. It called on the military leadership to restore, as a matter of urgency, the legitimate democratic process and the Constitution, through credible and inclusive elections. The Council also called on all parties to exercise the utmost restraint. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms must be upheld. Furthermore the Council urged military authorities to free all political detainees, to refrain from any further arrests for political reasons and to remove censorship.
  2. The military leadership’s recent announcement falls short of the credible roadmap for a return to constitutional rule which the situation requires. Fully functioning democratic institutions must be brought back to ensure the protection and welfare of all citizens.
  3. Against this background, the EU is forced to reconsider its engagement. Official visits to and from Thailand have been suspended; the EU and its Member States will not sign the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Thailand, until a democratically elected government is in place. Other agreements will, as appropriate, be affected. EU Member States have already begun to review their military cooperation with Thailand.
  4. Only an early and credible roadmap for a return to constitutional rule and the holding of credible and inclusive elections will allow for the EU’s continued support. The Council decided that the EU will keep its relations with Thailand under review and will consider further possible measures, depending on circumstances.”

It is a rebuke; there is some criticism of the roadmap. It is not a surprise. Will some individual countries go further and ban junta members from traveling to the EU as Australia as done?

The Guardian view on the jailing of three al-Jazeera journalists in Egypt

24 June 2014 Editorial

There could be no clearer evidence that Egyptian society is still in a state of civil war than the verdicts which Egyptian judges have been handing down in recent cases, culminating in the appalling miscarriage of justice represented by the sentencing of three al-Jazeera journalists to jail yesterday. The evidence that the three were involved in aiding terrorist activities by the Muslim Brotherhood was risible, while the evidence that the court was determined to make an example of them, and of other defendants, was overwhelming.

The journalists were accused of falsely suggesting that Egypt is a deeply divided nation, yet these perverted verdicts prove just that. So does the recent confirmation of death sentences on 183 people accused of attacking a police station in 2013, another case where irrelevant evidence was waved about in court and relevant evidence, such as that some of the defendants were not even at the scene of the attack, was simply disregarded. So do the revelations this week about the existence of a secret military prison where torture is routine and even minimal standards for treatment of detainees are disregarded.

What is happening is that the Egyptian security establishment is striking back at those it perceives to be its enemies. The Brotherhood, in spite of the fact that it is a huge religious, social and political movement, has already been criminalised. Mere membership is an offence; anything more active attracts the punitive attention of the police and intelligence services. Now any institution connected with it – as al-Jazeera is because its base is in Qatar, whose sympathies with the Brotherhood are well known – is to be pursued.

No matter that the journalists concerned were, according to their professional colleagues, simply reporting what was going on in a professional manner. No matter that there is an important distinction between al-Jazeera’s English service, which aspires to almost BBC-like standards of objectivity, and its Arabic services, which are more biased and critical but still can hardly be accused of attempting to undermine the Egyptian state. It would be easy to conclude that these verdicts are instances of “telephone justice”, in which somebody in the executive simply tells a judge or a panel of judges what verdict is required.

But this is probably not the case. The Egyptian judiciary has historically been quite independent, but it also has some of the aspects of a hereditary, privileged caste. It felt threatened, bullied and infiltrated during the period when the Brotherhood was in power. It also had a tradition of strong identification with the old authoritarian state, and a belief that one of its roles, and sometimes its most important role, is to defend that state, now back on top, against its enemies. The army, the police, the intelligence services and the judiciary are in this kind of view all on the same war footing against subversives and terrorists. And in a war of this kind, “ordinary” standards of justice are less important than the need to deter and intimidate. It may be that President Sisi did not personally signal that he wanted such unfair and harsh verdicts. But he has helped create a them-and-us divide in Egyptian society that has infected the judiciary and produced these travesties of justice. It has to be added that much public opinion in Egypt, anxious for “order” and mistrustful of the Brotherhood, will not be unduly disturbed.

The Egyptian military is heavily dependent on a constant supply of American equipment, while the government draws international legitimacy from its friendly relations with western states. Yet the secretary of state John Kerry, visiting Cairo at the weekend, revealed that the US has released $575m (£338m) in military aid to Egypt that had been frozen since the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi last year. This makes his remarks there about upholding the rights of all Egyptians nugatory. The United States and other friends of Egypt should be using the leverage represented by aid and other forms of assistance forcefully rather than just throwing it away.

Al-Jazeera journalists’ stiff sentences prompt international outrage at Egypt

24 June 2014 The Guardian

International outrage at Egypt’s brutal crackdown on dissent intensified on Monday after three journalists for Al-Jazeera English were sentenced to up to a decade in jail for endangering Egypt’s national security in a verdict that dealt both a shocking blow to Egyptian free speech and a humiliating rebuke to American attempts to moderate the worst excesses of Egypt’s security state.

US secretary of state John Kerry said it was “chilling and draconian”, British prime minister David Cameron condemned the verdict as “completely appalling” while Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop – whose fellow countryman, Peter Greste, was one of those convicted – said that the “Australian government simply cannot understand it based on the evidence that was presented in the case”. Australia, the Netherlands and Britain all summoned their respective Egyptian ambassadors to explain the verdict in what marked the fiercest international condemnation of Egypt’s crackdown on dissent since the murder of over 600 anti-government protesters last August.

The backlash followed the sentencing of former BBC correspondent Peter Greste, the ex-CNN journalist Mohamed Fahmy, and local producer Baher Mohamed to seven, seven and 10 years respectively for endangering Egypt’s national security, falsifying news, and helping terrorists. Four students and activists indicted in the case were sentenced to seven years.

Rights campaigners portrayed the verdict as a frightening assault on what remains of Egyptian free speech. But it also represented a shaming slapdown to American diplomacy, coming only a day after John Kerry, America’s top diplomat, landed in Egypt for a brief meeting with Egypt’s president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, in which he raised the impending trial in their discussion and called for Egypt to improve its human rights record. That a guilty verdict was still reached hours later, despite Kerry confirming the return of US military and economic aid to Egypt, represented an embarrassment for US diplomacy, analysts argued.

In court, 10-year sentences were also handed to British journalists Sue Turton and Dominic Kane and the Dutch reporter Rena Netjes, who were not in Egypt but were tried in absentia.

The courtroom, packed with reporters, diplomats and relatives, erupted at the verdict which came despite prosecutors failing “to produce a single shred of solid evidence”, according to Amnesty International, which monitored the trial.

Family and friends of the convicted men broke down in tears, while inside the defendants’ cage the journalists reacted with defiance. Greste, who had only been reporting in Egypt for a fortnight when he was arrested last December, silently held his arm aloft. Fahmy, a dual Canadian-Egyptian national, clung to the bars of the cage as he was pulled away by police, shouting: “They’ll pay for this. I promise you they’ll pay for this.”

Fahmy’s mother and fiancee both broke down in tears, while his brother Adel, who had travelled from his home in Kuwait for the verdict, reacted with fury.

“This is not a system,” he said. “This is not a country. They’ve ruined our lives. It shows everything that’s wrong with the system: it’s corrupt. This country is corrupt through and through.”

Greste’s two younger brothers, Mike and Andrew, who came from Australia to attend court, were grim-faced. “I’m just stunned,” said Andrew Greste, as police pushed reporters from the courtroom. “It’s difficult to comprehend how they can have reached this decision.” Thousands of miles away in Australia, Greste’s father Juris was filmed receiving the news from his Twitter feed. “That’s crazy, that’s crazy, that’s absolutely crazy,” a distraught Greste senior was heard saying as he walked away from the camera.

Outside the courtroom – as police jostled journalists, and pushed one into the path of a passing car – diplomats and trial observers expressed incredulity at the verdict.

“On the basis of the evidence that we’ve seen, we can’t understand the verdict,” said Ralph King, the Australian ambassador in Cairo.

Evidence provided by the prosecution included footage from channels and events that had nothing to do with Egyptian politics or al-Jazeera. It included videos of trotting horses filmed by Sky News Arabia, a song by the Australian singer Gotye, and a BBC documentary from Somalia. The prosecution’s case was also severely undermined by the retraction of key testimonies from three lead witnesses, who admitted during proceedings they did not know whether the three journalists had undermined national security – contradicting written claims they made before the trial.

The case was riddled with procedural errors – including the misspelling of the name of convicted Dutch journalist Rena Netjes in the court papers, and her wrong passport number. “It’s ridiculous that a non-existent Dutch citizen with a non-existent passport number has been convicted of terrorism,” Netjes said later by telephone.

Ostensibly, the trial was a broadside against al-Jazeera, a Qatar-owned news channel that Egypt’s government feels is biased towards Sisi’s predecessor, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. But Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, who has observed the trial for Amnesty, said the verdict sent a frightening message to all opposition figures in Egypt.

“It’s a warning to all journalists that they could one day face a similar trial and conviction simply for carrying out their official duties,” Lotfy said. “This feeds into a wider picture of a politicised judiciary and the use of trials to crack down on all opposition voices.”

According to Egypt’s interior ministry, at least 16,000 political prisoners have been arrested since last July’s overthrow of Mohamed Morsi – some of whom have been disappeared, many of whom have been tortured, and many more sentenced to draconian jail terms and death sentences based on little evidence.

In an official Amnesty statement, the group called the verdict a “dark day” for press freedom. “In 12 court sessions,” the statement read, “the prosecution failed to produce a single shred of solid evidence linking the journalists to a terrorism organisation or proving that they had ‘falsified’ news footage.”

Amnesty’s reaction was matched by a furious international response that saw several foreign ministers including Britain’s William Hague expressing outrage at the verdict.

But relatives of the jailed journalists and defendants convicted in absentia said foreign governments must now go beyond banal statements and apply real pressure to help reverse the verdicts. “It’s outrageous that Egypt gets away with this and the rest of the world keeps sending them money,” said Rena Netjes, in views supported by Fahmy’s brother Adel.

“I feel diplomatic pressure is the most important thing,” said Adel Fahmy after leaving court. “There has to be lobbying from any country that cares about the freedom of expression in Egypt. It can’t just be statements any more. They have to make it clear to Egyptians that this is unacceptable.”

But the verdict may have revealed the limits of foreign influence in Egypt, with Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry issuing a “complete rejection of any foreign interference in the country’s internal affairs.”

It also represented an embarrassing humiliation for John Kerry, analysts argued. The US secretary of state expressed hopes of a positive outcome to the trial in a meeting with Sisi on Sunday – only to find his pleas unanswered the next day. Commenting on Kerry’s apparent ineffectiveness, Michael Hanna, Egypt analyst at the Century Foundation, said: “When you’re thinking of making a stop in Egypt, there are a whole range of issues that come into play. And one of the things you have to consider is the pending verdict. The trip could have made sense if assurances had been given regarding the verdict. But if not, then it’s sloppy scheduling.”

Inside Egypt, where al-Jazeera journalists are portrayed as terrorists due to their perceived support for the ousted Mohamed Morsi, many cheered the verdict. “Aljazeera channel are evil,” wrote one Twitter user in a typical response. “They support only the [Muslim Brotherhood] and change stories and want to show Egypt [is] not safe for tourism.”

It is this hostile domestic reaction to al-Jazeera that may dissuade Egypt’s new president from pardoning the defendants – a move foreign observers have optimistically speculated Sisi might now take. In the absence of a pardon, the convicted journalists will have to navigate Egypt’s appeals system – a process that is considered less politicised than the rest of Egypt’s judiciary, but may take until at least October to start. “We’ve lost a good amount of faith in the justice system,” said Greste’s brother Mike after Monday’s verdict. “But [an appeal] may be the only process left available to us.”

Egypt’s kangaroo courts

23 June 2014 Al Monitor

Last week, Wael Metwally, my new business partner, texted at 11 a.m., saying, “Apparently I have been sentenced to 15 years in absentia despite being in attendance in court,” before being promptly arrested in the court room for violating his “in absentia” verdict and thrown in prison, alongside Alaa Abd El Fattah and Nubi, fellow suspects of violating the “protest law” in what is known as the “Shura Council” case. It is worth noting that Metwally was not protesting that day and was simply a bystander at a respectable distance, and yet he was arrested and is now sentenced to 15 years in prison. It is also worth noting that the sentencing happened before the defense even started to present its witnesses, which was supposed to happen the day of the verdict. The judge simply started early and prevented the lawyers and suspects from entering the room. He then stated that given their absence, the trial is over, and he issued a sentence. Metwally was the only one who managed to get inside the court room, and when he pointed out his presence, the judge was startled, gathered his papers and ran off. Metwally was immediately detained.

The shenanigans in this case are nothing compared to the Al Jazeera trial. Burea chief Mohamed Fahmy, producer Baher Mohamed and ex-BBC reporter Peter Greste have been dealing with months of imprisonment in a case so poorly fabricated that it should have been thrown out of court months ago. They are accused of being a secret Muslim Brotherhood cell and supporting “terrorist” activities with their reporting. Evidence against them so far included an animal documentary, hard drives filled with pictures of Greste’s parents and unintelligible audio recordings. Besides refusing to release them on bail despite the lack of evidence, the judge in this case has also decreed that for the defense to access and view the “evidence” of the prosecution, they should pay the prosecution $180,000.

Then there is satirist Bassem Youssef, host of the highest rated and most viewed show in Egypt and the Middle East, who finally announced the end of his show “El Bernameg” (The Program) on June 2, after an almost two-month hiatus that included the presidential elections. His hiatus was preceded by months of character assassinations, changing channels, lawsuits, signal interference whenever his show was broadcast and insane pressure on MBC Masr (his new host channel), which included Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb personally revoking a cooperation deal between MBC Masr and Egyptian national television for no reason. Youssef was slated to return after the elections were over to give his comments, but instead his proposed script was rejected. He then announced the end of his show at a press conference. Despite having one of the most recognized brand names in the industry, and a loyal audience of approximately 30 million viewers, not a single private TV channel wanted to pick up his show. The era of intelligent political dissent and satire on TV seems to be over.

It is easy to paint a picture of a planned organized campaign to repress freedom of speech and press, but is this systematic? It may seem so at first glance, but upon closer look, one discovers that the situation is far pettier than that.

What unites these three very different men — Metwally, Fahmy and Youssef — is that they are victims of a state whose different institutions are exercising personal pettiness that is shared by a significant segment of the population. Metwally is sentenced to 15 years because of a personal dispute between the judge and Fattah, with the judge knowing that the ruling will not face wide public outrage due to the hatred that Fattah enjoys among the current regime-backing public. (It is worth noting that other defendents in this case, upon hearing the ruling, turned themselves in and were told to go home, since they only wanted to imprison Fattah — with Metwally and Nubi simply unlucky for being in court as well.)

Fahmy and Greste are facing a kangaroo court and possible sentencing simply because the police and population hate Al Jazeera and its state-backer Qatar, and this is a way to “punish both” and show “them our strength.” As for Youssef, he has to be shut up because of the insecurity of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s backers (Egyptian owners of private TV stations and — in the case of MBC — the Saudi government itself) about the new regime’s survival and success, which they believe is now permanently linked to Sisi’s image. Apparently, anything less than outright praise is unacceptable at this stage.

The scary part of all this is not that the police state is active and is operating efficiently and according to a plan, but that the situation is random and manic, based on personal feelings and likes, and appeals to the angry, insecure and frightened mob to showcase that the state is strong. Take the case of Seoudi supermarkets, a famous supermarket chain in Egypt whose different branches are owned by different members of the Seoudi family. The owner of one supermarket was known for his Muslim Brotherhood leanings, while the rest are all outright Sisi supporters. Because of this one family member, the entire chain was deemed by the public as a Muslim Brotherhood front, and the police — who should know better — seized ownership of all the supermarkets to show they are “stopping the financing of terrorism.” This public relations stunt sent waves of panic to the business community, with one question on everybody’s mind: If even Sisi supporters can be collectively punished for guilt by association, where does that leave those who believe that their best hope of survival is to stand aside and weather the storm? How can one weather pettiness?

Youssef is off the air, and no one knows when, if ever, he will be back on TV again. The Al Jazeera trial’s sentencing is set for this week. No one can predict what the verdict will be, but no one is optimistic. Metwally and Fattah are still awaiting news on when their retrial date is scheduled for, and should have found out at least a week ago. However, the judges refuse to set a date, and even if they do, the prison authority could decide not to take them to court for their trial, with their sentencing to take place in absentia again. All of this is illegal, but still happens because petty men rule this country, and even pettier people support this in the name of stability and (snicker) rule of law needed for the greater good of our country. In doing so, they are forgetting one simple truth: Petty men do not build great states. They only destroy them.

World Cup blocked across Middle East as TV camera lingers on hot Brazilian fan for over permitted time

21 June 2014 Pan Arabian Enquirer

World Cup fans across the Middle East were in tears last night after the tournament was sensationally blocked by regional TV censors.

The move came in response to an isolated incident believed to have taken place during Tuesday’s game between Brazil and Mexico, in which the camera lingered on an attractive Brazilian fan in the stands for what has since been deemed “over the permitted time”.

“We knew this might be a problem in Brazil, so spoke to FIFA long before the tournament began, explaining that we had strict rules when it came to broadcasting visuals of nubile young female football fans waving their arms about in carefree delight, sometimes in slow motion,” said Abdul Rashid of the Gulf Censorship Board.

According to Rashid, the Board had initially requested a three-minute broadcast delay to deal with any potential issues.

“This way, in the event of a protracted shot featuring a toned, olive-skinned goddess with her nation’s flag drawn on her dimpled cheek playfully hugging another Giselle or Adriana Lima-a-like in the crowd in wild celebration, we would have time to replace the footage with something more acceptable,” he added.


But the request was rejected by FIFA, and now millions of football fans living in the Middle East face the prospect of missing the rest of the tournament, with the Gulf Censorship Board saying that the event on Tuesday was “just too much”.

“To put it in simple terms: 2.4 seconds of hot Brazilian nipple bulging through an over-tight soccer jersey is acceptable. But 3.2 seconds is absolutely haram,” said Rashid. “On the upside, this is at least something we won’t have to worry about in Qatar.”

Thailand’ human rights record hits rock-bottom

21 June 2014

Thailand has been relegated to tier 3 of the list of 188 nations covered by the annual US human trafficking report. This is an automatic downgrade after four years on the tier 2 watchlist, where it was repeatedly warned to make significant improvements to its anti-trafficking law enforcement, protect trafficked victims and punish perpetrators.

Thailand now sits along side serial human rights abusers such as North Korea.

Predictably Thailand is now saying that the US has no right to judge this issue; in doing so Thailand sounds ever more like China.

That did not stop Thailand spending US$400,000 with US lobbyists to try and avoid the downgrade.

The downgrade could result in economic sanctions and loss of development aid for Thailand, which may also find itself blacklisted by companies no longer wishing to do business with a “pariah” government.

In its analysis of Thailand’s anti-trafficking progress, the state department was just short of scathing.

The report cites corruption “at all levels” as impeding significant progress and claims that anti-trafficking law enforcement remains insufficient compared with the overall scale of trafficking and slavery. It also states that, despite frequent media and NGO reports detailing instances of trafficking and slavery in sectors such as the fishing industry, the government “systematically failed” to investigate, prosecute or convict boat owners and captains, or officials complicit in the crimes.

The document also describes “credible reports” of corrupt officials engaging in commercial sex acts with child trafficking victims, colluding with traffickers, and protecting brothels. And it pointed to separate criminal defamation suits filed against individuals like Andy Hall – who documented trafficking violations in a food processing factory – and two journalists who published excerpts of a report on the trafficking of Rohingya refugees (and the Thai Navy’s alleged involvement), as possibly “silencing” other activists and the media.

In a statement the Thai government said it disagreed with the state department’s decision but would continue to fight against trafficking.

“In 2013, Thailand made significant advances in prevention and suppression of human trafficking along the same lines as the state department’s standards,” it said. “While the latest TiP report did not recognise our vigorous, government-wide efforts that yielded unprecedented progress and concrete results, Thailand remains committed to combating human trafficking.”

The Ministry or Foreign Affairs permanent secretary, Sihasak Phuangkeykeow, held a Saturday morning press conference where he said that the Tier 3 downgrade “most regrettable.” Adding that “it’s not so right that one country will be the only party to evaluate other countries on human trafficking using its own standard.”

Sihasak represents the same government that last week voted against a UN resolution on human slavery and then changed its mind only when it realised the isolation of being the only country in the world to do so.

Trying to claim it has been doing a lot to “fix” the problems and deserving of a tier 1, has been another mistake. As has the prosecution of journalists at Phuketwan who have led investigations into the Thai Navy’s alleged mistreatment of the Rohingya refugees.

As so often in Thailand it is easier to tell lies to save face than it is to face the truth and take action.

Of course this can now all be blamed upon the Yingluck government since the report is for the year to April 2014. But this was not about PTP incompetence this is the whole of Thai high society and business that is both complicit and willingly involved.

The world does not care whose fault this is; it wants action and it wants visible improvement. Will anything be done about it or as usual just a bit of lip service and pretend action? The mass flight of Cambodian and some Burmese workers out of Thailand suggest more of the same.

One simple action would be for the Junta to drop lawsuits against Phuketwan reporters and other human rights campaigners and to stop law suits being used to silence and cover up the problem.

The Bangkok Post trumpets that “Thailand slams US trafficking report” sadly playing the nationalist card rather than the we should do something card. The Bangkok Post also ignore that in January this year the Thai embassy in Washington signed a $400,000-plus deal with leading US law firm Holland & Knight for then to lobby the White House, Congress and US departments of state and defence that Thailand is a country that fights human trafficking and forced labour.

It seems not to have been money well spent.

The money invested in lobbying therefore represents both a defeat and a serious embarrassment for the Thai authorities.

A drinking license for Emirates flights?

16 June 2014

This was a strange story as the UAE press reported that an Emirates passenger was jailed for six months for molesting a stewardess.

That is good. He should be. But it is alleged that he was drunk. And he was charged with not having a license to consume alcohol.

He is a Brit. He was flying from BKK to the UK with a change of planes in Dubai. He was not meant to enter Dubai or clear immigration in Dubai. He was in transit.

He apparently drank five glasses of vodka (the crew should not serve that much) and then molested the British stewardess when she passed by his seat on a flight back in April.

Despite having entered a not guilty plea, the Dubai Court of First Instance found the Briton guilty.

Presiding judge Ezzat Abdul Lat also fined T.G. Dh2,000 for drinking alcohol.

But EK serves alcohol!

The Briton will be deported after serving his jail term, according to Monday’s ruling. “I did not molest her… yes I consumed liquor,” he had told the court, as he confessed to consuming alcohol without a licence.

He was also fined Dh2,000 at the court on Monday for the alcohol charge and will be deported after completing his prison term.

The 28-year-old stewardess told prosecutors that the incident happened at 6am on the aircraft that was coming back from Bangkok.

“I walked through the aisle of the economy section and once I passed by the defendant’s seat, he touched me. He asked me to sit beside him and kissed my palm against my will,” she said.

A Tunisian stewardess said the Briton used foul language.

“He spoke to me rudely. He also shouted that he wanted more drinks. I asked my colleagues what he had told me in English because I did not understand what he said… Then I saw him touching the stewardess [claimant],” she said.

Monday’s ruling remains subject to appeal within 15 days.

So he had been drinking too much and was stupid. He was presumably detained on the airplane and hauled away by the Dubai police – and has then been held in Dubai for two months.

But since when did you need a license to drink on an Emirates flight in the knowledge that you are only transiting through the Dubai hub. Very strange.

A tale of two capitals – Vientiane or Bangkok

14 June 2014

Here are at least 15 reasons why you will enjoy a visit to Vientiane more than you will a visit to Bangkok:

  1. No 17% added to your restaurant bill
  2. No one telling you that the city’s main temple is closed but that he can take you on a tour
  3. No silly Baht500 entry prices
  4. No scrum of rip-off taxi drivers waiting for prey at the airport arrivals terminal
  5. Baguettes stuffed with liver pate
  6. Fresh croissants
  7. No search and harass by police on the streets
  8. No Baht 2,000 littering fines applied to selected foreigners
  9. No one hissing “ping-pong show” or “you want girl” as you walk along the street
  10. Sensible wine prices
  11. No one shouting tuk-tuk or taxi from over 100 yards away
  12. Sunset over the Mekong
  13. Airport to city in less than 15 minutes
  14. To traffic jams
  15. Beer Lao
  16. Easy cycling on the steets

Emirates cancels A350; politics, economics or pragmatism?

12 June 2014

On Wednesday this week Emirates Airline said it had decided to cancel a multibillion-dollar order for 70 long-range A350 planes.

These planes were ordered back in 2007 for delivery in 2017 and onwards. Given EK’s commitment to the A380 and the additional 50 A380s ordered at last year’s Dubai airshow it is unlikely that EK has to pay and significant penalty for the cancellation.

The news comes just months before the new jet, the A350-XWB, is due to enter service.

There is lots of speculation and some analysts have asked whether the decision by Emirates could presage a slowdown in aircraft orders from Persian Gulf carriers. Probably not. And there may even be new orders at this year’s Farnborough airshow.

In a statement, Airbus said that Emirates would not take the planes, which had been slated for delivery beginning in 2019.

The Emirates order was valued at roughly $16 billion when it was placed in 2007; at current list prices, it would be worth more than $21 billion. It is likely that Airbus will be able to fill the original EK delivery slots with new orders from other airlines; which may include Cathay Pacific and Etihad.

Emirates gave no reasons for the decision – “the contract, which we signed in 2007 for 70 A350 aircraft, has lapsed,” a spokeswoman for the airline said. “We are reviewing our fleet requirements.”

One reasonable theory is that Emirates will move solely to a Boeing 777/Airbus A380 fleet – with new routes, as with Oslo and Brussels) being launched with 777s.

In November EK also placed orders for 150 of Boeing’s new 777X — a revamped version of the popular wide-body aircraft — with an option for 50 more.

The A350 was seen as a replacement for the A330 and A340 planes that are still part of the EK fleet. But it may simply be too small. Especially when EK will remain at the space constrained DXB airport until around the middle of the next decade. So assume maybe another 8 to 10 years at DXB; there simply is not the space or flight slots for more, (relatively) smaller airplanes.

John Leahy, Airbus’s chief salesman, conceded that a lost order so close to the A350’s entry into service — and from one of its biggest customers — was a disappointment, but stressed that the A350s large order backlog of more than 740 planes would help to soften the blow.

“I’m not particularly concerned,” Mr. Leahy said. “This doesn’t affect the production or finances of the program.” Worth noting though that this is the largest cancellation in Airbus’s history.

Neither Airbus or Emirates would comment on whether any financial penalties would apply to the canceled order, saying the terms were confidential. Most standard aircraft sales contracts include cancellation fees.

Qatar Airways has 80 A350 aircraft on order and Singapore Airlines has 70. The cancellation also has significant implications for Rolls-Royce of Britain, which is the sole supplier of engines for the A350 series. Emirates does not use Rolls Royce for its A380 engines.

Emirates has been pushing for months for Airbus to upgrade the A380 superjumbo with a more efficient engine, a solution favoured by Rolls-Royce which is among the companies most directly affected by the airline’s decision on the A350.

One considered outcome is that EK will convert the final 25 of the latest A380 order to NEOs, and order another 20 or so of this upgraded version.

By the end of 2018, the EK passenger fleet will consist of about 115 A380s 10 777-200LRs, and 152 777-300ERs, a net increase from today of 73 frames if you include the 4 at any one time A380s currently undergoing wing fixes, which will be completed by the end of November. All the A330s and A340s will have left the fleet.

The average aircraft size, however, will be larger, thus the actual capacity increase will better match what DXB and the airspace can handle.

Here is a theory – somehow Dubai has to manage its two airports while building capacity at DWC. One option is that EK ends up being the exclusive carrier at DXB between 2018 and 2025, maxing out eventually by 2025 at about 90 million pax a year and about 335 aircraft, with everyone else at DWC.

Once DWC is built up to handle 100 million plus pax a year, there will be a wholesale swap, at which point EK will be exclusive at DWC and everyone else will move back to DXB.

One other theory about the cancellation is political. The E.U. is waging a war against the Gulf airlines especially EK. The fight is led by Lufthansa but also by Skyteam with Air France and KLM battling alongside Delta. Two months ago a judge in Italy reversed EK’s fifth freedom right from MXP to JFL. Germany refuses to extend access to any more than four airports in its country. Ek seems unable to get extra slots at CDG.

And of course Airbus is EU owned and provides significant employment in Germany, France and the UK. Do not doubt that there is a political element to this decision and to its timing.

World Cup: in extra time

2 June 2014 The Guardian Editorial

Fifa’s decision-making processes were shrouded in billowing smoke decades before Qatar – which happens to be both one of the world’s hottest and one of the world’s richest countries – won the right to host the 2022 World Cup. As an organisation that has in its gift the only sporting event that challenges the Olympics as a potential money-spinner, the scope for the exchange of bribes is, by any rational analysis, limited only by the transparency and accountability of those involved. Which, in the case of Fifa, appears to be very little. The way football’s global authority manages the international game brings dishonour to almost everyone involved. And that is only the tip of it.

The records of rigged internal elections and lavish and unexplained payments between promoters, national representatives and members of Fifa’s executive committee itself, of which more evidence emerged in the Sunday Times this weekend, corrupt relations at every level of the game. Members of the FA who dismissed a BBC Panorama report on Fifa malpractice in 2010, at the time of the failed England bid to host the 2018 cup, should be feeling deeply embarrassed. These allegations are not just bad for the reputation of football. They normalise the kind of behaviour that undermines efforts to promote global transparency where its impact is greatest – in deals to extract resources that could transform millions of lives, but too often end up enriching a handful of individuals. Cleaning up Fifa is important even to those of us who would rather have our teeth drawn one by one than watch a single match beamed from Brazil.

But it matters most to international football itself, the game that in the coming month will inspire dreams of glory in another generation of children. Fifa appears entirely deaf to the insult that its repeated denials of wrongdoing represent to every fan who loves the sport. This latest attack has been met with silence, just like many previous ones. If it wants to be believed, it should end its interminable foot-dragging and bring in extensive reforms based on the kind of accountability that would open its processes to impartial examination. The first evidence that real change might be coming would be an urgent, positive response.

It is regrettable that the inquiry the Fifa chairman, Sepp Blatter, belatedly commissioned from the US lawyer Michael Garcia in 2012 cannot meet its original target to report in time for the Fifa congress on the eve of the World Cup. He must report as soon as it is over. But his report is not needed to establish that the 2010 process by which the executive committee awarded the world cup to Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022 was unsafe. It is enough that several committee members have subsequently resigned over unexplained payments and the FBI and the IRS are examining the affairs of two, Jack Warner of the Carribean and the US soccer boss Chuck Blazer. .

There should be a new vote not only on Qatar, but – since the votes were taken at the same time – also on Russia. But there is no point in repeating the process if it involves largely the same personnel and with no enhanced accountability in place. First, Fifa itself must be cleaned up. But there are already signs of trouble. In April, Alexandra Wrage resigned from the internal governance committee charged with proposing reforms on contentious areas like conflicts of interest, warning that progress was too slow and the prospects of getting approval too remote. Mr Blatter, whose campaign to be re-elected is linked with progress on reform, should look at how the International Olympics Committee has transformed itself since the scandal of Salt Lake City. If no one thinks the IOC is perfect, at least it is no longer a byword for dodgy deals. But its programme of change was only the starting point. It needed strong leadership prepared to take vested interests head on. Football is a universal game beloved of millions, ordinary people who feel an abiding sense of belonging. It is the people’s game, not the plutocrats’.

Please note that content this month has been greatly reduced due to self-imposed censorship while I am staying in Bangkok.

I stand in front of a ferris wheel (Hong Kong version)

27 May 2014

Most major cities have one thing in common: no, not crowded sidewalks and overpriced cocktails—a ferris wheel. From Chicago to Singapore, London to Tokyo, these towering structures are a popular skyline fixture around the world. Hong Kong is set to join the fun, with a ferris wheel slated to open on the Central Harbourfront this September.

How much will a ride cost? Ticket prices will be more expensive than similar observation wheels in Taiwan, Thailand and Japan, with each ride costing $100 for adults and $70 for children. So about the same as a train to the airport, or a drink in SoHo. That still seems pretty reasonable, though, considering The London Eye costs more than double the price at around $260 per ride.

The large ferris wheel will be located on the site outside Central Pier 9 and 10. Operators say there will be additional food and beverage outlets and publicly accessible space around the ferris wheel.

The 60-meter-tall ferris wheel will come with 42 carriages, each holding eight to 10 passengers. The operators expect a million visitors a year….only about 2,800 a day.

For comparison’s sake, the London Eye is twice as tall, at 135 meters—towering over the surrounding buildings, which means it offers an awesome view of the city. It is the UK’s top paid-for attraction, with a record 7.9 million people paying for a ride in the first six months of 2013.

It’s not all fun and games for city ferris wheels, though: the Singapore Flyer, which is 165-meter-tall and surrounded by tall buildings, has been struggling to meet its financial goals and was placed under “receivership” last year, aka it’s going bankrupt. It is not very accessible; and there really is not a lot to see.

Who’s behind the ferris wheel in Hong Kong? Operators Swiss AEX won a three-year tenancy of the site a year ago. The site is still vacant for now, and the company will begin recruitment starting next month.

Life after another coup

28 May 2014

Why me? I was here for the 2006 coup; the 2008 airports occupation; the 2010 army shoot to kill and crackdown on the red shirt camp in Ratchaprasong and in 2013 as Suthep took to the streets and caused massive disruption throughout Bangkok.

Now we have another coup; people have genuinely lost count of how many there have been.

And this coup is about removing Thaksin, his family, his support and his voters from the land. The coup leaders talk about reconciliation; but it will be reconciliation on their terms.

Readers (if there are any) will know that I have removed a great deal of material from this published page.

It will all be republished (as a historical record) rather than a series of timely updates and reports. But it will not be published until after I leave Thailand.

The military coup is in its seventh day; eight and a half if you count the brief period of martial law.

The media is muzzled and is operating under very cautious self-censorship. Me too. Why do otherwise?

Thailand has been a part of my life for twenty years. I have worked here; invested financially and emotionally; I have married into a Thai family; I hope to have a child who will have a Thai passport.

Yet so many people – coup apologists – tell foreigners to keep out of Thai affairs. That it is not our business.

25 million visitors come to Thailand each year.

Major international companies and organisations have significant operations in Thailand.

Of course if is our business to care about this country.

Millions of Thai jobs depend on foreign visitors and investments.

But the level of vitriol is simply not worth the effort of caring or trying to find a balanced, open and honest view of events here.

The military government is telling the foreign media and social media only to report the truth. But to the army there is only one truth – what we are told to believe; not what we see, or hear, or fear. The only truth is that spread by the army’s public relations machine. Social media is being heavily monitored. It frankly is not worth the risk of passing comment. There is no risk if you are living outside Thailand. But in Thailand the threat of being summoned to meet with the army and of facing a military court is real.

Meanwhile life goes on. Without difficulty. Provided you do not care about arrests, detentions, the loss of individual freedoms and the censorship or what you see, hear and read.

Businesses are operational. Resorts are operational. Airports are operational. And for now, and in many ways, Bangkok is safer than it was while the protestors were allowed to occupy the city. The yellow shirt and red shirt camps have been removed. Anti-coup protests are met with a strong army response.

But the unknown is what happens next? There will be an appointed prime minister and government. There will not be elections for at least a year, probably much longer and with a new constitution that ensures that a red shirt supported government cannot be elected.

How angry are the north and east of Thailand. Can and will people mobilise? Where are their leaders?

And of course there is one other issue which you will not read about here. Not for now. But its impact on the future of this country is hugely significant.

Reality check – Phuket is a dump

17 May 2014

The so called Pearl of the Andaman is basically a dump with a few decent resorts. It did not need to be this way.

It is easy to blame this on mass tourism; but that is not the issue. The fact is that people got greedy. There has been no effective planning of tourist infrastructure; there has been no regulation of construction; there have been no controls to eliminate greedy operators.

The crappy experience starts at Phuket’s third world airport which has not had a dollar spent on it in decades.

Navigate through immigration and baggage claim and you walk into a wall of aggressive taxi touts. Get used to it – they are all over Phuket. Baht 1300 is the asking rate for a taxi to Patong. Over US$40. These are New York prices.

Walk to the end of the terminal building near the domestic arrivals area and there is a counter for meter taxis. This will still cost you Baht800.

And every time that you leave the hotel expect taxi touts to be calling at you from 100 yards away. This will not let up. Ignore them.

The next worst touts are the Indian tailors. They will try and grab you to get your attention and seem to think that they are entitles to this physical contact. Ignore them and they say you are rude and should respect them. Bullshit. They are miserably annoying people.

Out at night come the sex show touts on the busiest street in Patong – Soi Bangla. They are everywhere. Ignore them. But they should not be there at all. Years ago Phuket was safe from ping pong shows and worse. Sadly not now.

You want to get a taxi out for dinner or home afterwards; the tuk-tuk and taxi monopoly have control over public transport all over the island’s holiday west coast. Anywhere in Patong will cost you Baht200 for the equivalent of a Baht35 fare in Bangkok. There are no hotel shuttles – the taxi mafia protect their monopoly forcibly.

The beaches should be Phuket’s pride. The amount of garbage washed up on Patong’s beaches is horrible. And there seems to be no clean up effort. Worse at the northern end of the beach there is a stream running from the town, under the road and into the sea. The smell is of raw pollution. You swim on that beach at your peril. And it is not the only beach on Phuket’s west coast that is reported to have sewage issues.

Food; forgettable. In 20 years of going to Phuket I cannot remember a single quality meal.

City sites; no city planning; ramshackle construction; attractive resort next to uninhabited building shell; temporary bars, massage tables and beach lounger rental huts set up all along the beach front.

The trouble is that Phuket is almost entirely for foreign tourists; and Thai businesses of every sort get away with charging international prices for sub-standard products and services. Hua Hin and Pattaya are for instance very different markets that still attract large numbers of Thai visitors; who expect to pay Thai prices and who business need to encourage to return on a regular basis.

The new generation of tourists and business owners are the Russians. And there are tour agencies for this large group all over the island. They are the first group of business owners to really have made a stand against the entrenched Thai monopolies. This of course leads to huge unpleasantness between the Russian and Thai mafias. Ongoing.

If you want a nice resort there are plenty in Phuket. But leave the confines of the resort and you are subject to all that is bad about Phuket tourism. It should never have been allowed to get this bad.

The political impact of the Soma mining tragedy

16 May 2014

Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, faces public fury after the country’s worst-ever industrial accident. At least 282 miners died after an explosion at the Soma mine in the western province of Manisa on May 13th. Rescue workers battled to rescue hundreds more feared to be trapped in galleries where fires continued to rage. More than 350 were saved. Taner Yildiz, the energy minister, has declined to say exactly many people were inside the mine when the accident happened.

A crowd of angry mourners mobbed the prime minister’s convoy as it drove through the streets. These working class conservative communities have always been the heartland of Erdogan’s support. For him to face criticism here is unprecedented.

The prime minister delivered an insensitive speech bristling with self-defence. He told the relatives of dead and dying miners that “these types of incidents are ordinary things.” This was nothing more a weak attempt to deflect any kind of responsibility for the blast in the wake of reports that the government ignored safety concerns about the privately owned mine, which were raised as recently as two weeks ago by opposition MPs.

The anger was echoed in cities across Turkey as thousands of people with coal-smeared faces took to the streets, carrying placards that read: “Soma was not an accident, it was a massacre.” They called for the resignation of the energy minister, Taner Yıldız, and of Erdoğan himself.

Twitter, which Erdogan tried to ban earlier this year, has been used to spread of several damning photographs relating to the government’s response to Soma, pre- and post-blast. One of these shows an opposition minister speaking in parliament on 29 April, brandishing a miner’s hard hat and warning of poor conditions in the mine, as two AKP ministers chat among themselves in the background. Another, taken yesterday, shows the prime minister’s adviser Yusuf Yerkel violently kicking a protester in Soma who was on the ground, already overpowered by a couple of gendarmes. Yerkel should immediately resign.

The labour ministry gave the Soma mine a clean bill of health in March. On a visit last year, Mr Yildiz, the energy minister, heaped praise on it.

Erdoğan’s speech recounted a long list of mining disasters which have occurred abroad, stretching back to a British disaster in 1862 and lingering on accidents which have occurred in America, “which has every kind of technology”. His advisers seemed to have spent precious hours researching foreign mining history instead of coming up with a detailed course of action to assure the public of Erdoğan’s commitment to finding those both directly and indirectly responsible for the blast.

Erdoğan will survive what in most countries would be a serious PR disaster. His prickly self-defence is unlikely to fail him now, when he enjoys the fanatic support of almost half the population. But his response has been damaging. Citing 19th century mining disasters simply suggests that Turkey is a century behind the times.

Nearly 600 miners have died since 1983, before this week. “Eighty percent of these could have been avoided if necessary safety measures had been taken,” fumed Mahmut Arslan, chairman of the Hak Is workers’ confederation. “The priority is not safety but profitability.” Turkey’s economy is energy-hungry: the bill for energy imports is second to China’s.

Erdogan’s critics, now led by Fethullah Gulen, Turkey’s most influential Muslim cleric, who commands an empire of schools and media outlets from self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, will seize on the Soma tragedy. A campaign centred on corruption claims linking Mr Erdogan and his family to shady property deals and kickbacks from business cronies is said to have been masterminded by Gulenists in the police and in the judiciary. Mr Erdogan has launched what he admits is “a witch hunt”, demoting and reshuffling hundreds of Gulenists within the bureaucracy.

In Soma he warned against “extremists seeking to exploit this tragedy.” Yet even pro-AK commentators have called for the energy and labour ministers to go.

Even if they are not fired they need to resign out of respect for the 300 lives that they have failed to protect.

Emirates to delay hub move until 2024 after Dubai study – maybe

11 March 2014 – Bloomberg

Emirates Airline, will not be asked to move to Dubai’s new super-hub until 2024, avoiding disruption to its growth as it takes delivery of the world’s biggest fleet of wide-body jets.

Dubai’s Al Maktoum airport, which opened in October and is targeting a capacity of 228mn passengers at a cost of 156.8bn dirhams ($43bn), should instead become an interim base for local low-cost carrier FlyDubai, according to the preferred scenario of a government-sponsored strategy study obtained by Bloomberg News.

The plan would see FlyDubai transfer to Al Maktoum from Dubai International airport next year, before making the switch in reverse in a decade’s time, the document suggests. That would allow Emirates to expand its current base at Dubai International for the maximum possible period, after earlier plans envisaged a move to the new super-hub as early as 2020.

“The preferred transition scenario has the ability to maintain full utilisation of Dubai International while reducing the major build at Al Maktoum for the Emirates hub,” the study says. Construction of a dedicated Emirates terminal at the new airport could be staged, with the building initially housing “spill” from foreign airlines until a “one-go Emirates move” following its completion in 2023-2024.

The masterplan is still under discussion and has yet to be approved, a Dubai Airports spokesman said.

“Such decisions rest with the government,” FlyDubai chief executive officer Ghaith al-Ghaith said in an e-mailed response to questions. An Emirates spokeswoman also said the decision and timing of its hub swap is a matter for the government.

The 62-page study from Dubai Aviation Engineering Projects, a government body tasked with overseeing infrastructure work, suggests the territory’s airports will attract about 103mn passengers by 2020, compared with 66mn last year, rising to 167mn in 2030 and a possible 222mn by 2045.

Dubai International alone would be unable to absorb the projected increase in passengers beyond 2018, the report says.

Unlike most of the world’s fastest-growing hubs, which tap surging economies in emerging markets, Dubai is largely reliant on passengers travelling between other countries as Emirates exploits an advantageous geographical location to establish Dubai as a crossroads for intercontinental travel.

Emirates anticipates that its annual passenger count will reach 70mn by 2020. Founded in 1985, the carrier has a fleet of more than 200 aircraft, 44 of them A380 superjumbos, plus almost 400 jets on order worth $160bn at list prices.

The fledgling Al Maktoum site’s sole passenger terminal currently has capacity for 7mn people, increasing to about 10mn next year to permit the move by FlyDubai and some foreign carriers, and reaching 20mn in 2018 or 2019.

After 2024 FlyDubai will have the option of moving all flights back to Dubai International or keeping some at the Al Maktoum terminal and operating a split-base model.

The first stage of Al Maktoum’s second terminal, for use by Emirates, is slated to open in 2019 with a capacity of 10mn passengers. Foreign carriers will initially occupy the site before being required to move to Dubai International after 2024, though some could switch to the FlyDubai terminal at Al Maktoum if the discount carrier opts to exit completely.

Al Maktoum’s overall passenger capacity will reach 31mn in 2018, by which time spending will have reached 31.2bn dirhams, including 5.5bn dirhams earmarked for expanding Dubai International to its final capacity.

By 2025, Al Maktoum’s capacity will have jumped to 133mn in time for the Emirates move, with a spend of 94.6bn dirhams. Further enhancements will lift the total to 152mn passengers by 2029 and 228mn by 2034.

Notes from Tokyo

10 May 2014

Some thoughts after three days on my own in Tokyo:

  1. I am tired. You can walk forever in this city. It is safe and always interesting. And their is usually a rail line somewhere near by.
  2. I have found new rail lines that I never knew existed.
  3. The Japanese need to have a massive anti-smoking campaign. And they need to stop smoking in bars and restaurants.
  4. Tokyo is not expensive. My hotel room – albeit a single room – US$70 a night. Dinner each night – less than US$20. One was a takeaway with a bottle or wine; one Japanese and one in a British pub with two happy hour gin and tonics.
  5. The Tokyo dome is in a great location in the centre of this huge city with excellent rail connections and an adjacent mall and theme park. Exactly how a sports and entertainment venue should be.
  6. Such a miraculously clean city.
  7. The Sumida river cruise is the dullest capital city river ride on our planet.
  8. Evenings are not much fun on your own. I don’t really want to sit for long alone in a restaurant. Someone needs to write “The single foreigner’s guide to staying sane in Tokyo.”
  9. How do male Japanese school-teachers concentrate?
  10. Don Quijote. Buy anything at any time.
  11. Always somewhere new to explore – Tokyo is more a collection of villages (big and small) all connected. And everyone of them has a different personality.
  12. Face masks are not a pleasing fashion statement.
  13. Shrines next to modernity.
  14. Incomprehensible bright lights.
  15. Never getting hassled by sales staff in a store.
  16. My three best nights sleep in a long time. In the smallest room I have slept in for a long time.
  17. Showcases of plastic food.
  18. Excellent coffee shops.
  19. Moments and places of incredible calm.
  20. Shinjuku station. A marvel of mass transit efficiency for millions of people each day.
  21. 7-11s and many similar stores – and always close by.
  22. That in a city of twenty million it is clear that close friendships matter and are valued. Emirates results form a stable base for more growth

Emirate full year results
8 May 2014

The Emirates group has announced its full year results today for the year to 31 March 2014.

Emirates profit soars 43% to Dh3.3bn; Revenue up 13% to Dh82.6bn roared Emirates 24/7.Good yes. But profit margins are less than half the 2010 and 2011 levels.

Once again the second half of the year generates more revenue but lower profitability that the summer months. But not as shocking as last year.

And this year there is a small profit share. Although this is being paid despite the group not meeting its target.

The full year Group Profit for the year ended 31 March 2014 was AED 4.1 billion.

“Our profits increased to Dhs4.08 billion meeting the profit share target and a three-week profit share has been declared” said the Chairman – which is interesting as the profit share announced last year was a AED4.255 billion!

The profit share target for the financial year 2014-15 is Dhs3.7 billion.

Perhaps the best news in these results is that there really are no surprises. Load factors are still good despite a significant increase in the fleet size with 24 new airplanes received in the year – including 16 A380s.

“It might be easy to see this as de rigeur for Emirates,” said John Strickland, director of London-based independent air transport consultancy JLS Consulting quoted in the Wall Street Journal. “But in a year where competition has increased strongly and capacity has grown dramatically, it’s no small achievement to keep load factors so high and increase profitability too.”

Thai AirAsia X ready to launch

5 May 2014

Thai AirAsia X will launch operations with daily Bangkok Don Mueang to Seoul Incheon flights beginning June 17. Speaking at the AirAsia subsidiary’s unveiling to the public last week, airline CEO Nadda Buranasri said additional flights to Tokyo Narita (daily) and Osaka Kansai (5x weekly) would follow in July.

Nadda added that long-term expansion plans would hinge on there being greater socio-political stability in Thailand which, over the last six months, has been rocked by violent anti-government protests. AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes has in the past hinted at using a Bangkok base as a launching point for the airline’s planned routes to Europe.

Despite the lifting of a nationwide State of Emergency last month, official figures show Thailand’s tourist arrivals dipped almost 6% between January to March.

Thai AirAsia X currently operates a single A330-300 HS-XTA (cn 662) on charter flights but is expected to grow its fleet of A330-300s later this year with destinations in China also being considered.

Abhisit’s “Reform under the Constitution” plan is “under the Constitution” in the same way the PDRC is “Democratic” i.e. not at all.

And reformed massage king Chuwit simply said that “If Abhisit & Suthep stop and do nothing today, the country will return to normal tomorrow” which is just about right!

The problem for Abhisit in a nutshell is that under the existing constitution a judicial coup just leads to an election which the Democrats once again cannot win. So here instead is a desperate attempt to rewrite the constitution which was already stacked in the Democrats favour in 2007.

What would America fight for?

3 May 2014 The Economist

“Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force?” America’s cerebral president betrayed a rare flash of frustration on April 28th when dealing with a question in Asia about his country’s “weakness”. Barack Obama said his administration was making steady, if unspectacular, progress. By blundering into wars, his critics would only harm America.

Mr Obama was channelling the mood of his people, worn out by the blood and treasure squandered in Iraq and Afghanistan. A survey last autumn by the Pew Research Centre suggests that 52% want the United States to “mind its own business internationally”, the highest figure in five decades of polling. But when America’s president speaks of due caution, the world hears reluctance—especially when it comes to the most basic issue for any superpower, its willingness to fight.

For America’s most exposed allies that is now in doubt. For decades, America’s security guarantee used to underpin Japan’s foreign policy; now, on his Asian tour, Mr Obama has had to reassure Japan that it can count on America if China seizes the disputed Senkaku islands (which China calls the Diaoyus). After his tepid backing for intervention in Libya and Mali and his Syrian climbdown, Israel, Saudi Arabia and a string of Gulf emirates wonder whether America will police the Middle East. As Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, disrupts Ukraine, eastern Europeans fret that they are next.

Each situation is different, but in the echo-chamber of global politics they reinforce each other. The Asians note that in 1994, in exchange for surrendering nuclear weapons, Ukraine received a guarantee from Russia, America and Britain that its borders were safe. The Baltic countries remember the red lines crossed in Syria. Arab princes and Chinese ambassadors count the Republican senators embracing isolationism. Together, these retreats plant a nagging suspicion among friends and foes that on the big day America simply might not turn up.

Admittedly, deterrence always has some element of doubt. Between the certainty that any president will defend America’s own territory and the strong belief that America would not fight Russia over Ukraine lies an infinite combination of possibilities. A lot depends on how each incident unfolds. But doubt has spread quickly in that middle ground—and it risks making the world a more dangerous, nastier place.

Already, regional powers are keener to dominate their neighbours. China is pressing its territorial claims more aggressively, Russia interfering more brazenly. In 2013 Asia outspent Europe on arms for the first time—a sign that countries calculate they will have to stand up for themselves. If Mr Obama cannot forge a deal with Iran, the nightmare of nuclear proliferation awaits the Middle East. Crucially, doubt feeds on itself. If next door is arming and the superpower may not send gunboats, then you had better arm, too. For every leader deploring Mr Putin’s tactics, another is studying how to copy them.

Such mind games in the badlands of eastern Ukraine and the South China Sea may feel far away from Toledo or Turin. But the West will also end up paying dearly for the fraying of the global order. International norms, such as freedom of navigation, will be weakened. Majorities will feel freer to abuse minorities, who in turn may flee. Global public goods, such as free trade and lower cross-border pollution, will be harder to sustain. Global institutions will be less pliable. Americans understandably chafe at the ingratitude of a world that freeloads on the economic, diplomatic and military might of the United States. But Americans themselves also enjoy the exorbitant privilege of operating in a system that, broadly, suits them.

The critics who pin all the blame on Mr Obama are wrong. It was not he who sent troops into the credibility-sapping streets of Baghdad. More important, America could never sustain the extraordinary heights of global dominance it attained with the collapse of the Soviet Union. As China grew into a giant, it was bound to want a greater say. And the president has often made the right call: nobody thinks he should have sent troops to Crimea, despite the breaking of the 1994 agreement.

Yet Mr Obama has still made a difficult situation worse in two ways. First, he has broken the cardinal rule of superpower deterrence: you must keep your word. In Syria he drew “a red line”: he would punish Bashar Assad if he used chemical weapons. The Syrian dictator did, and Mr Obama did nothing. In response to Russia’s aggression, he threatened fierce sanctions, only to unveil underwhelming ones. He had his reasons: Britain let him down on Syria, Europe needs Russian gas, Congress is nervous. But the cumulative message is weakness.

Second, Mr Obama has been an inattentive friend. He has put his faith in diplomatic coalitions of willing, like-minded democracies to police the international system. That makes sense, but he has failed to build the coalitions. And using diplomacy to deal with the awkward squad, such as Iran and Russia, leads to concessions that worry America’s allies. Credibility is about reassurance as well as the use of force.

Credibility is also easily lost and hard to rebuild. On the plus side, the weakened West, as we dubbed it after the Syrian debacle, is still stronger than it thinks. America towers above all others in military spending and experience (see article). Unlike China and Russia, it has an unrivalled—and growing—network of alliances. In the past few years Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam and the Philippines have all moved towards it, seeking protection from China. And events can sway perceptions. Back in 1991 George Bush senior’s pounding of Saddam Hussein vanquished talk of America’s “Vietnam syndrome”.

But there will be no vanquishing as long as the West is so careless of what it is losing. Europeans think they can enjoy American security without paying for it. Emerging-world democracies like India and Brazil do even less to buttress the system that they depend on. America is preoccupied with avoiding foreign entanglements. Mr Obama began his presidency with the world wondering how to tame America. Both he and his country need to realise that the question has changed.

Northern Ireland: power of the past

2 May 2014 – Editorial – The Guardian, Friday 2 May 2014

The kidnapping, murder and secret burial of Jean McConville in 1972 was one of the most notorious IRA crimes of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Gerry Adams, whose IRA role is widely assumed though always denied, is one of the key architects of the peace process, which is in turn one of the great domestic political achievements of the last 20 years. So the president of Sinn Féin’s arrest on Wednesday in connection with the murder puts him at the place where the legitimate need for justice for the McConvilles intersects inescapably with the equally legitimate need for Northern Ireland peace – a need close to the heart of the national interest of both Ireland and Britain. The question facing every participant in this hugely important dual process is therefore how both these legitimate needs can be best satisfied within the rule of law and amid continuing public and political order.

There is no question what ought to happen in principle. The McConville case should be fully investigated without fear or favour. All those connected with the crime in any way should be interviewed. Charges should be weighed in the usual way and brought if the prosecutors think there is a good prospect of conviction. Those convicted after due process should be punished. The McConville family, whose interviews in the past 24 hours cannot fail to have touched all who heard them, should then be able to know that justice has been done and to live in peace, along with their friends and communities. That would be the best and the right course.

But things are not as simple as that in the still polarised and still violent world of Northern Ireland sectarianism – and it is naive to pretend otherwise. Michael McConville, one of the murdered woman’s sons, made chillingly clear in his powerful interview that he had not and would not identify his mother’s killers, even today, because of the fear that the IRA would revenge themselves on his family some time in the future. He spoke of what he knew, having been the victim of an IRA kidnapping and beating when he was just 11, shortly after his mother’s disappearance.

This is not a fear that can be wished away, however much it may be hoped that a conviction for the murder should now be secured. The reality is that dissident republicans have the means and the will to kill civilians, even now. And any convictions of former IRA volunteers in such a case could add to the dissidents’ numbers, and the threat. The dangers of further escalation, and the political consequences, are obvious. These considerations should not stop the investigation. But they make it harder for the investigations to succeed. And they cannot be dismissed.

So the future of the McConville investigation will not be a simple matter, whatever the immediate outcome of the questioning of Mr Adams and however much political opponents of Sinn Féin, and neutrals, may wish it otherwise. Everything connected with the Northern Ireland Troubles and peace process is politicised. Sinn Féin believe that the timing of the arrest is malicious, given the European parliamentary elections in three weeks’ time. Such suspicions are not going to disappear.

That is why, regardless of the progress of the investigation, it is so important for Northern Ireland’s parties and civic groups to return to the question of dealing with the legacy of the violent past. That question must surely involve a variety of means, including offering choices to victims that go beyond criminal justice solutions, as the Northern Ireland victims’ commissioner argued on Thursday. These difficult matters were left unresolved when the talks chaired by Richard Haass broke down in the new year. The cost of that failure is now daily more obvious. These are hard questions and stances should not, if possible, be allowed to harden either. Compromises and flexibility, distasteful in some cases, will be an inevitable ingredient of any solution. But this is very urgent business, as riots about flags, rows about “on-the-runs” and now the current events in the McConville case all show.

Doha’s new airport – some real competition for Dubai

30 April 2014

Hamad International Airport (HIA) received its first passengers today.

Ten airlines are initially operating out of the $17 billion facility; Biman Bangladesh Airlines, flydubai, Air Arabia, Iran Air, Air India Express, Yemenia Airways, Pakistan International Airlines, Nepal Airlines, Syrian Air and Pegasus Airlines. All other carriers are due to make the switch on May 27.

HIA contains 41 widebody aircraft contact gates (which will rise to 65 on final completion), together with over 25,000sqm of retail space (104 retail outlets and 30 cafes/restaurants), passenger lounges and parking. Other features include a new Emiri (royal) Terminal complex for VIP flights with additional hardstands, cargo terminal buildings, aircraft hangars and associated airline and airport ancillary features. The complex will include an airport hotel and 100-room transit hotel.

The airport is on reclaimed land just north of the existing Doha airfield which is simply inadequate to support and sustain the growth of Qatar Airways. The current airfield has no airbridges; passengers are taken to and from flights by bus. And the transit facilities are woeful.

Hamad International Airport (HIA) will transform the transit experience in Doha and will make flights with Qatar Airways a far more enjoyable experience. At last this is some storng regional competition for Emirates and Dubai.


No end in sight to Thailand’s political unrest

24 April 2014 – Pavin Chachavalpongpun for The Japan Times

More than six months have passed since protesters launched a campaign to topple the elected government of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

During this period the agendas of the protesters have shifted several times, from objecting to the ruling Pheu Thai Party’s controversial amnesty bill to fighting against the so-called corrupt Thaksin regime. It is convenient for the protesters to substitute Thaksin with his sister Yingluck. They have accused her of being his puppet and reproached her for inheriting corrupt policies from him.

What was meant to be a short-lived battle has turned out to be long and dangerous wrangling between the two sides. The crux of the problem does not lie with the widespread corruption supposedly committed by the Yingluck government. Indeed, the protracted conflict is a part of the transitional royal succession. Thailand’s much-revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej is in his twilight years. The network monarchy that he built has become shaky and directionless now that the end of his era is near.

The only heir apparent, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is not well loved by the people because of his troubled past and hedonistic character. But this does not explain why the network monarchy is not willing to support him as he waits to be enthroned. The seemingly intimate ties between Vajiralongkorn and Thaksin have gravely worried the conservative royalists in the network monarchy. They fear that once Vajiralongkorn becomes king, their political position and economic status will suffer.

In Bangkok, talk is growing about the increasing internal struggle in the palace. Conservative royalists do not approve of the crown prince and may seek to install the more popular Princess Maha Chakri Siridhorn as the next monarch. But in accordance with the succession law, she is ineligible to be enthroned so having a female monarch remains wishful thinking.

Realizing they have much to lose if the planned succession goes ahead, the conservative royalists have attempted to disrupt the handover of power in the royal court by creating chaos that will lead the military to take control of politics, and subsequently the succession process. This may explain why the anti-government protesters, obviously endorsed by the monarchy, took to the streets of Bangkok in the first place.

But after months of political interruption, there is no sign that the Yingluck government has wobbled. Its confidence partly derives from the solid backing from its supporters in the red-shirt movement. And the military has not judged it as timely to stage another coup for a myriad of reasons. The army learned lessons from the 2006 coup and the deadly crackdowns on the red shirts in 2010. The coup gave birth to the red-shirt movement, whose main agenda has been to reject military’s political intervention. A new coup would provoke the red shirts to resort to violence.

Moreover, there is fragmentation within the military. Not every soldier would agree with a coup. Some are more sympathetic toward the Yingluck government and the red shirts, particularly the low-ranking military officers who come from the poorest regions of Thailand, which are Thaksin strongholds.

As a military coup is not viable now, conservative royalists have employed other means to try and remove Yingluck from power. The Constitutional Court, the Election Commission, the Anti-Corruption Agency and the Human Right Commission — all have found ways to delegitimize the Yingluck government. The court has been rather active in pursuing cases that might lead to Yingluck being forced from office. This is not the first time the court has played a political role. In 2008, it ordered the resignation of two Thaksin-backed prime ministers, Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat. Will history repeat itself?

The two-day gathering of the red shirts near Buddha Mandala Park, at the outskirt of Bangkok on April 5 and 6 signified that they were ready to protest should the Yingluck government be ousted by one of those independent institutions. At the gathering, core members of the red shirts took turns rousing the crowd with their speeches.

Although references to the monarchy are taboo in Thailand, many of the red shirts hinted that the driving forces behind the anti-government protesters were the network monarchy and a key member of the royal family who did not wish for a planned royal transition.

Thus the future of Thailand remains bleak. The royal transition is a lengthy process so the political conflict will drag on. If the conservative royalists continue to punish their enemies through illegal means so they could take charge of the royal succession, the political game will likely end in bloodshed.

Many in Thailand have begun to ask if a civil war is possible.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate fellow at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

Crunch time looms for Thailand’s political crisis

23 April 2014 The Financial Times

Thailand’s destructive political crisis is on the brink of its most dangerous phase yet as the prime minister’s opponents press for a “judicial coup” that critics claim risks tipping the country into dictatorship or even civil war.

Supporters of Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration have vowed to rise to defend her if the country’s legal institutions eject her from office via two cases due to conclude in the next few weeks.

The deadly conflict crippling southeast Asia’s second-largest economy has become an increasingly naked struggle between a cronyist but electorally dominant movement centred on Ms Yingluck’s family and an establishment elite-driven opposition determined to oust it.

Jatuporn Prompan, new leader of the pro-government “red shirt” movement, warned this month of civil war if democracy was “stolen” via a “coup” by judicial institutions.

“If the court verdict comes out against the prime minister, we can expect some turbulence,” said Panitan Wattanayagorn, an academic and ex-spokesman for the previous opposition Democrat-led government. “The military and the police must be able to stabilise the situation.”

Thailand’s constitutional court is expected soon to rule on whether Ms Yingluck should be forced to step down over her replacement in 2011 of Thawil Pliensri as national security chief, allegedly to allow her to promote a relation by marriage to the post of police chief.

The court – which has fast-tracked a petition on the case submitted last month by opposition senators – is due to rule on Wednesday on whether to allow the prime minister more time to mount a defence, or whether to move straight to a verdict.

Ms Yingluck could also be ejected by a separate case at the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which is due soon to recommend whether she should be impeached for alleged dereliction of duty over her handling of a financially disastrous government rice subsidy scheme. The premier, who has faced months of street protests, denies all the allegations against her.

The institutions and their defenders say they are acting according to the law, adding that the wide powers they enjoy – including a role in appointing half of the Senate – are justified because of the need to secure Thailand’s fragile democracy.

Critics however say there is a risk the legal cases simply provide more evidence of the pro-establishment bias of the country’s institutions, after a blizzard of rulings that have paid little heed to popular electoral mandates, parliamentary sovereignty or fair judicial process.

The courts have made a series of sweeping judgments dismissing elected officials and dissolving political parties, including sacking two prime ministers in 2008 – one because he received payments for a television cooking show he had presented before taking office.

Kaewmala, a popular pseudonymous social media commentator, said the country’s legal and regulatory institutions were proving anything but “guardians of democracy”.

“In fact they are doing exactly what they were designed to do,” she said. “It has little to do with democracy, but [is] a preservation of the old elite power and interests.”

If the court verdict comes out against the prime minister, we can expect some turbulence. The military and the police must be able to stabilise the situation.

  • Panitan Wattanayagorn

The constitutional court defended its treatment of the national security adviser case, stressing that it had not yet made its decision or even set a date for a verdict.

The increasingly contentious role of bodies such as the Constitutional Court, the corruption commission and the national election commission goes to the heart of an eight-year on-off crisis that sets the traditional urban elite against rural voters loyal to Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled plutocrat former premier and Ms Yingluck’s brother.

While Thailand is nominally a parliamentary democracy, it has been plagued by military coups for decades and still retains a prominent monarchy protected by lèse-majesté laws carrying jail terms of up to 15 years.

But the country’s historic balance of power has grown progressively more unstable amid social change, concerns over the succession to the near-68-year rule of the octogenarian King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and the destruction of the old establishment’s political hegemony by Mr Thaksin and his allies through a succession of election wins since 2001.

Qatar’s new airport to open – at last

23 April 2014

Qatar’s new Hamad International Airport (HIA) will open to all airlines, including the country’s national carrier, at the end of May, according to a circular issued by the country’s Civil Aviation Authority (QCAA).

A Doha International Airport spokesperson confirmed the information to Doha News this afternoon. The circular was issued shortly after the QCAA set a soft launch date of April 30 for 10 budget carriers.

The new memo states that as of 9am on May 27, “all airlines shall entirely move to Hamad International Airport.”

Thus far, no public statement has been made about either the soft launch or the full opening by any of the airport’s main players. Oddly airport spokespeople could not confirm when the airport would open. And Qatar Airways, the airport operator, was unavailable for comment.

Additionally, while the Federal Aviation Authority’s website contains a notice about the April 30 launch (and the opening of only one runway), there is no mention yet of flights flying out on May 27.

The long-awaited move to HIA means that Qatar Airways’ first three A380s – which are due to arrive in June, more than six months behind schedule – would be able to operate out of an airport with facilities designed to accommodate the double-decker aircraft.

The $15.5 billion airport was supposed to be completed in 2009, and has missed several opening deadlines since then, including on Dec. 12, 2012 (12/12/12) and April 1, 2013, when the launch was scrapped an hour before a plane was set to land there.

The exact reason for the delays remains unclear, though last year, Civil Defense safety approvals were not met. More recently, officials have suggested that the airport’s premium facilities and lounges were awaiting completion.

Meanwhile, DIA has been struggling to accommodate an ever-growing passenger load. Some 2 million people have been traveling through the airport each month, straining services such as parking facilities, passport control, and that has transit facilities that are close to a nightmare.

A sombre Thai new year

20 April 2014

Last Sunday was the Thai new year and also the day that my wife lost her Dad. He had been out with one of his friends. No doubt they had shared a few drinks. They were on his friend’s ageing motorcycle when it crashed. Neither men were wearing a helmet. This is typical in rural Thailand.

Tai’s father died without recovering consciousness. His friend, who was driving, remains in hospital.

Tai’s parents had lived apart for years. But they had never divorced. Although apart, they lived in the same village that they both grew up in. They are both well known among the local community. The community comes together in death though it is not an easy time and the temple becomes a daily meeting place.

In Thailand the funeral rites are the most elaborate of all the life-cycle ceremonies and the ones entered into most fully by the monks. It is a basic teaching of Buddhism that existence is suffering, whether birth, daily living, old age or dying.

The monks will chant the sutras for the deceased, and conduct all the funeral rites and memorial services. Conducting the rites for the dead is one of the indispensable services rendered to the community by the monks. The temples also house the crematory for the community. There is no rival in secular society.

The idea that death is suffering, relieved only by the knowledge that it is universal, gives an underlying mood of resignation to funerals. Even so for most Thais there is the expectation of rebirth either in this world, in the heaven of Indra or some other, or in another plane of existence, possibly as a spirit. Over the basic mood of gloom there has grown up a belief that acts of merit can aid the condition of the departed. For this reason relatives do what they can to ameliorate their condition.

Perhaps this is especially true when a death is sudden and unexpected.

Usually a day after death a bathing ceremony takes place in which relatives and friends pour water over one hand of the deceased. Because of the holiday this was done on the second day. This is also when friends and relatives may look at the face of the deceased. After head injuries this is not easy to do. The body is then placed in a coffin and surrounded with wreaths, candles and sticks of incense. The coffin is purchased by the family.

The coffin in placed on a raised platform; a photograph of the deceased is placed alongside, coloured lights are suspended around the coffin and flowers and wreaths are displayed. Sornklin, a species of traditional funerary flowers — the name literally means “hide the smell” — are arranged around the coffin.

It is worth noting that to make merit for the dead funerals are not cheap affairs; the coffin and flowers need to be bought. Food must be provided each day for guests. The amount of organisation is remarkable and having close friends and family to help is critical.

The body can be kept at home or (as Tai’s family did) at a temple where prayers are chanted by monks each evening for the deceased’s soul. Visitors will join the prayers. And the deceased’s family will offer food to the guests. This normally lasts for three, five or seven days depending on the host or number of hosts (the bereaved from the extended family or community can be invited or can offer to host prayers).

Cremation took place at the temple. Though I was not able to attend as I was meeting Alex in Rome for Easter weekend. There were some 500 guests at the cremation. The family cook breakfast and lunch for the monks earlier in the day. All the guests receive a small gift from the family. Many guests will also give small amounts of money to the family.

A Thai music group is often hired to play at the cremation (and Tai’s family did this) as another way to banish sorrow, loneliness and the fear of spirits through music and fellowship. It is the duty of the family to surround the deceased with as many people as possible until the soul has found a new home and is reborn.

And in death it is generous to forgive unhappiness and difficult times. Tai’s mother was generous, strong, hard-working, considerate beyond expectations and more. In difficult times she really was the central rock of the family. Maybe she always has been. But her dignity in death was a lesson for us all.

Emirates schedule changes during DXB runway closure

20 April 2014

Dubai – Amman Reduced from 2 to 1 daily
Dubai – Amsterdam Reduced from 2 to 1 daily
Dubai – Bahrain Reduced from 21 to 13 weekly
Dubai – Bangalore Reduced from 3 to 2 daily
Dubai – Bangkok Reduced from 6 to 4 daily
Dubai – Beirut Reduced from 2 to 1 daily
Dubai – Cairo Reduced from 2 to 1 daily
Dubai – Cape Town Reduced from 2 to 1 daily
Dubai – Colombo Reduced from 17 to 7 weekly
Dubai – Colombo – Singapore 1 daily service cancelled
Dubai – Delhi Reduced from 4 to 3 daily
Dubai – Doha Reduced from 42 to 20 weekly
Dubai – Frankfurt Reduced from 3 to 2 daily
Dubai – Hamburg Reduced from 14 to 10 weekly
Dubai – Ho Chi Minh City Reduced from 7 to 5 weekly
Dubai – Hong Kong Reduced from 3 to 2 daily
Dubai – Johannesburg Reduced from 3 to 2 daily
Dubai – Karachi Reduced from 5 to 4 daily
Dubai – Kuala Lumpur Reduced from 4 to 3 daily
Dubai – Lagos Reduced from 2 to 1 daily
Dubai – Mauritius Service reduced from 14 to 13 weekly
Dubai – Milan Malpensa Reduced from 3 to 2 daily
Dubai – Moscow Domodedovo Reduced from 2 to 1 daily
Dubai – Mumbai Reduced from 5 to 4 daily
Dubai – Munich Reduced from 14 to 13 weekly
Dubai – Muscat Reduced from 2 to 1 daily
Dubai – Nairobi Reduced from 2 to 1 daily
Dubai – Perth Reduced from 3 to 2 daily
Dubai – Phuket Service reduced from 7 to 6 weekly (this will become 5 times weekly from 02JUN14, and 4 times weekly from 01JUL14).
Dubai – Riyadh Reduced from 28 to 14 weekly
Dubai – Seychelles Reduced from 12 to 7 weekly
Dubai – St. Petersburg Service reduced from 7 to 6 weekly
Dubai – Tehran Reduced from 3 to 2 daily
Dubai – Tunis Reduced from 7 to 4 weekly
Dubai – Zurich Service reduced from 14 to 13 weekly

There are also timetable changes so passengers should check flight time carefully when making or confirming a booking during these 80 days.

Airlines moving to DWC during Dubai runway closure

19 April 2014

Fourteen airlines have reserved slots for flights at Al Maktoum International at Dubai World Central (DWC) while major runway upgrade work is carried out at Dubai International Airport.
The upgrade work, which is designed to improve safety, service and capacity levels, will begin on May 1 and is set to last for 80 days.

flydubai (some flights), PAL Express, Jet Airways, Royal Brunei Airlines, Yemenia Airlines, Equatorial Congo Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Ural Airlines are relocating from Dubai International.

All Emirates Airline flights will continue to operate out of Dubai International. Emirates Airline said on Thursday it will be forced to reduce flights to 41 destinations during the 80-day period of runway upgrading works at Dubai International, which start on May 1.

Emirates said in a statement that its revenues will be hit to the tune of Dh1 billion ($272 million) as it grounds 20 aircraft in May, 22 in June, and 22 in July.

The number of flights at Dubai International will be reduced by 26 per cent while the refurbishment of the runways is carried out.

Dubai Airports is urging passengers to check their flight details to confirm which airport they will be travelling from and arriving at.

“We have planned this project to optimise capacity while protecting service levels and, in conjunction with Dubai Aviation Engineering Projects, airlines and other stakeholders, have deployed all the resources necessary to make it as smooth and seamless as possible,” said Paul Griffiths, the Dubai Airports chief executive.

I do hope these words will not come back to haunt him!

Some airlines are moving flights to Sharjah during the runway closure including Sri Lankan Airlines who will move one of their daily DXB flights. SHJ is a former destination of theirs

Dubai International has recorded seven consecutive months of double-digit growth and overtook London Heathrow as the largest airport in the world in terms of the number of international passengers for the first two months of the year, amassing 5.6 million passengers in February alone.

However, Saif Mohammed Al Suwaidi, the director general, General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), said last week that the airport needs to find a way to use both of its runways simultaneously to avoid exceeding its capacity.

Or more realistically Dubai needs to accelerate the development of DWC and to encourage some airlines to move there on a full time basis.

The flight of MH370

11 April 2014

As the search is hopefully closing in on the final resting place of flight MH370 which went missing 5 weeks ago this is the latest map of the likely route taken by the flight. There is of course still no explanation of what happened on board the flight.

flydubai makes biggest move during DXB runway closure

11 April 2014

Dubai’s two hometown airlines have taken very different approaches to the issues created by the three month runway closures at Dubai’s international airport.

Emirates, which depends so heavily on connectivity is reducing flights by about 25% during the closure.

flydubai is maintaining a full flight schedule but is moving many of its flights to the new Al Maktoum International (DWC) at Jebel Ali between 30 April and 21 July 2014:

flydubai will move flights departing to and arriving from: Ahmedabad, Chittagong, Jeddah, Kiev Zhulyany, Odessa, Amman, Colombo, Kabul, Kuwait, Riyadh, Bahrain, Dammam, Kathmandu, Malé (Maldives), Samara, Beirut, Doha, Kazan, Mattala, Ufa, Chisinau, Donetsk, Khartoum, Muscat* and Yekaterinburg

*Indicates that flight operations to and from this destination are spilt between Al Maktoum International (DWC) and Terminal 2 at Dubai International (DXB). Passengers should check the flydubai flight schedules carefully when making a booking

If you’ve already booked a flight, you can check your booking confirmation. All flight numbers for flydubai services operating into and out of Al Maktoum International (DWC) will have 4 digits and begin with the number 5 (e.g. FZ 5XXX).

If you arrive at Al Maktoum International (DWC) and need to connect to another flight departing from Dubai International (DXB), you will need to enter the UAE (clearing customs and immigration) and collect your checked baggage. The same applies if you arrive at Dubai International (DXB) and need to connect to another flight departing from Al Maktoum International (DWC). Passengers should check whether you need a visa to enter the UAE and ensure they have sufficient time to travel to the connecting airport.

If you have already booked your flight and find that it has now moved to Al Maktoum too bad; the airline’s standard rules for changing or cancelling a booking apply whether a passenger travels into and out of Al Maktoum International (DWC) or Dubai International (DXB).

Over 300 flights per week at Dubai’s Al Maktoum airport from May 1

11 April 2014

Meanwhile Dubai Airports is advising that more than 300 flights per week are expected to be relocated to Al Maktoum International Airport at Dubai World Central (DWC) in Jebel Ali during the 80-day runway refurbishment of Dubai International Airport starting May 1, 2014.

Reality check; this is less than fifty a day; many of them are presumably freighters. It is hardly a clarion call for the new airfield. And a number of airlines are relocating their flights to Sharjah during the runway closure. Sharjah is better established as a full service airfield and is closer to downtown Dubai and many residential areas than is Jebel Ali.

Dubai Airports says DWC will also serve as an alternate airport should any flight be diverted due to bad weather or any other delays at Dubai International (DXB). But it already does so this is hardly news.

So far, 17 airlines including flydubai, have confirmed their intent to temporarily relocate their services to Dubai’s second airport from May 1 to July 29.

On April 30, Dnata will have to move equipment overnight to DWC to ensure they are ready to receive flights that have relocated from Dubai International.

Dubai Airports says that it will also be using the airshow building to process passengers should any flights be diverted. It will allow passengers whose final destination is Dubai to clear immigration while those with connecting flights to be flown or bussed back to Dubai International. It is a sensible contingency plan. Let’s hope the airshow buildings can withstand any adverse weather; they failed notoriously during the airshow itself.

To help the smooth connection between the two airports Dubai Airports will introduce a luxury bus service for passengers connecting between the two airports.

If there are any more details about the airlines moving to DWC and transport to downtown and to DXB I will post the information on this site.

Court orders end of Emirates Milan to New York route

11 April 2013

An Italian court has ruled that Emirates cannot operate flights directly between Milan Malpensa airport and New York, upholding a legal challenge brought against the Gulf airline by the Italian carrier association Assaereo.

Assaereo, whose biggest member is domestic flagship airline Alitalia, had complained that Italy’s civil aviation authority ENAC had granted Emirates the right to extend flights from Dubai to Malpensa onwards to New York’s John F Kennedy airport.

Delta Air Lines has backed the suit.

The airlines have argued that the new service violates international aviation laws. Alitalia, Delta and American are Emirates’ main competitors on the lucrative route.

Now to confuse the issue it appears that Abu Dhabi based Etihad is likely to take an up to 40% stake in loss-making Alitalia. Effectively Etihad would take control. There are also rumours that Etihad would seek to merge Alitalia with its Air Berlin investment.

Now did Etihad support the legal challenge against its Dubai-based neighbour in order to try and keep Alitalia competitive?

The Wall Street Journal reported that: “The airline industry has closely watched the Emirates’ flight, launched in October, as a sign of how three fast-growing Persian Gulf-based carriers may pursue expansion beyond their hometown hubs.”

According to the court, Assaereo said in a statement on Thursday, the right to use Milan as a stopover cannot be granted to a non-EU operator or a carrier from a country which is neither the port of departure nor destination, which in this case are Italy and the United States.

Emirates, which may appeal the decision, started to fly the Malpensa-New York route in October last year. Emirates can apparently fly the route until current permissions expire. developments.

So even though the traffic rights have already been granted, the Italian authorities are now saying “the route [Milan-New York] is already abundantly served by US and Italian airlines. On the one side is the open skies argument. On the other side there are the protectionists seeking to shore up the local airlines.

It does appear that the Milanese are unhappy with this decision. Writing on Twitter, Roberto Maroni, president of the Lombardy region, says “The decision is amazing and shameful, Rome continues to damage the North.”

What the Italians are proposing flies in the face of international aviation law. Fifth-freedom rights where governed by bilateral agreements are enshrined in international aviation law. There are many examples in the EU already of fifth-freedom services by non-EU airlines which have operated for years.

So airline experts are wondering if this ruling is really intended to remove competition from struggling national airline Alitalia to encourage investment by Abu Dhabi’s Etihad.

If Emirates do launch a legal challenge given the pace of the Italian legal system functions it could be some time before the outcome is determined.

Oscar for best amateur dramatics

8 April 2014

This year’s oscar for best amateur dramatics may belong to Oscar Pistorius.

He has had a year to prepare for this role in court and his tears and strong emotions must be for the benefit of the public and the judge in his trial for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp.

This appears to be a guy who liked guns; a guy who always had a gun nearby. He had no problem finding his gun. But could not find his girlfriend.

He is of course the only person alive who knows what really happened that night. Was there a fight. Was he in a rage. Did Steenkamp hide from him.

The suggestion that there were intruders is his defense. Yet the house is in a secure estate. How often do heavily-armed men with ladders climb up and open your bathroom window in a secure estate?

Pistorius says that he was screaming & shouting even before shooting, yet Steenkamp, who was in the bathroom, did not respond? The idea that Steenkamp did not utter a sound throughout Pistorius’ gun rampage is hard to believe.

The whole thing sounds very rehearsed to me. Yet there are still big holes in the story. I believe his remorse is genuine. Arguing premeditation is hard. Heat of the moment; a crime of passion. A lost life. But the defense strategy is clear; consistent story; emotional break downs. And later a cross-examination that will be crippled by his sobbing.

All creating reasonable doubt. No one wins in this sorry story, except maybe the lawyers. It does expose the rampant gun culture that exists in South Africa and maybe the high profile case will lead to stronger legislation and control.

Oscar Pistorius: the key questions he must answer from the witness box

More on Pistorius and guns on SkyNews

Margaret Thatcher began Britain’s obsession with property. It’s time to end it.

6 April 2014 The Observer (Worth showing in full and well worth a read – this is a very real problem – not just in the UK)

In 1975, in her first speech as leader to the Conservative party conference, Margaret Thatcher declared her belief in a “property-owning democracy”. She didn’t invent the phrase – the 1920s Tory MP Noel Skelton should take the credit for that, and the American liberal philosopher John Rawls picked it up before she did – but it became the most distinctive of all her many distinctive ideas, the one that most succinctly describes the Britain she wanted to create.

Through thrift and hard work, went the theory, ordinary families should be able to buy their own homes. It would give them security, dignity and freedom and liberate them from the nannying of local council landlords. It would make them better citizens, with their own stake in the economic wellbeing of the country, they would have an incentive to contribute to national prosperity. It exemplified her belief that capitalism was good not only for the rich, but for people on modest incomes. As the then environment secretary, Michael Heseltine, put it later: “Home ownership stimulates the attitudes of independence and self-reliance that are the bedrock of a free society.”

So Thatcher allowed council tenants to buy their own homes at reduced prices, and since the right to buy was introduced, about 1.5m have been bought. She presided over an economy in which house buying became a national obsession and home ownership went up from 9.7m to 12.8m. Fundamental to her idea was that government, which had built between a third and a half of all homes for the previous three decades, should step back. Councils could no longer build council housing. The market would provide. Houses would be built by housebuilders, to use the standard term for the companies that buy land, win planning permission and then (sometimes) put homes on it.

Thatcher’s idea is now at a point of crisis. Housebuilders are not building enough houses, and the proportion of people owning their own homes has been falling since 2007. People have long ago found that it does not always make you free to be shackled to a mortgage, still less if you cannot cross the increasingly high threshold into ownership. In London and the south-east, businesses lament the effects on them of expensive housing caused by the lack of mobility of potential workers.

Debt and speculation have been encouraged more than thrift and people who only wanted a home were forced to be gamblers in a turbulent market. The property-owning democracy is not turning out to be democratic, excluding as it does the large minority who don’t own homes. In a sick practical joke, people have been encouraged to take on long-term mortgages at the same time that secure lifetime employment, which might pay for them, is disappearing. As for public spirit, with rising house prices goes rising nimbyism, as owners seek to protect their investment from all possible threats, above all the threat of more homes being built nearby that other people might live in.

Over three decades, a culture has been created in which the price of homes colours almost every aspect of life. It affects people’s decisions about whether and when to live together, stay together and have children. An economy has been created in which inflation, otherwise frowned upon, is desirable in house prices, even essential. Property values are used as the principal tool of urban regeneration and, when those values fail to materialise, so does the regeneration. The infamous bedroom tax regards a few square metres of spare space as such a great asset that it must be wrenched from the grasp of the undeserving poor. “Values”, indeed, is a telling word – we use it more to describe property than anything to do with ethical or social ideals.

It is amazing, beyond satire, that the two biggest stories in housing are on the one hand the bedroom tax and on the other the streets and squares of empty houses in Belgravia and Kensington, bought as investments by owners who rarely visit. At the same time that, when it comes to poor people, vacant rooms are deemed an offence to be expunged, they grow unchecked in the most desirable parts of London.

At almost every level, the market isn’t working, from ex-industrial towns in northern England, where the values are too low to justify repairs to existing houses, to the under-supply and high prices in London, where an average home now costs £458,000, or 13 times the median full-time income. Hidden favelas are growing up in suburbs such as Newham and Southall, with unauthorised developments in back gardens and flats occupied at many times the levels for which they were designed.
Newham, London: favela-style housing is on the increase in suburbs such as Newham and Southall, with severe overcrowding and unauthorised developments in back gardens and yards. Photograph: Newham Council/Archant
A system has been created with a few winners, for sure, but not the people excluded from the market, nor those barely able to pay for their homes, some of whom will drown when interest rates start going up. Even those who bought early enough to have a profit on their home find it to be largely nominal, impossible to realise without removing themselves or their children from the all-important property ladder.

Not even housebuilders are entirely happy, although recent government policies such as Help to Buy and the encouragement of easy credit have helped their share prices rise. They grumble that planning restrictions and regulations make their work unreasonably difficult and that the margins in their business are low. “It is a fantastically hard business,” says one of those involved, because of its booms and busts. The most obvious winners were people such as Judith and Fergus Wilson, the Kent-based buy-to-let magnates said to be worth £180m. But here too there are losers – the people who got their fingers burned when this particular market crashed.

As Danny Dorling, in his recent book All That is Solid: The Great Housing Disaster has pointed out, the home is now seen as a commodity, as a unit of investment to be traded up or down. Attachment to a place, or the interconnectedness of units to make a community, is given little value. The pursuit of ideals, the idea of social or architectural betterment in the provision of housing, has all but disappeared.

Early in the last century, when Arts and Crafts architecture was flourishing and the first garden cities were being planned, the German architect Hermann Muthesius published The English House, which was based on the premise that this country was particularly good at domestic architecture and that countries such as Germany should look and learn. It is unlikely anyone would want to do this now, as new British homes have, as well as the highest prices, the meanest dimensions to be found anywhere in Europe. What we have instead are a series of distinctive if largely inadvertent types, created by a warped market, which might be summarised thus:

Rural eyesore

An attempt to squeeze housing units into places where people want to live (the countryside in southern England), but the people there already don’t want any more. Compromise ensues, in which new houses take on a huddled, crowded air and are given a traditional style to mitigate their intrusion. Making a new place with positive and exceptional qualities is out of the question, as all the developers’ creative energies have gone into wrestling with the planning system to get their permission.

Investment silo

In London and some other big cities, dense apartment blocks are built with the primary purpose of creating vehicles for investment. Sometimes they are towers. In the previous decade, these developments were primarily aimed at British-based buy-to-let investors; currently the main target are overseas buyers. These projects typically have just enough decking, white paint and glass balustrades to allow good-looking young couples to be photographed inside them holding glasses of white wine, such that the adjectival nouns “luxury lifestyle” can be attached. They also have enough odd angles, or multicoloured cladding, to claim the adjective “iconic”.

Affordable silo

Similar to an investment silo, to the extent that housing associations are now the main providers of affordable housing, and are also pressured to behave more and more like property developers. Their products therefore look increasingly like those of developers, although with some reductions in the luxury lifestyle and “iconic” elements. On the other hand, they tend to be built with better standards of space, as housing associations have to follow stricter rules than private developers.

Student silo

Exploiting loopholes in the planning and regulatory systems, which make fewer demands on student housing than other types, property companies have in recent years rushed into this market. Among the attractions of students to developers is that they can be put into even smaller spaces than anyone else. The typology is similar to other types of silo, but with still less in the luxury lifestyle department.

Northern disaster zone

Parts of Liverpool and Gateshead have been demolished by the government, the old streets replaced with smaller numbers of new homes. The result? The uprooting of people who wanted to stay put and zones of demolished and empty buildings. Photograph: Nigel R. Barklie/REX
Parts of Liverpool or Gateshead, for example: places afflicted by the last government’s Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder project, where about £2bn of public money was spent buying up streets in areas of low value, demolishing them, and replacing them with smaller numbers of new homes. The theory was that, under the laws of supply and demand, reduced supply would raise values. The reality was the breaking up of communities, the uprooting of people who wanted to stay put and devastated zones of demolished and empty buildings.

Overcrowded London

Flats and backyards adapted to house as many people as possible.

Empty Belgravia

Extraordinarily expensive houses owned by people with properties in several other countries, such that they are usually unoccupied. Often also iceberg houses, with multifloor basements expensively created underneath, to create further quantities of void.

Nonexistent new town

Successive governments are lured to the attractive idea of the new town, as it enables large numbers of homes to be built while annoying fewer residents than if they have been spread over a wider area. It appeals to politicians’ love of a visible gesture. The same governments then fail to provide the infrastructure and planning to make these towns happen. The last administration promised both a new city in the Thames Gateway, to the east of London, and a series of “ecotowns”. Very little of either appeared.

It is not in fact so difficult to create good modern housing. There are well-known examples in continental Europe, often cited in discussions of the subject, such as Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm, Vauban in Freiburg, and Borneo Sporenburg in Amsterdam. Peter Hall, the planning expert whose recent book, Good Cities, Better Lives, explores the best European examples, says that there is an “extraordinary similarity” between these schemes: they have good public transport, from which all homes are within easy walking distance, and “a good disposition of semi-public spaces”, such as playgrounds and shared gardens.
St Andrews in East London: housebuilder Barratt, not always a byword for design quality, is responsible for this project with its emphasis on robust detailing, balconies and shared space.
Nor is Britain incapable of decent developments. Barratt, a housebuilder not always associated with design quality, has built the St Andrews and Barrier Park projects in east London, albeit only after prodding from the London Development Agency, the public body that sold it the land. Richard Lavington, one of the architects of these developments, says that the aims were “to put a balcony on every unit, and to create a positive interface between private and public”, by which he means placing family homes close to shared open spaces and streets in such a way that they might readily use them. He also sought “clear, robust detailing” that would be “straightforward to build”.

Again, this is not complicated stuff and the developments live up to these claims. Cognoscenti of new housing will also know of fine, small-scale projects by the developers Crispin Kelly of Baylight and Roger Zogolovitch of Solidspace. Kelly says: “Big windows and high ceilings are a start, and lack of fussiness – having the confidence to do things simply.” Inside, he likes bonus spaces – on a stair landing for example – where a child might do homework, and outside something as basic as a bench that encourages neighbours to meet. Like Kelly, Zogolovitch likes undesignated spots “where you might set up a cello or an easel or write a novel”. He uses design to make small spaces feel larger and give them personality.
Kevin McCloud at The Triangle housing project in Swindon. Photograph: Professional Images
In Swindon there is The Triangle, created with the help of Kevin McCloud’s company Hab, which also stresses the importance of shared space and simple design. And, when you ask for examples of good new housing, you keep being referred back to Cambridge. Here is Accordia, which won the Stirling prize in 2008, and the university-backed £1bn plan to create 3,000 homes, half of them for key workers, on 150 hectares in the north-west of the city. Also in Cambridge are developments such as the “Scandinavian-style” Seven Acres, by the multinational construction company Skanska, which again is based on the virtues of simplicity and shared space.

But these bright spots are too rare and require favourable conditions, such as having a TV personality or an ancient university to back them. They tend to be in places such as London or Cambridge, where prices rise faster than elsewhere. This helps to pay for more quality, but by definition makes it harder to achieve.

The housing crisis is one of both quantity and quality. Some 250,000 new homes a year are said to be needed, but after 2008 the number fell below 100,000, mostly built by private housebuilders but also by housing associations. In the postwar peak in the late 60s, more than 400,000 were created a year, many of them by the councils later banned from building by Margaret Thatcher. Meanwhile, the private sector built at a reasonably steady rate from the late 1950s on, between 150,000 and 250,000 a year. Until the 2008 crash, that is, when output plummeted to a level not seen for half a century.

Blame for this lack of supply is usually placed on the planning system. There is nowhere in southern England for new housing to go or, rather, nowhere where voters and therefore politicians want it to go. Suggestions of building anything on the green belt bring accusations of desecration of a national treasure and similarly with rural locations further from big cities. The theory that brownfields, that is ex-industrial sites, could answer all housing need has proved challenging in practice. Such sites are not always where people want to live.

Suggestions for fixing the problem include, as always, the new town or, as George Osborne likes to call it, the “garden city”. He used the term when repackaging existing proposals for Ebbsfleet in Kent, and presenting them as his invention, but his duplicity should not obscure the possibility that it might be a good idea. Peter Hall passionately believes that the principal hope for housing is building new towns and town-size extensions to existing cities. The new towns created in the 1960s, of which Milton Keynes is the biggest and best known, may have become the butt of patronising jokes, but, says Hall, “were really rather successful”. They did their job of relieving pressure and “all the evidence shows that people like living there”.

Another idea is to fit more homes into London, which is several times less densely populated than, for example, Paris. Another is to encourage people to build their own houses, which currently accounts for a minute proportion of the total. Another, popular with the current government, is the “neighbourhood plan”. Here, local communities (usually rural) put together their own proposals for development so that some of the proceeds go to shared benefits and growth is no longer an aggressive intervention by outsiders. It might also help if we moved away from the preoccupation of home ownership with the help of decent properties for private rent. Michael Heseltine once said that “there is in this country a deeply ingrained desire for home ownership”, but in 1900 90% of homes, at almost every level of price, were rented.

All these suggestions have merit and the answer is almost certainly to embrace all of them and more. We have to go from our current culture, where new housing is treated as pollution, and something to be squeezed through the planning system with the greatest difficulty, to one where it is seen as a positive asset. There is a vicious circle – new development is poor because it takes so much effort to overcome objections and people object to it because it is poor.

But none of these ideas will happen without the thing the coalition has been least willing to employ, which is active and forward-looking public intervention. It is hard to build a new town, or a well considered rural expansion, without things such as compulsorily buying land, paying professionals to plan it or providing transport. As Dickon Robinson, formerly of housing association the Peabody Trust puts it: “The market has failed. It’s time to put some controversial ideas out there.”

The compulsory purchase by government from private landowners sounds communist, but it was used (for example) in the “renewal” of northern cities. It is just that politicians are more reluctant to wield it in Kent than in Gateshead. If we are sceptical about the power of planners to achieve their objectives, we only need to look at the Netherlands. There, they had a similar scale of housing shortage, in proportion to the country’s size, to the one that has been diagnosed in Britain for the past 15 years. Unlike Britain, they fixed it, by building nearly half a million new homes.

Planning apart, there is a deep flaw with the idea that the market alone will meet all the country’s housing needs. The problem is not only to do with the numbers supplied, but with how much each home costs and housebuilders cannot be expected to lead a process that results in the value of their product going down. They would rather sit on their land until such time as its price goes up, which means that some other agency has to do what they won’t, which means, in effect, that the government has to intervene more actively in promoting building – by acquiring land, producing considered plans for its development, and then promoting such development.

Given that in much of Britain the price of homes is high, a slow deflation might be desirable; the ideal could be that prices stay the same, so that they gently fall in real terms. But the coalition’s big idea is the opposite. With Help to Buy, changing pension rules and other measures, they have stimulated demand without a corresponding increase in supply, such that prices go up further. As the Financial Times has said, this is economically illiterate. It would be a useful first step to reverse these policies.

We are now at a moment similar to the 1970s, when ideas about housing that had lasted a generation stopped working. Then it was the legacy of Clement Attlee’s postwar government, which believed in massive state provision of housing, but which ended up restricting freedoms and too often creating homes people didn’t like. Thatcher’s policies were a necessary corrective, and had real benefits, but now they too are failing. It is time for something new.

It’s not easy to champion planning, as it tends to summon images of faceless bureaucrats and grandiose visions gone wrong. But, as Hermann Muthesius recognised in the early 1900s, and as Peter Hall argues about 1960s new towns, it is not un-British to plan and design new communities well. The national dependency on high house prices has, in its effects, become an economic, social and cultural disaster. Active intervention is needed. As someone once said, there is no alternative.

The endless legal coup

5 April 2014

One way or another the courts will remove Yingluck Shinawatra as Thai PM. The question is when?

There courts are hedging their bets with a number of legal challenges.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) is charging Yingluck with dereliction of duty related to alleged corruption in her government’s rice-pledging scheme, and is also bringing charges against against 308 lawmakers for their role in proposed constitutional amendments. That is ongoing.

But bizarrely it is a case involving a sole civil servant that may bring the government down.

The Supreme Administrative Court last week ruled that the removal of Thawil Pliensri as National Security Council (NSC) secretary in 2011 was unlawful. Mr Thawil was shifted from the position under the orders of the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

Thawil Pliensri was reinstated by the Supreme Administrative Court a couple of weeks ago. The court has “affirmed its authority to consider the Thawil case that was submitted by a group of senators led by Paiboon Nititawan.” This unelected senator is a regular petitioner to the Constitutional Court and a member of the anti-Thaksin Shinawatra group of appointed senators with royalist and military ties.

The Bangkok Post states that Paiboon’s petition claims “the transfer was not in the public’s best interests, but is an attempt to find a position for ex-national police chief Wichean Potephosree so the government could appoint its own man to the police chief’s job.”

The Supreme Administrative Court argued that the prime minister’s signing of the transfer was unlawful and ordered Mr Thawil reinstated.

Mr Thawil lodged his initial complaint with the Central Administrative Court in April 2012, accusing Ms Yingluck of unfair treatment after he was transferred from the NSC on Sept 30, 2011.

On May 31 last year, the Administrative Court ruled in favour of Mr Thawil, revoking the prime ministerial order and ordering Mr Thawil’s reinstatement. Appealing against that decision, Ms Yingluck claimed that as head of the government she had the authority to transfer officials to ensure the national administration was in line with the government’s policy manifesto; not an unreasonable position.

However, the court ruled yesterday that while the prime minister could exercise her judgement in transferring personnel, there must be plausible reasons to justify her decisions. Transfers should be free from bias or political preferences, the court said.

Thawil’s repeated appearances on the rally stages of the anti-government protests in the past five months suggest someone who is never intending to work with or for the Yingluck government.

The court alleges that Prime Minister Yingluck has allegedly violated the second paragraph of Section 266, since her decision to remove Thawil was politically motivated, since the reshuffle ultimately landed Priewphan Damapong as National Police Chief, who is a brother of Thaksin’s ex-wife and Yingluck’s former sister-in-law Potjaman Na Pombejra.

Cameron and the Muslim Brothers

4 April 2014 – The Financial Times (Subscription only)

Since the September 11 attacks on the US in 2001, Britain, like other western governments, has from time to time banned Islamist movements that incite violence or sponsor terrorism. The announcement by David Cameron that his government is conducting an inquiry into the Muslim Brotherhood is highly unusual – and has raised suspicions over the prime minister’s motives.

The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, is the most important pan-Islamic political organisation in the world. It has millions of followers in the Middle East and beyond. In the past three years, of course, its branch in Egypt has occupied centre stage. After the fall of the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood enjoyed a brief stint in power marked by chaos and incompetence. In 2012 the military overthrew the government and the movement is now being hounded. Last week an Egyptian court sentenced 529 of its members to death.

Given the widespread disquiet in the west at those sentences, Mr Cameron’s announcement of an investigation into the Brotherhood looks somewhat ill-timed. It also has triggered unease in Whitehall. The prime minister’s office said Sir John Jenkins, the British ambassador to Riyadh, will head the inquiry into the “group’s philosophy and values and alleged connections with extremism and violence”. Yet Foreign Office officials have expressed concern privately that this cuts against its efforts to engage with the organisation inside and outside Britain.

There are good reasons why the UK security services might want to take a hard look at the Brotherhood. The more the movement is crushed in Egypt, the more likely its members may lash out violently inside that country and beyond. With political Islam again under pressure in the Middle East, the UK must beware of allowing London to become a haven for radical Islamists as it did in the 1990s.

Yet the very public announcement of this inquiry – and in particular the fact that the ambassador to Riyadh is in charge – is bound to fuel suspicions that the UK is acting under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. For the rulers in Riyadh, the Brotherhood represents their most potent rival for influence across the region. Diplomatic and commercial relations between Saudi Arabia and the UK have been strained by Britain’s failure to act in Syria and by its engagement with Iran. This inquiry therefore smacks of gesture politics.

The problem is that it also carries risks. Several peaceful community organisations in the UK are sympathetic to the Brotherhood and have been for decades. The announcement that the government is conducting an investigation may gratuitously alienate those groups.

Western powers should also beware of threatening to crack down on what is an amorphous and generally peaceable movement. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have outlawed the Brotherhood. If the west follows, this will fuel the argument of jihadists that the only way to forge an Islamic state is by the bullet not the ballot box.

Above all, the UK must avoid giving the impression that it will pander to the Saudis for commercial reasons. In 2006 Tony Blair’s government created controversy by calling off a Serious Fraud Office investigation into allegations that BAE, Britain’s biggest arms company, had paid massive bribes to Saudi princes to win lucrative contracts. Such moves are diplomatically demeaning.

The announcement on the Muslim Brotherhood is therefore misjudged. If there are individuals on its fringes who pose a security threat to the UK, they should be prosecuted or proscribed under existing terror laws. Mr Cameron needs to set limits to how far he will travel in pursuit of British commercial interests.

Busiest international airport is also among the least glamorous

3 April 2014

The Guardian today proposes “Move over Heathrow. Now Dubai International is the world’s No 1 airport”

With its boulevards of plastic palm trees, gleaming silver interior and “Zen Garden” complete with lush ferns and refreshing mist machine, Dubai International is a world away from the much-maligned Heathrow airport.

However, it is not just on pomp and glamour that Britain’s flagship transport hub is being outdone. Figures for the first two months of 2014 show that Dubai has overtaken Heathrow as the airport with the largest number of international passengers in the world. It dealt with almost 2 million more in the period, and with a growth rate of 13.5%, it is likely to continue to outpace Heathrow, which remains Europe’s busiest airport.

But while UK politicians will be dismayed at Heathrow’s fading significance it would be nigh-on impossible for Heathrow to keep up with the aggressive expansion of the Arab state. Dubai International plans to increase its passenger numbers from 60 to 90 million over the next four years, constructing an additional terminal space and concourse twice the size of Heathrow’s terminal five. Bearing in mind that Dubai’s palatial terminal 3, exclusively for the state’s own Emirates airline, is already the largest around – at 1,713,000 square metres, it has the second largest floor area of any building on the planet – Heathrow does start to feel a little, well, regional.

“Dubai really is in a sweet spot as far as global travel goes,” says Jim Krane, Gulf specialist at Rice University’s Baker Institute and author of Dubai: The story of the world’s fastest city. “While Heathrow is a break between North America and Europe, Dubai sits in between the far bigger population centres of Asia; anyone flying West from Asia will fly over the Persian gulf. It has set itself up as a venus fly trap for international travel.”

But even Krane admits the speed of growth is impressive. “In the 80s, when Heathrow was already booming, the airport was just a couple of metal sheds with some guys hand-stamping tickets,” he says. “Dubai couldn’t actually get enough flights to come to it, which is why they ended up founding their own airline. It really is a fairytale for them that they’ve now overtaken Heathrow.”

Expect to hear much more about the pleasures of a stopover there. Such as the opportunity to blow £160 on a raffle ticket for their rolling million-dollar draw, or £6,500 on a bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc at terminal 3’s fine wine store Le Clos. And nothing really says “you’re in Dubai” quite like a shop selling gold bullion in the duty free.

Oh, he’s right about the glamour – nothing beats the legions of men wrapped in their blankets and sleeping on the floor at all hours, the cloying choking stink around the busy smoking rooms, queuing behind someone buying a kilo of nuts in three different currencies at 2am or the fight for overhead locker space because nobody else on the flight paid attention to the luggage restrictions.

There’s nothing glamorous in arriving on an Emirates flight, being parked next to the airport boundary fence and spending almost 30 minutes on a freezing air conditioned bus before arriving at the terminal. Then walking through the terminal, down escalators and travelling underground on travelators, up escalators and into the arrivals hall, another thirty minutes, to wait in the passport control queue for possibly another 30 minutes, before walking into baggage reclaim. This is Dubai. Doesn’t come close to Singapore for traveller friendly, calm, organised and clean efficiency. The same goes for the two Cities.

Dubai airport is the most depressing place on Earth. A temple to rabid consumerism.

Falling out with Thailand

2 April 2014

My first ever visit to Thailand was in 1984 in a previous life; long before this blog had ever seen the light of day.

In was twelve years before I was back there with Reuters salvaging a messy acquisition which got even messier when the financial crisis hit Asia in mid 1997. By that time I was a fairly regular visitor; but an expense account visitor; staying in very nice hotels.

Then in late 2002 I moved to Bangkok for work; though initially most of the work was over in Vancouver. I stayed in a serviced apartment a short walk from my office. The frustrations were less with my lifestyle than with the frustrations of work and trying to deliver a project that promised so much.

Tai and I now visit regularly to see her family or for short vacations.

I don’t think I was ever in love with Thailand; but I enjoyed the sense of being somewhere different; the smells, colours, noises, music, people. I enjoyed exploring the country though you quickly realise just how dependent Thailand is on its capital, Bangkok. Thailand’s second city, Chiang Mai, is by comparison a small, sleepy country town.

The problem is that in 20 years Thailand really has not progressed. In many ways it has regressed.

Education is still inept; lagging far behind most of Asia and still focussed on traditional Thai beliefs, old world curricula and supporting a class based structure rather than a meritocracy.

Domestic infrastructure investment is woeful outside of Bangkok. Bangkok has its metro and skytrain; they were adequate when opened but are already woefully short of capacity. The new airport opened. But it was too small on day one and the old Don Muang airport had to be re-opened for passenger traffic. The rail network is a national embarrassment. The city bus networks run on antiquated buses. The long distance coach network fraught with the dangers of poor roads and worse drivers.

Politics; anyone who reads this web site will know that the country has regressed not progressed. The privileged want to hold onto power. More or less by any means. And the privileged include people across all colours of the political spectrum.

But forget the politics – it is the little things that make Thailand so depressing. Most of these are not new problems. It is just that there has not been any improvement in decades.

Roads are almost too dangerous to cross; anyone walking on a pedestrian crossing is a target.

Sidewalks that are impassable due to the market stalls, food stalls and worst of all evening/late night bars that occupy them.

Overcrowded public transport.

Metered taxis that have no interest in using the meter.

Silly taxes on wine. But not a problem if you drink Thai whisky.

Taxi touts as soon as you emerge from immigration at BKK airport.

The road death toll every Songkran.

The “if you dont like it leave” argument. No; we would like to help you make it better. Don’t accept mediocrity.

Thai newspapers that self censor to avoid any discussion of the issues that really matter.

Double – pricing. Farangs pay more – even if you have come half way around the world to see us.

Dogma. If you are not with us you are against us. There is no debate. Actually that sums up the country rather well. There is simply no educated, rationale debate about the future of the country and how to get there for the benefit of all.

Contradictions. A self – sufficiency economy or rampant consumerism and greed.

Corruption at every level. Policemen with their hands out. Politicians with their hands out.

Service charges for no service.

Huge rats. And many of them. And cockroaches. Can be hard to spot after dark. Not good when you tread on one.

And too many parts of Bangkok, away from the main tourist drags, that appear to be crumbling. Again. No investment.

Uncontrolled development. Ruining once attractive towns like Hua Hin.

The world’s biggest and ugliest advertising hoardings.

And that is just my short list. It is such a shame.

Emirates contact center network

1 April 2014

There was an interesting announcement from Emirates today about the opening of a new contact center for the airline – and it is in Hungary – Budapest to be precise.

This is the airline’s second European customer contact centre in Budapest and will create 300 jobs in the Hungarian capital.

Emirates stated that it had searched extensively across Europe to find the right location for this facility; noting that “the support from the Hungarian Investment and Trade Agency has been incredibly valuable.”

Now anyone who has been to Budapest will know that language skills are not abundant and Budapest is not the first city that comes to mind when planning a new customer support location. It is, however, likely that the airline received significant support from the local authorities.

The center is probably also better located to provide languages support to the growing number of Eastern European nations that are now part of the EK network; though many would argue that you could easily do that from the UK now.

The facility will manage reservation services as well as multi-lingual support for the frequent flyer program, Emirates Skywards handling calls calls and emails in nine languages.

Emirates also confirmed that it has six established support centers in Dubai, Manchester, Mumbai, New York, Melbourne and Guangzhou. They currently support over 35,000 calls and emails per day.

Treat MH370 tragedy rationally

31 March 2014 By Mei Xinyu (China Daily) (Note this is a change of tone from China which had previously supported/encouraged protests at the Malaysian Embassy).

Trying to force someone to do what something they are unwilling to do usually tends to make things more difficult, a more feasible way is to use official channels and promise not to disclose such information to the public and third parties, so as to have access to more sensitive information.

We should know that the government will do its best to safeguard the rights and interests of Chinese citizens and there is no reason to doubt that the government is not taking pains to deal with the crisis.

Public opinion should not blame the Malaysian authorities for deliberately covering up information in the absence of hard evidence. Whether by official channels or follow-up civil litigation, we still need to speak with evidence and act according to the law, rather than through “making a noise” or indulging in aggressive or irrational behavior.

China is a great power and our government attaches great importance to the incident. After flight MH370 went missing, the Chinese government not only carried out intense diplomacy, it also deployed the largest rescue team in its history of maritime search and rescue operations, including coast guard vessel 3411, South China Sea Rescue 101 and 115, the amphibious landing ship Jinggangshan, the guided missile frigate Mianyang, the guided missile destroyer Haikou, the amphibious landing ship Kunlunshan, the warship Qiandaohu, the guided missile destroyer Changchun, the guided missile frigate Changzhou and integrated supply ship Chaohu. They carry several helicopters, about 1,000 marines, and dozens of professional divers and medical teams. In addition, China has also redeployed about 20 satellites to hunt for the wreckage, which is unprecedented. Even though there are such and such doubts, since the country has mobilized so much manpower and resources, why cannot we be patient and just wait until they find the wreckage and get the evidence.

We should acknowledge that in the face of the tragedy of flight MH370, Malaysia did not pass the buck, and the whole of Malaysian society showed their deep sorrow and shame. Malaysian citizens, media and scholars all openly criticized the authorities for their misconduct in handling the case. Their public opinion did not claim that the incident was masterminded by an individual that does not represent Malaysia and its people and they did not retort to outside criticism and pressure. Chinese people should refrain from inciting criticism and instigating boycotts against Malaysia so as to avoid hurting the majority of people in Malaysia.

All Chinese people sympathize with the relatives of the passengers on board MH370 and share their sufferings. But we should also remember that a time of adversity is no excuse for trampling on social norms.

We can understand and tolerate those victim families’ emotional catharsis as long as their behavior doesn’t violate social norms.

We hope that those whose voices are being heard can carry forward rationality, self-discipline and law-abiding consciousness, rather than fermenting irrational, individualistic activities that trample on laws and ethics. The basic line is not violating laws and ethics as the way to safeguard rights; this is a basic manner and behavioral standard of human society, and to abide by it does not require high academic qualifications or high level of knowledge.

China is a highly civilized country and the Chinese government is fully capable of maintaining order and making objective and rational decisions. The rest of society should likewise take a rational attitude.

The author is a researcher at the International Trade and Economic Cooperation Institute of the Ministry of Commerce.

Malaysia can take lessons from MH370 but not all the blame

31 March 2014 The Financial Times

“We would not have done anything differently,” declared Malaysia’s defence and acting transport minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, when asked about his country’s handling of missing flight MH370.

In the three and a bit weeks since the Malaysian Airlines aircraft mysteriously disappeared on a routine flight to Beijing, critics have feasted on missteps and muddle as Malaysia has struggled to get to grips with what has become the biggest riddle in commercial aviation history.

On Monday, a multinational search in the ocean off Western Australia for the Boeing 777 – with 239 on board – continued, after multiple sightings by satellite and the naked eye of hundreds of pieces of debris. Still, nothing.

Malaysia, not used to being in the glare of global attention, has faced some tough questions. Why did the country’s air force not scramble jets the moment it was clear from radar that an unidentified aircraft was recrossing Peninsular Malaysia in the opposite direction to MH370’s scheduled route?

Why was a week apparently wasted searching in the South China Sea, when it later emerged that investigators had data showing the aircraft was likely somewhere off the Strait of Malacca?

Even after the investigation had settled into a routine of daily news conferences, Malaysia’s messaging was fumbling. The first few featured officials who had probably never faced journalists before, and military brass who bristled in sometimes inadequate English at what was being asked.

Mr Hishammuddin’s claim that the country would not have done anything differently rings hollow when there have been identifiable errors of judgment.

But the analysis should not stop there. Malaysia was, and remains, faced with an aviation disaster that is unprecedented on almost every level. The last commercial aircraft disappearance – that of an Air France flight off Brazil – turned up as debris fairly quickly; relatives were able to begin mourning, even if it took a further two years to locate the aircraft’s black box.

The airliner was filled with mostly French passengers, and the responsibility for the search lay cleanly with France. This case has involved a Malaysian aircraft carrying mostly Chinese citizens, in a complex effort that at one point involved 26 countries searching an area covering 2.3m nautical miles of ocean and land.

Few countries could have handled that flawlessly, not least China, one of Malaysia’s biggest critics. Its state apparatus has excelled in recent years in mismanaging a succession of big crises, starting with the attempted cover-up over contaminated milk in 2008 to a high-speed rail crash that killed 40 people.

And as one Malaysian cabinet minister said last week: “I would not rate too highly the handling of the US government of Katrina,” a reference to former US president George W Bush’s ineffective response to the hurricane that devastated New Orleans in 2005.

Mr Hishammuddin, a UK-trained lawyer, has been polished and assured. He likely understands the imperative of treating China with care; Malaysia’s population of almost 30m is about the same as that of the Chinese city-province of Chongqing. China is Malaysia’s biggest trading partner.

The lessons from MH370 go far beyond Malaysia. The airline industry will probably need to speed up the deployment of the latest satellite navigation systems to improve air traffic management. “People are beginning to file away some questions that this episode raises,” says Andrew Herdman, director-general of the Association of Asia-Pacific Airlines.

Yet Malaysia cannot escape the need to learn its own lessons. Its opaque political system – dominated since independence 50 years ago by a single party – is not instinctively self-critical.

Already there are worrying signs of foot-dragging over a proper commission of inquiry into the handling of MH370. With US president Barack Obama set to visit Malaysia later this month – the first by a sitting US president since Lyndon Johnson in 1966 – Kuala Lumpur now has a chance to show it can behave differently.

Nok Air’s flawed message

25 March 2014

From the runway girl network

With some EK staff recently joining Nok Air I have been thinking about just how much the Thai based LCC uses pictures and press briefings of and with pretty girl crews to help it sell its business in Thailand.

I remembered reading some comments from the Singapore Airshow when the airline’s CEO places an order with Boeing. Nok’s CEO, Patee Sarasin, appeared to forget that he was addressing an international audience rather than his home audience which is far more used to companies using “pretties” as a large part of their marketing strategy. The message is know your audience.

One day in Thailand there will be no place for ageism or sexism; but I fear that is a long way into the future.

After the Singapore airshow this was written by a reporter for the RunwayGirl network:

“Imagine you’re a female journalist covering an important airline press event at an air show.

The CEO steps up to the podium to announce a new Boeing narrowbody order. Flanked by the carrier’s attractive female flight attendants, he faces a room of mostly men, quips about the fact that there is a lot of media in the room, and says it’s good he brought women along who are as “good looking as our planes”.

Then he proceeds to reveal the carrier’s intention to offer inflight connectivity on its new aircraft so that passengers can share on social media that the female flight attendants are “not old”.

When asked to take a picture with Boeing’s sales chief, John Wojick, he says: “Bring on the women!”

This is what Flightglobal journalist Ghim-Lay Yeo and other scribes witnessed this week during Thai budget carrier Nok Air’s media briefing to announce a new order for 15 Boeing 737s.

Ghim-Lay bravely relayed Nok Air CEO Patee Sarasin’s messaging to her social media network via a series of tweets.

“Nok Air CEO Sarasin says a lot of press in room, good that airline brought along women (the flight attendants). Uhmm right. #sgairshow“

“Nok Air CEO Sarasin says airline will offer wi-fi, so pax can use Facebook to show that airline’s female FAs are ‘not old’. #sgairshow“

“Knew all along that aviation is a male-dominated industry, but have never seen women quite as objectified as during this Nok Air presser.”

“Nok Air CEO Sarasin says: ‘Bring on the women!’ when asked to pose for pix with @BoeingAirplanes‘ Wojick #sgairshow”

Apparently Sarasin didn’t get enough love from Wojick because he took his show over to Bombardier, where in addition to firming options on Q400 turboprops, he tweeted via his @Patee122 handle: “I am hugging a lot of women lately hehe @Bombadier_Aero.” He included this instagram photo.

It’s not uncommon for Asian operators to be accompanied by young, female flight attendants at press briefings. I’ll always remember when Air Asia X CEO Asran Osman-Rani announced plans for new IFE with a bevy of female attendants in tow. Of course parts of Asia require that their flight attendants meet qualifications that westerns would balk at today (Singapore Airlines is renowned for its skin checks of prospective applicants!) So there are cultural differences to consider. And, Sarasin certainly doesn’t have a lock on irreverent comments in the budget carrier world (hello Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary).

But it seems that in making both sexist and ageist comments at a press briefing, he may have gone too far for even the most open-minded of journalists.

Ghim-Lay, a Singaporean working in Washington DC, notes in a FaceBook update: “When I began covering the aviation industry more than four years ago, I knew I was stepping into a world dominated by men, from the CEOs at the top to the journalists themselves writing about the sector.

“But I’ve never seen women quite as objectified as during today’s press conference. I would like to think that my gender is so much more than the token faceless flight attendants and public relations managers in the aviation industry.”

Ghim-Lay wasn’t the only person appalled by Sarasin’s comments.

She later tweeted: “Thanks to those who expressed solidarity w/ us ladies in aviation after the sexist remarks of an airline CEO at #sgairshow.”

I suspect that many will see Sarasin’s act as merely a tired marketing ploy in a long litany of tired marketing ploys. From O’Leary’s racy charity calendars to Air New Zealand’s latest safety video with Sports Illustrated swimsuit models to Skymark’s decision to fit its A330 flight attendants with super short mini skirts, this type of marketing could be condemned for its lack of originality. And, if more women held executive-level positions in aerospace – and if more women journalists were present at airline media briefings – Sarasin would be forced to consider another way of insulting people for attention.

Personally, I think we should adopt his quote as a rallying cry for aerospace. “Bring on the women! Bring on the women!” It’s time.”

As for the ex-EK crew joining Nok Air, I think they will find it a very different experience and working culture.

Flight 370 Families to Malaysian Government: You’re ‘Executioners’

25 March 2014

The families of those lost aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 have joined together to issue a scathing statement accusing the Malaysian authorities of murder.

“If the 154 passengers did lose their lives, Malaysia Airlines, the Malaysian government and military are the real executioners who killed them,” the statement reads. It also accuses the authorities of “deceit,” “delay,” and “shameless behavior.”

The statement, which was announced by one of the passenger’s relatives in front of a phalanx of reporters and cameras, was issued by the joint Chinese Family Committee in in Beijing.

At 10 p.m. on March 25, the Malaysian prime minister sent a statement to the families of MH370 passengers without any direct evidence that MH370 crashed in the south Indian Ocean and no people survived.

From March 8 when they announced that MH370 lost contact to today, 18 days have passed during which the Malaysian government and military constantly tried to delay, deceive the passengers’ families and cheat the whole world.

This shameless behavior not only fooled and hurt the families of the 154 passengers but also misguided and delayed rescue actions, wasting a large quantity of human resources and materials and lost valuable time for the rescue effort.

If the 154 passengers did lose their lives, Malaysia Airlines, the Malaysian government and military are the real executioners who killed them. We the families of those on board submit our strongest protest against them.

We will take every possible means to pursue the unforgivable crimes and responsibility of all three.

The statement came mere hours after Malaysian Prime Minster Najib Razak said in a press conference that Malaysia Airlines flight 370 “ended” in the Indian Ocean, effectively putting an end to speculation that survivors could still be found.

As if there were any doubt, Malaysia Airlines also sent a text message to families after notifying them of the news: “Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived.”

MH370 theories

22 March 2014 – Flight Global

Based on the observed first part of Malaysia Airlines’ Flight MH370, Malaysia’s acting transport minister Hishammuddin Hussein has said that the focus remains on deliberate action as the cause of the Boeing 777-200ER’s deviation from its planned flight path and subsequent disappearance.

The last confirmed sighting of the aircraft was on Malaysian military radar to the west of the Malaysian peninsula about 90min after its 8 March take-off from Kuala Lumpur, bound for Beijing.

Since then, a number of potential sightings of the aircraft have emerged and been rapidly dismissed – for instance on 19 March an alleged eyewitness report from the Maldive Islands of a low-flying passenger jet was discredited by the Malaysian investigators. Then, on 20 March, a satellite sighting of debris off western Australia was described by the Malaysian authorities as “credible”, but as Flight International went to press there had been no location or verification of the object by a fleet of ships and aircraft dispatched to find the more than 20m (65ft) long object.

Assets allocated by a multi-national search force co-ordinated via Malaysia with US National Transportation Safety Board advice include 18 ships and 29 aircraft, according to official sources in Malaysia. They face a problem of where to concentrate efforts. By 20 March attention was being diverted away from the “northern corridor” – one of two sweeping arcs defined on 15 March by satellite communications data – which would mostly have involved overland searches. The focus has shifted toward the oceanic south, but without allocating unreasonable resources to the far south in case of another false alarm.

Australia has deployed four aircraft – three Lockheed Martin P-3 Orions and a Boeing P-8 – to the area, some 1,350nm (2,500km) southwest of Perth. A C-130 was also dispatched to deploy marker buoys to assist with ocean current drift modelling. Rapid deployment of such buoys was one of the recommendations which emerged after the loss of Air France flight AF447 over the South Atlantic in 2009.

Poor visibility in the area will complicate search efforts, says the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). John Young, general manager of AMSA’s Rescue Coordination Centre – Australia, says that satellite pictures analysed by the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation (AGO) have identified two objects, one of which is 24m in size. “This is close enough to the National Transportation Safety Board’s assessed area to be a possible sighting, and we want to find them and want to work out what they are,” he said on 20 March. “This is a lead. It is probably the best lead we have right now, but we need to get there.”

Although the location is within the southern corridor identified earlier, it is at the limit of MH370’s range, given the likely amount of fuel remaining on board.

A number of theories about the causes of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappearance have circulated on the Internet – mostly launched by professional airline pilots. However, none have been embraced by any official agencies, with one constant throughout the search for the missing jet being the Malaysian authorities’ belief that events early in the flight indicate “deliberate action by a person or persons on board” to divert the Boeing 777-200ER from its Kuala Lumpur-Beijing flightpath.

Deliberate action

The aircraft was taken deliberately off course and flown away from its intended destination.

For: The aircraft made a turn off its course precisely at the point where it had been handed over from Malaysia air traffic control to Vietnam control – a move calculated to maximise the time taken before either ATC raised the alarm. There was no emergency call. Also, shortly before the airspace boundary, the aircraft’s ATC transponder was switched off to erase its contact from civilian radar screens, so the turn to the west was not witnessed. The aircraft’s technical aircraft communications addressing and reporting system (ACARS) datalink had also been disabled, although there is uncertainty as to when this took place.

Against: There is no proof that the equipment was deliberately switched off rather than accidentally deprived of power, and the loss of contact on the airspace boundary may have been coincidental.

Depressurisation

There was a sudden depressurisation at cruising altitude. The crew were slow to don their oxygen masks and fell unconscious, and the aircraft flew on autopilot until it ran out of fuel.

For: This would explain the lack of an emergency call. The aircraft turned as if aiming for an alternate landing site – Langkawi has been repeatedly mentioned – but did not land, instead continuing across the peninsula.

Against: With no intervention from the flightcrew the aircraft would normally follow the flightpath programmed into the flight management system, but it did not do that. A decompression does not explain the loss of transponder and ACARS. Also, the record of crews worldwide dealing successfully with sudden decompression events is almost 100%.

Electrical fire

Fire breaks out, knocking out communications and eventually leading to unconsciousness of the crew and passengers.

For: An electrical fire might explain the loss of all communications, if it were allowed to propagate for enough time without any response. It could eventually asphyxiate crew and passengers.

Against: Signs of fire (smoke and smell) since the Swissair 111 disaster in 1998 has caused crews to act particularly fast, both to communicate the emergency to ATC and to land as soon as possible. There was no communication. Also, if an electrical fire were to propagate in the avionics and communications bay area under the flightdeck it would disable the flight control systems – so the autopilot would not be able to continue to fly the aircraft for 5-7h after the crew had been disabled. Satellite systems detected continued flight for that length of time.

Constitutional Court throws out Thailand’s February election

21 March 2014
The Constitution Court has quashed the February 2 election results in Thailand after it ruled today on a complaint filed by Kittipong Kamolthammawong, a law lecturer at Thammasat University, who claimed the election was unconstitutional mainly because it was not organized on a single day nationwide, as stated in the country’s law.

The ruling will further delay the formation of a new government after months of street protests aimed at bringing down Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The court said the vote did not take place on the same day across the country and that violated a clause in the constitution.

It was unclear if and when a new vote could be held.

The court voted 6-3 that; they said that there were not elections in the 28 constituencies and there were not even candidates so it can be deemed that on February 2 there was not an election on the same day nationwide.

The 28 electoral districts where there was no voting are in eight southern provinces, stronghold of the opposition Democrat Party, which boycotted the poll and did not have contestants. Party members were unable to register their candidacies in those districts due to blockades by antigovernment protesters.

Where voting did take place, protesters led by the People’s Committee for Absolute Democracy With the King As Head of State (PCAD) blockaded numerous poll stations, besieged election registration venues, obstructed the transportation of ballots, and forced the officials of Election Commission (EC) to suspend their duties.

Now the relevant part of the Constitution is Section 108 which states:

The King has the prerogative to dissolve the House of Representatives for a new election of members of the House.

The dissolution of the House of Representatives shall be made in the form of a Royal Decree in which the day for a new general election must be fixed for not less than forty-five days but not more than sixty days as from the day the House of Representatives has been dissolved and such election day must be the same throughout the Kingdom.

The dissolution of the House of Representatives may be made only once under the same circumstance.

The clause does NOT explicitly state the the election must be the same day; it does say that the election date must be fixed (or set) as the same date. These are markedly different things.

For example, the government and the EC clearly could not set the election date to be February 2 in some provinces and then a different date in other provinces. That would clearly be unconstitutional. This is not what happened.

However, the election date was set nationwide for February 2. It was the role of the Election Commission to organise the election. The fact that the poll could not go ahead in some districts due to the protests should not be unconstitutional. It is the prevention of balloting that is unconstitutional.

The verdict could have disastrous implications. Now if a party knows it is going to lose, it can simply move to block elections. Except I am sure that the court will not deem this to be a precedent. If voting in a single constituency is blocked or the voting cannot take place, does this result in an election being nullified? The ruling appears to invalidate the current electoral law which allows for elections in individual constituencies to be delayed.

The Democrats have already said they may boycott a fresh election. They will boycott any election until they know that they can win.

What the court has ensured is that the remaining 50 parties, as well as 20 million people who turned out to vote on February 2 are now paying for abiding by the law while the court ruling rewards those who protested and boycotted the vote.

Can there be a new election; this may take some time as the Electoral Commission position is that there needs to be stability and agreement first although.

In this vacuum it is likely that there will be further court rulings against the Prime Minister, Puea Thai and coalition MPs over the constitutional amendments regarding the origin of Senators and over the rice-pledging scheme. Then we will either see an unelected appointed PM and cabinet or an election run by and for the Establishment with the Democrats as the only potential winners.

The Folly of Thinking We Know

The Painful Hunt for Malaysian Airlines 370 By Pico Iyer

21 March 2014 – New York Times

We’ve most of us, surely, heard all the figures: Humanity now produces as much data in two days as it did in all of history till the year 2003 — and the amount of data is doubling every two years. In the time you take to read this piece, the human race will generate as much data as currently exists in the Library of Congress. For that matter — yes, your inbox and Facebook page would reflect this — 10 percent of all the pictures ever taken as of the end of 2011 were taken in 2011. Yet as we think about how an entire Boeing 777 has gone missing for almost two weeks now, we’re also painfully reminded of how much we can’t — and may never — know, even in the Knowledge Economy.
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The Nobel Prize-winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman has noted, after decades of research, that it’s our nature to overestimate how much we understand the world and to underestimate the role of chance. And it’s our folly to assume we know very much at all. There’s “a highly objectionable word,” he writes, “which should be removed from our vocabulary in discussions of major events,” and that word is “knew.”

I think of this as I watch one expert after another offer informed guesses about the fate of the missing plane, even as all we know about it so far is how provisional — and contradictory — our speculations have been. I also recall how the words that most convey authority and credibility whenever I listen to any pundit speak are “I don’t know.” Whatever the field of our expertise, most of us realize that the more data we acquire, the less, very often, we know. The universe is not a fixed sum, in which the amount you know subtracts from the amount you don’t.

As Gardiner G. Hubbard, the first president of the National Geographic Society, said in 1888, when his magazine set out to chart everything in the known universe, “The more we know, the greater we find is our ignorance.” And it can often seem as if nature — or something beyond our reckoning at least — intrudes every time we’re tempted to get above ourselves. Whenever we begin to assume we can command or comprehend quite a bit, some Icarian calamity pushes our face, tragically, in the limits of our knowledge.

It’s been humbling, as well as horrifying, to see the entire globe, in an age of unprecedented data accumulation, up in the air, more or less, but poignantly aware that, whatever we do learn, a grief beyond understanding is likely to be a part of it.

We imagine how those with loved ones on the plane must be trying to fill the absence, of knowledge as well as of their sons or wives, and how they may fear, even if at times they long for, certainty. We imagine the people on the aircraft, whose not-knowing might have been felt on the pulse, accelerating, as the vessel suddenly changed course. We translate the story into our own lives, and think about how the things we don’t know haunt and possess us as the things we do seldom can.

Even if we do learn more about the fate of the airliner, it’s unlikely that all of our questions will ever be answered. And the memory of how much we didn’t know — and how long we didn’t know it — ought to sober us as we prepare for the next sudden visitation of the inexplicable.

We’re all grateful that we know as much as we do these days, and enjoy lives that are safer, longer, healthier and better connected than those of any generation before ours. Yet each day that passes, Malaysia 370 keeps hovering like a terrible blank in our minds, more visible the longer it’s out of our view.

Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of “The Man Within My Head” and a distinguished presidential fellow at Chapman University.

MH370 – has debris now been found?

21 March 2014

It is possible that debris being investigated by Australia, the USA and a Norwegian car transporter in the South Indian Ocean could be from MH370; now 13 days on from the day the plane was lost.

If this location is valid it would eliminate some of the wilder theories about what happened to the plane and suggests an emergency on the flight, an attempt by the crew to turn back and complications that caused them to fall into unconsciousness leaving the plane on a ghost flight until it ran out of fuel.

While some sort of botched hijacking that led to the pilots being killed cannot be ruled out entirely, it seems very unlikely given the southerly, open ocean location of the possible wreckage.

Far more plausible is the theory that the pilots had an event on board that took out the communications and led to a slow or rapid decompression which rendered the crew incapable of making an emergency landing. Pilots have only a few minutes to bring a plane down to below 4000 metres before the passengers and crew will become disoriented, then unconscious and eventually die.

Speculation on the cause of a disaster has focused on:

Corrosion around the satellite antenna which caused it to break, cutting off communications, and causing a slow decompression that left the crew confused by the time the cabin pressure alarm went off. The satellite antennas on Boeing 777s had been the subject of an airworthiness directive issued by the National Transport Safety Bureau in November 2013.

An explosion of the flight deck crew’s emergency oxygen supply, in a bay under the floor which also includes communications systems. In 2008 an emergency oxygen tank exploded on a Qantas 747, causing a hole in the fuselage, decompression, and an emergency landing.

A fire, which might explain why the plane initially climbed before descending. The crew may have been attempting to extinguish the fire by depriving it of oxygen, but then were overcome by smoke and fumes, leaving the plane to continue on autopilot.

There are too many problems with the onboard fire theory; most of all the lack of communication from the flightdeck (SR111, which Chris Goodfellow quotes in his long analysis that has gone viral online as a comparison, was in extended communication with Moncton and then Halifax ATC. Similarly UPS6 at Dubai in September 2010. Both awful events.

But a fire that instantly took out the airliner’s communications systems but left the plane undamaged enough to fly for 6 hours seems unlikely.

That said I have no better theory – though I have been on a 772 which decompressed about 30 minutes after take off from HKG – back in 2001 on Continental. Not an explosive decompression. Clearly the pilots were aware of the problem – the masks deployed and we made a very rapid descent to 10,000 feet, dumped fuel and landed back in HKG.

An incident such as Helios 522 could be possible – it does explain the rapid return towards Malaysia but really does not explain the transponder and ACARS failure.

Several pilots familiar with Asian air routes have speculated the new route programmed into the plane’s computer was consistent with it heading for Langkawi, which has a large airport and easy terrain. Though if that was the case I am surprised they did not make for the closer airfield at Hat Yai.

The possibility of pilot suicide cannot be ruled out, but in the last two cases where it was suspected, the planes were flown into the ground. The notion of a pilot disabling the communications systems and waiting for the plane to run out of fuel in eight hours’ time seems far-fetched. It only makes sense if the pilot killed himself and the passengers and crew by depriving them of oxygen after setting a course on autopilot.

Finding the debris in the South Indian ocean will go a long way to confirm that the crew were seeking to save the airplane and its passengers rather than being subject to some form of hijacking.

Crimea: Mr Putin’s imperial act

19 March 2014 The Guardian

So it has happened. Crimea has been annexed. A strutting Russian president sealed the fate of the once-autonomous Ukrainian republic with a speech to parliament yesterday in which he sought to wrap himself and the Black Sea peninsula together in the flag of his country. It was a bravura performance from Mr Putin, largely free of the ad hoc ramblings he indulged in at his press conference on 4 March, but nevertheless filled with purple rhetoric.

Without apparent irony he invoked his namesake St Vladimir in Russia’s cause. It was in Crimea, Mr Putin said, that Vladimir, the Grand Duke of Kieff and All Russia, acquired the Orthodox Christian roots that would spread throughout Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. It was in Crimea that the noble Russian soldiers lay in graves dating back to the 1700s. It was Crimea that had given birth to Russia’s Black Sea navy, a symbol of Moscow’s glory. In his people’s hearts and minds, he said, Crimea had always been a part of Russia.

Quite how, then, his dimwitted predecessor Nikita Khrushchev had managed to hand it to Ukraine in 1954 was unclear, but that act had been a “breach of any constitutional norm” and could thereby be ignored. And by the way, Mr Putin intimated, Moscow had only failed to raise the issue of Crimea’s sovereignty during previous negotiations with Ukraine because it hadn’t wanted to offend its friendly neighbour. Now the west had cheated on a range of issues – Nato’s expansion into eastern Europe, the “coup” in Kiev, the unnecessary prolonging of discussions over visa waivers for Europe – Russia felt inclined to accept a willing Crimea back into the fold.

So the self-justifications went on. There have been few clearer-eyed critics of Soviet-era propaganda than Milan Kundera, who once wrote that “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Watching members of the Duma wildly applaud Mr Putin, the phrase felt newly appropriate. In the modern struggle of memory, we should recall that when Mr Putin was asked two weeks ago if he considered that Crimea might join Russia, he replied “No, we do not.” We should recall his assertion that the troops without insignia on Crimea’s streets could have bought their Russian uniforms in local shops. And we should remember Kosovo.

Mr Putin made much of the parallel between Kosovo’s secession from Serbia and Russian actions in Crimea. In fact the differences between the two cases are stark. In Kosovo in the 1990s, a majority ethnic Albanian population was being persecuted by the government of Slobodan Milosevic. The region’s autonomy had been revoked, ethnic Albanians had been ousted from government jobs, their language had been repressed, their newspapers shut, and they had been excluded from schools and universities. By late 1998, Mr Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing was reaching a climax: Serbian army and police units were terrorising and massacring groups of Albanians in an outright attempt to drive them out. The Kosovans’ plight was the subject of intense diplomacy, which was rebuffed by Mr Milosevic’s government.

In Crimea, by contrast, despite Mr Putin’s characterisation of the emergency government in Kiev as “anti-Semites, fascists and Russophobes” whose tools are “terror, killings and pogroms”, there have been no pogroms, little terror, no persecutions of Russian-speaking citizens bar a bid, now dropped, to rescind Russian’s status as an official language. The historic atrocities in Crimea were committed by Moscow, which starved and slaughtered tens of thousands Crimean Tatars in the 1920s, before deporting them en masse in 1944. Almost half the deportees died from malnutrition and disease.

As Moscow takes a historic bite of Ukraine, Mr Putin would rather the world misremember Kosovo, or discuss the legality of the US-led invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan. The world has debated those wars before and should do so again. Today, let us see Russia’s move for what it is: an illegal, neo-imperialist act.

Malaysia’s series of errors

16 March 2014

The New York Times has a strong article on how a series of errors in Malaysia allowed MH370 to continue its diverted and presumably hijacked flight unchallenged and unmonitored. These are the key points:

The radar blip that was Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 did a wide U-turn over the Gulf of Thailand. It then moved past at least three military radar arrays crossing northern Malaysia, even flying high over Penang, one of the country’s biggest cities before heading out over the Strait of Malacca.

Yet inside a Malaysian Air Force control room on the country’s west coast, where American-made F-18s and F-5 fighters stood at a high level of readiness for emergencies exactly like the one unfolding in the early morning of March 8, a four-person air defense radar crew did nothing about the unauthorized flight.

“The watch team never noticed the blip,” said a person with detailed knowledge of the investigation into Flight 370. “It was as though the airspace was his.”

“The fact that it flew straight over Malaysia, without the Malaysian military identifying it, is just plain weird — not just weird, but also very damning and tragic,” said David Learmount of Flightglobal.

The New York Times reports that senior Malaysian military officers became aware within hours of the radar data once word spread that a civilian airliner had vanished. The Malaysian government nonetheless organized and oversaw an expensive and complex international search effort in the Gulf of Thailand that lasted for a full week. Only on Saturday morning did Prime Minister Najib Razak finally shut it down after admitting what had already been widely reported in the news media.

With so much uncertainty about the flight, it is not yet possible to know whether any actions by the Malaysian government or military could have altered its fate. Responding to a storm of criticism, particularly from China, whose citizens made up two-thirds of the passengers, Mr. Najib continues to say that Malaysia had not concealed information, including military data.

Aviation experts said that a trained pilot would be the most obvious person to have carried out a complicated scheme involving the plane. Yet for a week after the plane’s disappearance, Malaysian law enforcement authorities said that their investigation did not include searching the home of the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah.

They have now changed that story to saying today that they searched the pilots’ homes last weekend.

The Malaysian air force base at Butterworth sits on the mainland across from the island of Penang at the northern reaches of the Strait of Malacca. The four-person crew watching for intrusions into the country’s airspace either did not notice or failed to report a blip on their defensive radar and air traffic radar that was moving steadily across the country from east to west, heading right toward them.

Neither that team nor the crews at two other radar installations at Kota Bharu, closer to where the airliner last had contact with the ground, designated the blip as an unknown intruder warranting attention, sources told the NYT.

The aircraft proceeded to fly across the country and out to sea without anyone on watch telling a superior and alerting the national defense command near Kuala Lumpur, even though the radar contact’s flight path did not correspond to any filed flight plan.

As a result, combat aircraft never scrambled to investigate. The plane, identified at the time by Mr. Najib as Flight 370, passed directly over Penang, a largely urban state with more than 1.6 million people, then turned and headed out over the Strait of Malacca.

The existence of the radar contact was discovered only when military officials began reviewing tapes later in the morning on March 8, after the passenger jet failed to arrive in Beijing. It was already becoming clear that morning, only hours after the unauthorized flyover, that something had gone very wrong. Tapes from both the Butterworth and Kota Bharu bases apparently show the radar contact arriving from the area of the last known position of Flight 370.

Gen. Rodzali Daud, the commander of Malaysia’s Air Force, publicly acknowledged the existence of the radar signals for the first time on Wednesday, well into the fifth day after the plane’s disappearance.

The failure to identify Flight 370’s errant course meant that a chance to send military aircraft to identify and redirect the jet, a Boeing 777, was lost. And for five days the crews on an armada of search vessels, including two American warships, focused the bulk of their attention in the waters off Malaysia’s east coast, far from the plane’s actual path.

The NYT added that “General Rodzali went to the Butterworth air force base the day that the plane disappeared and was told of the radar blips, the person familiar with the investigation said. The Malaysian government nonetheless assigned most of its search and rescue resources, as well as ships and aircraft offered by other nations, to a search of the Gulf of Thailand where the aircraft’s satellite transponder was turned off, while allocating minimal attention to the Strait of Malacca on the other, western side of Peninsular Malaysia.”

There will be some serious repercussions in Malaysia when an investigation is eventually launched into the loss of MH370.

MH370 – accusations and at last some honesty

15 March 2014

The Malaysian Prime Minister gave a press briefing at about 3pm KL time today; he took no questions. The regular 5.30pm press briefing and question and answer session was then cancelled.

In summary he basically confirmed the Reuters and Wall Street Journal stories of the last two days:

• Last signal from MH370 was five hours later than previously thought. Implying the airplane was in the air for nearly 7 hours.
• Diversion of MH370 was a deliberate act – the transponder and ACARS communications devices were both disabled.
• The missing aircraft could be as far north as Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan or as far south as the Indian Ocean.

The conclusions are based on raw satellite data and military radar. It is clear that the plane was still flying long after it lost contact with air traffic control at 1.22am on Saturday 8 March with 239 people on board. But the PM said that the data could not be used to determine the aircraft’s exact location, which he said was on one of two possible flight corridors: a northern corridor stretching from Kazakhstan, in central Asia, down to northern Thailand; and a southern corridor stretching from Indonesia towards the southern Indian Ocean.

Effectively a week has been lost looking in all the wrong places.

What is concerning is that it has taken officials a week to confirm that MH370 wasn’t heading to PEK. This was widely considered likely on PPRUNE last weekend. It is time for people to tell what they know.

Xinhua news agency, speaking for the Chinese government has been blunt tonight: “Due to the absence — or at least lack — of timely authoritative information, massive efforts have been squandered, and numerous rumors have been spawned, repeatedly racking the nerves of the awaiting families. Given today’s technology, the delay smacks of either dereliction of duty or reluctance to share information in a full and timely manner. That would be intolerable.”

MH370 – summary of a very confused week

15 March 2014

SATURDAY MARCH 8

12.40am Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 leaves Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for Beijing, China, with 239 people on board.

1.20am Plane’s communications with civilian air controllers disabled before aircraft reaches east coast of Malaysia.

8.11am Last confirmed signal between the plane and a satellite (confirmed by Malaysian PM at press briefing on 15 March)

Vietnamese planes spot two large oil slicks near the plane’s last known location, but proves a false alarm.

SUNDAY, MARCH 9

Malaysia says it is investigating potential terror link to the jet’s disappearance.

It also reveals for the first time that the aircraft may have veered dramatically off course, turning west back towards Kuala Lumpur for no apparent reason

Meanwhile, Interpol confirms that at least two passports recorded as lost or stolen in its database were used by passengers, adding that it is “examining additional suspect passports”.

Investigators narrow focus on disastrous scenario that the plane disintegrated mid-flight.

MONDAY, MARCH 10

China admonishes Malaysia, saying it should accelerate its investigation.

The United States review of American spy satellite imagery detects no evidence of mid-air explosion.

Malaysia despatches ships to investigate possible sighting of a possible life raft, but only flotsam is found.

Speculation mounts over whether a bomb or hijacking could have brought down the airliner.

TUESDAY, MARCH 11

Authorities identify the two men with stolen passports as young Iranians who are believed to be illegal immigrants, rather than terrorists. Interpol says that the more information they obtain the less likely it appears that a terrorist incident has occurred.

Search area widens to include areas significantly removed from the flight’s scheduled route, including territory on the Malaysian peninsula and the waters off its west coast.

A US company asks internet users to scour satellite images of more than 1,200 square miles of open seas for any signs of wreckage.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 12

It emerges that US regulators warned months ago of a problem with “cracking and corrosion” of the fuselage skin on Boeing 777s that could cause a mid-air break-up.

The search is expanded again, this time to an area stretching from China to India.

Malaysia’s air force chief reveals that an unidentified object was detected on military radar north of the Malacca Strait early on Saturday March 8 but is stilll being examined.

THURSDAY MARCH 13

Malaysia deny US reports that cite investigators saying that they suspect the plane flew for four hours after its last known contact.

Authorities in Kuala Lumpur also dismiss Chinese satellite images of possible debris in the South China Sea as yet another false alarm.

FRIDAY MARCH 14

Malaysia refuses to comment on fresh reports quoting US officials saying the plane’s communication system continued to contact a satellite hours after it disappeared, suggesting it may have actually travelled a massive distance.

White House also refers to “new information” that the jet may have continued flying after losing contact.

SATURDAY MARCH 15

Prime Minister Najib Razak reveals at a press conference that the aircraft’s communications systems were deliberately disabled and that its last signal came more than six hours after takeoff. Police search home of plane’s pilot.

Wall Street Journal suggests extended MH370 flight

13 March 2014

Completely contrary to any of the evidence from Malaysian officials the Wall Street Journal is reporting today that U.S. investigators suspect that Malaysia Airlines 3786.KU -2.04% Flight 370 stayed in the air for about four hours past the time it reached its last confirmed location.

The implication is that the plane could have flown on for hundreds of additional miles under conditions that remain murky.

Aviation investigators and national security officials believe the plane flew for a total of five hours based on data automatically downloaded and sent to the ground from the Boeing Co. BA -0.99% 777’s engines as part of a routine maintenance and monitoring program.

That raises a host of new questions and possibilities about what happened aboard the widebody jet carrying 239 people, which vanished from civilian air-traffic control radar over the weekend, about one hour into a flight to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur.

U.S. counterterrorism officials are pursuing the possibility that a pilot or someone else on board the plane may have diverted it toward an undisclosed location after intentionally turning off the jetliner’s transponders to avoid radar detection, according to one person tracking the probe.

But the huge uncertainty about where the plane was headed, and why it continued flying so long without working transponders, has raised theories among investigators that the aircraft may have been commandeered for a reason that appears unclear to U.S. authorities. Some of those theories have been laid out to national security officials and senior personnel from various U.S. agencies, according to one person familiar with the matter.

At one briefing, according to this person, officials were told investigators are actively pursuing the notion that the plane was diverted “with the intention of using it later for another purpose.”

As of Wednesday it remained unclear whether the plane reached an alternate destination or if it ultimately crashed, potentially hundreds of miles from where an international search effort has been focused.

In those scenarios, neither mechanical problems, pilot mistakes nor some other type of catastrophic incident caused the 250-ton plane to mysteriously vanish from radar.

The latest revelations come as local media reported that Malaysian police visited the home of at least one of the two pilots.

The engines’ onboard monitoring system is provided by their manufacturer, Rolls-Royce, and it periodically sends bursts of data about engine health, operations and aircraft movements to facilities on the ground.

Rolls-Royce couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

As part of its maintenance agreements, Malaysia Airlines transmits its engine data live to Rolls-Royce for analysis. The system compiles data from inside the 777’s two Trent 800 engines and transmits snapshots of performance, as well as the altitude and speed of the jet.

Those snippets are compiled and transmitted in 30-minute increments, said one person familiar with the system. According to Rolls-Royce’s website, the data is processed automatically “so that subtle changes in condition from one flight to another can be detected.”

The engine data is being analyzed to help determine the flight path of the plane after the transponders stopped working. The jet was originally headed for China, and its last verified position was half way across the Gulf of Thailand.

Once again, clarity is needed as soon as possible and if Rolls Royce has this data then it needs to be analysed and shared and made public. The bereaved families deserve that clarification.

Chaos and confusion from Malaysian authorities

12 March 2014

With today’s press conference in Malaysia already delayed for 2.5 hours many questions are being asked about the competence of the Malaysian authorities and whether they are being completely open in their information. There are plenty of rumours emerging. Some maybe significant. None confirmed.

The only thing we know for certain about MH370 is that the Malaysian authorities are showing a worrying lack of competence across the board and a poor understanding of the importance of providing as much information as possible.

Reuters reported last night that the Malaysian military has radar data showing the missing Boeing 777 jetliner changed course and made it to the Malacca Strait, hundreds of kilometers (miles) from the last position recorded by civilian authorities, according to a senior military official.

Local newspaper Berita Harian also quoted Malaysian air force chief Gen. Rodzali Daud as saying radar at a military base had detected the airliner at 2:40 a.m. near Pulau Perak at the northern approach to the strait, a busy waterway that separates the western coast of Malaysia and Indonesia’s Sumatra island.

“After that, the signal from the plane was lost,” he was quoted as saying.

A high-ranking military official involved in the investigation confirmed the report and also said the plane was believed to be flying low. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

This morning the Malaysian air force chief denied making the statements attributed to him. Reuters does not make stories up.

The search for the plane was initially focused on waters between the eastern coast of Malaysia and Vietnam, the position where aviation authorities last tracked it. No trace of the plane, which was carrying 239 people, has been found by than 40 planes and ships from at least 10 nations searching the area. That search has taken five days so far.

It’s bad enough for a widebody jet to go missing with 239 people on board, but then for the responsible country’s government and aviation agencies to handle the associated information with total incompetence is unforgivable.

The Malaysian military has primary radar to provide surveillance of surface and airborne activity off its coasts and borders. That is how it defends its nation.

There are so many information sources that do not appear to have been used effectively in this case.

As a result the families of the missing passengers and crew are being kept in the dark, and the search areas now extended to both sides of the peninsula have become so wide that it is clear that tracking information on the aircraft has not been used effectively. Nothing has been said about the 777′s ACARS system (airborne communications addressing and reporting system), a datalink that provides technical information about the health of aircraft systems to Malaysian Airlines’ base.

The increasingly international fleet of search vessels are clearly doing their best. But they can only work with the information that they are given. There is an all-pervasive sense of a chaotic lack of coordination between the Malaysian agencies which has hindered the establishment of an effective search strategy.

Meanwhile the failure to provide timely information when simple facts have been established shows a total lack of consideration for the families of those who are missing

The action moves to the courts as anti-government protests fizzle

9 March 2014 The Economist

(With most of the world suddenly focused on events in the Ukraine people have post interest and patience with the continuing unrest in Thailand – the Economist provides a timely update).

At last it looks as though the street protests designed to oust Thailand’s prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, are running out of steam. After more than four months of relentless sit-ins and government shutdowns, the leader of the insurrection, Suthep Thaugsuban, has dismantled most of his various protest sites around the capital, retreating to a single encampment in central Bangkok. His supporters are dwindling in number, and so is their appetite for further confrontation. Yet Ms Yingluck is by no means home and dry. The courts may yet succeed where Mr Suthep has not.

Lumpini Park is the new headquarters of Thailand’s failing people’s revolution. Self-appointed guards protect the tented city. As in Mr Suthep’s previous makeshift sites there are tea stalls, showers, television-viewing areas, a medical centre and a shortage of lavatories. Well-off Bangkok residents distribute food from luxury cars to the protesters, many of them bused in from southern Thailand. Although the protests no longer occupy the same locations as before—a posh shopping district and the sites of public monuments—the slogans are unchanged. “Evolution before elections” reads one sign affixed to a tent; “This corrupt government must be overthrown”, another.

Rhetorically, at least, Mr Suthep and his People’s Democratic Reform Committee remain as defiant as ever. Many protesters vow that they will pack up and leave only when all traces of Ms Yingluck and her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister ousted in a coup in 2006, are removed from the body politic. But their hopes now look forlorn of using protest power to force on Thailand a “people’s council” to replace the elected government. The government appears to have outsmarted the protesters. By refusing to confront them directly, the government largely averted violence and avoided giving the army a pretext to intervene on Mr Suthep’s behalf to “save” the country, democracy or anything else.

Some have suggested that the two sides may now sit down together to negotiate a way out of the impasse. But that ignores how little Ms Yingluck—along with Mr Thaksin, who pulls the strings from exile in Dubai—has to gain from talks. The prime minister’s position has been buttressed by victory in a recent snap election. Her supporters in the Shinawatra family’s political heartland in the north and north-east have been steadfast. With Mr Suthep’s power on the wane, she may calculate that there is no need to give him the renewed political significance that talks would confer.

Ms Yingluck now has more reason to worry about the courts than about Mr Suthep. The judiciary has brought down Thai governments before. Given the number of legal challenges being mounted by opponents of the prime minister and her government, it would be surprising if one or other of them did not hit home.

Take, for instance, the February 2nd general election, which was boycotted by the main opposition Democrat Party. One legal challenge attempted to have the whole election declared invalid. The government survived that. But protests prevented elections being held in 18 of 77 provinces—and attempts to rerun those votes are going less well. Five provinces managed to hold elections on March 2nd. The remainder are planned for next month, but these are now the subjects of court procedures. Legal scholars and others challenge the right of Ms Yingluck’s current “caretaker” government to carry on ruling much longer without an official quorum convened in parliament.

More pressingly, Ms Yingluck has until March 14th to defend herself before the National Anti-Corruption Commission on criminal charges over alleged dereliction of duty arising from the government’s disastrous scheme to help farmers by subsidising rice. She has sent lawyers to the commission to hear charges, but has yet to offer her account of the facts. If the commission does indict her, she may have to step down. The government has said that in such an eventuality another minister could take over her job. Still, for Mr Suthep and his supporters it would undoubtedly be a welcome fillip.

MH 370 – sadness and mystery

9 March 2014

It has now been 48 hours since the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, but there is still no clear answer what happened.

Families of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members are grieving for their loss without any explanation as to what may have happened.

Flight 370 was the overnight Boeing 777-200 flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. It had reached its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet when about an hour after take off it disappeared from radar. There was no emergency call from the flight deck and no suggestion of any problems with the flight.

Malaysia, China, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia and several other countries have dispatched a large number of SAR aircrafts naval ships and merchant fleets to the region in the South China Sea between Malaysia and Vietnam but so far no wreckage has been found.

People from 14 nationalities were among the 227 passengers, including at least at least 152 Chinese, 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians, six Australians, five Indians, four French and three Americans.

Chinese state media said 24 Chinese artists and family members, who were in Kuala Lumpur for an art exchange programme, were aboard. The Sichuan provincial government said Zhang Jinquan, a well-known calligrapher, was on the flight.

I have avoided tweeting on the story or commenting upon it until now.

Eventually the wreckage will be found and given the remarkable thoroughness of the investigative process an explanation will be found. The likelihood is that there was a sudden and catastrophic disintegration of the airframe.

Meanwhile as a shocking example of someone who should know better Rupert Murdoch tweeted that: provoked controversy by tweeting that:

Rupert Murdoch ‏@rupertmurdoch·3 hrs
777crash confirms jihadists turning to make trouble for China. Chance for US to make common cause, befriend China while Russia bullies.

Clueless – there is no evidence to support his claim and he, more than most, should know better.

Now it is Etihad on the rack

6 March 2014

Another day; another foggy morning. This time the fog was across the UAE with long delays and diversions at Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

But Abu Dhabi had a far bigger problem as the ILS system failed.

@EtihadAirways and @EtihadHelp were a bit slow responding but they have tried to provide information using twitter and to respond to passenger concerns.

It was after 11am that the airline posted seven successive messages starting with “All flights into #AbuDhabi this morning have been diverted to other airports in the region due to a technical failure at the airport (1/7)” adding that “The weather at #AbuDhabi is improving and the airport has started to accept traffic. (2/7)”

But the @EtihadAirways account then disappeared offline for six hours until around 5.30pm in the evening. Then came a slew of apologies as the airline replied to unhappy passengers; After 7pm the airline noted that “Of the 37 inbound flights diverted this morning to other airports in the GCC this morning, 35 have now returned to Abu Dhabi”

The trouble is while the airline went off line people were telling their messages:

EtihadAirways My brother is stuck on your Flight EY 867 for last 6 hours sitting on Runway at Al Ain. No food in the plane and it’s a mess.

@EtihadAirways what a shambles stuck at transit desk and staff have no idea what they are doing

@EtihadAirways we are stuck in the plain more than 4 houers and now in Mascat airport without any info or care!!
U r the worest flights :@

@EtihadAirways no organisation at all people pushing from economy into business class

@EtihadAirways – i am waiting at muscat airport (ey205) and i hav to catch EY131 for IAD. Ders no one to help at muscat. Plz repky wht to do

@EtihadAirways where are the managers when they are needed someone needs to take control of transfers

@EtihadAirways @EtihadHelp EY18 from Heathrow, what the hell is going on? 7 1/2 hours stuck in middle of nowhere. Demanding a full refund

@EtihadAirways @EtihadHelp Near to a mutiny on board, no one knows what’s happening. Will my transfer to Bangkok wait? #neverflyingetihad

@EtihadAirways @EtihadHelp – Que está acontecendo? What is the happening? Fly EY 867 stopped in desert! Passenger abbandoned? @TIME?

@EtihadAirways I understand you have major problems at Abu Dhabi, but being stranded for 7 hours in Muscat with no updates is pitiful.

@EtihadAirways CAN YOU PLEASE GET THIS MESS IN ABU DABI AIRPORT SOLVED? YOUR STAFF IS NOT ABLE TO ATEND ALL THE CLIENTS CANCELED FLIGHTS!!!

@EtihadAirways well at least be transparent with the passengers and give an exact timing and some compensation! We ve been here since 7am!

@EtihadAirways #worstairlineever! After 5h delay got sent to a line for 3h and info of 20h delay without hotel!

The trouble is even when the airline did respond it could say little more than we are sorry and we are working on the problem! the messages kept coming.

@EtihadAirways sadly there has been no evidence whatsoever of this effort for the past nine hours.

@EtihadAirways the big #disappointment is the total lack of communication from you guys about what is going on since 05.30 this morning

@EtihadAirways waiting 6 hours in the airport for the delayed flight, then another two hours in the airplane #NeverFlyWithEttihad

@EtihadAirways @EtihadHelp This is the worst service I have ever experienced……8hr delay and no idea whats happening from the staff

@EtihadAirways so far 12 hours delay (inc 8 sat on a plane) in Abu Dhabi with no word of sense from any of your staff.

So what does all this mean. Well using two accounts may not help. Most passengers vented their frustration to the @EithadAirways account where there are 48,000 followers – @EtihadHelp has just 3,700 followers. If the airline wants to maintain a twitter presence it probably needs to do so with just a single account.

Being able to tweet the airline may help relieve passenger frustration but it seems to very rarely provide any sort of resolution. What is a guy or a girl on a laptop in Abu Dhabi going to be able to do to help folks stuck on the ground in Muscat or waiting for flight information in Manchester.

The answer has to be to have people on the ground better trained and better prepared to handle crisis situations and better briefed about what action is being taken. They also need to be empowered to be generous in helping stranded passengers. This applies to their own ground staff as well as any handling agents acting on their behalf.

The answer is also that someone has to take charge. It is not just about the airline; it is about co-ordination with the airport authority, with ATC and with ground handling. Emirates, dnata and Dubai Airports failed miserably to manage their own fog crisis two weekends ago. Management were conspicuous by their absence; well it was the weekend. And there were simply not enough staff on the ground to help passengers.

Maybe Emirates has this right; the airline does not use its twitter account and does not respond to messages sent to the account. Etihad today looks like an the poor little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke. He/she is trying valiantly but is being overwhelmed by the flood and appears to have no other resources to use.

For supposed premium airlines both Etihad and Emirates have disappointed too many people in the last two weeks. Passengers do understand bad weather; they understand technical delays. But they want information as frequently and in as much detail as possible.

Qatar versus the GCC

5 March 2014

In a move that is unprecedented across the Gulf region Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have recalled their ambassadors from the Gulf nation of Qatar over its alleged breach of a regional security agreement among Gulf Arab countries not to interfere in each others’ internal affairs.

This seems a bit strange given in particular Saudi involvement in Bahrain. And it suggests more deep-rooted problems.

The unprecedented move by the three states was announced on Wednesday in a joint statement on state media.

It’s the clearest sign yet of the rift between Gulf Arab nations and Qatar, which has been a staunch supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have been calling for increased military and diplomatic union within the six-member GCC, which also includes Qatar, Omar and Kuwait.

However, Qatar and Oman have so far resisted increased integration in these fields.

Qatar has also denounced last year’s ouster of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Brotherhood.

Qatar is also home to the influential al-Jazeera news network, which broadcasts across the world and has been critical of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Abu Dhabi and Riyadh said the decision was made after Qatar failed to uphold its end of an agreement on security and stability of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council.

Regional stock markets have not reacted well; “it’s a surprise to everyone and we are trying to understand where this is coming from these are usually sensitive issues,” a Dubai-based trader spoke on anonymity.

In diplomatic circles this is a very strong message to Qatar which might suggest that there is more happening behind the scenes than is being said.

Among many comments on twitter this one from academic and Middle East commentator Dr. Ulrichsen was on the mark: ” Qatar’s new leadership is paying the price for ‘backing the wrong horse’ in the Arab Spring when for a time it seemed Doha could do anything.”

Etihad versus flydubai

3 March 2014

Since both Etihad abd flydubai announced full year 2013 results today lets have a look at how the two airlines financial performance compares.

Neither Etihad or flydubai release comprehensive financial results, unlike rivals Emirates and Turkish Airlines, which means that a comprehensive analysis of overall finances cannot be undertaken.

As usual the local media has faithfully reported the results without any analysis. It is hard to work out the impact of Etihad’s equity investments. The airline reported US$820 in partnership revenues; but what about it’s share of equity loss/profits?

Etihad has equity investments in Virgin Australia, Jet Airways in India and Aer Lingus in Ireland as well as Air Berlin, Air Seychelles, Air Serbia and Darwin Airline in Switzerland. As far as I can tell none of the partner airlines are profitable. Etihad gets some cost synergies and other benefits from inter-lining and feeding passengers into the Abu Dhabi hub but at the same time it must be taking its share of the net losses of its partners.

The full year net profit of both airlines is almost identical; but Etihad has six times flydubai’s revenues. So the Etihad net profit margin is painfully thin at just 1%.

The comparison is interesting. And to be honest flydubai looks like a better standalone business while Etihad benefits from investors with deep pockets.

All in US$ millions ETIHAD flydubai
Full year revenue 6,100 1,000
of which partnership revenues 820 n/a
cargo revenues 928 146 (all ancillary revenues inc. cargo)
Full year net profit 62 61
Net profit margin 1.0% 6.1%
Number of passengers carried 11.5m 6.82m
Annual increase in passengers carried 12% 38%
Etihad Airways 2013 profit rises 48%

3 March 2014

Etihad Airways also announced full year profits today with net profit reaching $62 million as sales grew 27 per cent to $6.1 billion. Partnership revenues also rose by 30 per cent to $820m, representing 21 per cent of total passenger revenues.

“Our codeshare partnerships have been an important part of our business performance for the last seven years,” said James Hogan, president and chief executive of Etihad Airways. “But it is our equity investments which are really taking off now, allowing us to build integrated networks and schedules, develop common products and services and most importantly, identify business and cost synergies.”

Etihad’s growth strategy has relied heavily on expanding its route network through “equity alliances,” in which it invests in carriers that help it to expand its global reach in strategically important regions. In 2013, Etihad grew its equity alliance to seven – comprising Air Seychelles, Air Berlin, Virgin Australia, Air Serbia, Ireland’s Aer Lingus, India’s Jet Airways and Etihad Regional — formerly known as Darwin Airline (based in Switzerland).

The latest addition to this growing family of equity alliances could be Alitalia, the loss-making Italian flag carrier. Etihad said last month that it was conducting due diligence on a possible investment.

The Arabian Gulf carrier ordered 199 aircraft and 294 engines at the Dubai Airshow, worth some $67bn.

Etihad passenger numbers surged by 12 per cent in 2013 to reach nearly 11.5 million, as 1.8 million passengers were carried via codeshare deals and other equity alliances.

The addition of seven new codeshare deals in 2013, brought the total number of such partnerships to 47.

Etihad’s aggressive growth plans include adding more than 30 routes by 2020. In 2013, Etihad launched routes to Sana’a in Yemen, Amsterdam, Belgrade in Serbia, Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Sao Paulo and Washington DC.

This year it is planning to fly to Jaipur in India, Los Angeles, Zurich, Yerevan in Armenia, Perth in Australia, Rome, Phuket in Thailand (this replaces the Air Berlin AUH-HKT flight), Dallas in the US and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

Cargo revenues increased 30 per cent in 2013 to $928 million.

Etihad expects to receive 18 new aircraft this year, including its first Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner and Airbus A380, Both are scheduled for delivery in the fourth quarter.

Etihad also announced the creation of the Etihad Aviation Group, a new structure marking the transition from a single entity airline to a wider global aviation group.

The new Etihad Aviation Group structure, headed by James Hogan as Group President and Chief Executive Officer, distinguishes the functions relating purely to Etihad Airways and those required to interface with and support the growth and success of its subsidiaries, joint venture companies and equity partners.

A bit like Emirates then!

A new position of Chief Operating Officer Etihad Airways has been created to oversee the day-to-day running of the core airline. Recruitment for this position is ongoing and the successful candidate will oversee the major areas of Marketing, Sales, Operations, Technical, Cargo, Flight Operations, Guest Services, Guest Experience, and Safety and Quality.

In addition to the core airline, the Etihad Aviation Group also includes a division to coordinate and manage Etihad’s investment in its equity airline partners, and a new role of Chief Operating Officer, Equity Partners will be created within the new structure to ensure an ongoing interface between the airline and its equity partners.

The position will be responsible for leading the identification and realisation of synergy benefits across the equity alliance, as well as having direct responsibility for Air Seychelles and Air Serbia in which Etihad Airways has a management responsibility.

The group will also include the new Hala Group, led by Peter Baumgartner, formerly Chief Commercial Officer Etihad Airways. The Hala Group has been formed recognising the airline’s commercial opportunities which have grown beyond air travel across a variety of travel and hospitality businesses.

The Hala Group will bring businesses together to drive commercial value for Etihad Airways, for Abu Dhabi and for the airline’s equity alliance partners. It combines travel management provided by Hala Travel Management, destination management services of Hala Abu Dhabi, the internationally expanding wholesale and tour operating business, Etihad Holidays, and other major start-up initiatives such as a new global loyalty company.

It makes sense but it is not exactly innovative. Part of the problem is that Etihad is 100% owned by the Abu Dhabi government and its acquisitions are made by the government’s investment fund on behalf of the airline.

Incidentally Etihad and flydubai have announced almost identical profits on very different revenues.

flydubai profits increase

3 March 2014

flydubai has reported its annual results for 2013. flydubai operates to a calendar year end unlike Emirates with a 31 March year end.

The basic numbers are revenue of AED 3.7 billion (USD 1.0 billion) and a full-year profit of AED 222.8 million (USD 60.7 million) an increase of 47 per cent compared to 2012.

Passenger numbers increased 6.82 million; a 38 per cent increase compared to 2012.

Seven new Next-Generation Boeing 737-800 aircraft joining the fleet last year. Together with the rolling retrofit programme a total of 14 aircraft are configured with a business class cabin.

The airline, which operates an average of 1,100 flights a week, launched 17 new routes during 2013 bringing the network to 66 destinations. It doubled its network in Russia to eight destinations; underlined the commitment to its network in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with 10 destinations, many of which have not previously had direct flights to Dubai, as well as Salalah in Oman. It ended the year with the first direct flights to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova.

flydubai has strategically expanded its network within a five hour flying radius of Dubai and has opened up 46 routes that were previously underserved or did not have direct air links to Dubai.

Staff numbers grew to more than 2,250 employees including 499 pilots and 922 cabin crew.

Fuel expense remains the single largest operating cost and is 39.5 per cent of total cost. During the last quarter of 2013, flydubai started hedging and 29% of the total fuel requirements for 2014 have been hedged.

Ancillary revenue remained a significant component of total revenues and accounted for 14.6 per cent of total revenues in 2013. This includes cargo revenues and flydubai’s inflight entertainment, on board sales, seat preferences, checked baggage allowance, car rental, hotel bookings, travel insurance and visa facilitation services.

At the 2013 Dubai Airshow, flydubai committed to ordering 75 Boeing 737 MAX 8s and 11 Next-Generation Boeing 737-800s, valued at $8.8 billion at list prices. In addition, the airline retains purchase rights for 25 more 737 MAXs. The first aircraft from this order, 11 Next-Generation Boeing 737-800s, will be delivered between 2016 and 2017. Deliveries of the first Boeing 737 MAX will commence in the second half of 2017 and continue until the end of 2023. The remaining aircraft from the order placed at the 2008 Farnborough Airshow will be delivered by the end of 2015.

flydubai noted that the operational climate in 2014 will remain challenging; however, the outlook remains positive due to the efficiency and flexibility of flydubai’s model and operations.

Shutting down the shutdown

3 March 2014 The Economist

Fifty-three days after anti-government protesters vowed to “shut down” the world’s most-visited city in a bid to “restart” Thailand, they have been forced to quit their programme. Or perhaps rather to “minimise” its window: from the city streets to a public park in Bangkok.

Suddenly, any relaunch of Thailand’s failed people’s revolution looks unlikely. Suthep Thaugsuban, the leader of a series of anti-government protests, now in its fourth month, which has been aimed at ridding Thailand of the influence of the ruling Shinawatra clan, even apologised for the inconvenience that has been caused. Rally sites at key intersections in central Bangkok are to be dismantled, while some others are to be left in place, for now. This development will not, however, end the battle over the government’s legitimacy.

What it does show is that the risk of widespread social and economic failure has begun to register with the main protagonists: the army; the government; and finally Mr Suthep, the de facto leader of Thailand’s opposition. At least 23 people, including children, have been killed and hundreds more injured since the end of October. Earlier this week young men engaged in shoot-outs in central Bangkok. And everywhere incomes have been hit hard. One estimate puts the economic loss caused by the protests at $15 billion and warns that it could quickly double—by which point it would have destroyed income equal to the vast wealth of the royal palace.

The ugly truth at the centre of Thailand’s ideological conflict is that both sides would prefer to see the other side drop dead. And neither is about to commit suicide. In the past, the king could have told Mr Suthep to accept a compromise. But the monarch is old and frail. In his stead, the army, as the real power behind the throne, has taken action. Days before Mr Suthep’s apparent retreat, the army chief had in effect warned him and his sympathisers—in the military ranks, the civil service, the judiciary and the royal palace—that coups d’état are no longer on the menu.

For the army knows it is not welcome. Above all, it fears the sort of backlash that is already brewing among the more militant “red shirts”, the supporters of the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister. The mood among the reds has changed strikingly since February 19th, when a court ruled against them. Its judgment, that the anti-government protests were “peaceful” and that the police must not break them up, infuriated them; the ruling was a signal to their more radical factions that they might as well take up arms too. One red-shirt leader has vowed to recruit 600,000 young men for a new, pro-government Democracy Protection Volunteers Group. Whether or not he is regarded as a nutcase, he is not alone in drawing a hard line: there is to be no coup, military or judicial—or else. On March 1st unidentified men sprayed gunfire at the home of the mother of one of the protest leaders (who had, a few days earlier, chased the former wife of Mr Thaksin from a posh shopping centre).

Mr Suthep’s apparent climbdown comes only days after the red shirts began copying his tactics and laid siege to a government institution. On February 26th they built a wall of sand and crushed stones to block the gates of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), north of Bangkok. The NACC is set to impeach Ms Yingluck over her government’s signature policy, a lavish rice-subsidy scheme. If she were found guilty, Ms Yingluck and many senior figures in her Pheu Thai party could be removed from office and banned from politics for five years.

The case appears open-ended and its outcome uncertain. In that respect it is very much like the government’s bid to complete a national election, without which it cannot convene parliament and stay in power. For that matter, it is also like those assurances by the opposition Democrat Party, when it says that it favours elections over the anti-government protesters’ demand for an appointed “people’s council”. It was the same Democrats who boycotted the polls on February 2nd, and who stand in the way of the government’s attempts to build a quorum for the next parliament.

The entrance to the NACC is now the site of a rally for the red shirts, sealed off by their own armed guards. Street vendors sell paraphernalia with images of Ms Yingluck and Mr Thaksin. At present it is the reds’ only dedicated territory inside Greater Bangkok. They look poised to hold it, as a red line of sorts. In practice they are mimicking the anti-government protesters who built a cement wall earlier this month, brick-by-brick sealing the gates to Ms Yingluck’s office, Government House, so that she could not return “in this life or the next”.

The notion that Mr Suthep’s revolution is responding to a popular demand for better governance now looks bizarre, if not incomprehensible. In one of the thousands of tents staked in Lumpini Park, the new headquarters of the revolution, large letters printed in English seek to explain: “Western observers please understand that this is our democratic reform in progress. You had yours, let us have ours!”.

Were Mr Suthep’s revolution to regain its strength and to triumph, against the odds, it would be startling. But then the scale of the backlash against his movement could be even more shocking. Mr Suthep claims to want to protect the country and the monarchy. A less charitable view has it that he has been trying to protect the traditional elite’s political and economic control over Thailand’s resources—to defend the status quo that another revolution, the Siamese coup d’état of 1932, once tried but failed to overcome.

It appears that it has dawned on the army that Mr Suthep’s bid to preserve the role of the establishment might well backfire. Safer for everyone, then, that his insurrection should be boxed into a public park.

Russia Today’s full scale propaganda

2 March 2014

Russia Today’s priceless headline “Tea, sandwiches, music, photos with self-defense forces mark peaceful Sunday in Simferopol”

Worse is Russia Today describing an occupying army as a self-defense force. But say anything loudly enough and there will be someone who believes it.

First the Crimea and then?

2 March 2014 The Guardian – Masha Gessen

Can something be evident and incredible at the same time? Certainly, if you are in denial. Until Russian troops landed in the Crimea many Russians were in denial about Vladimir Putin. They believed he was all bark and no bite.

Not that Putin had kept his intentions secret. He has always denied the idea that the Soviet Union was a colonising power; furthermore, he called the breakup of the USSR “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of our time”.

He has annexed chunks of Georgia, most recently by means of a military invasion in 2008. But there are two differences between now and the war in Georgia. Technically, it was not Putin but Dmitry Medvedev who was nominally president when Russia invaded Georgia. More importantly, Russian liberals were not rooting for their fellows in Georgia during that war; indeed, they were scarcely aware of the political struggles within the country.

Ukraine is different: for three months, Russians had been watching the stand-off, and the oppositionally minded were strongly identifying with the anti-Yanukovych forces in Kiev.

Perhaps the last time the Russian intelligentsia watched the internal struggle in another country this intently was in 1968 during the Prague Spring, when they hoped the Czechs would succeed in building what they called “socialism with a human face”. They also believed it would hold out the promise of something better for life in the Soviet Union. In August 1968, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, quashing the Prague Spring. In Moscow, seven people came out to protest against the invasion; they were arrested and the modern dissident movement was born.

The parallels end there. It’s unlikely that what’s happening in Ukraine will foment a new protest movement in Russia: the ongoing crackdown on civil society makes the cost of protest too high. Still, the Crimean invasion is a landmark in Russian domestic politics.

It signals a loss of innocence: no longer will Russians be able to think that Putin merely feels nostalgic for the USSR. It also signals ever greater polarisation of Russian society: in addition to all the other lines along which Russians are divided and across which civilised dialogue is impossible, there is now the chasm between supporters and opponents of the planned annexation. It also means the political crackdown in Russia will intensify further.

These clear and tragic consequences obscure the challenge the new Crimean war poses to Russia’s post-imperial consciousness. “I can be reasonable about everything, but I cannot give up the Crimea,” was a line from the late Galina Starovoitova, who as Boris Yeltsin’s adviser on nationalities policy, oversaw Russia’s first attempts at releasing its colonies.

She meant that, like just about every Russian, she felt the Black Sea resort area was part of her birthright, whatever the maps may say. Most, if not all, Russians harbour this Crimean exceptionalism, even if they belong to the minority that otherwise rejects Soviet nostalgia.

If Russia functioned as a society with rule of law and some common understanding of its complicated history, the inhibition against acting on this exceptionalist impulse would come from the top. But with the government sending troops into the Crimea, it is up to individual Russians to find the arguments and, even more difficult, the motivation to resist the aggression.

Masha Gessen is the author of The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin

A Crimea Primer

1 March 2014 from the Global Post

A vital piece of land on the Black Sea that’s been claimed by some of the world’s great empires, Crimea is no stranger to conflict.

The peninsula has been sacked by Huns, Greeks, Turks and Mongols. It was part of the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan and later the Ottoman Empire before it was absorbed by the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great in 1783.

Perhaps its bloodiest chapter came between 1853 and 1856 during the Crimean War.

An estimated 750,000 people died as Russia fought the Ottoman Empire in a conflict that also involved France, Britain and Sardinia.

The war gave us two cultural tropes: Florence Nightingale ushering sick soldiers to safety and the Charge of the Light Brigade that ended in disaster for British troops cut down in one of military history’s greatest blunders.

The poem “Charge of the Light Brigade” by Tennyson immortalized the episode this way: “Theirs not to reason why; theirs but to do and die.”

Under Soviet rule, Crimea belonged to the Russian republic, one of 15 Soviet republics, until Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to the Ukrainian republic in 1954.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Crimea flirted with independence, but that movement was quashed by lawmakers.

This week, tensions flared after months of protest finally ended with the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych last weekend.

Russian loyalists stormed the Crimean parliament and another government building on Thursday. Heavily armed, they raised the Russian flag in the Crimean capital of Simferopol.

On Friday, another armed group took control of two Crimean airports.

Although Moscow denies direct involvement, Reuters reported Russian aircraft flew into Ukrainian airspace and that Russian troops controlled at least one of the airports.

“Of course they are Russian,” said Maxim Lovinetsky, a 23-year-old volunteer militiaman who was blocking access to the airport. “They came last night.”

More from GlobalPost: In Ukraine the fight continues, and not just in Crimea (VIDEO)

About 2 million people live in Crimea, which is split between Russians in the south, Muslim Tatars in the center and Ukrainians in the north.

Ethnic Russians are the majority in Crimea, making up nearly 60 percent of the population. Together, Ukrainians and Tatars form just under 40 percent.

In the face of crisis, Tatars and Ukrainians appear united against the Russians, likely stemming from old wounds. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin scattered the entire Crimean Tatar population, some 200,000, in 1944 to various parts of the USSR for allegedly conspiring with Nazi Germany.

Nearly half of them died during the exile.

On the world map, Crimea appears almost an island, but it’s actually a peninsula connected by a thin tissue of land extending to Ukraine in the north.

Another arm reaches almost to Russia to the east, but is interrupted by the Strait of Kerch and the Sea of Azov.

Crimea extends deep into the Black Sea and provides easy access to European nations such as Romania and Bulgaria, as well as Turkey.

Some experts suggest Russian President Vladimir Putin wants Crimea back under his control. However, others say Putin risks international isolation and an expensive conflict if he intervenes in Crimea.

“Crimea in Ukraine and Transnistria in Moldova are just two of many possible future Russian targets,” Monica Duffy Toft writes for Foreign Policy. “But building an empire is an expensive undertaking. Russia’s appetite for expansion might only weaken it further.”

The Bangkok Post at its yellow worst

28 February 2014

The Bangkok Post is a poor newspaper – but its failure to a) understand democracy and b) understand that there is a Thailand beyond Bangkok does it huge discredit. This is how democracy is supposed to work trumpets the paper in the last sentence of yesterday’s editorial.

The Bangkok Post has singularly failed to condemn the PDRC, an illegal movement that has its sole aim of forcing a democratically elected government from office. That is the issue that the Post should be dealing with.

There is an irregular army already established – by the PDRC in Bangkok. The police have been instructed not to interfere.

If there is a coup or if the PDRC takes over Bangkok and if the government then decides to set up its operations and ministries in for instance Chiang Mai then it is still the government – it is still the sole body elected by the people of Thailand. It is not a government in exile and it is not an alternative government,

The military government or the PDRC that try to take control of government in Bangkok would be the government in exile – the government that is not representative of the people.

The Bangkok Post assume that whatever happens in Bangkok is the government as though a government cannot function outside of the capital.

Given that Bangkok is being strangled by anti-democracy protestors it makes sense for democratic minded people to be considering alternatives.

A coupe government is not a legitimate substitute for an elected government and the Post fails to accept this is its haste to support the coup plotters.

Tone down the rhetoric
27 Feb 2014 Bangkok Post editorial:

Thailand is one and indivisible kingdom. This is clearly stated in the first amendment of the constitution. . So anyone who attempts to carve out territory from the kingdom is committing sedition which is liable to severe punishment.

In the far South, separatist groups such as the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) and new Pattani United Liberation Organisation have, for decades, waged unsuccessful and violent campaigns for a separate Malay-Muslim region from the Thai state.

Although a separate homeland or self-determination remains an aspiration, several separatist groups, including the BRN, have agreed to peace talks brokered by Malaysia Unfortunately, the process has been suspended since the middle of last year.

Of late however, there have been talks among the hardliners within the red-shirt movement, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), and some members in the government about separatism in retaliation against what they deem as extreme bias or injustice against the government from charter-mandated independent organisations such as the Constitution Court and the National Anti-Corruption Commission.

Emotions ran high at the UDD’s rally held in Nakhon Ratchasima on Sunday which was attended by the movement’s firebrands namely caretaker Deputy Commerce Minister Nattawut Saikuar and Jatuporn Prompan. Caretaker Interior Minister and Pheu Thai party leader Charupong Ruangsuwan was also present.

Loose talk about the creation of an irregular army of red shirts to protect the government and to fight the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), a government-in-exile and a separate homeland found voice on the rally stage.

In his address to the red-shirt crowd, Mr Charupong issued a threat, saying there are about 10 million guns in the hands of Thai people and these people cannot be looked down upon.

He also reportedly called upon the red shirts to get prepared for a make-or-break showdown which will result in bloodshed.

It is inconceivable how an interior minister could openly encourage people — in this case the red-shirt followers — to prepare for a bloody confrontation and, at the same time, condone talks about a government in exile, an irregular army and a separate homeland for red-shirt followers.

Mr Charupong’s conduct in this regard is unbecoming of a minister. It is indeed an irony that the government of which he is a part has charged PDRC leaders for sedition for leading protests to overthrow the government.

The protests have turned the government into a lame duck, unable to find a permanent home to do its work. Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has to keep her daily working schedules confidential for fear of harassment from protesters.

Yet these symptoms of a failed government are no excuse for a member of the government to engage in activities bordering on sedition, or incitement of hatred.

Fortunately, cool heads still prevail within the military top brass. Army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha in his capacity as the deputy director of the Internal Security Operations Command has ordered all provincial governors to keep a close watch on any crowd movements from both sides of the conflict which are prone to political violence, to nip any potential violence in the bud.

Like the PDRC, the UDD has the right to stage protests as it feels fit so long as it does not resort to violence. It has the right to protect its beloved prime minister. But at the same time, it has a duty to obey the law and follow rulings from the courts of law. That is how a democracy is supposed to work.

The Bangkok Post at its yellow worst

28 February 2014

The Bangkok Post is a poor newspaper – but its failure to a) understand democracy and b) understand that there is a Thailand beyond Bangkok does it huge discredit. This is how democracy is supposed to work trumpets the paper in the last sentence of yesterday’s editorial.

The Bangkok Post has singularly failed to condemn the PDRC, an illegal movement that has its sole aim of forcing a democratically elected government from office. That is the issue that the Post should be dealing with.

There is an irregular army already established – by the PDRC in Bangkok. The police have been instructed not to interfere.

If there is a coup or if the PDRC takes over Bangkok and if the government then decides to set up its operations and ministries in for instance Chiang Mai then it is still the government – it is still the sole body elected by the people of Thailand. It is not a government in exile and it is not an alternative government,

The military government or the PDRC that try to take control of government in Bangkok would be the government in exile – the government that is not representative of the people.

The Bangkok Post assume that whatever happens in Bangkok is the government as though a government cannot function outside of the capital.

Given that Bangkok is being strangled by anti-democracy protestors it makes sense for democratic minded people to be considering alternatives.

A coupe government is not a legitimate substitute for an elected government and the Post fails to accept this is its haste to support the coup plotters.

Tone down the rhetoric
27 Feb 2014 Bangkok Post editorial:

Thailand is one and indivisible kingdom. This is clearly stated in the first amendment of the constitution. . So anyone who attempts to carve out territory from the kingdom is committing sedition which is liable to severe punishment.

In the far South, separatist groups such as the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) and new Pattani United Liberation Organisation have, for decades, waged unsuccessful and violent campaigns for a separate Malay-Muslim region from the Thai state.

Although a separate homeland or self-determination remains an aspiration, several separatist groups, including the BRN, have agreed to peace talks brokered by Malaysia Unfortunately, the process has been suspended since the middle of last year.

Of late however, there have been talks among the hardliners within the red-shirt movement, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), and some members in the government about separatism in retaliation against what they deem as extreme bias or injustice against the government from charter-mandated independent organisations such as the Constitution Court and the National Anti-Corruption Commission.

Emotions ran high at the UDD’s rally held in Nakhon Ratchasima on Sunday which was attended by the movement’s firebrands namely caretaker Deputy Commerce Minister Nattawut Saikuar and Jatuporn Prompan. Caretaker Interior Minister and Pheu Thai party leader Charupong Ruangsuwan was also present.

Loose talk about the creation of an irregular army of red shirts to protect the government and to fight the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), a government-in-exile and a separate homeland found voice on the rally stage.

In his address to the red-shirt crowd, Mr Charupong issued a threat, saying there are about 10 million guns in the hands of Thai people and these people cannot be looked down upon.

He also reportedly called upon the red shirts to get prepared for a make-or-break showdown which will result in bloodshed.

It is inconceivable how an interior minister could openly encourage people — in this case the red-shirt followers — to prepare for a bloody confrontation and, at the same time, condone talks about a government in exile, an irregular army and a separate homeland for red-shirt followers.

Mr Charupong’s conduct in this regard is unbecoming of a minister. It is indeed an irony that the government of which he is a part has charged PDRC leaders for sedition for leading protests to overthrow the government.

The protests have turned the government into a lame duck, unable to find a permanent home to do its work. Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has to keep her daily working schedules confidential for fear of harassment from protesters.

Yet these symptoms of a failed government are no excuse for a member of the government to engage in activities bordering on sedition, or incitement of hatred.

Fortunately, cool heads still prevail within the military top brass. Army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha in his capacity as the deputy director of the Internal Security Operations Command has ordered all provincial governors to keep a close watch on any crowd movements from both sides of the conflict which are prone to political violence, to nip any potential violence in the bud.

Like the PDRC, the UDD has the right to stage protests as it feels fit so long as it does not resort to violence. It has the right to protect its beloved prime minister. But at the same time, it has a duty to obey the law and follow rulings from the courts of law. That is how a democracy is supposed to work.

Business Bay stages a comeback as Dubai property market picks up

27 February 2014 – The National by Lucy Barnard

Only a thin blue hoarding separates the busy shopping district of Downtown Dubai from the new waterside office and residential area of Business Bay – yet the two locations feel worlds apart.

Turn right along a narrow road from The Dubai Mall and you are suddenly faced with piles of sand and heaps of junk. Shiny green glass buildings stand next to half-finished structures of grey skeletal concrete stalled by the downturn.

This is Business Bay, one of the areas of Dubai hit hardest by the global financial crisis. Its master plan, drawn up in 2003, envisaged the biggest office district in the Middle East, with towers of offices and homes along the lines of Canary Wharf in London’s Docklands.

With the recovery in the Dubai real estate market and a new wave of optimism hitting the city, things appear to be finally looking up for Business Bay. And as it regenerates, the area is altering its identity – with the emphasis shifting from office towers, giving greater weight to residential and leisure, rather like Downtown Dubai.

Work on Business Bay started back when high office rents and low vacancy rates prompted a building boom in office towers. Investors bought off-plan offices, like apartments, in the hope of getting high rents.

But Business Bay was a victim of its timing. Construction work on many of its projects was scheduled to start just as the global financial crisis hit the emirate and many companies exited the country, leaving office space empty.

Over time, Business Bay became known in the city as a soulless expanse of office space and an area where a few hardy expatriates made their homes, putting up with unmade roads and taxi drivers’ bafflement in return for cheap rents in luxuriously built apartments. Local agents estimate that apartments in Business Bay rent for about 25 per cent less than similar apartments in Downtown Dubai.

From a vantage point on the shore of the Dubai Creek extension, one can make out clusters of completed sleek glass buildings including the 0-14 Tower, or Swiss Cheese Tower; the world’s tallest hotel, JW Marriott Marquis; and Blue Bay Tower, looming over empty plots of sand and construction sites, many of which remain stalled.

One Monday morning this month, 24 cranes were within sight from one spot in the Business Bay area. About half of them were moving, reflected perfectly in the grey waters of the partially completed waterway.

Schemes such as Iris Bay, a striking 32-storey grey and white reclining half-disc that resembles an iPod speaker, and KM Properties’ 19-storey B2B office tower appear half-completed, remaining stalled at the same stage of construction they were years earlier.

On the other hand, work continues apace at Damac’s 22-storey Bay’s Edge tower, what will be a huge gold-coloured, D-shaped block of 220 furnished apartments. The site, a stone’s throw from The Dubai Mall, is a hive of activity with dozens of men in blue boiler suits toiling away, moving diggers and huge black pipes.

Bay’s Edge is just one of five stalled office projects in Business Bay that Damac is in the process of converting into serviced apartments, some of which had already started construction, while others were in the design stage.

Meanwhile, work finally appears to have also restarted at Omniyat’s The Pad development, a 24-storey reclining block designed to look like a classic early 2000s media player. Work on the project, which was originally started in 2008 when the scheme was known as “the iPod”, has reached a height of about 12 storeys.

When they were initially launched, both projects were described by their developers as being in Business Bay. However, when they were launched the second time they were marketed as being in Downtown or the Burj Area.

“Over the past year to 18 months we have started to see a return to construction activity at Business Bay,” says Craig Plumb, the head of research at the surveying firm Jones Lang LaSalle’s Dubai office. “However, this is led by the residential and hospitality sectors, which means that the nature of the area is starting to change from a district that had been planned to be predominantly offices, to one where there are far more apartments and hotels. At the moment we are working on at least two schemes that have changed from office towers into apartment blocks.”

“We are already starting to see schemes in areas that could really be classified as being in Business Bay being described as Downtown, and we expect to see that trend continuing,” Mr Plumb adds.

And it looks like construction at Business Bay is set to speed up this year.

On February 2, Arabtec announced that the Abu Dhabi Government-owned investment company Aabar had awarded it a contract to build three mixed-use towers in Business Bay as part of a wider contract to build 37 towers in Dubai and Abu Dhabi at a cost of more than Dh22 billion. Construction will begin in the next two months and is expected to be completed by 2020, Arabtec said.

Certainly local tradespeople are reporting an increase in business in the area.

“Business here is definitely getting better,” says Omron Shebli, the general manager at The View Cafe, which looks out over Business Bay from the top of Ubora Tower. On a Monday at lunchtime, the cafe was largely empty; Mr Shebli suggested things would pick up later in the day.

“I’ve been here one year and eight months. Trade started slowly but business is definitely picking up. In the evenings now we are full, as more people are coming here after work and more people are living here in the new towers,” he said.

Mohammed Benour works at the flower shop between Ubora and Churchill Towers. “I think there is quite a buzz here now and we get quite a few people coming to buy flowers, especially on Thursdays and Fridays,” he says. “After two years when all these new developments like Mohammed bin Rashid City start to happen and work on the 2020 Expo starts to happen, then I think the place will really come into its own and we will have many more customers.”

But office workers in the area are not so sure. Co-workers Tarek Hendi, Hesham Awwad and Ahmed Suwi were having lunch in a bustling Marad Restaurant in Business Bay.

“This place will happen over time, but at the moment I wouldn’t be tempted to move here,” says Mr Hendi. “If I didn’t work here then I wouldn’t come here.”

“This place would be more convenient for single people,” adds Mr Awad. “There are no schools close by and a lot of the places to go are still under development. It’s not like Dubai Marina or JLT, which are a lot more developed and have more things to do, more restaurants.”

Get Ready for a Bloody end-game in Thailand

27 February 2014 Bloomberg Business Week – Joshua Kurlantzick

Clashes in Thailand between anti-government protestors and security forces have intensified. Over the past weekend, unidentified gunmen sprayed bullets at anti-government protestors in eastern Thailand, killing a five-year-old girl, and someone apparently launched two grenade attacks in Bangkok. Since the current round of demonstrations started last November, 21 people have been killed and hundreds injured in Thailand. The country has basically functioned without an effective government for months, the once-teflon economy is sputtering, and Thais are preparing for the violence to get worse. The leader of the demonstrations has vowed to hunt down Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the protestors have been electrified by the turn of events in Ukraine, and all sides appear to be taking more confrontational positions.

Although Thailand’s cycle of political instability seems to have gone on forever—the genesis of the unrest dates back roughly a decade—the chaos in Bangkok is likely to end soon. The government has appointed hard-line ministers to the top security positions, the powerful army chief has for the first time issued a warning to the demonstrators, and the protestors have upped their violent rhetoric and seemingly armed themselves with heavier weapons. The denouement in Bangkok, coming shortly, is not likely to be pretty.

The divide in Thai society dates to the early 2000s, when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother, became the nation’s first leader to unite the rural poor and use their combined votes to dominate Parliament. Protests in 2005 and 2006 by members of the Bangkok elite, worried at their loss of power and also furious at Thaksin’s venal and at times brutal rule, led to a coup in 2006. Since then the country has been caught in a never-ending cycle of protest by elites, toppling of pro-Thaksin governments, brief installations of pro-elite governments, and then counter-protests by Thaksin supporters and the election of pro-Thaksin governments.

None of the cycles of protest and counter-protest have ended in solutions that resolved Thailand’s class and regional divides; the protests led to temporary fixes that only emboldened the other side to fight harder. Worse, none of the cycles of protest have ended without serious violence.

The Yingluck government has been reticent to crack down on the protests, even when demonstrators have taken over government ministries. Yingluck feared that any crackdown could spark a coup because the military’s leaders seemed to side with the conservative and royalist demonstrators and against the more populist government. In addition, other powerful elements of Thailand’s conservative and royalist “deep state” warned against a crackdown. The country’s courts have ruled that the government cannot block demonstrators from entering state property and cannot use any force against demonstrations, even though protestors have attacked police. Yingluck also faces a controversial impeachment case before the courts and a national anti-corruption commission.

Now the government’s fear of a coup is fading. Although the army commander is a staunch conservative and probably supports the demonstrators, the army’s ranks and mid-level officers have, behind the scenes, applied enormous pressure on military leaders not to intervene and to publicly rebuke protestors for using violent tactics. Under intense pressure, the army commander this week issued such a rebuke.

Buoyed by the army’s public stance—and by every Western country’s tacit support of the government, in sharp contrast to the situation in Ukraine or Venezuela—Yingluck has appointed hard-line ministers to run the public order campaign. Chalerm Yubamrung, director of the government’s Center for Maintaining Peace and Order (CMPO), is known as one of the toughest political operators. And this week, retired general Panlop Pinmanee said the government has approached him about possibly joining the CMPO; Panlop masterminded a harsh crackdown on insurgents in southern Thailand a decade ago.

Meanwhile, the demonstrators’ own story has become increasingly divorced from reality as their leaders feed activists a paranoid and fantastic narrative full of hateful invective. One Thai commentator, Merisa Skulsuthavong, has compared the protestors’ rhetoric to a magical realism Thai soap opera in which a hero swoops in with no warning and rescues the day. Some protestors think Thailand’s aged and ailing king will play the heroic role, stepping into the fray to dismiss the government. But the royal family is divided and the king has made no public moves.

Though fantastic, this narrative has become accepted by large portions of the Bangkok middle class because the demonstrators have media outlets that essentially echo their message. The echo chamber encourages ever more violent tactics. It also seems likely that in recent weeks, some military men unhappy with the armed forces’ decision to stay on the sidelines have quietly joined the demonstrations, or may have provided protestors with arms.

How will Thailand’s stand-off end? Not like Ukraine, where protestors enjoyed the support of the West and the government foolishly employed extreme violence, undermining ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s own support base and his democratic credentials. Although Western countries do not openly support Yingluck, every Western embassy has called for respect for the democratic process. This essentially supports the government’s current position because protestors want to block elections and halt democracy. And though the government has put hard-liners in place, the history of the past 10 years shows that Shinawatra governments, though often venal, do not employ the harshest possible crackdown tactics in Bangkok. They are more attuned to their fragile prospects for survival than, say, Yanukovych or previous elite-led Thai governments such as the one that oversaw the killing of at least 90 people during pro-Thaksin protests in Bangkok in 2010.

Instead, Yingluck’s government probably will slowly strangle the protest movement. It will do so by closing one protest location after the next while peeling off some of the more moderate supporters of the protests in Bangkok’s business and political communities. Without support from the king and the leaders of the army, and lacking the broad base of demonstrations in places like Venezuela, the protests will eventually dwindle. Ultimately, some demonstrators may join in a new round of elections designed to replace the recent flawed elections Yingluck called. Even if the courts and other agencies of Thailand’s deep state successfully remove Yingluck and other top members of her party, it has a deep bench of potential replacements.

Before any such ending, bloodshed will increase. The leaders of the protest and the government, per Thai tradition, probably will remain untouched, even if they oversee violence and outright executions. As the police and some troops close protest sites, expect the demonstrators to increasingly open fire on security forces—some protestors now openly carry assault rifles inside sacks of grain and corn—and to utilize grenades and other homemade explosives. Some policemen will be unable to restrain themselves as well—renegade policemen seem to have already attacked protestors with brutal force. As the standoff mounts, police leaders with limited control over their men in ordinary times will be unable to stop renegade policemen from beating or shooting protestors.

Instead of one massive, bloody battle such as took place on the last day of the 2010 Bangkok violence, when parts of the central business district burned to the ground and the army peppered demonstrators with thousands of rounds of live fire, the city is more likely to see the equivalent of a low-level insurgency for months as protests are squeezed. Such an insurgency—though once unimaginable in a cosmopolitan and normally peaceful capital like Bangkok, as if Damascus popped up central Paris—is already occurring. Armed men linked to the demonstrators are stockpiling weapons for a prolonged campaign that will continue, even if the protestors’ main rally sites are cleared.

In addition, both pro- and anti-Thaksin groups seem to be assembling lists of targeted politicians and activists to be wiped out through targeted, Beirut-style executions, a trend that’s likely to continue, even as the large demonstrations recede. It will be a long time before Bangkok can again be truly called the City of Angels, its traditional Thai name.

Kurlantzick is Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government.

What the government isn’t telling you about Bangkok

26 February 2014 Lindsay Murdoch for the Sydney Morning Herald

Bangkok: I write this after a night of gun battles across the Thai capital. The Australian government’s smartraveller.gov.au advisory for travellers doesn’t say it. But it’s time to speak bluntly: Do not enter or go near anti-government protest sites in Bangkok. And do not travel around the city late at night.

Every day for the past week I have seen tourists, including Australians, wandering through protest areas, seemingly oblivious to the dangers. Some of them had children with them.

As the sun rises across Bangkok this morning the extent of the night’s battles remains unreported. It was too dangerous for journalists to venture on to the dark streets.

But since last Friday there have been dozens of reports of violent incidents and at least six grenade attacks that left four children dead and more than 60 people injured.

The worst attack was on Sunday night in the middle of Bangkok’s commercial and tourist centre. A five-year-old boy and his six-year-old sister were killed. and almost 30 people were injured, some seriously.

The area is near several of Bangkok’s largest five-star hotels and ritzy shopping malls popular with tourists. One of them, Central World shopping centre, was largely destroyed when it was firebombed during bloodshed in 2010.

Since then the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has urged the Thai authorities, anti-government protesters and parents to protect children by keeping them away from all protest sites.

Bijaya Rajbhandari, UNICEF’s representative in Thailand, said areas within and around protest barricades should become “child free zones” to ensure there are no further fatalities or injuries among children.

Some countries have warned their citizens to stay away from Bangkok. Hong Kong even issued a “black” (severe) warning for Thailand (Bangkok), which prompted criticism from tourism operators that it had gone too far.

Thailand’s Tourism Ministry reports that tourist arrivals in January dropped by 1 million from the same time last year, costing the country millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Australia’s smartraveller.gov.au advisory for Thailand has not been updated since February 19. It says travellers should exercise a “high degree of caution” in Thailand, one of the most popular travel destinations for Australians.

“We continue to advise travellers to avoid all protest sites and surrounding areas, political rallies and processions through Bangkok and in other locations, political events and large-scale public gatherings due to the risk of further violence and terrorism,” it says.

It should read “do not enter” the sites under any circumstances.

Since protests began last November, 21 people have died and more than 800 have been injured. Thailand’s military has warned that the country could face collapse unless urgent action is taken to end escalating violence.

Asked about not updating the travel advisory, a spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said: “We believe the travel advice remains appropriate at this time.” She said the advice is kept under close review and “we will promptly reissue the travel advice as required.”

Thai unrest continues in Bangkok

25 February 2014

There is gunfire in central Bangkok tonight – and there was gunfire and small explosions last night in Bangkok and further away in Roi-et.

The unrest continues but is largely forgotten about by the international media for whom the Ukraine has quickly become a much bigger story.

The rally site of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) at Silom was rocked by bomb and gun attacks throughout last night leaving five people slightly injured. The injured who included two PDRC guards were admitted to Chulalongkorn hospital for primary treatment and later discharged.

PDRC guards said the explosion started from about 1.00 a.m. and ended before dawn today. Throughout almost four hours of tension, bomb explosions and gunshot fires were heard sporadically around the protected area of security guards while protesters inside were not hurt. Gunshots were heard near Saladaeng intersection and explosions were heard near the Chulalongkorn hospital on the Henri Dunant road.

Police are not allowed near these PDRC sites who have their own so-called security guards; this morning they were stopping entry into the Lumphini park after gunshots were heard near Gate 4.

In Roi-et a grenade was hurled at a group of teenagers at traditional I-saan concert early Tuesday, fatally injuring three and severely injuring 25 others, police said. The attack occurred at 3:30 am at a concert in a temple fair in Roi Et’s Suvarnabhumi district.

This appears to not be related to the political protests but is believed to be result of a gang battle.

With the courts banning the government from taking action to clear the protest sites and the police told not to take any action it appears that significant parts of central Bangkok are controlled by the PDRC’s own security. They are for instance controlling access to the metro and BTS at Silom with their own ‘check points.’ They also tell people where they can drive or walk, they will look into bags, and frisk whoever they want. They are neither police or army. This cannot be right.

Tonight gunshots have been heard at Pratunam, Rajprasong, Pathumwan (Chalermpao intersection) and Chulalongkorn.

Bangkok cannot be far away from an overnight curfew – except that the courts have taken away the authority of the government to take action under an emergency decree.

Another Thai airline start-up and R update!

24 February 2014

Nine Star Airways (Bangkok Suvarnabhumi) is a new Thai carrier claiming to offer premium charter operations using two ex-Vietnam Airlines (VN, Hanoi) A320-200s (cn 648 and cn 650) initially. The start-up aims to focus on the domestic Thai, Middle East, China and India markets with long term plans to acquire a B767-300 for Hajj flights to and from Saudi Arabia.

The web site is here – www.9-air.com

I am not sure what a premium charter service is. But their two A320s both have 180 seats which is standard high density all economy LCC seating so don’t expect too much.

Meanwhile R Airlines is back up and operating – although the web site says that the flights are actually operated by Skyview Airlines. The airline has acquired an A321 (a first in Thailand). It is their only operational plane.

The hour of Kiev and Europe

24 February 2014 – The Financial Times

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe again echoes to the sound and fury of revolution. Back in 1989 the collapse of the wall heralded the end of the cold war. Much of central and eastern Europe escaped Soviet hegemony and walked peacefully into the embrace of the European Union. The insurrectionary drama unfolding in Ukraine is still in its early days. Several acts lie ahead. But even when set against the epic events of 1989, its historic significance cannot be dismissed. This is a moment of immense opportunity – and immense danger – for Ukraine, for the EU and for Russia. More than any single moment since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the revolution that began in Kiev heralds “the hour of Europe”.

Anyone contemplating the revolutionary developments in Kiev and the toppling of President Viktor Yanukovich must start by reflecting on what it signifies for Ukraine and its 46m people. The country separated peacefully from the dying Soviet Union in 1991, renounced nuclear weapons and seamlessly moved to independence. Hopes of a democratic future for the country were high, especially after the 2004 Orange Revolution. But in the intervening years the country has been led by a cynical, corrupt leadership that has taken Ukraine today to the brink of economic meltdown. The fall at the weekend of the Moscow-backed Yanukovich – toppled by his own political ineptitude as much as anything else – now gives Ukraine a fresh opportunity to become a functioning democratic state.

However, the Ukrainian revolution has political implications that go well beyond its borders. For a quarter of a century this huge territory perched precariously between the EU and Russia has been the object of a geopolitical contest between the Kremlin and the west. In 2008 President George W Bush made a clumsy attempt to tip that contest decisively in the west’s favour, seeking to draw two former Soviet states – Ukraine and Georgia – into the US-led Nato alliance. President Vladimir Putin responded with force. He drew a line under any new attempt to weaken Russian influence in its near abroad, road-blocking the Nato applications and invading Georgia. But the Maidan revolution now offers a second chance for all parties to reconsider the status of Ukraine on the faultline of Europe. If Ukraine can be drawn into the economic and political community of Europe without alarming Russia, this would be an immense achievement for European values and for the international standing of the EU.

Such a development, however, will require the co-operation of Mr Putin. And this is why events in Kiev bring both extraordinary opportunity and extraordinary danger. For Mr Putin has never left any doubt about his nostalgic vision to restore Russia to its status as a great power. Central to this vision is the idea of forging a Eurasian Union, an international commercial and political network of former Soviet states. The loss of Ukraine to the west in any form would scupper that, and more. It would be seen by many in the Kremlin as a body blow, given the centuries of historic ties between Russia and Ukraine. Far from agreeing to a shift in Ukraine’s status, Mr Putin might therefore revert to type, plunging Russia’s neighbour into a bitter and destructive war.

The overwhelming task for European and American leaders must be to convince the Kremlin that this is not how Ukraine’s story should unfold. Western leaders must spell out how Ukraine – an ethnically diverse country straddling Russia and the eastern borders of the EU – can enjoy a special position in Europe. The US and EU should unveil a vision of a democratic Ukraine that becomes a fully independent state, mutually respectful to both Russia and the EU and forging close economic relations with both. It is a vision in which Ukraine would be able to set out on a long-term path to join the EU as a fully fledged member. But like Finland, another Russian neighbour, this is a country that must also remain unaligned in east-west security terms, and stay firmly out of Nato.

Forging a common international vision for the future of a democratic Ukraine is now the most urgent task of western diplomacy. It will require political leadership of the highest order. Here, President Barack Obama must act with urgency, ridding himself of the inclination to lead from behind, a worrying trait he demonstrated over Syria and Libya. Relations between the White House and the Kremlin are fraught at best and the vaunted “reset” of 2008 has come to little. Now is the time to re-engage at the highest level.

All this will require leadership from three sets of actors. The first group are Ukraine’s national leaders. While the entire opposition may rejoice at the undignified exit of Mr Yanukovich, the reality is that they are still heavily divided. The opposition has credible mainstream leaders in the form of Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the former economy minister, and Vitali Klitschko, the boxing champion. However, elements on the nationalist right do not regard themselves as subordinate to these figures. It is vital that all these political forces – together with Yulia Tymoshenko, the somewhat tarnished heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution – come together in a spirit of national unity to ensure there are free and fair elections on the designated date of May 25.

Secondly, there are important financial responsibilities that fall on the west, notably the EU, US and International Monetary Fund. The EU miscalculated last year by delivering a “take it or leave it” offer of an association agreement with Ukraine, without offering Kiev badly needed cash to help staunch its debt crisis. The EU and IMF must learn from that mistake. The urgent task is to offer a financial aid package that helps to stabilise the country. True, there are serious obstacles. Much of the Ukrainian elite seems to have been implicated in gross corruption. Future financial aid will therefore have to be conditional. But western leaders must avoid repeating the errors made early in the Arab spring, when the US and its allies did not think imaginatively enough about economic assistance for post-revolutionary governments struggling with new realities.

Finally, a special responsibility falls on Mr Putin. The hope must be that the Russian president recognises quickly that his options are limited. This is not 1956 in Hungary, or 1968 in Czechoslovakia when the Kremlin crushed popular uprisings with brutal force. A vicious military response by Moscow to the revolution in Kiev would see Russian troops battling insurrection everywhere. Mr Putin could of course resort to more underhand tactics. He might cut off gas shipments to Ukraine as he did in 2006 and 2009, or impose trade embargoes. He could seek to weaken the coherence of the Ukrainian state by asserting full Russian control over Crimea. But none of this will alter a basic truth: former President Yanukovich, the designated Kremlin ally, is a busted flush. He could seek another protégé. But as a strategist, Mr Putin must know his gambit of turning Ukraine into a Russian satellite is unworkable. Permanently destabilising the country is a tactic, not a policy.

Whether Mr Putin is prepared to accept this reality or is planning to fight on remains unclear. This is why a concerted western response is so important. Not just by the US but also the EU. Throughout the past decade the EU’s effectiveness as an international actor has been battered by the eurozone crisis, its political will sapped by economic austerity and by growing public disaffection with the entire European project. Yet events in Ukraine have demonstrated how much the EU matters for millions of people living beyond its borders.

Throughout recent weeks protesters in Maidan Square in Kiev have wrapped themselves not only in the blue and yellow flags of Ukraine but also in the blue and yellow stars of the EU flag. The EU has come to represent democracy, freedom and decent, if not perfect, governance. These are universal values. Over the past week, Ukrainians have shown they are prepared to sacrifice their lives for those values in the hope of a better future. In 1989 western leaders and an enlightened Kremlin leader recognised the new reality. History deserves to repeat itself.

EK responds as delays continue

23 February 2014

Emirates eventually posted a note on facebook at about 10.00am on Sunday (really folks – this should have been posted yesterday even if it was a weekend!).

It is a bit like EK switched off for the weekend – which is a mistake in a business that operates 24/7.

“Severe fog in Dubai on 22 & 23 February 2014 has caused the delay of numerous Emirates flights arriving and departing at Dubai International Airport. We are assisting affected passengers with the rebooking of connecting flights.

Emirates urges customers to check their flight status on http://bit.ly/1fbvF5f for the latest information regarding their flights

Emirates apologises for the inconvenience caused. The safety of our passengers and crew is of utmost importance and will not be compromised.”

Meanwhile after no messages all day yesterday Dubai Airports woke up to the problem and sent a tweet at midday today saying:

Dubai Airports@DubaiAirports 46 mins: Thick fog disrupted operations at DXB yesterday causing flight diversions & delays.We thank our customers for their patience & understanding

Strange that EK mentions fog on 23 February. There was no fog this morning and I was up early enough to check.

Meanwhile the complaints continue on twitter as a number of flights are still delayed and passengers miss connections due to delayed flights and need to be re-booked.

It is worth noting that FlyDubai (@flydubai) has been on twitter since April 2011 without one single tweet; they have 2,604 followers. The @flydubai timeline shows that the airline has also had major customer service problems as a result of yesterday’s fog.

What happens when things go wrong at EK

22 February 2014

There was a heavy overnight and morning fog at Dubai’s international airport. It was expected and airplanes carried extra fuel in expectation of longer holds or diversions.

Given that delays were likely to departures and arrivals it would have been reasonable to ensure that as many ground staff and management from Dubai Airports, DNATA and Emirates were available at the airport and in the transit terminal to assist passengers with delayed flights and connections.

I learned a lesson many years ago that you cannot monitor a crisis – you have to take hold of it and manage it. I did a poor job that day. And learned the hard way. EK, DNATA and Dubai Airports appear uncoordinated and ill-prepared.

Messages on twitter and elsewhere suggest that the airport was badly under-prepared. Of course this was also a Saturday – perhaps the busiest day of the week at the airport; but also the first day of the weekend for employees not on shift work.

Here are just some of the comments on twitter. Almost all of these are sent to the dormant @emirates twitter account….none will be replied to as the account has sent just one message in the last two years to say it was “coming soon.”

But all must be well as the Dubai Media Office issued the following tweet this evening : “#Dubai_Achievements (Emirates Airline) a major international aviation player & a model for quality control” – not the most thoughtful of timing. Which is rather typical of Dubai.

As a friend of mine will tell you it is all about communication. And on a day like this you cannot stop communicating. Even saying you do not know or have no further information is still communicating. Also worth noting that at times like this twitter can be your friend if you use it effectively – or in Emirates case if you use it at all.

So here is a collection of the comments on twitter (all are wasted breath/effort of course!):

@emirates Dubai airport a disaster today – everything delayed – shocking and general just horrendous experience- and in business class

@emirates just arrived in chennai after the most horrendous journeys -2.5 hrs on runway in Dubai

@emirates Your behaviour today at Dubai International airport was unprofessional and not worthy of a compagny of your importance. Because of so called weather reason. You are a 3th prtcl able to take off planes in foggy weather. And the staff was surely not enough and kinda annoyed to help the people be rerouted. Cheers

I hate how u treat ur passengers @emirates

Worst experience with @emirates Still stranded at Colombo airport. @emirates failed to provide a hotel even after 6 hrs. No food, no water

@emirates awful customer service, no information, no refreshments, some in people in queues for 5 hours with no information. Shame on you.

If this was my home nation, I would have sued @emirates tonight. Very bad service, respect of 12 years, lost in within seconds. @IssLeader

@emirates worst service ever.no coordination whatsoever. my mom is left in the airport for 15 hours because the plane was delayed in beirut

@emirates I had the worst experience in my life today and it was with emirates airline

This is now ridiculous. @emirates I am so fed up, upset and annoyed right now. Your systems do not work in this situation.

@emirates ..the worst day ever your customer service and lack if integrity, compassion and understanding to you gold members is unbelievable

Emirates, the worst company in term of quality of service when fog !!!

@emirates shocking 6 hours delay on today’s EK124 flight???

Still waiting @emirates, our flight was scheduled to land 12 hrs ago and take off was 10 hrs ago. Still queuing.

@emirates horrible service in Dubai airport !

Fog induced chaos in Dubai airport. Help…Where’s the logistics guy? @emirates

@DubaiAirports @emirates can you help the people stuck waiting around outside the emirates connections desks? No one knows what’s going on

@emirates Peter at J9 transfer desk is working hard for your passengers, maybe you should get him some help?

Dear @emirates: This is getting ridiculous at #dubaiairport! Waiting for some info for hours already!!

Hughe delay flight EK148

Crazy delays at #dubaiairport! Really unprofessional service from @emirates at the transfer desk! Annoying!!!

@emirates. Looks like people are waiting on plane for 5h+ in Dubai. Is it the best airplane company? Not sure… I know some worse but…

@emirates have been disgraceful here, sat in the airport for 4 hours and still don’t know when we are flying

@emirates I don’t think your customer service could have been any worse! Thanks for being absolutely useless!!!!

Still stuck in the plane @emirates for now 4 hours. Next time I will bring some food with me. Otherwise you i will get biscuits!!

Nearly five hours waiting on the tarmac at Dubai airport waiting to depart for my weekend break @emirates #EmiratesAirline #NotHappy

Here here RT @jAmiEHaRt31: Stuck in Dubai airport. Missed connection. No communication whatsoever. Sort it out @emirates. #bolloxed

Shame on you @emirates. Five hours on the tarmac in Dubai. Cannot but expect full refund #emirates

@emirates am shocked at the lack of organisation. No information, sat on your plane for nearly 19 hours and now three hours in a queue

@emirates When will airlines learn to give customers information. Stood at check in at Cape Town for 2 hours !!! #PoorService

Massive delays at Dubai airport due to fog. Surprising how bad @emirates customer service has been on ground. Lots of very angry people.
Retweeted

Here here RT @jAmiEHaRt31: Stuck in Dubai airport. Missed connection. No communication whatsoever. Sort it out @emirates. #bolloxed

On the plus side at least @emirates are doing everything they can to sort it!! #ohwait #donefuckall

@emirates have been disgraceful here, sat in the airport for 4 hours and still don’t know when we are flying

@emirates not impressed with service at Dubai airport, do you not normally man your service desks? A lot of angry people here…

@emirates nothing short of shambolic service in Dubai ! Travelling with 20 junior sportsman , no service , no idea !! Please explain ???

Stuck In @emirates flight for 3 hours because of lack of tractors to pull us out this is bad. Serouisly @emirates do something.

@emirates Flight delayed from Khi to Dxb. Rubbish customer service. Should have travelled with @Etihad. #fail #customerservice

@emirates Fog at Dubai airport this morning. Half a day delay in reaching Amsterdam.

@emirates you are truly the worst airlines, your staff need to all be fired!!!

someone please sort #emiratesairline out. Trapped in a plane for three hours with no food and no answer as to why it’s not taken off yet.

Meanwhile on facebook:

So bottom Line I’ve been stuck for the past fucking 8h in a plane in dubai’s airport and the plane was grounded!! And now they told us that we have to get out of the plane and we’re stuck here!!!!!! Fuck emirates!!!!

And the occasional good news:

Nice, @emirates giving me 30CHF food voucher for 3:15hrs delay in GVA! Hey @FlySWISS you only got me £5 when same happened at LCY!

@BrisbaneAirport @emirates the captain and crew excellent for such a long delay they also endured. Pity it takes 45 mins for duty free.

Gulf News – not exactly telling the full story.

Dubai: Heavy fog that blanketed Dubai on Saturday morning disrupted flights at Dubai international airport.

A spokesman of Emirates airline said the company booked hotel rooms for passengers whose flights were affected.

The old is new again in EK economy

21 February 2014

From Sunday Emirates will revert to the old style of service in economy – but with the new catering trays. The new smaller trays that give you no space at all to store the pile of debris that seems to be part of every airline meal.

The new meal tray is on the left above.

The new service should have worked. The idea was that the cart would also carry drinks and that you might then get a drink with your meal instead of well after you have finished the hot meal.

The trouble is that staff were not trained in the new meal delivery and many crew never bothered to review the online instructions and guidance. The result; confusion; cold meals; cold bread; hungry passengers; complaints.

So now it is back to the old service with one crew dragging the meal cart and a second crew the drinks cart. They start together but the meals are far quicker to serve than the drinks. It iwll be even more obvious now as each cart holds more of the new trays so more passengers can be served.

What a waste of hours of meetings; preparation of leaflets, pictures and training materials.

EK will say we listened to the passengers and fixed the problem. But they have not – they have just reverted to the earlier problem that they were trying to fix. Other airlines do not have this problem. Cathay, Thai and Austrian are three that know how to serve a drink with the meal rather than at the end of the meal.

Etihad finds there is no smoke without fire

21 February 2014

Multiple fires on an Etihad flight suggesting a potential arsonist onboard has raised concerns over safety and whether the airline put commercial interest before the safety of its passengers.

According to passengers who contacted the media and on twitter multiple fires were lit in the aircraft’s toilets on the flight from Melbourne to Abu Dhabi. Flight EY461 was diverted to Jakarta after smoke was seen coming from two of toilets on the plane.

After security checks at the Indonesian capital the passengers were told immigration issues meant they had to reboard the plane, and en route to Abu Dhabi, at least one other fire broke out; many comments suggest two more fires. After the fourth fire the cabin crew manned doors so no breakfast was served. At this point pilot explained why there would be no breakfast.

The total number of fires has been reported to AP as five.

“The plane after landing in Jakarta had all economy class passengers disembark for a security check — the fires were in the economy section of the plane. All passengers were then put back on the plane,” said one passenger. Caroline Martens, a Norweigan seated in the middle of the plane, said lighters and matches were confiscated before passengers were allowed to re-board. It does amaze me that passengers are still allowed to take lighters onto an airplane.

But since all the passengers reboarded the flight the culprit was also allowed back on the plane. The question is whether Etihad’s decision to fly onto Abu Dhabi was correct.

On landing at Abu Dhabi Emirati authorities held 12 people as part of their investigation. No one has been arrested.

Norwegian professional golfer Caroline Martens, who was flying home from competing in the Australian Masters golf tournament, told Norwegian radio and television public broadcasting company NKR that a fire was started on board ‘‘directly while we were above the sea’’.

‘‘After a few hours I noticed that it smelled like smoke … but I thought everything was fine and just fell asleep,’’ she said.

‘‘About two hours after I woke up as the fire alarm went off again.’’

Ms Martens, 27, said there was a fire in one of the toilets and smoke billowing out of another.

After the plane landed in Jakarta, the golfer said all passengers and crew were searched by local police, but no culprit was found.

‘‘Thus we were all sent on a plane again without knowing who had done it. It is just not nice to know that someone will set fire to the aircraft you will be travelling with,’’ Martens said.

‘‘I’m just very happy to be on the ground again.’’

Another passenger, Dale Henderson, described how he the fire alarm went off in one of the middle toilets when what is believed to be a cigarette was thrown into a toilet waste bin.

He said a second fire started in the rear toilets and “this time it was a goer, flames and all.”

He said the staff were quick to extinguish the flames.

One Instagram user wrote: ‘‘Try having someone set the plane on fire, in two different places, having to emergency land in Jakarta, get back on after hours of investigations, for the IDIOT to set three more fires in three more toilets while mid-air and nowhere to land!!!!!’’

Etihad is an airline that responds very poorly to criticism; an airline that tries to keep any potential bad news out of the media and off social commentary sites. But in this case they might benefit from being more open with details about the flight and the actions taken by the airline.

Was she robbed?

21 February 2014

The judges played a homer in Sochi today awarding the ladies skating gold to the Russian skater Adelina Sotnikova over Korean Kim Yuna.

One of the nine judges who picked a young Russian skater over two more refined competitors for the Olympic gold medal Thursday night was suspended for a year for trying to fix an event at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.

And another is the wife of the former president and current general director of the Russian figure skating federation. Another Olympics, another huge skating controversy involving the countries of the former Soviet Union.

The issue of inflated scores for the Russians has been a hot topic of conversation at these Olympic Games, and the women’s figure skating long program Thursday night renewed the debate. Adelina Sotnikova of Russia was the surprising winner of the gold medal, upsetting reigning Olympic gold medalist Yuna Kim of South Korea and Italy’s Carolina Kostner.

STUNNER: Sotnikova beats Kim for gold medal

“It’s sad that I just presumed Sotnikova was going to get a boost (in points) because this was in Russia,” former U.S. Olympic figure skating coach Audrey Weisiger said in a phone interview. “Isn’t it sad that I automatically thought that? Not one person in skating I’ve talked to said that’s the way it should have gone.”

“I was surprised with the result,” Joseph Inman, a top U.S. international judge who was on the women’s panel at the 2002 Olympics, said in a telephone interview.

REACTION: Did judges make the right call?

“That’s not fair to see Carolina and Yuna, who have great skating skills and had great skating tonight — good jumps, nice presence on the ice, maturity, expression — could be six points behind somebody who has tremendous skill but is just coming out of juniors,” said Gwendal Peizerat, the 2002 ice dancing gold medalist from France, who is a television commentator here.

“Compared to Carolina, compared to Yuna, something has happened.”

The nine judges for the short and long programs are chosen by draw from a pool of 13, with eight of the judges only working one event or the other. Judges from the United States, South Korea, Great Britain and Sweden were not chosen to work the women’s long program after being on the women’s short program panel the night before.

AMERICANS: Gold takes fourth, Wagner stays strong

Two of their replacements were Ukrainian Yuri Balkov, who was kicked out of judging for a year after being tape-recorded by a Canadian judge trying to fix the Nagano ice dancing competition, and Alla Shekhovtseva, a Russian judge who is married to Russian federation general director Valentin Pissev. The two other new long program judges were from Estonia and France, which was the country that conspired with Russia to try to fix the pairs and ice dancing competition at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

“The (judging) panel made me wish that the United States and Canada had split up into many different countries,” said choreographer Lori Nichol, who works with Kostner and fourth-place finisher Gracie Gold of the United States, among others. “It certainly was a different panel tonight.”

She was referring to the fact that in the days of the Soviet Union, only one judge represented the entire country, all its republics. Now, judges from several former Soviet republics can be on one panel, as was the case Thursday night.

In other words, the Cold War is alive and well in the Olympic figure skating venue.

Change.org has an online petition calling for an “Open Investigation into Judging Decisions of Women’s Figure Skating and Demand Rejudgement at the Sochi Olympics” – in less than a day this has been electronically signed by over 1.5million people.

Ukraine torn apart

21 February 2014

Dozens were killed today in Kyiv (Kiev) as the short-lived Ukraine ‘truce’ was shattered. Reports put today’s death toll at approximately 75. Hundreds have been injured.

Ukrainian police fire at protesters in Kiev – video

How did the Ukraine sink into this nightmare of violence. Last autumn, it would have been barely conceivable that the new year would find Ukraine on the verge of civil war. Ukraine had declared, voted for and embraced independence from the dying Soviet Union without bloodshed in 1991. It had celebrated and survived the Orange revolution in 2004-2005, forcing the re-run of a rigged election and escaping violence, if only just. And four years ago, it transferred power in a passably-run election to current President, Viktor Yanukovych.

The confrontations have spread beyond the capital. But why the fighting?

The eastern part of the country may look culturally, economically and in its religious Orthodoxy, towards Russia, and the mainly Catholic western part — centred in Lviv — towards Poland and Europe, but everyone is more mixed up than this simple division would suggest. More to the point, polls have never shown that Ukrainians have any appetite, even in the east, either for seceding or, still less, for returning to Russia’s administrative embrace.

Over the past four months it has evolved from a contest between alternative visions for Ukraine’s future — orientated to the east or the west — into an internal struggle against the corruption, mismanagement and general inadequacy of the Kiev government. The calls are not for Yanukovych to change his mind, but for him to go.

The parallels with Thailand are all too obvious.

To many Ukrainians, the EU still stands — unrealistically, EU citizens may think — as a cypher for clean government, law and order, and high living standards. One example: 1990: Polish GDP = Ukrainian GDP. 2013: Polish GPD = 3x larger. However, the conflict has become an all-Ukrainian conflict, precipitating a potentially revolutionary situation. It can no longer be controlled, if ever it could be, by outside forces, whether Russia or the EU.

Sadly both the EU and the Russians seem to think this is an East v West conflict with at stake – all or nothing, Europe or Russia. If Russia wants to present a new, modern face to the world, it needs to see Ukraine not just as an independent country, but as a borderland to both east and west.

But Putin wants more than anything to be seen as a strong leader. Giving ground in Ukraine will not weaken Russia but may weaken Putin.

Meanwhile the US has stepped up the rhetoric and the White House is “outraged” by Ukrainian troops firing on their own people. Strange how there is no comment when the same thing happens in Bahrain, where of course the US Fifth fleet based. Geopolitical hypocrisy at its worst.

The end is coming for Yingluck

20 February 2014

It maybe the world’s slowest ever coup; but it is coming. Yingluck Shinawatra’s Puea Thai government is on its last legs; the sheer persistence and elite influence of the opposition will bring down her government. What happens then and how the red shirted supporters primarily in the north of Thailand respond is the big unknown.

For two years Yingluck led her administration while walking a tight-rope. And she did a capable job. Above all else she kept the army happy. She managed international affairs capably and Thailand unusually was relatively stable.

The amnesty bill was a mistake; though the government quickly withdrew it. But is was the catalyst. Maybe behind the scenes the Suthep-led protestors had been building up their war-chest. They are clearly well-funded and organised.

The Suthep mob (calling themselves the PDRC) is a strange mix; including hi-so Bangkok residents; some upwardly mobile members of Bangkok’s white collar workforce, royalists, older Democrat party supporters and a combination of whistle-blowers and enforcers from the south of Thailand. There may even be a few idealists who think that Suthep really wants to eliminate corruption from Thailand.

Today there is a fleet of shiny new tractors bringing farmers into Bangkok who say that they are heading for Bangkok airport. These are not red shirt farmers but funded by Suthep and his supporters. How much disruption can they cause?

On the streets of Bangkok PDRC is well-funded, well dug-in, well- armed. Their tactics have evolved to focus on strangling the government without overthrowing it. Behind the scenes the push is for Thaksin Shinawatra to do a deal that would remove the Shinawatras from politics and allow an agreed name to form a government leading to a revision of the constitution. The other hope is that if Thaksin agrees to some form of compromise then Thailand would avoid a new red shirt uprising.

So we have the longest coup in history as the democrats and courts grind the government down through the Election Commission, the National Anti Corruption Commission etc.

But the reality is that Thaksin cannot give up power. It is the only card that he has.

But how much more can Yingluck take – the vitriol and hatred directed at her and her family should embarrass everyone involved. It is gross. It is personal. Just awful. And it must be taking an enormous emotional and physical toll.

In Suthep’s latest tirade earlier today he reportedly referred to Yingluck’s son as a ‘future orphan’ whose paternity is questionable. Suthep needs to be locked up.

Here is BangkokPundit on Suthep’s hate speech: “Suthep only suggests there is doubt over the paternity of Yingluck’s child as if it to suggest Yingluck was sleeping around so it is not known who the father is. This is not some slip of the tongue, but then again this is not the first time Suthep has talked about Yingluck’s child on stage and it is unlikely to be the last time .Not a word of criticism in either the Bangkok Post or The Nation (yet) either…”

Whatever happens it will be claimed as a victory for the protestors. But it will be a huge blow for democracy not just in Thailand but in SE Asia. It will not solve Thailand’s problems. And there is still the question of the succession, which no one can or will discuss in Thailand but is key in understanding the current crisis.

Qatar Airline’s 2014 expansion

19 February 2014

Qatar Airways on Tuesday announced the launch of a new daily all premium Business Class service from its hub in Doha to London Heathrow.

The new service will be the first of its kind in the Middle East, starting from May 15, with an Airbus A319 aircraft fitted with an all Business Class seating configuration offering 40 seats.

Qatar Airways currently operates five daily flights to London Heathrow and the additional sixth all Business Class daily service will step up the frequency on the Doha – London Heathrow route from 35 to 42 weekly services.

Qatar Airways will launch routes to eight new destinations during 2014 including Sharjah (UAE) from March 1; Dubai World Central (UAE) from March 1; Philadelphia (US) from April 2; Larnaca (Cyprus) from April 29; Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Airport (Turkey) from May 22; Edinburgh (Scotland) from May 28; Miami (US) from June 10 and Dallas/Fort Worth (US) from July 1.

Switzerland’s crossbow: The referendum on Europe’s freedom of movement will have big consequences

16 February 2014 The Economist

The Swiss have had a reputation for doughty independence since the days of William Tell. He was made to shoot an apple off his son’s head with his crossbow; in revenge, he killed the tyrannical overlord and ignited a successful revolt against the Habsburgs. This week the bolt struck at the European Union, when the Swiss voted for restrictions on Europe’s much-cherished free movement of people. To surging anti-EU and anti-immigrant parties, the referendum on February 9th was a victory for Switzerland’s “braggart spirit of freedom”, as Friedrich Schiller called it in his play about Tell. The Swiss government and business elite have been transfixed by a decision both opposed. The European establishment is scrambling to respond.

Switzerland is a member neither of the EU nor of the looser European Economic Area (EEA) that includes Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Nevertheless a web of more than 100 bilateral treaties binds the Swiss tightly into the “four freedoms” of movement underpinning the EU’s single market: of goods, services, people and capital. The repudiation of any one of these puts in question Switzerland’s ability to benefit from the others. And the vote has an impact well beyond the Alps.

To begin with, it confirms EU leaders’ fear of referendums. They also worry that it might inspire radicals of left and right who are expected to do well in May’s European election. In Britain, France and the Netherlands polls suggest populists may come first or second. In Norway (a member of the EEA, but not the EU), the right-wing Progress Party, part of the ruling coalition, wants a referendum to curb immigration. François Fillon, a former French prime minister, is among those wanting to emulate the Swiss in placing annual limits on immigrants. The fate of Switzerland also has implications for David Cameron, who wants to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU and put the result to a referendum by 2017. Curbing the freedom of movement has become one of his demands. British Eurosceptics see Switzerland as an example of how Britain could thrive outside the EU.

So the EU’s leaders face a dilemma. Should they come down hard on the Swiss, make an example of them to uphold a fundamental EU principle and tell them (and the British) that they cannot cherry-pick EU membership? Or should they act softly for fear of causing a populist avalanche? For now the tactic has been to threaten worrying but still-unspecified “consequences”, while avoiding a full-blown confrontation. One reason to wait is that, although Swiss voters have spoken, their precise wishes on several complex issues can only be guessed at. The Swiss federal government has three years to turn the constitutional amendment into legislation setting quotas for immigrants, regardless of nationality, including cross-border commuters.

The drama will be played out over several acts. The immediate questions are whether the existing freedom to work in Switzerland will be extended to the newest EU member, Croatia, and whether transitional quotas on migrants from most of the EU will be scrapped, as planned, this year. The referendum forbids the government from concluding contrary treaties, so it will probably not dare to sign a new protocol to include Croatia. That means it will almost certainly be shut out of the EU’s Erasmus programme of student exchanges between European universities and from Horizon 2020, the EU’s scientific-research programme which benefits Swiss establishments.

The second act will concern negotiations on an “institutional framework” between Switzerland and the EU to strengthen the monitoring and enforcement of single-market rules. This is a demand from Brussels, and a prerequisite for plans to incorporate Switzerland fully into the EU’s electricity market. Talks on both have now been suspended.

The climax will come when the Swiss government drafts its new laws by the end of the year. It has some wiggle-room, as quotas should take account of the “global economic interests of Switzerland”. The Swiss could, in theory, set a higher ceiling than the current level of immigration; or they could set an overall cap without specifying one for EU citizens. But the likeliest outcome is that the Swiss will, sooner or later, breach the freedom of movement provisions agreed in 1999. Under a guillotine clause, such a breach would annul six other economic agreements struck at the time. Other accords such as Switzerland’s participation in the Schengen passport-free travel zone may also come apart.

Schiller’s verdict

Far from firing a crossbow-shot for freedom, Swiss voters have ended up harming themselves. Their economy is far more dependent on trade with the EU than vice versa; their world-leading companies rely on skilled foreign workers; and proportionately more Swiss live in the EU than the other way around. It is also hard to feel sorry for wealthy Swiss, who seem keener to take Europe’s tax-dodging money than its people. For the most part the Swiss gripe is not about poor, distant immigrants but about rich neighbours driving up house prices and clogging the motorways. The referendum was won only narrowly, with a majority of 50.3%, and revealed the country’s dividing lines. French-speaking cantons voted against the referendum, while German- and Italian-speaking ones mostly voted for; cities were against, while rural communities little affected by immigrants were in favour.

The EU should not treat the vote as an act of treason, but neither should Eurosceptics celebrate too soon. It is one thing for the Swiss to reject the rules of a club they refused to join; another for EU countries to wreck their own union. Schiller put it starkly: Tell shot the cruel Austrian governor in self-defence, but the killing of the emperor by his nephew, Duke John, was murder, a “crime of blood-imbued ambition”.

Is this our future view?

14 February 2014

This is one vision of the future opera house and museum of modern art district in downtown Dubai. Of course no self respecting opera house could ever succeed without being surrounded by high-rise condominium blocks.

At Executive Towers we may lose the best of our view of the Burj Khlalifa but the opera house will be just a short walk away.

EK extends Qantas relationship to Jetstar

14 February 2014

Jetstar and Emirates have announced a partnership covering codeshare flights and frequent flyer points.

The partnership between Emirates and the Qantas low-cost offshoot is a case of ‘keeping it in the family’, and covers over two dozen routes operated by Jetstar in Australia and New Zealand along with Singaporean-based Jetstar Asia.

Emirates’ EK code will be placed on 27 new routes and six new destinations such as Bali in Indonesia, Byron Bay in Australia, Dunedin in New Zealand and Siem Reap in Cambodia.

The tie-up will also see members of Emirates Skywards frequent flyer program earn Skywards Miles for flights on Jetstar-operated services carrying an EK flight number, as well as using their Miles to purchase reward flights on any Jetstar-operated route apart from Jetstar Pacific flights.

“Emirates customers travelling on Jetstar will enjoy a range of full service fare features such as food and beverage options and the same luggage allowance they would have on Emirates” said Lisa Brock, Jetstar Group Chief Commercial Officer.

That is interesting as EK allows 30kg of luggage to economy class passengers while Jetstar requires passengers to purchase their luggage allowance.

Emirates/ Jetstar codeshare itineraries are now on sale for travel from April 6th, with Emirates frequent flyers able to redeem Skywards miles for Jetstar flights from March 1st.

Malaysia Airlines to operate from DWC temporarily

12 February 2014

Malaysia Airlines will operate temporarily at Dubai World Central – Al Maktoum International Airport (DWC) from May 1 to July 21, 2014.

The temporary shift is due to closure of one of the runways at Dubai International Airport for major resurfacing work.

Passengers booking journeys to Dubai during this period will receive their travel itinerary stating Dubai World Central – Al Maktoum International Airport with the three-letter airport code DWC as the arrival airport, instead of Dubai International Airport which goes by its code DXB.

Malaysia Airlines will resume operations at Dubai International Airport after completion of the runway project.

Passengers in Dubai/UAE are advised to plan their travel accordingly during this period to avoid any inconvenience. Dubai World Central – Al Maktoum International Airport is located in Jebel Ali, some 37 km south west of Dubai city centre.

Malaysia Airlines, a member of oneworld, flies daily from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai on MH162 which departs at 3.20pm. The return flight from Dubai, MH163, departs for Kuala Lumpur at 7.40pm.

However, from May 1 until July 21, 2014, during this temporary operation period, the flight will operate as MH154, departing Kuala Lumpur at 3.15pm. The return MH155 will depart Dubai at 7.35pm.

An update on all the changes due to the DXB runway closure can be found here.

Rise of the Swiss right

9 February 2014

It is hard to tell what the near term changes will be but the Swiss referendum vote to impose quotas on Euro and other migration into the country will damage Switzerland and could will boost similar movements across Europe. It is a step backwards and not forwards.

On Sunday Switzerland voted by the slimmest of margins to impose quotas on newcomers to the country, thrusting its relations with the EU into uncertainty.

In a referendum mobilised by far-right populists demanding caps on immigration in a country where almost one in four of the population are immigrants, 50.4% of voters supported the measure, in a relatively high turnout of 56%.

The vote split Switzerland east to west, with the francophone west voting against the quotas and the German-speaking east backing the clampdown.

The European commission said it regretted the outcome of the Swiss vote and would need to review the impact on overall relations between Switzerland and the EU.

“This goes against the principle of free movement of people between the EU and Switzerland,” the commission said.

While Switzerland is not an EU member, it is closely integrated with the union and is a member of Europe’s passport-free Schengen regime. The vote to cap immigration throws this into question, undermining several bilateral agreements between Brussels and Berne, and challenging the Schengen system since the caps will also apply to EU citizens who previously enjoyed unfettered travel and working rights in Switzerland under the open borders system.

A little more than three months before elections to the European parliament, in which far-right anti-immigration populists are expected to make gains, the Swiss verdict is certain to galvanise the more extreme wings of European politics and chasten the mainstream.

France’s National Front, tipped to come first in the French European elections in May, was quick to congratulate the Swiss voters on their verdict. Similar anti-immigrant parties are doing well in the Netherlands, Austria and Scandinavia.

The results will be seized on in Britain, where David Cameron espouses similar policies of curbing freedom of movement within the EU and setting caps on those allowed to migrate from future new EU members. The results also play into the agenda of UKIP which could be a force in the EU elections.

The situations are different: Switzerland is not in the EU but in Schengen, while Britain is an EU member but not part of the Schengen system. However, freedom of movement for EU citizens is a central pillar of the EU’s single market and applies both to the union and to the Schengen countries.

The Swiss yes vote came as a surprise since opinion polls had shown a majority against the quotas in a country that is one of the world’s wealthiest and most successful, with a jobless rate of less than 4%, the lowest in Europe.

The vote, organised by the arch-conservative and Eurosceptic Swiss People’s party, raises the prospect of Switzerland having to quit the Schengen system, which it joined in 2002, and its citizens forfeiting passport-free travel across most of Europe.

This would be an appropriate response by the EU. But it is likely that a more conciliatory approach will be taken. Though Brussels may also demand the renegotiation of several bilateral agreements with the Swiss regulating the neutral country’s access to Europe’s single market.

About 80,000 EU citizens freely settle in Switzerland every year, most coming from Germany but with large numbers also coming from neighbouring Italy and France.

The government opposed the quotas, as did Swiss business leaders. The government now has to come up with new legislation fleshing out the detail within three years.

The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, has said Europe will review its relations with Switzerland. “It’s a worrying vote because it means Switzerland wants to withdraw into itself,” Fabius told RTL radio. “We’re going to review our relations with Switzerland,” he said, referring to Europe.

The yes vote for the “stop mass immigration” initiative was also sharply criticised by the European commission in Brussels, which said it would examine the implications for its relations with Switzerland.

Etihad’s stake strategy faces new test with Alitalia move

6 February 2014 – Reuters

A potential deal to buy a stake in troubled Italian airline Alitalia CAITLA.UL could be the biggest test yet for Abu Dhabi-based Etihad’s strategy of using stakes in ailing airlines as an easy way to expand its global footprint.

Etihad’s collection of minority airline stakes stretches from the Seychelles to Ireland and Australia, and dates back to the purchase of an almost 30 percent stake in Air Berlin (AB1.DE) at the end of 2011.

What Etihad calls its “airline equity alliance” strategy differs from that of larger regional rivals Emirates EMIRA.UL, which is striking out on its own, and Qatar Airways, which in a surprise move, turned to the OneWorld airline alliance last year to boost its network coverage.

Lacking large populations in their own countries, the Gulf airlines need to feed more traffic from other countries through their hubs in order to fill their planes after a massive order spree at last year’s Dubai air show.

Etihad, which has driven restructuring and job cuts at Air Berlin and Air Serbia, has via the equity stakes and code shares diverted more passengers from its partners’ planes to its Abu Dhabi hub while avoiding the costs that being a member of a traditional alliance entails.

“From the airlines they have acquired, we can see a regional spread across Europe and Asia-Pacific, giving them access to very populous countries, which brings more passenger flows and, ultimately, more sales to their operations,” Euromonitor analyst Nadeja Popova told Reuters.

In 2013, Etihad’s code shares with other airlines and its equity partners brought 1.8 million passengers onto Etihad flights, helping total passenger numbers rise 16 percent to almost 12 million. Emirates carried 39 million passengers in its 2012/13 fiscal year, also a 16 percent increase.

The equity stakes strategy could also bring procurement benefits, analysts said, because by agreeing contracts that cover its equity partners, Etihad can ask for better deals when it comes to buying planes and services such as maintenance, IT and catering.

“When we sit down with Boeing (BA.N) or Airbus (AIR.PA) , our discussions are now about 500 aircraft, it’s the same with the engine makers,” Etihad chief executive James Hogan said last month at an event in Berlin.

Hogan said that the $105 million to buy a 29 percent stake in Air Berlin was recouped within 6 months thanks to additional revenue and cost savings. However, the airline has since given a 195 million euro loan to Air Berlin and spent another 184 million euros on buying a 70 percent stake in its Top bonus frequent flyer program.

Investing in Alitalia would be Etihad’s first sizeable investment in a European legacy carrier though and brings with it a host of thorny issues that other potential investors such as Air France-KLM (AIRF.PA) have not been able to resolve.

Alitalia and Etihad are in the final stages of due diligence and sources close to the matter say a deal could involve Etihad buying a 40 percent stake for as much as 300 million euros.

Etihad has said it will only invest in Alitalia if it fits with its network, if Alitalia has a credible plan to return to profit and can bring it synergies.

“Any issues that may prevent the establishment of an appropriate business plan will have to be resolved to ensure the plan can be implemented to move Alitalia to sustainable profitability,” the two companies said on Sunday.

Alitalia offers access to Europe’s fourth-largest travel market and flies 25 million passengers a year. But the airline loses 700,000 euros a day and has net debt of more than 800 million euros. Alitalia completed a 300 million euro capital hike in December, which analysts said then would keep it flying for six months.

While Italy’s government has said it is optimistic about a possible deal, analysts said an agreement was far from certain and expect tough negotiations on debt and additional cost cuts in the upcoming weeks.

Etihad will want to make sure that neither Rome’s politicians nor Italy’s notoriously feisty unions stand in the way of a joint strategy in the future.

“Etihad doesn’t want to have anything to do with Italian unions and will make sure that a deal with labor groups is found before it comes in,” Andrea Giuricin, CEO of TRA Consulting said.

Chronic political interference in Alitalia, which Rome considers a national strategic asset, has been a major obstacle in previous negotiations between Alitalia and foreign bidders.

But with other potential suitors few and far between, analysts said Alitalia – and ultimately Italy – may have to negotiate on Etihad’s terms.

“If the talks with Etihad break down, I don’t see any other alternative than Alitalia going to the wall,” said Carlo Stagnaro, head of research at think-tank Bruno Leoni Institute.

Rivals Easyjet (EZJ.L) and Ryanair (RYA.I) are also using the weakness of Alitalia to expand aggressively in Italy, making life more difficult for any investor.

The competition on the shorter, point to point, routes means Etihad will focus on long-haul, should it invest in Alitalia.

“They can’t win the point to point battle with Ryanair and Easyjet,” Goodbody Stockbrokers analyst Donal O’Neill said. “They’re playing in a market which is unfamiliar territory for them and that will really incentivize them to say we will only do feed.”

Certainly the prospect of an Etihad investment in Alitalia has ruffled some feathers, with Germany’s Lufthansa calling for the European Commission to take action in a fierce rejection of the deal.

Etihad’s stake-building strategy and its code shares with Air France-KLM also call into doubt the future of the traditional airline alliances – Star Alliance, OneWorld and SkyTeam, groupings that Etihad CEO Hogan has described as “fractured.”

“What role the alliances will play in the future is unclear, but it looks like it is a business model that will not last in its current form,” Tanja Wielgoss, Berlin-based partner at consultancy AT Kearney told Reuters. “We see a tendency towards more focus on growing organically or via acquisitions.”

Analysts also say the increasing ties between the likes of Etihad and Air France-KLM, or Qatar and British Airways owner IAG (ICAG.L) could prompt Emirates to rethink whether it can continue going it alone.

“Five years ago, these guys wouldn’t look at each other in a room,” Goodbody’s O’Neill said.

“I think both Emirates and Lufthansa will realize that if they really want to grow in North America and South-East Asia, where they are weak respectively, then they have to cooperate.”

Still, Etihad’s strategy does not have everyone convinced.

“I find it difficult to fully understand what they’re trying to do,” said airline analyst James Halstead, managing partner at UK-based Aviation Strategy, adding that Etihad could have just agreed code shares with airlines without needing to buy stakes.

“Maybe it’s a shot of brilliance by James Hogan. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Abyss looms after Thai poll

6 February 2014 The Canberra Times

There was a time when Thai elections were festive occasions, the celebration of a nascent democracy seeking its own robust interpretation of ”rule by the people”. Win or lose, the political classes would usually accept the popular verdict. Of course there was violence, often allegedly the byproduct of local business disputes, and the inevitable claims of vote-buying and corruption. In some cases it took months for the adjudication of all these claims and counter-claims.

Democracy, in its Thai-style, was messy and competitive. The winners tended to form government through unruly coalitions of conflicting regional and sectoral interests. The prevailing idea was that nobody missed out completely or consistently on a chance to share in the spoils. In those years, elections were considered an adequate mechanism for distributing political power. The usual suspects still tended to win: provincial strongmen, gangsters, retired generals, celebrities, tycoons, the beautiful, and the outrageous. In any case, they all usually played by the same rules.

On two occasions, in 2001 and 2005, I watched Thailand’s elections from the polling booth level, where the calculations of ordinary voters reigned supreme. On the first occasion I enjoyed the hospitality of voters in one of the staunchest Democrat Party strongholds of the south. They educated me in the intrinsically local preoccupations of the voting public.

On the second occasion, I observed the national political tussle from the vantage of one of deposed former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s heartland constituencies. It was a place where the people rejoiced with pride: ”our PM speaks our language”.

In both cases, I recall the hum of cheerful activity as officials readied the designated buildings for duty. I remember the lines of voters, eager to exercise their democratic responsibilities. During those years the habits of election season were becoming entrenched. The 1997 constitution, often considered Thailand’s most ”representative”, gave the country confidence in its institutions. The consensus, back then, was that the coup-happy army had ”returned to the barracks”, and that Thais could look forward to a more democratic political system, a beacon in a dictatorial neighbourhood.

We now know the consensus was very wrong and that Thailand’s political institutions remained fragile, with the military poised to intervene once its tolerance was exhausted. It is in this context that Thai voters sought to exercise their democratic franchise last Sunday. This election, called by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in the face of an insurrection by opposition forces, has failed in its immediate goal of consolidating her government’s power.

It has ended with stalemate and recriminations. In nine of Thailand’s southern provinces – areas that traditionally swing behind the opposition Democrat Party – no voting occurred. Candidates had failed to register and officials were reluctant to perform their duties. In some cases, boycotts and other disruptive tactics had the desired effect. In a further nine provinces, including parts of Bangkok, voting only happened in select areas. Some polling booths were marred by stand-offs between anti-vote activists and officials. In a few cases, violence flared.

It is the violence that has punctuated this period of political strife that is most worrying. Only a small number of people have been killed and yet the audacity of terrorist-style tactics has set dangerous precedents. On the eve of the poll, a shoot-out in northern Bangkok left hundreds of people traumatised, and six injured. Some were lucky to escape with their lives.

But sadly, such violence is not surprising. Over recent months the manoeuvres of anti-election activists have been deliberately calibrated for confrontation. Some pro-government groups have determined to meet fire with fire. Both sides trade in the accusation that impunity has fundamentally distorted the political system. For now, illegal actions are rarely punished and, for the powerbrokers, there is little chance of criminal sanctions, even when they are in flagrant defiance of the law.

One real threat to their top positions comes from direct attack: guns, bombs and fists have already featured heavily in the skirmishes around Bangkok. The armed forces and police are mobilised as official security, and yet some of their members are allegedly operating in the shadows to further stoke the flames of discontent.

Talk of ”civil war” has taken on new, and terrifying, immediacy. Thailand faces persistent uncertainty that will test the resolve of its people. Sunday’s election may have been won by Yingluck, but the result is not acceptable to the anti-government movement, and the government is waiting for judicial rulings on what happens next.

The sad fact is that one side of Thai politics has determined, through their failure at elections, to disavow the democratic process. It leaves a wounded nation struggling for any potential resolution. Yingluck, now in limbo as caretaker Prime Minister, has demonstrated patience in the face of anti-government provocations. But how long can that last?

There are a few reasons that Thailand is now facing an even graver crisis. First, the election of February 2014 does not offer Yingluck the refreshed mandate that she craved. But it demonstrates, yet again, that her opponents fear the electoral juggernaut she rides. Second, further elections are unlikely to help. And the challenge of redrawing the rules of political engagement in such an unsettled situation cannot be exaggerated. That leaves Thailand, once the great democratic hope of south-east Asia, looking for new answers.

Third, the Democrat Party is already seeking the annulment of the election result. There is the serious possibility that through a judicial decision or a military intervention the government of Yingluck will fall.

What then for Thailand? It faces the prospect of a maelstrom, unleashing destructive influences the length and breadth of the country. The tragic histories of its mainland south-east Asian neighbours should provide ample warning about what can happen when you lunge for the abyss.

Underground shambles

6 February 2014

The two London underground unions are on strike this morning protesting against plans to close ticket offices at rail stations in favour of machine ticketing and greater use of London Transport oyster cards.

There is no right side to this dispute.

The unions have been promised that there will be no compulsory redundancies; and that staff who do not take a voluntary redundancy will be employed at the stations to help guide passengers.

But London Underground is rail-roading (no pun intended!) these changes without investing in the technology that will help passengers leaving many people confused, frustrated and in slow queues. The staff, if you can find them, are helpless and end up on the wrong side of angry, frustrated conversations.

There are not enough machines; the machines are slow. Many only take cards – but do not like foreign bank cards. Many do not take cash or notes. And they offer English language only.

London Underground is one of the most expensive city transport networks in the world. It may even be the most expensive. Yet it is suffering from decades of neglect and mis-management. Its age does count against it. With ever increasing passenger numbers the stations and platforms are often cramped and dangerously crowded.

London Underground management needs its staff onside with the changes and needs significant investment in its front line customer-facing staff in order to build a safe, reliable and user-friendly transport network.

Thais must be allowed to vote

3 February 2014 – The Financial Times editorial

The way things normally work in a second-rate democracy is that, come election time, the incumbent administration prevents a free and fair election. In Thailand, which is fast sinking from second- to third-rate status, it is the opposition that has done its utmost to scupper the democratic process.

Sadly, the elections held last weekend will do little, if anything, to end the debilitating impasse into which Thai politics has fallen. Not only did the opposition, led by former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, boycott the polls – which was just about its right. It also prevented many other people from voting – which was not. As a result, the poll was disrupted in 11 per cent of electoral districts. Voters were prevented from exercising their right with the threat of violence. Such are the thuggish tactics normally employed by dictatorships, not by self-professed representatives of the people.

In the northeast, stronghold of self-exiled Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister, voting went on as normal. The disruption, though, makes it impossible to tally the votes without holding further by-elections. It also means the government will not be able to convene parliament since fewer than the 95 per cent of seats required by Thai law have been filled.

This is not only bad for Thai democracy, it is also bad for the economy. Thai investors have been pulling money out of equities for several months. Tourist numbers have suffered. Consumer and business sentiment have plummeted. The power vacuum could persist for months, meaning it will be impossible for the government to implement a coherent fiscal policy. That puts all the onus on the central bank, which may be forced to cut rates. In an period of Fed tapering, that could leave the currency vulnerable. The economy, originally predicted to grow at 4.5 per cent this year, may struggle to hit 3 per cent.

A succession of governments loyal to Mr Thaksin, who is now resident mainly in Dubai, are far from blameless. The government of Yingluck Shinawatra blundered badly when it tried to enact legislation that would have exonerated her brother of past crimes and paved the way for his return. Its rice-subsidy programme was ill-conceived, too.

Still, if we are apportioning blame, the opposition is much more at fault. Having failed to win an election in more than 20 years, it seems determined to tear up democracy itself. It accuses Ms Yingluck’s government of bribing the electorate. If by that it means paying people to vote on polling day, it should prove those allegations in court. If, rather, it means using the levers of government to reward supporters with rice subsidies or cheap health plans then this is to misunderstand the nature of democracy. Winners of elections reward their supporters. If the policies are bad for the nation, the opposition should contest them in parliament – not in the streets. That is how democracy is supposed to work.

The election commission has been rightly perceived as too keen to declare the elections impossible to hold. Given the forceful turnout in districts where the opposition could not prevent a vote, it is now incumbent on the commission to conclude the poll as swiftly as possible. The courts should not politicise the electoral process and the army should stay in its barracks.
The opposition should also drop its unworkable demands for an unelected council to run the country. If it persists in blocking the democratic process, all that remains is a military coup or a legal putsch. That, one suspects, is precisely what it is hoping for. If that happened, government loyalists, who have mostly shown restraint during the latest crisis, would likely take to the streets themselves. That way lies ruin.

Democracy in Thailand, Interrupted

3 February 2014 – The New York Times editorial

These are dark days in Thailand, where an election on Sunday was disrupted by protesters whose demands for a suspension of democracy could lead to greater chaos. The country’s constitutional monarchy has faced coups and street protests in the past, but it has been a model of relative stability and development in Southeast Asia, a region known for its autocratic and brutal governments. As an American treaty ally, Thailand has been critically important in helping to reduce regional tensions and provided balance to the growing military assertiveness of China by championing trade and economic integration partly through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. On Sunday, protesters disrupted the vote by blocking the distribution of ballot boxes to polling places in about 11 percent of the country’s electoral districts. Because Thailand’s Constitution requires that 95 percent of parliamentary seats be filled before a new government can be formed, the disruption means the country will remain in a limbo for months as election authorities try to conduct elections in those districts where protesters prevented a vote from taking place. A gun battle between protesters and government supporters left seven people injured on Saturday, a day before the elections.

The protests are being led by opposition politicians who represent the urban elite and people from the south of the country. They refused to participate in the election knowing that they would surely lose to the Pheu Thai Party of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, which enjoys the support of the rural majority in the north and northeast.

Instead of making a case to voters, the opposition leaders want to oust Ms. Shinawatra and replace Parliament with an unelected people’s council to carry out unspecified political reforms. They also want to bar Ms. Shinawatra and her popular brother Thaksin, a former prime minister who lives in exile, permanently from the country’s political system.

Protest leaders, who include former leaders of the opposition Democrat Party, say that the changes they propose will cleanse Thai politics of corruption, but they themselves have been accused of serious corruption.

If the elections are put off indefinitely and Parliament replaced with an unelected council, the country’s deep divisions — now breaking along urban-rural and north-south fault lines — would be made worse and the continuing political strife would further undermine Thailand’s already shaky economy. The military and King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is 86, two powerful institutions that have previously stepped in to resolve political disputes, have refused to support either side. That could change if the current impasse drags on. If the opposition cares about reducing corruption and strengthening the democracy, it should end the protests and propose clear and detailed reforms that voters can accept or reject.

Thailand on the brink

1 February 2014

Paula Bronstein/Getty

Gunfight in the streets of Bangkok – in pictures

Thai Takedown

30 January 2014 – Foreign Policy

Thailand is known for its dynamic economy, vibrant tourist industry, smiling hospitality, and pragmatism. But that’s hard to tell these days. On a recent walk near Siam Square, Bangkok’s iconic shopping and entertainment district, I watched a young, well-heeled woman gleefully defacing what remained of the signage in front of Thailand’s national police headquarters. In the square itself, the faces of speakers preaching hatred for the government flickered on countless looming flat screens. Trash cans had been plastered with pictures of incumbent Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra. These were only the most visible signs of long-standing political tensions that bubbled over in November.

Before 2001, Thai prime ministers had come and gone with predictable frequency. They would be elected by voters in the provinces, but then readily ousted by the Bangkok elite — the military, the bureaucracy, the network surrounding the monarchy, and key business interests. The system appealed to the Bangkok elite, and provincial voters routinely failed to come together to collectively support their own interests. But that all changed with the arrival on the political scene of Thaksin, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon.

Thaksin hails from Chiang Mai, the cultural capital of Thailand’s north. Before he made it big, he was a police officer. Earlier than any other Thai politician, he recognized the value of tailoring his message to voter demands. He was the first to make use of modern polling and marketing techniques and was one of the earliest to recognize that the key to electoral success would be in capturing the vote in the country’s populous north and northeast, home to the fastest-growing segment of the Thai population — urbanized villagers.

Although urbanized villagers are registered to vote in the countryside, they spend much of their time working in and around Bangkok’s industrial and service sectors; at the same time, the rural heartlands are rapidly urbanizing. The countryside has come to the city, and the city to the countryside. The urbanized villagers, Thaksin found, no longer wanted to work their rice fields — they could hire cheap Burmese or Cambodian labor for that. Instead, they dreamed of sending their kids to college, and were ready to hustle two or three jobs to do it. Accordingly, he set out to win them over with virtually free health care, loan deferrals, and community development funds. The result: pro-Thaksin parties have won decisive victories in every Thai election of the last decade — in 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2011.

Thaksin was the first to make use of modern polling and marketing techniques and was one of the earliest to recognize that the key to electoral success would be in capturing the vote in the country’s populous north and northeast.

The old elite did not take his success lying down. By early 2006, Thaksin faced a range of accusations of corruption and human rights abuses in his government. Many of his former allies turned against him, starting yellow-shirted street protests to oppose his government and defend the monarchy, whose supporters believed Thaksin’s rise to be a challenge to royal standing. (Yellow is associated with Thailand’s widely-revered monarchy.) These events, which were relatively peaceful, set in train a bewildering sequence of color-coded political rallies, elections, judicial interventions, and military machinations that continues today.

Thaksin himself was ousted in a military coup in September 2006 while attending the UN General Assembly in New York. The courts dissolved his political party and banned him and his key allies from office for five years. Many voters, of course, would not be swayed: a rebranded version of Thaksin’s party comfortably won the first post-coup election and brought a stand-in, Samak Sundaravej, to power. The Constitutional Court then ousted Samak on the bizarre charge of his having illegally hosted a television cooking show. The courts abolished Thaksin’s political party once more, and this time the opposition, the Democrat Party — which had lost the 2007 general election — set up a government. Red-shirted pro-Thaksin protestors occupied parts of central Bangkok from March to May 2010, and faced a military crackdown that resulted in more than 90 deaths.

Tensions between pro- and anti-Thaksin forces subsided following the July 2011 election, in which Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected prime minister. Pragmatic and soft-spoken, Yingluck confounded her critics with a penchant for compromise. She proved able to work well with both of Thaksin’s old adversaries, the palace and the army, latterly serving as her own minister of defense. Under her guidance, the factions made a deal: she could stay in office as long as she did not push the envelope on sensitive issues, such as the sacrosanct monarchy or the bloated military budget. Another implicit condition was that Thaksin, now living in Dubai, not return to Thailand. The deal between Yingluck and the establishment was never made public, and it tacitly excluded the opposition Democrat Party and the yellow- and red-shirt movements.

Until late 2013, everything seemed to be going well. On the surface, at least, Thailand was returning to normalcy. Then two things happened to disrupt it. First, Yingluck made her first serious political miscalculation. In the middle of the night on November 1, members of her party pushed through the lower house of Parliament a comprehensive amnesty bill for politically related offenses that had occurred between 2004 and 2013. The bill, which was opposed not only by the Democrat Party but also by many government supporters, would have paved the way for Thaksin’s return to Thailand. Prior to this episode, Yingluck had seemed to be her own woman, distancing herself from Thaksin’s more aggressive moves to secure a pardon. But the amnesty debacle suggested that she was ultimately beholden to her brother. Although Yingluck promptly killed the bill, her credibility was blown.

Second, recognizing that they had no chance of winning an election, Thaksin’s opponents rethought their strategy. Whereas former Democrat Party Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai had campaigned in the 1990s under the slogan “I believe in the parliamentary system,” in December 2013, all of the party’s members of parliament walked out and took up the street politics they had always professed to despise. Former Deputy Premier Suthep Theuksuban assumed the leadership of a new unified anti-Thaksin movement, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, which included the yellow-shirts. The PDRC quickly mobilized huge rallies in central Bangkok, drawing much of its support from the urban middle classes. According to an Asia Foundation survey, nearly two-thirds of the demonstrators had incomes of more than $1,000 a month — good pay by Thai standards.

Thailand’s current political polarization both is and is not about Thaksin. He did not cause Thailand to change. Rather, he and his parties have identified and capitalized on a massive socioeconomic transformation, a shift in the aspirations of voters that has been underway for a couple of decades. Urbanized villagers are utterly weary of the relentless paternalism of Thailand’s capital city and its denizens. The PDRC repeatedly insists that Thaksin manipulated millions of uneducated, unsophisticated provincials into voting for him, five times in a row. Pro-Thaksin parties — just like all other Thai parties — have undoubtedly spent huge amounts of money to win elections, but electoral success on this scale cannot be bought. Like him or loathe him, Thaksin is simply the most popular Thai politician of the time.

Today, the PDRC urges reform and the end of corruption. But the Democrat Party has consistently opposed all manner of political reforms over the past two decades: the landmark 1997 people’s constitution was passed only after the party’s leader, Chuan Leekpai, was out of power. And Suthep’s vague current calls for a people’s assembly selected from different occupational groups sound like a reversion to authoritarianism, not a process of democratic reform. Further, for Suthep to reinvent himself now as an anti-corruption czar is deeply ironic: In 1995, he spectacularly brought down his own government after presiding over a notorious land reform program under which party cronies received land in Phuket meant for low-income farmers. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Yingluck has responded to the protests by calling for a snap election on February 2. The Democrat Party is boycotting it, and the vote may yet be postponed. Protesters already disrupted advance voting on January 26. And one protest leader was shot dead in Bangkok, the tenth person killed since the protests began back in November.

Under these conditions, an election will resolve little without a new agreement between rival factions. All must agree that elections and reforms are necessary, and that military coups and any form of violence are not. Yet, as law and order breaks down, such an accord seems far off. The army, which played a central role in allowing Yingluck to become prime minister in the first place, now looks likely to assume the role of power broker. Thailand’s generals, reluctant to stage a conventional coup d’état, which would make them a lightning rod for popular discontent in the countryside, will first try to find some middle ground, forcing Yingluck’s party to sign up for a thoroughgoing process of political reform and offering some face-saving concessions to allow the PDRC to wind down their protests.

Taking turns hitting at a Yingluck punching bag might provide some instant gratification for Bangkok’s frustrated middle classes, but these are the moves of people who are in deep denial about political realities: Thailand’s urbanized villagers are the country’s future, and they are not about to vanish. Thaksin is a deeply troubling figure, but so are some of the leaders of the anti-Thaksin movement. Rather than calling for vengeance and retribution, the protestors need to seek a compromise before violence claims more lives and erupts into open clashes on Bangkok’s streets.

The show must go on

30 January 2014 – The Economist

In front of the Royal Thai Army Club the thuggish rump of a failed people’s revolution gathered to collect their reward. They were to hear the announcement of a temporary interruption of Thai democracy, so that an appointed council of “good men”, as dreamed up by their leader Suthep Thaugsuban, could save the country. Mr Suthep, a former deputy prime minister with the opposition Democrat party, was to be disappointed.

There was already a stink of testosterone and aggression in the air. Young men, new veterans of a three-month-long protest against the government, were perched on lorries. They threatened by megaphone to storm the club and rid Thailand of the influence of the “Thaksin regime”, meaning Yingluck Shinawatra, the prime minister; as well as her brother, the former prime minister, Thaksin, whom they see as pulling the strings from his refuge in Dubai; and everyone close to them. The protesters are calling their own movement “The People’s Committee for Absolute Democracy with the King as Head of State”. Here at the army club, miles away from the shopping malls and offices in the heart of Bangkok, Mr Suthep’s insurrection has to make do without the benefit of its more well-heeled supporters, the ones who post their revolutionary slogans on the walls of Facebook.

The army club made for an ironic venue. In the past its membership would have staged a coup and cut short the drama that was playing out inside. The prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra (now only the caretaker prime minister), was locked in talks with the election commission over whether to suspend a snap poll which had been scheduled for February 2nd. Before the meeting, the commission had cited the possibility of violence and disruption as a reason for its demand: to delay the poll for 120 days. The constitutional court had ruled just days earlier that the election could be postponed in accordance with the constitution, though their ruling was apparently without legal basis. So, it extemporised, any delay must be settled by agreement between the government and the election commission. The government, for its part, insisted that the poll must go ahead. It was not deterred either by the commission’s inability to organise advance polling in the capital Bangkok on January 26th or by the killing of one of the anti-government protest leaders.

A dozen ambulances were parked outside the army club, which created the strange sense that the imminent meltdown of Thailand’s democracy might have medical consequences. Then, as if on cue, a shooting: a self-appointed guard of the protesters was shot in the leg and packed off to hospital bleeding, the gunman apprehended from the back of a motorbike. But soon the attention turned from the blood on the pavement back to the scheduled event, inside the club. Soldiers had begun trying to talk protesters out of their siege.

Two hours later, after the army had dispersed the crowds from the scene, the government announced that it would go ahead with the poll. This was unexpected. It was just two days earlier that roving mobs of anti-government protesters managed to shut down all 50 of the polling stations open for early voting in Bangkok. Early polling went ahead in 66 out of 77 provinces, but only 440,000 people, or 22% of the 2m eligible voters, cast their ballot.

It is hard to see how further voting in Bangkok on February 2nd can proceed at all, unless the army protects polling stations. Even then, winning a landslide in elections that will be boycotted by the opposition would not appear to help the government. Indeed, as things stand, Ms Yingluck would not even be able to form a government. According to the constitution, 475 members of parliament are needed to convene parliament—and the protesters have prevented candidates from registering in 28 out of 500 constituencies.

But to defer the poll would have carried risks that the government must have judged intolerable. The pro-royalist Democrats have thrown in their lot with the street protesters. For now, they are prepared to see electoral democracy sidelined. Ms Yingluck’s main fear must be that the opposition step up its efforts to overthrow her by legal action. The Democrats have filed a case with the anti-corruption commission to impeach her over a controversial rice-pledging scheme.

Ms Yingluck’s supporters would hate to have seen the poll deferred. But it is a coup rather than the delay of another electoral victory that would push them to action. Two other factors supported the government’s decision to risk a showdown. First, an opinion poll shows that four out of five Thais intended to vote if an election were held on February 2nd. Second, American and Japanese diplomats have made it clear to politicians on all sides that Thailand’s frail democracy and its economic prospects must not be held hostage by an angry minority.

The government may now start to enforce its emergency powers in and around Bangkok, to be able to keep the polling stations open come Sunday, February 2nd. Arrest warrants have been issued for dozens of the protests’ leaders, including Mr Suthep. Or it might hold that card in reserve, giving the protesters further opportunity to discredit themselves, by denying their fellow citizens the right to vote.

Sadly neither option seems likely to resolve the battle on the streets. A measure of the mess is that Myanmar, only freshly emerging from its half-century of authoritarian rule, is expressing its own worry about the instability next door, in Thailand.

Thai Takedown

30 January 2014 – Foreign Policy

Thailand is known for its dynamic economy, vibrant tourist industry, smiling hospitality, and pragmatism. But that’s hard to tell these days. On a recent walk near Siam Square, Bangkok’s iconic shopping and entertainment district, I watched a young, well-heeled woman gleefully defacing what remained of the signage in front of Thailand’s national police headquarters. In the square itself, the faces of speakers preaching hatred for the government flickered on countless looming flat screens. Trash cans had been plastered with pictures of incumbent Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra. These were only the most visible signs of long-standing political tensions that bubbled over in November.

Before 2001, Thai prime ministers had come and gone with predictable frequency. They would be elected by voters in the provinces, but then readily ousted by the Bangkok elite — the military, the bureaucracy, the network surrounding the monarchy, and key business interests. The system appealed to the Bangkok elite, and provincial voters routinely failed to come together to collectively support their own interests. But that all changed with the arrival on the political scene of Thaksin, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon.

Thaksin hails from Chiang Mai, the cultural capital of Thailand’s north. Before he made it big, he was a police officer. Earlier than any other Thai politician, he recognized the value of tailoring his message to voter demands. He was the first to make use of modern polling and marketing techniques and was one of the earliest to recognize that the key to electoral success would be in capturing the vote in the country’s populous north and northeast, home to the fastest-growing segment of the Thai population — urbanized villagers.

Although urbanized villagers are registered to vote in the countryside, they spend much of their time working in and around Bangkok’s industrial and service sectors; at the same time, the rural heartlands are rapidly urbanizing. The countryside has come to the city, and the city to the countryside. The urbanized villagers, Thaksin found, no longer wanted to work their rice fields — they could hire cheap Burmese or Cambodian labor for that. Instead, they dreamed of sending their kids to college, and were ready to hustle two or three jobs to do it. Accordingly, he set out to win them over with virtually free health care, loan deferrals, and community development funds. The result: pro-Thaksin parties have won decisive victories in every Thai election of the last decade — in 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2011.

Thaksin was the first to make use of modern polling and marketing techniques and was one of the earliest to recognize that the key to electoral success would be in capturing the vote in the country’s populous north and northeast.

The old elite did not take his success lying down. By early 2006, Thaksin faced a range of accusations of corruption and human rights abuses in his government. Many of his former allies turned against him, starting yellow-shirted street protests to oppose his government and defend the monarchy, whose supporters believed Thaksin’s rise to be a challenge to royal standing. (Yellow is associated with Thailand’s widely-revered monarchy.) These events, which were relatively peaceful, set in train a bewildering sequence of color-coded political rallies, elections, judicial interventions, and military machinations that continues today.

Thaksin himself was ousted in a military coup in September 2006 while attending the UN General Assembly in New York. The courts dissolved his political party and banned him and his key allies from office for five years. Many voters, of course, would not be swayed: a rebranded version of Thaksin’s party comfortably won the first post-coup election and brought a stand-in, Samak Sundaravej, to power. The Constitutional Court then ousted Samak on the bizarre charge of his having illegally hosted a television cooking show. The courts abolished Thaksin’s political party once more, and this time the opposition, the Democrat Party — which had lost the 2007 general election — set up a government. Red-shirted pro-Thaksin protestors occupied parts of central Bangkok from March to May 2010, and faced a military crackdown that resulted in more than 90 deaths.

Tensions between pro- and anti-Thaksin forces subsided following the July 2011 election, in which Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected prime minister. Pragmatic and soft-spoken, Yingluck confounded her critics with a penchant for compromise. She proved able to work well with both of Thaksin’s old adversaries, the palace and the army, latterly serving as her own minister of defense. Under her guidance, the factions made a deal: she could stay in office as long as she did not push the envelope on sensitive issues, such as the sacrosanct monarchy or the bloated military budget. Another implicit condition was that Thaksin, now living in Dubai, not return to Thailand. The deal between Yingluck and the establishment was never made public, and it tacitly excluded the opposition Democrat Party and the yellow- and red-shirt movements.

Until late 2013, everything seemed to be going well. On the surface, at least, Thailand was returning to normalcy. Then two things happened to disrupt it. First, Yingluck made her first serious political miscalculation. In the middle of the night on November 1, members of her party pushed through the lower house of Parliament a comprehensive amnesty bill for politically related offenses that had occurred between 2004 and 2013. The bill, which was opposed not only by the Democrat Party but also by many government supporters, would have paved the way for Thaksin’s return to Thailand. Prior to this episode, Yingluck had seemed to be her own woman, distancing herself from Thaksin’s more aggressive moves to secure a pardon. But the amnesty debacle suggested that she was ultimately beholden to her brother. Although Yingluck promptly killed the bill, her credibility was blown.

Second, recognizing that they had no chance of winning an election, Thaksin’s opponents rethought their strategy. Whereas former Democrat Party Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai had campaigned in the 1990s under the slogan “I believe in the parliamentary system,” in December 2013, all of the party’s members of parliament walked out and took up the street politics they had always professed to despise. Former Deputy Premier Suthep Theuksuban assumed the leadership of a new unified anti-Thaksin movement, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, which included the yellow-shirts. The PDRC quickly mobilized huge rallies in central Bangkok, drawing much of its support from the urban middle classes. According to an Asia Foundation survey, nearly two-thirds of the demonstrators had incomes of more than $1,000 a month — good pay by Thai standards.

Thailand’s current political polarization both is and is not about Thaksin. He did not cause Thailand to change. Rather, he and his parties have identified and capitalized on a massive socioeconomic transformation, a shift in the aspirations of voters that has been underway for a couple of decades. Urbanized villagers are utterly weary of the relentless paternalism of Thailand’s capital city and its denizens. The PDRC repeatedly insists that Thaksin manipulated millions of uneducated, unsophisticated provincials into voting for him, five times in a row. Pro-Thaksin parties — just like all other Thai parties — have undoubtedly spent huge amounts of money to win elections, but electoral success on this scale cannot be bought. Like him or loathe him, Thaksin is simply the most popular Thai politician of the time.

Today, the PDRC urges reform and the end of corruption. But the Democrat Party has consistently opposed all manner of political reforms over the past two decades: the landmark 1997 people’s constitution was passed only after the party’s leader, Chuan Leekpai, was out of power. And Suthep’s vague current calls for a people’s assembly selected from different occupational groups sound like a reversion to authoritarianism, not a process of democratic reform. Further, for Suthep to reinvent himself now as an anti-corruption czar is deeply ironic: In 1995, he spectacularly brought down his own government after presiding over a notorious land reform program under which party cronies received land in Phuket meant for low-income farmers. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Yingluck has responded to the protests by calling for a snap election on February 2. The Democrat Party is boycotting it, and the vote may yet be postponed. Protesters already disrupted advance voting on January 26. And one protest leader was shot dead in Bangkok, the tenth person killed since the protests began back in November.

Under these conditions, an election will resolve little without a new agreement between rival factions. All must agree that elections and reforms are necessary, and that military coups and any form of violence are not. Yet, as law and order breaks down, such an accord seems far off. The army, which played a central role in allowing Yingluck to become prime minister in the first place, now looks likely to assume the role of power broker. Thailand’s generals, reluctant to stage a conventional coup d’état, which would make them a lightning rod for popular discontent in the countryside, will first try to find some middle ground, forcing Yingluck’s party to sign up for a thoroughgoing process of political reform and offering some face-saving concessions to allow the PDRC to wind down their protests.

Taking turns hitting at a Yingluck punching bag might provide some instant gratification for Bangkok’s frustrated middle classes, but these are the moves of people who are in deep denial about political realities: Thailand’s urbanized villagers are the country’s future, and they are not about to vanish. Thaksin is a deeply troubling figure, but so are some of the leaders of the anti-Thaksin movement. Rather than calling for vengeance and retribution, the protestors need to seek a compromise before violence claims more lives and erupts into open clashes on Bangkok’s streets.

The show must go on

30 January 2014 – The Economist

In front of the Royal Thai Army Club the thuggish rump of a failed people’s revolution gathered to collect their reward. They were to hear the announcement of a temporary interruption of Thai democracy, so that an appointed council of “good men”, as dreamed up by their leader Suthep Thaugsuban, could save the country. Mr Suthep, a former deputy prime minister with the opposition Democrat party, was to be disappointed.

There was already a stink of testosterone and aggression in the air. Young men, new veterans of a three-month-long protest against the government, were perched on lorries. They threatened by megaphone to storm the club and rid Thailand of the influence of the “Thaksin regime”, meaning Yingluck Shinawatra, the prime minister; as well as her brother, the former prime minister, Thaksin, whom they see as pulling the strings from his refuge in Dubai; and everyone close to them. The protesters are calling their own movement “The People’s Committee for Absolute Democracy with the King as Head of State”. Here at the army club, miles away from the shopping malls and offices in the heart of Bangkok, Mr Suthep’s insurrection has to make do without the benefit of its more well-heeled supporters, the ones who post their revolutionary slogans on the walls of Facebook.

The army club made for an ironic venue. In the past its membership would have staged a coup and cut short the drama that was playing out inside. The prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra (now only the caretaker prime minister), was locked in talks with the election commission over whether to suspend a snap poll which had been scheduled for February 2nd. Before the meeting, the commission had cited the possibility of violence and disruption as a reason for its demand: to delay the poll for 120 days. The constitutional court had ruled just days earlier that the election could be postponed in accordance with the constitution, though their ruling was apparently without legal basis. So, it extemporised, any delay must be settled by agreement between the government and the election commission. The government, for its part, insisted that the poll must go ahead. It was not deterred either by the commission’s inability to organise advance polling in the capital Bangkok on January 26th or by the killing of one of the anti-government protest leaders.

A dozen ambulances were parked outside the army club, which created the strange sense that the imminent meltdown of Thailand’s democracy might have medical consequences. Then, as if on cue, a shooting: a self-appointed guard of the protesters was shot in the leg and packed off to hospital bleeding, the gunman apprehended from the back of a motorbike. But soon the attention turned from the blood on the pavement back to the scheduled event, inside the club. Soldiers had begun trying to talk protesters out of their siege.

Two hours later, after the army had dispersed the crowds from the scene, the government announced that it would go ahead with the poll. This was unexpected. It was just two days earlier that roving mobs of anti-government protesters managed to shut down all 50 of the polling stations open for early voting in Bangkok. Early polling went ahead in 66 out of 77 provinces, but only 440,000 people, or 22% of the 2m eligible voters, cast their ballot.

It is hard to see how further voting in Bangkok on February 2nd can proceed at all, unless the army protects polling stations. Even then, winning a landslide in elections that will be boycotted by the opposition would not appear to help the government. Indeed, as things stand, Ms Yingluck would not even be able to form a government. According to the constitution, 475 members of parliament are needed to convene parliament—and the protesters have prevented candidates from registering in 28 out of 500 constituencies.

But to defer the poll would have carried risks that the government must have judged intolerable. The pro-royalist Democrats have thrown in their lot with the street protesters. For now, they are prepared to see electoral democracy sidelined. Ms Yingluck’s main fear must be that the opposition step up its efforts to overthrow her by legal action. The Democrats have filed a case with the anti-corruption commission to impeach her over a controversial rice-pledging scheme.

Ms Yingluck’s supporters would hate to have seen the poll deferred. But it is a coup rather than the delay of another electoral victory that would push them to action. Two other factors supported the government’s decision to risk a showdown. First, an opinion poll shows that four out of five Thais intended to vote if an election were held on February 2nd. Second, American and Japanese diplomats have made it clear to politicians on all sides that Thailand’s frail democracy and its economic prospects must not be held hostage by an angry minority.

The government may now start to enforce its emergency powers in and around Bangkok, to be able to keep the polling stations open come Sunday, February 2nd. Arrest warrants have been issued for dozens of the protests’ leaders, including Mr Suthep. Or it might hold that card in reserve, giving the protesters further opportunity to discredit themselves, by denying their fellow citizens the right to vote.

Sadly neither option seems likely to resolve the battle on the streets. A measure of the mess is that Myanmar, only freshly emerging from its half-century of authoritarian rule, is expressing its own worry about the instability next door, in Thailand.

The new HKG Express

29 January 2013

I no longer write in detail about Asia’s low cost airlines but Hong Kong Express’ rebranding is worthy of note.

After ten years of operations Hong Kong Express Airways (HK Express) has transformed itself from a full-service operator to a low-cost carrier in less than a year. The airline is part of the HNA Group and a sister operation to Hainan Airlines and Hong Kong Airlines.

The intent was to reinvent the airline to better meet the demands of the local market and enable the group to better compete in the emerging low-cost sector in Hong Kong.

“We wanted to establish a new brand for HK Express to reflect and support the amazing transition that HK Express has undergone in the past year, and the fresh, youthful and dynamic sense that the new design inspires fits perfectly with our ethos as Hong Kong’s one-and-only low fare airline” said Andrew Cowen, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Hong Kong Express.

With Jetstar Hong Kong waiting in the wings it may not be HKG’s only low fare airline for long!

HK Express currently operates a fleet of five Airbus A320 aircraft with seating for up to 174 passengers. There are plans to increase the fleet by a further six aircraft this year and negotiations are currently taking place to finalise the acquisition of these additional aircraft. This will be just the first stage of expansion which will ultimately see the fleet grow to over 30 A320s by 2018.

With HK Express co-operating closely with its sister carrier Hong Kong Airlines and initially operating with a very similar brand, there have been concerns over possible confusion between the two businesses. The unveiling of the new corporate identity of HK Express does create a better structure for the group.

Thai elections to proceed – maybe

28 January 2014

Thailand’s general election will proceed on Sunday despite warnings that it could end in violence and the country be left without a functioning administration for six months.

The decision to go ahead with the polls came at a meeting between Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Election Commission officials; it is an election that Yingluck’s party will almost certainly win. And to be honest the best riposte to the demonstrators would be for people to vote in huge numbers where they safely can.

There is still time for the courts to declare that the election cannot proceed. Though on what grounds is hard to determine.

As part of their campaign, the protesters have been disrupting election preparations and early voting. In some constituencies, candidates have been unable to register and there is unlikely to an elected quorum to open parliament and choose a government.

“The election result might not yield enough seats. It might take four to six months to convene parliament,” said Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, an Election Commission official.

The Election Commission said it would hold by-elections until all parliamentary seats are filled. That could take up to six months and it will leave Thailand with a government that cannot pass laws or a budget.

In particular, it means Yingluck will struggle to find the funds to pay a mounting bill for the controversial rice buying scheme.

The Election Commission has argued that the country is too unsettled to hold an election now. Which really is not the election commission’s job!

“We fear that there will be clashes on election day,” said election official Somchai. He is probably correct. But the vote will proceed as normal in over 80% of the country. And there is only one party boycotting the election. Everyone else is involved and participating.

The government declared a state of emergency last week and has issued an ultimatum to protest leaders that they face arrest by Thursday if they do not give up areas of Bangkok they have taken over.

However, a Bangkok criminal court rejected the government’s request for an arrest warrant for 16 protest leaders, including leader Suthep Thaugsuban. Bizarre. The court said that there was insufficient evidence. I guess they do not watch tv.

Suthep this evening has called on his PDRC across the country to prevent the election from taking place by whatever means possible. Someone really needs to arrest him.

The Guardian imitates Thailand’s the Nation
26 January 2014

I never thought I would see the day when the Guardian prints an article as poor as anything from the risible Nation newspaper in Thailand. But yesterday they did and it was a shocker.

While protesters were blocking people from voting in Thailand, The Guardian ran an article saying that the protesters are “democratically minded” http://gu.com/p/3m6g5/tw

It was one of the most-lop-sided pieces of nonsense that the Guardian has ever published. The article was written by a Bangkok based expat who is a regular on twitter where until yesterday he had an anti-Thaksin hate slogan as his twitter profile? So we know where he is coming from anyway – though maybe the Guardian did not.

It is an article of falsehoods and make believe. The surprise is that the Guardian would publish such nonsense supporting a far-right, monarchist, anti-democratic movement controlled by Thailand’s elites.

Since 1932, Thailand has been a democracy with a constitutional monarchy – but there have been at least 18 coups; military and legal together with years of military government. Thailand’s people’s constitution of 1997 had been replaced by a military drafted constitution re-enforced by a constitutional court appointed by non-elected Senators who appear to be the real power in the country.

The article is designed to mislead. It is true the current political crisis in Thailand is complex, but this propaganda piece simply sets out a flag for dictatorship. To deal with the worst errors:

1.The protesters are not particularly diverse and have never numbered more than 200,000 despite the organisers claims of millions. The main elements are the depressingly myopic Sino Thai middle class, imported Southerners (in large numbers) and vocational students, the latter are notoriously violent. It is untrue that Bangkok’s working class supports the protest’s objectives; this is supported by the near equal voting numbers in Bangkok between Puea Thai and the Democrats in the last election.

2.The concept of a powerful unelected elite (royalists, judges, generals, tycoons) in Thailand who cling to the status quo and are opposed to electoral democracy has been much discussed by historians, academics and journalists. The majority of the protestors are not of course part of the elite but rather they are the on the ground troops; happy with pocket money and selfies; some will make the argument that they are there to eliminated corruption because that is what their media is telling them. Installing a peoples council chosen by Suthep is not going to remove corruption from Thailand. Suthep Thaugsuban, is unlikely to have launched his campaign without a clear endorsement from certain highly placed people. His task is to cause chaos and undermine the government as background to a slow judicial coup with hostile decisions from courts packed with supportive royalist judges.

3.Clearly the Yingluck government has made several foolish errors and under pressure has withdrawn the umbrella amnesty. If Suthep had halted the protest at that point there would have been considerable credit due to him. But as time has gone by it has become clear that it is democracy itself which is detested.

The Democrat Party from which Suthep recently resigned has proved incompetent and unelectable. It had almost three years from 2009 to effect change. It did nothing. Lacking the vision and will to reform itself it has looked to military coups and partisan courts to achieve power. Its English public school boy leaders Abhisit and Korn have been incapable of reforming their party and presenting sensible and attractive policies to the Thai people. Instead they claim a distance from the protestors and then embrace them.

4.Parties associated with Thaksin have won election after election because, notwithstanding his very real faults, he gave self respect and political participation to the Thai rural majority. It may well be that Thaksin will have to remain in permanent exile. But Puea Thai increasingly has its own voice now. The north of Thailand has new sources of wealth and a new self respect. They have become politically smart (the 2007 constitutional referendum is evidence of that – they did not support it but knew it was better to accept it to hasten an election).

This protest movement is most certainly not pro democracy. But it does have some ardent farang supporters.

Davos – junket

24 January 2014

Here is The Economist’s take on the junket taking place in Davos, Switzerland this week:

“Of the 2,622 hobnobbers invited to this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, just 15% are women. Two-thirds of the delegates hail from Western countries that are home to just 12% of the world’s population. Counting delegates from academic institutions produces an alternative university ranking—with Harvard right at the top. Some 60% are businessfolk and 14% come from government. The 46 presidents and prime ministers represent 1.8 billion of the world’s 7.1 billion people. One in eleven is a hack—four from The Economist. The total worth of the 15 richest is around $285 billion.

The stockmarket value of firms represented is $12 trillion, about one-fifth of the world’s total. And after all the inflated expenses and egos, what has been the fate of the companies that sent delegates at least three times in the past five years? Those 104 firms underperformed both the S&P 500 and MSCI World Index. Time to get back to work.”

It is a junket. And the media is at fault for giving the junket ever greater credibility by sending an army of reporters to Switzerland for cosy interviews around log fires. I hate to think what the total bill is. But the conversations that are held could be covered on Skype and the money better spent on people that need it.

What It’s Like To Be A Woman At The Old Boys Economic Forum

Thailand’s never ending messy story

24 January 2014

Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled on Friday that the country’s upcoming elections — which protesters have worked feverishly to block — can be postponed if the government reaches agreement with the Election Commission.

It was a bit bizarre. The Election Commission had petitioned the court to rule that the election should not proceed. And the court turned around and said to the Commission that they had to sort it out with the PM.

The decision surprised many legal scholars who say there are no provisions under Thai law for a delay.

Some constitutional experts described the decision as a form of judicial “coup d’état” because it would leave a potential power vacuum if elections are not held.

An aide to Ms. Yingluck said on Thai television that the government would study the court’s decision. But he also seemed to leave the door open for negotiation with opposition forces, especially the Democrat Party, which is boycotting the elections.

Explaining its decision, the court said in a short statement that the constitution “does not absolutely mandate that the election day cannot be rescheduled.” Remember the constition under discussion is the 2007 army -drafted post coup constitution.

Thailand’s Constitution requires that elections be held “not less than forty-five days but not more than sixty days from the day the House of Representatives has been dissolved.”

The elections are scheduled for Feb. 2, a few days before the 60-day period expires.

Protesters have blocked the registration of candidates in more than two dozen districts and this week stopped the Election Commission from training election workers in Bangkok.

The protest leader, Suthep Thaugsuban has pledged to “obstruct” the elections at all costs. With early voting starting on Sunday it is likely that polling stations will be heavily blocked especially in Bangkok and the South.

Ms. Yingluck’s government faces not only the wrath of protesters but hostile government agencies. The Election Commission, which requested the judgment that the Constitutional Court issued Friday, has repeatedly sought a postponement of the elections.

The Constitutional Court has ruled against the government on several key decisions in recent weeks and is perceived by government supporters as highly political. In November the court overturned a constitutional amendment to make the Senate a directly elected body on the grounds that procedures were not followed and that it was an attempt to “overthrow” the democratic system. In fact it would have simply returned the Senate to its status under the 1997 “peoples” constitution.

In analyzing Friday’s decision, Pornson Liengboonlertchai, a scholar at Chulalongkorn University who specializes in constitutional law, echoed the views of other experts in saying the court appeared to be making law, rather than interpreting it.

“The power to postpone elections does not exist in any part of the Thai Constitution at all,” Mr. Pornson said on Thai television. “The court itself is trying to establish this power.”

It is still very likely that the 2 February election will be postponed as it is clear that it will not solve anything. But if the election is delayed then Peua Thai should want something in return. After all they had no obligation to dissolve Parliament. Peua Thai should insist that the Democrats confirm their participation in the election and that the PDRC leave the streets or at least limiting their protests to more defined areas and cease obstructing government offices.

If these guarantees are not made the why postpone the election? At least the election would give the government some legitimacy. Even though the new Parliament will not reach the required minimum number of members because protesters blocked the registration of candidates in many provinces in southern Thailand. More than two dozen by-elections will need to be held before Parliament can elect a new government. This will delay convening Parliament for at least two or three months.

One way or another decisions are needed in the next few days.

For both sides, it’s time for a strong reality check

22 January 2014 Pravit Rojanaphruk in The Nation

Since the Bangkok shutdown operation was launched by the anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) in a desperate bid to oust the government, many people have taken to assessing the political situation on a daily basis – if not more often – and have kept a close watch on the latest words from PDRC secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban, caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and military top brass. In such a period of crisis, however, we also need to try harder to look at the bigger picture.

Lack of trust, empathy and the denial of reality seem to pervade Thai society today – and readers might notice it if they are not too busy learning the latest route the PDRC will march along today.

The lack of trust was manifest in the instant finger pointing that followed every bomb explosion last week. Without an iota of trust, both sides are more than ready to summarily conclude that evil can only come from the other party – never mind if no proper investigation has begun in the seconds after the blasts.

There’s also an acute shortage of empathy on both sides. On social-media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, anti-government protesters have time and again recalled how red-shirt protesters allegedly set fire to Central World back in 2010, in contrast to their “peaceful” protest today. This writer reminded some of them that arson only occurred after nearly a hundred people, mostly reds, had been killed.

While PDRC supporters demanded Yingluck step down immediately after one of their comrades was killed in the blast on Friday, none called on then PM Abhisit Vejjajiva to resign after 99 were killed over the months of April and May 2010.

On the reds’ side, some pro-government red shirts expressed “satisfaction” on social-network sites that a PDRC supporter was killed. It’s tragic that people on both sides of the political divide are losing their humanity due to political hatred.

To make matters worse, many are not openly talking about the other “big issue”, which has attracted so much hatred against Yingluck and her older brother, ousted and fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. We have all heard about corruption at rally sites, and the Thai media widely reported it, but what about the sense of insecurity over the future of the monarchy among protesters, with His Majesty at 86 and frail?

Those visiting the protest sites cannot fail to notice a good number of protesters wearing T-shirts with royalist slogans like: “People of HM the King” or “[The person] whom I love the most is the King” and that many such T-shirts are widely available on sale at protest sites. On January 13, the first day of the “shutdown”, I heard a protest leader on stage at Victory Monument declaring out of the blue that they would ensure the King would remain the head of state. Why such insecurity and why so little public discussion about it?

Another big denial of reality is the belief that if Yingluck was to simply resign today, everything would be fine and reds would just happily obey the orders of the PDRC’s “People’s Council” that would, under Suthep’s plan, be appointed to run the country for a year and a half.

It’s time Thais stopped believing our society can break through the political impasse without confronting these issues.

Why Thai politics is broken

21 January 21st Banyan in The Economist

After more than three months of anti-government protests in Bangkok, which are increasingly being scarred by violence, the government has imposed a state of emergency in Thailand’s capital and surrounding provinces. This may make it hard to hold the snap election the government had called for February 2nd. In any event, the main opposition party will boycott it. So it will not end Thailand’s political confrontation. The government’s opponents now openly campaign for a temporary interruption to Thai democracy so that an appointed council can make reforms to “save” it. But in the recent past other undemocratic solutions—a military coup in 2006 and a judicial one in 2008—failed to provide a durable solution. Why has the political system broken down?

The two sides would answer this question differently. For the government’s opponents, Thai democracy has been hijacked by Thaksin Shinawatra, a tycoon and former prime minister now in self-imposed exile, having been sentenced to jail in Thailand for corruption. But parties loyal to him keep on winning elections—in 2001 and three times since. The latest incarnation is led by his sister, Yingluck. Before Mr Thaksin’s emergence, Thai government alternated between fractious, corrupt coalitions and fractious, corrupt military dictatorships (the army has made 18 coup attempts since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932). Thanks to a new democratic constitution introduced in 1997, however, Thaksinite parties can win elections even without coalition partners, thanks to votes from the populous north and north-east of the country. Critics accuse the Thaksins of massive corruption and of bankrupting the country with populist policies. For Mr Thaksin’s supporters, however, the problem is that he has threatened the interests of the old Thai establishment, represented by the civil service, the army, the judiciary and the monarchy. They portray the protests as an anti-democratic backlash from a privileged class under threat.

Both explanations have some merit. Thaksinite governments have tended to rule in their voters’ interests, not the whole country’s; and their opponents are not just from a well-heeled elite. Thai society is split. But not quite down the middle: Thaksin loyalists do win elections. Thai politics has broken down because the compact on which democracy is based—that losers will accept the result until the next election—no longer applies. Large, influential sections of Thai society find rule by the Thaksin family simply intolerable. They will use almost any tactic to unseat it, including accusing it of disloyalty to the much-revered king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. That the king is 86 and frail, and his presumed successor, the crown prince, is unpopular, and seen as perhaps susceptible to Mr Thaksin’s influence, fuels the sense of panic in the opposition.

The election, if it takes place, will result in a landslide for Miss Yingluck, but change nothing. The opposition will hope she can be overthrown by a coup, or by legal action (an anti-corruption commission is investigating her). But a government run by Mr Thaksin’s opponents, such as the one in power from 2008 to 2011, will be illegitimate and unstable. And the longer the to-and-fro continues, the more fundamental will appear the divisions in Thailand, which are not just social, but also cultural and even ethnic and linguistic, between fairer-skinned southerners, many with some Chinese ancestry, and northerners, who speak a version of Thai closer to Lao. So the protests threaten not just peace and stability, but the very integrity of Thailand.

Staff travel misfiring

20 January 2014

Emirates new staff travel concessions have backfired badly – instead of motivating staff (especially given that the bonus program has become a myth) EK has managed to take value away. Worse they dressed this up as a significant benefit; which means they do not understand how the majority (cabin crew) of their staff travel and what they really wanted.

Introducing the new staff travel program the company Chairman said “I’m extremely delighted to announce expanded Staff Travel benefits that recognise your commitment and passion to make us the best in the business.” I fear he has been deeply misled by EK management. He would not have made such a rosy statement if he realised the storm of complaints that have flooded in from angry and disappointed Emirates staff.

EK have said that all staff may buy up to 15 tickets a year for extended family or friends. These are classified as special tickets. Staff and direct relatives may still purchase Cat A (standby) or Cat C (firm) tickets. Special tickets are priced much higher than Cat C – as we will see below they are proving more expensive than public prices through emirates.com.

But at the same time as the new special tickets were announced:

i) There is on average approximately a 20% increase on Cat A and Cat C fares (the industry ID90 and ID50) fares.

ii) and Cat C Wider Eligibility and Cat 99 tickets have both been withdrawn.

Additional problems: cabin crew still cannot buy a discounted J fare yet staff of other companies can and do. EK cabin crew and immediate family fly economy.

Staff looking at flight bookings to make a firm booking are finding that Special Tickets are often available (at the higher fares) while CAT C firm (concessional) are not available on the same flight. When staff are looking to return from leave and flight loads are high they have always looked at options for a firm booking. That is much harder now except using special fares.

Worse: a check on the emirates.com website can reveal that a regular ticket (with FF points) is in fact cheaper than the “Special ticket” fare. As one employee noted: “Same Date Special ticket DXB-KHI-DXB= 1215 Fly Dubai DXB-KHI-DXB= 850 Emirates.com 1155 ??? No comments.”

There are plenty of other fare comparisons showing that the special fares are simply too expensive. But prices do vary and are commercially sensitive so I will not repeat them here. Just as an aside looking at those fares reminds me how frustrating it is that fares through Dubai are so much cheaper than fares that originate in Dubai.

Why would you anyone book these ‘special’ tickets knowing that a simple visit to Emirates.com will achieve cheaper results! Staff, family and friends are being charged MORE than the public. Absurd.

In a forum posting on “Life at Emirates” someone said: “Profit share only exists on paper, staff travel is a joke, days off are few and far between, Dubai is too expensive even for the basics.”

The majority of EK’s crew are expats so clearly staff travel is important. Many staff relied on cat 99 and wider eligibility tickets for visiting families. Removing the Cat 99 will hurt a lot of people; the fares offered a definate seat (except in the rarest of circumstances) at a price that was cheaper than ID50/CatC. It was an ideal ticket to help close family members to travel.

Staff travel is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to keep moral of an airlines workforce high. EK need to do some damage repair as this all looks like maximising revenues at the expense of EK’s own staff.

It looks like more EK crew will be spending their days off in Dubai rather than traveling to see family.

The Financial Times calls for Thai elections to proceed

20 January 2014

In an editorial last week the Financial Times came out strongly calling for elections in Thailand to proceed.

The editorial noted that “in Thailand the demonstrators are not demanding more democracy but less.”

Both the Financial Times and the International Crisis Group, the non-governmental organisation, noted that due to the protests “the risk of violence across wide swaths of the country is growing and significant”. The FT continued “Such violence, were it allowed to happen, would have serious repercussions across the region. Thailand was one of the earliest Asian nations to adopt democracy and is southeast Asia’s second-largest economy. As neighbouring regimes such as Vietnam and Cambodia tighten their domestic grip, Thailand remains one of the few free countries in the region. That reputation may now be at risk.”

As the FT said “the temptation of many outsiders has long been to say to government and opposition leaders: “A plague on both your houses.” ” But that is not satisfactory; Thailand is too important an economy to be allowed to descend into civil war and too important a Western ally to be allowed to come under greater Chinese influence.

For the FT the solution is straightforward and “the starting point must be to recognise that Ms Yingluck’s government is democratically elected and is willing to contest an election next month. The opposition should therefore commit itself to the electoral process and abandon violence.”

That is not going to happen. The Democrats are irrevocably tied to Suthep’s mob. Indeed Suthep was the deputy PM in the military backed government ousted by Puea Thai in 2011. Meanwhile the Democrats continue to damage themselves and their country whose flag they claim as a symbol of their cause,

The perils of national service

19 January 2014

Mandatory military service is coming for Emirati nationals after the President, Sheikh Khalifa, ordered the Cabinet to draw up a bill for a new national defence and reserve force.

The new law will require all males who have finished secondary school or are over the age of 18 and under 30, to undergo military training. The training will be optional for females.

Emirati males who have finished secondary school will be required to serve nine months, while those without a diploma will serve for two years.

The reserve force will be made up of those who have completed their national service and military personnel who have finished their service in the armed forces.

“Protecting the nation and preserving its independence and sovereignty is a sacred national duty. The new law will apply to everyone,” Sheikh Mohammed tweeted.

I do have reservations about how this will be seen and how it will be implemented. On one hand military service may be a good thing for under-employed Emirati youth. However there is a real risk of creating a more militarised state.

Perhaps one solution will be for UAE military service to include components for civilian-led deployments such as logistics, healthcare and education. This may achieve the same purpose without the weaponry and uniforms.

Of course this is for Emiratis only though there is also a risk that it creates a greater friction between Emiratis and the majority expat population who do not serve. It is hard to assess how the news has been received – but in 7 Days one student said: “I love my country but I’m unsure about how this new mandatory law will fit into my life. Nine months is a long time, and I will have to put my career on hold after university to accommodate the military service. I’m glad I don’t have to do two years as I have a diploma. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot during the service, but I don’t really like the idea of anything being mandatory.”

There is little doubt that national service can hold people back from developing their professional careers. This has been a problem in Singapore for many years. It can also take out a great deal of individual thought and creativity in favour of compliance and obedience.

Sheikh Mohammed added that a reserve force to help the UAE army will be created from the graduates of the military service.

I have always thought that a professional military, like any career, is best served by those who want to be there.

Confession: I do have a bit of a prejudice here as I objected to my school’s compulsory combined cadet force program!

The din of misogyny at Bangkok protests

17 January 2014 Thomson Reuters Foundation Author: Thin Lei Win

In fiery speeches at protests calling for her ouster, Thailand’s first female Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has been called ugly, stupid, a bitch, a slut and a whore.

A university professor recommended sending a large group of men to “sexually snare” her. A decorated doctor offered to give her vaginal repair surgery and to change her sanitary pads, and said she could become a nude model because she hasn’t yet reached menopause.

Not to be outdone, the head of the country’s Election Commission (EC) drew laughter from reporters after suggesting in a condescending tone that a meeting with her might only be possible if it was arranged at a certain hotel where her opponents claim she had an as-yet-unproven extramarital affair.

These offensive comments – made by public officials and others who hold jobs that require some sort of ethics and professionalism – weren’t made in hushed tones. They were shouted from stages set up at the anti-government rallies, published in daily newspapers, pronounced on television shows and gleefully shared through social media.

Yingluck is the younger sister of Thaksin, the former premier and a telecoms billionaire who was ousted in a 2006 coup and is in self-imposed exile following corruption charges. Protesters say she is a puppet for her older brother, who is pulling the political strings from abroad.

Since Yingluck was elected in 2011, anger against Thaksin has fallen to her, and her English language skills, her appearance, and her abilities as a mother, woman, and wife have been dissected and mocked.

Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva – an Eton- and Oxford-educated politician who heads the opposition Democrat Party – even joined the fray last year, referring to Yingluck as “stupid bitch”.

The base misogyny has become louder and more vitriolic since protests against Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party-led government gained momentum in early November and as protesters blockade major intersections in Bangkok, with non-stop speeches on stages set up in different sites. Crude, photoshopped posters calling Yingluck names – or showing her with phalluses – are common.

The insults have stung the prime minister, and in December, the political turmoil brought her to tears at a press conference – fueling the protesters to further ridicule her.

“Whoever could be in my position for one day would know how it feels,” she told journalists on Friday at a press conference.

These comments aren’t just coming from men. Plenty of women have joined in, oblivious to the fact that by making the statements or condoning the men who make them, they’re saying it’s OK to use sexist insults to attack, degrade and belittle women in public.

“Vitriol and invective have become common in Thai politics and sexist, homophobic innuendos and personal attacks have been committed by fervent supporters on both sides of the political divide,” said Kaewmala, a Thai social commentator and writer.

Yet she was still surprised that “such an abject vulgarity, the explicitly sexual language” were coming from persons of high status.

“That’s a new low in Thai political discourse,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

For Pravit Rojanaphruk, a regular columnist for the English-language daily The Nation, the misogyny reflects “a deep-rooted patriarchal culture in Thai society, even amongst people who claimed to uphold morality”.

Of course, public figures should face criticism of their performance in office.

Criticise all you want policies like the rice intervention scheme – whereby the government bought rice way above market prices in order to help farmers – that sparked allegations of graft and waste. Go ahead and lash out at the ill-advised amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return home a free man.

However, sexism and misogyny should be off limits – not just against Yingluck but everyone across the political spectrum. A pro-government Red Shirt’s threat to kidnap the army chief’s daughters – which was criticised by other Red Shirts and for which the offender later apologised – is equally unacceptable.

Thailand, which allowed women to vote in 1932 and became one of the earliest countries in the region to do so, is going down a dangerous path by allowing the use of misogyny as a political weapon. Who’s to say it won’t spill over to everyday lives?

It’s already an uphill struggle for female victims of physical and sexual violence to get a sympathetic ear, let alone justice. There’s no need to worsen the situation.

It’s a shame that amidst the whistles, posturing and propaganda from both sides, common decency has been lost.

Like two countries

17 January 2014 – The Economist

In Thailand, governments are made in the provinces and unmade in the capital. The unmaking part has always come relatively easy. Five weeks ago, mass protests in Bangkok against the government forced the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, to call an early election. Her Pheu Thai party, which is the third incarnation of a party founded by her brother, the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was prepared to win it. And so the protesters, led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister of the opposition Democrat Party, returned to the streets on January 13th. They are now demanding that the very process by which Thailand (usually) chooses its governments—ie elections—be junked.

The poll called by Ms Yingluck is still scheduled to happen on February 2nd. But it is looking unlikely to go ahead. For a start, the Election Commission does not want to hold it on that date. Then the pro-royalist Democrat Party is boycotting it—not because it would be unfair (though it might be), but because it would lose. Mr Suthep instead wants to give a “people’s council” of “good men” 18 months to run Thailand, time for them to implement a fuzzy reform agenda whose main objective is to rid the government of the whole Shinawatra family. As it stands Ms Yingluck holds the first position on Pheu Thai’s candidate list, followed by her brother-in-law, in the second spot, and then her cousin, the current foreign minister, in fourth place.

The government actually has offered to delay the poll, but only if Mr Suthep calls off his campaign. But he seems to have foresworn negotiating and this week he boasted that he has enough cash to fight the “Thaksin regime”, as he calls it, for a year. Mr Suthep also called for the prime minister herself to be “detained”. The rhetoric from the protesters’ podiums at the capital’s main intersections is getting nastier. From one, a speaker, a university professor, called for the sexual assault of Ms Yingluck.

The government’s strategy has been to back off and wait for Mr Suthep’s tantrum to end. It has become hard to envision a compromise. For Mr Suthep’s followers another government voted in by rural voters from the north and north-east (whom they often call “water buffaloes”) would be intolerable. Equally intolerable, to Ms Yingluck’s supporters, would be the unelected return of the Democrats, whose political enemies tend to call them “cockroaches”.

Ms Yingluck must fear that violence in the streets might trigger a coup. The pressure has been mounting. On the day before the anti-government protesters began this most recent phase of their drawn-out campaign to shut down Bangkok and force out the Shinawatras, Ms Yingluck was reported to be mulling resignation. The story goes that it was her brother Thaksin who talked her out of it, over a Skype call from his refuge in Dubai.

The Shinawatras may be loathed by the traditional elite (and millions more, who hope someday to join it) for treating the state as an open till, but they still hold the cards. Paralysing a city the size of Bangkok is an impressive feat, requiring great numbers. But there were probably at least as many pro-government supporters out and about in the provinces. They are calling for the government to go ahead with the election as it was planned. Thida Thavornseth of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) says she has asked her supporters to refrain from wearing the red shirts that have become their symbol. Her goal is to avoid violent conflict, but she warns that the UDD would resist a coup.

Postponing the elections, which is probably unavoidable, will open a bundle of legal questions. Most crucially, it might be that in the case of a delayed election the king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, has the authority to appoint an interim prime minister. This is a scenario Ms Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party is keen to avoid. To her red-shirted supporters it would be as intolerable as a military coup. One part of the army sides with the provinces: these are the “watermelons”, green on the outside, red on the inside. It is with a view to this division that some news agencies have taken to murmuring about the possibility of a civil war.

It seems that only the king will be capable of shutting down Mr Suthep. But the 86-year-old monarch’s vigour is fading, and so too is the role of the palace. It has at times provided an anchor for Thailand’s frail democracy. But the hope that a proper system of checks and balances would evolve in its shadow has been dashed in recent years. The establishment, led by the monarchist Democrats, regards the red-shirt movement as an unwashed rabble in the sway of Mr Thaksin. In fact they are a broad-based response to a broken political system.

Mr Suthep may or may not achieve his objective. He is likely to be ruined either way. If he wins, and imposes a parallel government, he could well be assassinated. If he loses, he will be charged with treason, and could hang. The Democrats do not have a discernible strategy. For now, the party is along for a ride hoping that the next government will be formed by some means of selection other than a legitimate election.

For instance, large numbers of Pheu Thai politicians could be banned from standing for office. The anti-corruption commission is pressing charges against 308 former MPs and senators, most of them from the Pheu Thai party, for voting to make the upper house fully elected (a court had ruled in November that such a change would be unconstitutional). But at this point the chatter of a judicial coup is meaningless. There is at present no parliament at all, such as might be closed down or filled by new elections. More likely, delaying the vote would give Pheu Thai the chance to adjust to any adverse finding from the commission by naming new candidates for office.

Until the next royal succession, the current political conflict is likely to ebb and flow, but not to be resolved. The inevitability of a successor coming along relatively soon makes the prospect of a coup unattractive for the army. To stage a coup and then back an appointed government, as the army did in 2006, would only be safe for as long as the current king is alive. The day the crown prince accedes to the throne he could oust the coupmakers and appoint his own lot of generals. So unless protesters shut down airports or disable crucial infrastructure the army will stay put. It must also fear a backlash by the red shirts and however many enlisted men and officers are loyal to them.

The irony has probably not escaped the generals. If Mr Suthep is successful he will probably hasten the decline of the very thing that he claims to want to protect—the monarchy.

A constitutional history lesson

16 January 2014

Much of the Democrats and whistle-blowing noise from Thailand is addressed at Peua Thai’s attempts to review the 2007 constitution.

So lets look at how the 2007 constitution came to be:

Thailand’s Constitution Drafting Assembly approved a final draft of a new constitution Friday 6 July 2007, paving the way for an August 19 constitutional referendum and for possible general elections in December 2007.

The drafting assembly comprised of 100 members, all appointed by the military after the 2006 coup. The assembly unanimously approved the 309-article draft presented by the 35-member Constitutional Drafting Committee in April.

The new constitution was part of an effort by the ruling Council for National Security (run by the military after the 2006 coup) to decrease populist influence by reducing the impact of elections, which plotters of last year’s coup blame for bringing former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra into power.

Under the proposal, the Thai House of Representatives would be reduced from 500 seats to 400 seats, 320 of which will be directly elected and 80 appointed from the party list. A multi-seat constituency system will also replace single-member districts. The proposal also seeks to eliminate direct elections for members of the Senate, who will be instead appointed by national and provisional committees composed of bureaucrats and judicial officials, and will reduce the number of senators from 200 to 150.

The new draft effectively tore up the 1997 constitution. After Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai dissolved parliament in November 2000, Thaksin’s TRT had won a sweeping victory in the January 2001 elections, the first held under the Constitution of 1997. At the time, some academics called it the most open, corruption-free election in Thai history.

Interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont ordered government officials to promote support for the draft and the military-controlled parliament passed a bill in July 2007 to penalize any obstruction or opposition to the referendum.

If the draft constitution had been rejected by the referendum, military leaders were authorized under the interim constitution imposed after the 2006 coup to simply revise the earlier constitution to achieve the same objectives as the new draft.

Here were wise words from the Economist in August 2007

“Not a vote for the generals – From The Economist print edition

Thailands’ army chiefs seem to have overestimated their popularity, as military dictators often do. They staged a massive propaganda effort to get people to turn out and vote in August 19th’s referendum—the country’s first ever—and to say yes to a new constitution written by a military-appointed panel. Yet the turnout was a tepid 58%. And though the constitution was approved, the yes vote was just 57%. Some of those voting yes will have done so only because the passing of the constitution paves the way for elections, promised for December. They were voting to hasten the end of the military dictatorship, not to express support for it.

The referendum showed that Thailand remains deeply divided: in the poor and populous north-east, a stronghold of Thaksin Shinawatra, the elected prime minister deposed in last September’s coup, 62% voted to reject the charter. In the south, a stronghold of the Democrats, the main opposition in the last elected parliament, the yes vote was 88%….

The prospect of a reborn Thaksinite party leading the next government is surely not one the generals would relish. The plan, it is assumed, was that after TRT’s demise Thailand would return to the weak and short-lived coalition governments that had preceded its rise to power in 2001. Several changes in the new constitution—such as the merging of single-seat constituencies into larger ones in which the second- and third-placed candidates would also win seats—seem designed to give lesser parties more of a chance and thus increase the likelihood of unstable multi-party coalitions.

If so, the royalist-military elite who staged the coup would be able to return to exerting influence behind the scenes, as they did in pre-Thaksin times…..

In the generals’ worst nightmares, the Thaksinites win control of the government and use their power to fix things so that Mr Thaksin gets off his corruption charges and his ban from politics is lifted. Then they amend the just-approved constitution to remove the amnesty that it grants to the coup-makers. It seems unlikely that the army will let this happen.

A compromise is still imaginable, for instance if a PPP-led coalition chooses a more emollient prime minister….

Several more months, at least, of uncertainty lie ahead. By the time the election is held—assuming it goes ahead on schedule—Thailand’s political agony will have dragged on for two years. This has taken a toll on the economy, which is expected to grow by only 4% this year, much less than the rest of South-East Asia. Even in this respect, the generals cannot boast that they have done better than the politicians.”

Thailand’s anti-democracy protests should provoke a harsh rebuke from the U.S.

16 January 2014 The Washington Post Editorial

The Post’s editorial will no doubt provoke the usual “foreigners do not understand Thailand” rants – yet foreigners, with access to thoughtful media and the opportunity to discuss subjects that are taboo in Thailand, may understand Thailand all too well.

“Popular demostrations against democracy are becoming an unfortunate trend in developing countries where elections have challenged long-established elites. The latest case is Thailand, where thousands of people took to the streets Monday to demand that the country’s freely chosen government step down, that an unelected council take its place and that elections scheduled for next month be canceled. The protesters’ strategy appears to be to disrupt Bangkok to the point at which the government will feel compelled to resign or be removed by the military.

Similar tactics have succeeded in bringing down two previous governments led by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his supporters since 2006, while a third was forced out by a dubious court decision. This time, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Mr. Thaksin’s sister, is standing firm, as she should. But she could use more support from the United States in rejecting an undemocratic outcome to the crisis.

Ironically, what amounts to a coup attempt is being supported by many in the opposition Democratic Party. The party’s problem with democracy stems from its failure to win an election since 2001, when Mr. Thaksin’s movement first surged to power. The Democrats represent Bangkok’s middle and upper classes and the traditional business establishment linked to the royal family. Mr. Thaksin, a billionaire businessman who now lives in exile, is a populist who draws support from previously disenfranchised Thais — the poor in urban areas and the rural northeast. While he did abuse power and commit human rights abuses when he was in office, his governments were freely and fairly elected, as was Ms. Yingluck’s.

In a decade of political and street conflicts, the Thaksin movement has seemed to mature: Ms. Yingluck’s administration was proceeding relatively smoothly until she attempted to pass an amnesty bill through parliament that would have allowed her brother to return home. The opposition, meanwhile, has grown more radical. No longer do its leaders claim, as they once did, to be liberal democrats who seek only to correct Mr. Thaksin’s abuses. Now they aim explicitly at installing a regime that would empower a minority while seeking the “eradication” from politics of Mr. Thaksin and his family.

Opposing such an agenda ought to be an easy call for the United States, which has close economic and security relations with Thailand. But as was the case when Egyptians sought to provoke a coup against their elected government last summer, the Obama administration’s response has been weak. A State Department spokeswoman called Monday for the crisis to be resolved through a “democratic process” and praised the government’s “restraint” in responding to the demonstrators.

The administration has not, however, made clear publicly that a coup — whether by the military or the street mobs — would be unacceptable to the United States or that it would result in a suspension of aid and security cooperation. U.S. law mandates such a cutoff, but since the administration declined to observe the statute following Egypt’s military coup in July, Thailand’s anti-democracy militants may be emboldened to believe that they, too, will be tolerated by the Obama administration. They shouldn’t be. As has been the case in Cairo, the victory of the anti-democracy forces would only lead to more violence and instability.”

Who Lost Thailand?

16 January 2014 – Project Syndicate: Yuriko Koike, Japan’s former defense minister and national security adviser, was Chairwoman of Japan’s Liberal Democrat Party and currently is a member of the National Diet

Thailand, Southeast Asia’s most developed and sophisticated economy, is teetering on the edge of the political abyss. Yet most of the rest of Asia appears to be averting its eyes from the country’s ongoing and increasingly anarchic unrest. That indifference is not only foolish; it is dangerous. Asia’s democracies now risk confronting the same harsh question that the United States faced when Mao Zedong marched into Beijing, and again when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ousted the Shah in Iran. Who, they will have to ask, lost Thailand?

Much of the world is wondering how such a successful economy could allow its politics to spin out of control. What accounts for the armies of protesters – distinguished, gang-like, by the color of their shirts – whose mutual antipathy often borders on nihilistic rage?

The roots of the current unrest extend back more than a decade, to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s first electoral victory in 2001. Thaksin’s triumph did not represent the normal alternation in power that one finds in a democracy. Instead, his victory heralded the political rise of the country’s poor, long-silenced rural majority. Bangkok’s entrenched elite recoiled in alarm.

But, instead of learning to compete with Thaksin for the votes of Thailand’s rural poor, the country’s urban elite (including the powerful military) sought to delegitimize his rule. When he was re-elected by an even larger majority, his government was overthrown, his political party was banned by the Supreme Court, and he was forced to flee the country after corruption charges against him led to a criminal conviction.

Yet Thaksin’s supporters did not abandon him. When Thailand’s military returned to their barracks, many Thai citizens voted for Thaksin at one remove, with his sister – Yingluck Shinawatra, a long-time executive at Thaksin’s communications firm – becoming Prime Minister, supported by a powerful parliamentary majority.

For much of her term in office, Yingluck garnered praise for her pragmatism, and for seeking to ameliorate the antagonism of her opponents. But that praise and success appears to have bred a form of hubris. She proposed an amnesty law that would have not only pardoned opposition leaders, including Abhisit Vejjajiva, her predecessor as prime minister (who faces murder charges), but allowed her brother to return to the country. And, in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling, she sought a constitutional amendment that would make the Senate, whose members are appointed, an elected body.

The opposition, sensing that its moment had arrived, launched a wave of street protests. Yingluck, in an effort to defuse the situation, called for a parliamentary election in February. But the opposition has rejected this and says that it will boycott the vote. It fears – rightly, most people suspect – that the Thaksin camp will be returned to power in any free and fair vote.

So, in essence, what is happening in Thailand is an attempted nullification of democracy by the opposition and the country’s entrenched elite. Unable to compete successfully with Thaksin for votes, they now want to dilute Thai democracy in order to prevent the electorate from ever again choosing a government that goes against their will.

If Thailand were an insignificant country with little geostrategic weight, its problems might not matter as much as they do to the rest of Asia. But Thailand is Southeast Asia’s lynchpin economy. It is a key partner for Myanmar (Burma) as it makes its own political and economic transition, and it is a hub for trade with neighboring Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

But the biggest reason that Thailand matters for Asia’s democracies is fierce competition for influence between a rising China and the democratic world. Until now, Thailand has been a firm member of the democratic camp. Its military is mostly trained by the United States; indeed, it was the key staging point for the US during the Vietnam War. Likewise, Japan and India have long regarded Thailand as a democratic bulwark in a neighborhood where some regimes – Cambodia and Laos – are firmly under China’s hegemonic sway. Indeed, its government has proved to be a strong supporter of Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, as he seeks to free his country from China’s tight embrace.

By standing aside as Thailand’s opposition and traditional elite seek to undermine the country’s democracy in the name of a permanent right to rule, Asia’s democracies risk driving some elements of the Thaksin camp into the arms of China, which would happily accept the role of patron to so potent a political force.

But this need not happen. Thailand’s military has long and respectful ties not only with the US military, but with officers in Japan as well. Thailand’s opposition politicians, many of whom were educated at top Western universities, may also be open to quiet advice that they are pushing things too far, not only putting Thailand’s stability at risk, but also jeopardizing regional security.

Just as, a decade ago, the West objected to the efforts of Turkey’s entrenched secular elite to rob Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s mildly Islamist AKP party of its democratic victory, it needs to speak clearly today in defense of Thai democracy. The opposition’s claim that it is acting in the interests of the world’s democracies needs to be rebutted.

Thaksin may be no saint, and some constitutional reform will be needed if political reconciliation is to come about. But Thaksin’s governments, like that of his sister, have kept China at one remove from influence. That is the key strategic interest that is now at stake.

Should Yingluck be ousted in a coup, or should the country’s democracy be hollowed out to preclude her return to power, the Shinawatras may be left with no choice but to seek support from Thailand’s giant neighbor to the north. If that happens, we will all know who lost Thailand. We did.

What’s behind the Thai protests?

15 January 2014 Fareed Zakaria on his GPS show on CNN

GPS speaks with Duncan McCargo, a professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds in the UK and author of ‘Tearing Apart the Land,’ about the ongoing protests in Thailand, what the demonstrators are hoping to achieve, and whether the military is likely to intervene.

Anti-government protesters in Thailand have launched a campaign to “shut down” Bangkok. What are they so unhappy about, and what are they trying to achieve with this latest demonstration?

The protesters are unhappy about the political direction which Thailand has taken for more than a decade. In the past, Thailand was run by a relatively small Bangkok-based elite which I term “network monarchy,” centering on the palace, the military, the bureaucracy and major business groups. While electoral politics have been the norm for more than 30 years, elected governments needed the blessing of this network in order to remain in office. Without this endorsement, governments quickly collapsed – or were removed by military coups. Conservative groups in Thai society, including the Bangkok middle classes and voters in the upper South – stronghold of the Democrat Party – have normally backed the ruling network.

Since the 2001 general election, however, most Thai voters have consistently supported parties linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Pro-Thaksin parties with strong backing in the populous North and Northeast won solid majorities in the 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2011 general elections. The Democrat Party squeaked a narrow election victory in 1992, but has not won convincingly since 1986. Protestors are furious that Bangkokians no longer have veto power over election results; indeed, they feel they are no longer in control of “their” country. They claim that Thailand has been held hostage to the corrupt financial interests of Thaksin, his family and his cronies. The real picture is much more complicated. Voters in the North and Northeast are no longer poor farmers, content to be marginalized and patronized by their “betters” in Bangkok. Thaksin has not created the wave of electoral resentment against the Democrats and the power of the capital city. He has simply tapped into that resentment for his own ends.

The protestors appear to have no clear political agenda other than a desire to “return” Thailand to an imagined pre-Thaksin era in which the ruling network and its supporters can still call the shots, and provincial voters can be marginalized. In the short term, they are trying to provoke a military coup of some kind.

There was a lot of skepticism when Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra took office in August 2011, with many expressing concern that her election would simply enable Thaksin, her self-exiled elder brother, to exercise influence through the back door. Have these concerns been borne out?

There’s no doubt that Thaksin has remained an influential figure, working through and behind the Yingluck government. But Yingluck hasn’t been Thaksin’s “clone,” as he originally hoped, and there has been ample evidence that she was often able to set her own agenda and to form her own political alliances. In particular, it’s clear that her government couldn’t have lasted nearly 30 months without receiving an informal green light from the traditional establishment. An elite deal was in place between Yingluck, the network and the military to paper over Thailand’s political divides and allow for “business as usual.” This deal partly collapsed as a result of the abortive move to push through amnesty legislation in late 2013 – where Thaksin clearly overplayed his hand – and partly because the Democrat Party and anti-Thaksin forces set out systematically to sabotage the pact.

How can and should Yingluck’s government respond to these protests? What do you see unfolding in the coming weeks?

All Yingluck can do is continue the current policy of being very reasonable and diplomatic, not unnecessarily escalating matters, but pressing firmly ahead with plans for an election. It would be very useful if academics or other respected figures in Thai society could help to broker some sort of compromise solution to avert potential violence.

The military has played an active role in Thailand’s political past, including overthrowing Thaksin’s government in 2006. Do you see it playing a significant role in the latest unrest?

The reluctance of the military to intervene directly in the present crisis has illustrated the residual strength of the longstanding deal which kept Yingluck in office. The military is well aware that a coup would only further exacerbate Thailand’s polarized politics, and that the Army would be blamed for whatever went wrong. Nevertheless, the protestors will try their best to push for such an intervention in the days and weeks ahead – since a military coup would be the best means for them to advance their agenda.

No room for reason in a storm of whistles

8 January 2014 The Nation Pravit Rojanaphruk

Waving a gigantic Thai national flag, blowing whistles en masse and calling themselves “the great mass of the people” – this is how the anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) project themselves to the world.

These symbols and name, if read critically, offer food for a disturbing thought, however.

The use of the Thai national flag, for a starter, declares their patriotism. However, when used against fellow Thai citizens, it is akin to an attempted monopolisation of patriotism and implicitly suggests that the other side – who are in fact also Thais – may be unpatriotic or even “un-Thai”.

This resulted in a unpleasant reaction late last year when a picture of red shirts on a pickup truck carrying a Thai national flag sans the blue stripe, the symbolic colour of the monarchy, appeared on social media. While the authenticity of such a flag could not be independently confirmed, some royalists took it seriously enough and I read a commentary on a major newspaper condemning such an act.

On Twitter, I asked: How can Thais use the national flag as the main symbol in a fight against fellow Thais? And does this suggest they’re fighting a “foreign” enemy?

One Thai PDRC supporter and royalist using the account @pampam_northcap tweeted back saying: “Betrayers of the monarchy do not deserve to be Thai.”

Such a sense of self-righteousness can also be extended to the PDRC’s planned shutdown of Bangkok. Since they’re patriotic and flag-waving, they must think they can do whatever they like.

The blowing of whistles, meanwhile, may be a desperate attempt to call for attention, but its deafening noise suggests a one-way communication. It implicitly says: “You must listen to me, but I will not hear you.”

The deafening sound of the whistle means nothing more than the blaring out of anger. Again, it doesn’t matter if it disturbs others, as the whistle blowers are “patriots”. It always boils down to the belief that any means is justifiable to achieve a “righteous” goal.

On the Internet, some opponents have now christened it the “whistle of hatred”, as PDRC members target people they hate or who work for the ousted and fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra as the subject of their whistle blowing.

Then there’s the feel-good characterisation of PDRC supporters as “the great mass of the people”, which is deceptive as in fact it might be more accurate to describe them as “the great mass of the minority”, or the “great mass of the middle-class and elites”.

This is because they’re not the majority – not that a minority has no rights, but the use of the term “great mass” masks the fact that 5 million or 10 million people are in fact a minority in a country of nearly 70 million. This reflects their insecurity regarding their number, vis-a-vis the rest of the population.

It is easier to shut your eyes and ears and blow a whistle and shut down Bangkok than to open your hearts to dialogue and try to win others through reason.

I fully respect the PDRC’s right to boycott the election, but the PDRC has no right to suppress others’ right to vote – unless they think they’re superior to the rest. It is hoped that they’re not too busy blowing whistles or shutting down Bangkok to hear such a simple message and think about their legitimacy or lack thereof.

Boeing’s hollow victory: The company got the vote it wanted, but at what cost?

8 January 2014 OpEd in the Los Angeles Times

The narrowly approved contract agreement between Boeing and its Washington state workforce will be hailed by some as a victory for the canny, hardball brinkmanship of Boeing’s management and the knuckle-under economic pragmatism of the International Machinists Union.

But the steep cutbacks in retirement and health benefits that tens of thousands of Boeing workers were forced to swallow have far larger implications for middle-class America.

Boeing’s stingy treatment of its highly skilled workforce offers a vivid example of how America’s new economy has created gaping economic inequalities and steadily squeezed the economic life out of the U.S. middle class over the last three decades, even as corporate profits and CEO pay have skyrocketed.

Boeing’s case epitomizes that sharp economic divide. For just as the company was wringing concessions from its workers, its board of directors approved a 50% increase in the company’s stock dividend and a $10-billion stock buyback that will richly reward investors and executives who get paid in Boeing shares.

Boeing contends that it is not the first to impose such concessions but that it is merely following the market.

True enough. In 1980, 84% of American workers at companies with 100 or more employees received lifetime pensions from their companies, and 70% got health insurance fully paid for by their employers. Today, fewer than 30% have lifetime pensions and only 18% have fully employer-paid health insurance.

What these numbers mean is that every year hundreds of billions of dollars in benefit costs have been shifted from company books to the pocketbooks and checkbooks of average Americans, helping to boost corporate profits and to leave roughly half of the baby boom generation facing near poverty in retirement.

Boeing’s new contract will accelerate that trend. And it’s not as if hard economic times forced Boeing to slash labor costs. Its profits and demand for its planes are at record levels.

Over the last decade, Boeing rolled up more than $35 billion in profits and paid no federal corporate taxes. In fact, Boeing reaped about $2 billion in federal tax rebates from 2003 to 2012, as well as the most generous long-term state tax subsidy in U.S. history from Washington state.

For President Obama and others who advocate a fairer, faster-growing economy, it is instructive to understand how Boeing put the screws to its 56,000 workers around Seattle and Everett, Wash.

In a take-it-or-lose-your-jobs ultimatum last November, Boeing declared that if its current workforce wanted to build the next generation of 777X airliners, it would have to agree to about $1 billion of cuts in previously promised pay increases for younger workers, to sharp increases in employee contributions to healthcare, and to a massive restructuring of Boeing’s retirement plans. Boeing said it was freezing its pension plan, shifting tens of thousands of machinists into a far less generous 401(k)-type plan, and would then steadily reduce company contributions, year after year.

When that formula was put to a vote in November, the company’s 31,000 rank-and-file machinists rejected Boeing’s terms by a vote of 2 to 1. Boeing was ready, perhaps even eager, for that outcome, and despite Washington state’s offer of $8.7 billion in tax concessions, Boeing invited other states to bid on hosting the 777X production.

By Christmas, Boeing had lured 22 states into a massive job auction, ready to reward the lowest bidder — the state offering the lowest tax rate, lowest worker benefits and wages, and lowest cost to Boeing (i.e, largest state subsidy) to finance the $10-billion cost of new aircraft plants.

Some experts questioned the wisdom of Boeing’s tactics. After all, making modern airliners requires thousands of skilled, well-trained engineers and machinists, experienced at designing and weaving together the most advanced materials and complex engineering of the 21st century.

Boeing said it had to cut costs to meet “aggressive international competition.” But Boeing’s sole major global competitor is Airbus, based in highly unionized Germany and France, and Airbus puts a premium on maintaining its high-quality workforce and treating its workers generously.

German companies over the last 25 years have raised the pay and benefits of middle-class workers five times faster than U.S. companies. And German corporations have kept high-tech jobs at home, so that today 21% of Germany’s workforce is in manufacturing versus 9% in the U.S. What’s more, the German strategy has rolled up $2 trillion in export surpluses while the U.S. has suffered $6 trillion in trade deficits.

Inside Boeing, some people must have had some second thoughts. Even while noisily threatening to move out of state, Boeing sweetened its offer to its Washington workforce. In late December, it added an estimated $1 billion in value, restoring previous pay scales for newer workers and upping the contract-signing bonus to $15,000 per worker. But Boeing still insisted on steep retirement and health benefit cuts.

Local union leaders opposed the new package. National union leaders called for a second vote last Friday, and the Boeing contract passed narrowly, by 51%. Some union leaders hope to gain leverage and better terms once the 777X goes into production.

But rolling back the clock on the shrinking middle-class share of America’s economic pie has proved virtually impossible lately. For now, the Boeing formula represents the kind of successful corporate power play that prompted Pope Francis recently to chastise modern capitalism for imposing “the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”

Hedrick Smith is the author of “Who Stole the American Dream?” and former Washington bureau chief of the New York Times.

NACC’s utterly predictable ruling

7 January 2013

The National Anti Corruption Commission (NACC) will press impeachment charges against 308 of 381 former MPs and senators for their role in the passage of the charter amendment draft on the composition of the Senate.

The NACC was asked to consider a petition seeking impeachment of 383 politicians after the Constitution Court on Nov 20 ruled the draft charter amendment seeking to change the make-up of the Senate to a fully elected chamber violated Section 68 of the 2007 (post-coup, army led) constitution, which prohibits attempts to overthrow the monarchy and unconstitutional efforts to seize power.

Remember this was no more that a charter amendment seeking to return the senate to its status under the 1997 constitution.

Of the 308 former MPS and senators (former because Parliament has been dissolved pending the 2 February elections) who would face charges, 293 were involved in proposing the unconstitutional draft and voting to pass the first, second and third readings of it, while 15 others voted in some or all of the three readings but did not take part in proposing the draft, NACC member and spokesman Vicha Mahakhun said.

The NACC decided not to press charges against the other 73 legislators including caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Mr Vicha said a nine-member committee voted 7-2 to dismiss impeachment requests for 73 other legislators including Ms Yingluck because most of them only voted to pass the bill in the third reading and were not involving in proposing it

The 308 politicians are due to report to the NACC on Jan 15-17 to acknowledge the charges, Mr Vicha added.

The nine members of the NACC are appointed by the Senate; they believe they are justified in stopping elected officials from passing legislation.

If found guilty of abuse of power the 308 MPs and senators could be banned from politics for five years. 2008 revisited.

Legal rulings have played a pivot role in Thailand’s turbulent politics in the past and officials of Ms Yingluck’s party have warned the government could fall victim to a judicial or military coup.

Pheu Thai spokesman Anusorn Lamsa-ard said the MPs charged were only doing their duty. “They were MPs and their job was to issue laws,” he said, not unreasonably.

Asia’s LCC boom

5 January 2014

Years ago I used to maintain detailed pages on this site documenting the growth of Asia’s LCCs. The growth of the airlines and my move to Dubai meant this was just to hard to maintain.

Over the last ten years the Asia-Pacific region has seen a rapid influx in the number, size and reach of low-cost airlines. The Centre for Aviation says 2014 will see “a record level of start-up activity.” There’s already about 1,000 aircraft operated by LCC across the region and a further 1,591 new aircraft are on order.

Ten LCC startups are planned for 2014, bringing the total in the region to around 60. But growth also is coming from within established low –cost carriers such as Air Asia.

The LCCs follow the Air Asia catch line – now everyone can fly. Taking on Asia’s quality legacy carriers the LCCs have made flying an affordable option for millions who would not have flown previously.

Asian LCCs now account for 20 percent of the seats in the Asia-Pacific market. But they make up for 50 percent of the aircraft orders.

The AirAsia group leads LCC with an in-service fleet of 172 aircraft. Next is Indonesia’s Lion Air with 133. The Jetstar group is the third-largest LCC with a fleet of 116 aircraft.

Lion and AirAsia placed more than 60 percent of the orders for the 1,591 new aircraft (most are narrow-body aircraft and large turboprops). The Jetstar Group placed 125 orders.

The 10 new LCC launches targeted for 2014 in Asia-Pacific include Thai AirAsia X, Thai VietJet, NokScoot, AirAsia India, Jetstar Hong Kong, Spring Airlines Japan, China United Airlines, Jiu Yuan, Tigerair Taiwan and a yet to be named LCC subsidiary of TransAsia Airways. Last year saw five new LCC startups.

It is worth noting that two of the start ups are long haul LCCs from already established airlines; both are based out of Bangkok’s old but revived Don Muang airport.

China United is a subsidiary of China Eastern and is a re-launch of a full-service airline. The others are new airlines; seven culled from existing LCC groups and pulling the genes out of the parental hat.

North Asia is the next big growth market for LCC. They now account for only 10 percent of the seats within the region. Jetstar Japan and Peach are now well established out of Narita and Osaka and have been joined by Vanilla.

Two issues that will limit the pace of growth are both related to infrastructure; firstly air traffic control limits; limited airways can only manage so much capacity. This is particularly true in China; possible also in Indonesia.

Secondly there are few smaller, unutilised airfields available to the LCCs. If you want to fly to Hong Kong or Singapore only one airfield is available. In Tokyo the LCCs have to use Narita; where the fare to the airport may be the same as your airfare.

Canada’s bitter, small-minded foreign policy

3 January 2014 Peter Jones in the Globe and Mail

(This is a sorry tale of a nation that once played a significant role in world affairs – one comment left on the Globe and Mail’s web page sums up how many Canadians see their country: “Harper told Canadians that we would not recognize Canada when he was finished with it, that is the only promise he has kept. Not only do intelligent Canadians not recognize the Great Country that Canada was, but neither does the rest of world recognize Canada. Canada no longer stands for peace, decency and respect for human rights in the eyes of the rest of the World.)

Good relations with the United States are a core foreign policy interest. Yet, even while most Canadians have, sometimes grudgingly, accepted the benefits of a deeper economic relationship with the United States, we have sought through multilateralism and the promotion of new ideas to portray ourselves as somehow different (and superior). This has led to some tiresome mantras and not a little childish grandstanding over the years. But, as someone who travels frequently to many parts of the world, and particularly to many troubled parts of the world, it has also created a sense of Canada in the world that is quite powerful and unique.

What is not generally appreciated is that this approach is not merely self-indulgent; it serves a core interest. Working to strengthen multilateral organizations, supporting the development of norms of conduct in international affairs and contributing to peace and good governance around the world are not simply “nice” things to do – a rules-based international order, expressed through an interlocking web of institutions and commitments, benefits Canada.

A predictable world order where things like trade and security play out according to rules (admittedly something observed more in the breach in many parts of the world) is a world in which smaller countries have a better chance of advancing their interests. This is quiet, patient, painstaking work that rarely generates headlines. Progress is incremental and measured in years. It is less emotionally satisfying to some than yelling at the world from the rooftops. But it makes a contribution, over time, to creating a