Monday, February 23, 2009
Waiter, there's a toilet in my soup.
The rising popularity of themed restaurants in Taiwan
By Jonathan Adams, Global Post, February 21, 2009
TAIPEI — Taiwanese embrace new fads with alarming speed — and often drop them just as quickly. "Sea-salt" coffee is but one recent example.
Along with this love of novelty comes a propensity for cheesy theme restaurants. The latest: a "jumbo jet" restaurant modeled after the inside of an Airbus 380. Naturally, "stewardesses" bring your food.
The A380 In-flight Kitchen boasts airplane cabin decor, and various other touches from dining in the sky. At 7 every evening there's an "in-flight announcement," after which free soda is passed out.
Meals are served on custom plates resembling airplane trays, and the kids' set meal comes on a plate shaped like a space shuttle. The restaurant boasts a "first class" section in back, with larger spaces for big groups and parties. In addition to the regular service, the waitress rolls around a beverage cart loaded with beer, coffee and juice.
One "stewardess," who gave only her first name, Melinda, actually worked as a real-life flight attendent for five years on China Airlines. She says the restaurant has been packing customers in lately due to massive media exposure, including from Japanese TV. (The Japanese hold their own in the offbeat-theme-restaurant department, as this article shows.)
Customers' only disappointment so far, Melinda, says is that the "overhead luggage compartments" are only decoration. "They'll say to me, 'Can I put my luggage in the overhead bin?' And I have to tell them, 'No, sorry, you can't open that.'"
Asked why theme restaurants are so popular with Taiwanese, assistant manager Emily Wu said, "Taiwanese always like something fresh. When they see it they want to go try it."
The jet restaurant joins several other long-standing theme joints on the island. Taiwan boasts race-car theme restaurants, a "hospital" restaurant and "toilet" restaurants, where food is served in mini-commodes and bathtubs.
At the DS hospital theme restaurant, a stethoscope-wielding, doctors' coat-clad hostess greets guests and takes reservations. Waitresses in nurse uniforms serve cocktails to your glass from an old-fashioned glass IV bottle or (for shots) test-tubes. The restaurant decor features X-rays on the wall, wheelchairs, crutches and an "emergency room" (the bathroom).
On Thursday night, diners Chen Ching-yan and his two female co-workers said their favorite things about the restaurant were the IV-bottle drink service and the pretty nurses. "Our working hours can be really stressful, so we like coming to a restaurant like this to unwind," said one of Chen's co-workers.
Teens and college students are the target market for one of Taiwan's most successful theme restaurant chains, Modern Toilet. Here, customers sit on toilets and eat on covered washbasins. The most popular dishes are chocolate ice cream or curry chicken, served in a mini-toilet. Why?
"It looks like poo-poo," explained Jary Wei, assistant manager at the chain's Taipei branch. "The customers think it's funny."
There are nine Modern Toilet joints island-wide, though Wei says some of those may close due to the current recession. "It's really affected our business," said Wei.
Taiwan's government last week reported a stunning 8.36 percent gross domestic product drop in the last quarter of 2008 — the largest drop since the government began compiling statistics in 1961 — and now forecasts the island's economy will contract an additional 3 percent for the full year in 2009.
Taiwan's consumers, like their counterparts in the U.S., have cut back in today's tough times. For most, ice cream spooned into toilet bowls probably doesn't qualify as essential spending.
But the bad economy may not be as big a threat to such restaurants as the fickle taste of Taiwanese diners.
Take Taipei's much-hyped "prison" restaurant. It featured dining in mock jail cells, and even wall photos of Nazi concentration camps, which were taken down after a public outcry. But the restaurant closed a couple years ago, say the site's current tenants. In its place is a humble pasta joint.
Like the island's short-lived pop stars, Taiwan's latest theme restaurant may turn out to be only the flavor of the month.
Al Qaeda offshoot claims six Western hostages
The claim by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb that it holds hostages kidnapped more than a month ago fuels fears that the group is expanding its reach.
Christian Science Monitor
Terrorism and Security Update
February 19, 2009
Al Qaeda's North African franchise has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of two Canadian diplomats and four European tourists in Niger. The claims have not been verified, press reports say. But if true, the news is likely to fuel concerns that the Algeria-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is expanding its reach in Africa and increasingly targeting Westerners.
Two Canadian diplomats, including the United Nations envoy to Niger, Robert Fowler, were abducted in mid-December. The four tourists – a Swiss couple, German woman, and British man – were abducted Jan. 22 in Niger after visiting a Tuareg cultural festival in neighboring Mali. (Click here to see a map of the region from the CIA World Factbook.)
Initial suspicion for the kidnapping of the Canadian diplomats centered on the Tuareg, a nomadic group that is fighting the Niger and Mali governments to win autonomy for their homeland. But the Tuareg had denied involvement, reported the BBC.
The BBC reported Wednesday that the Al Qaeda claim came in an audio recording.
The audio recording of the man, who identified himself as Salah Abu Mohammed, was broadcast by Arabic satellite station al-Jazeera. ...
The authenticity of the tape, in which the group said it would soon issue conditions for the hostages' release, has not been verified.
The news service quoted Maghreb analyst Mohamed Ben-Madani as saying the move fits AQIM's "usual tactics."
"It is their normal practice not to speak until they are sure that they have got good people for good money and they are in a safe place before any negotiations," he told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme....
Mr Ben-Madani said the group's influence is spreading and it now has small branches in places like Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Nigeria and Morocco.
"It is spreading and growing in numbers," he said.
Ennahar Online, the website of an Algerian newspaper, quoted from the audio tape.
"We are pleased to transmit to the Islamic nation the good news of the success of the Mujahidines in achieving of two operations in Niger," says on this soundtrack the spokesman of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, Salah Abou Mohammed....
Mujahidines "reserve the right to manage the case of six hostages by Islamic law (Sharia)," adds the spokesman, without further detail.
Reuters reported today that the group had published photos of four of the six hostages on the Web.
A posting on Islamist websites on Thursday showed three separate images of what it said were a Swiss couple, a German woman and a British man, surrounded by men bearing rifles.
In the photographs the women's faces have been blurred.
Meanwhile, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that a security summit of states in Africa's northern Sahel region – which includes Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Algeria, Libya, and Chad – had been postponed again due to scheduling problems.
Notes AFP: "The Sahel region with vast stretches of inhospitable desert, is notoriously difficult to control. Rebels and several armed groups roam largely unhindered across the region and borders between the countries."
[Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] intends to unify armed Islamist groups in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia as well as emerging groups in countries bordering the Sahara including Burkina Faso, Chad, Eritrea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan.
The Daily Telegraph had more on the group's background:
Al-Qa'eda in the Islamic Maghreb grew out of an earlier Islamist organisation based in Algeria known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat [known by its French initials, GSPC].
Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy in the core al-Qaeda leadership, praised the organization's efforts to gather disparate north African militant groups together in attacks against France and the US as a "blessed union".
But there are doubts that [al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] takes direct orders from bin Laden's organization. Some analysts suspect that the African group has simply adopted the name al-Qaeda.
In a briefing on AQIM in 2007, The Christian Science Monitor reported that AQIM membership was hard to pin down but that "the Algerian government said 800 jihadists were active in GSPC [in 2006]. But the group disputed that, saying far more were involved, according to Rita Katz, director of the Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE) Institute in Washington."
"What we can say for certain is that [among] the jihadists online, the support for AQIM is growing. Adopting the name Al Qaeda brought the GSPC the instant support of tens of thousands of online jihadists, many now who perceive the group as fighting on behalf of Al Qaeda," says Ms. Katz in an e-mailed response to questions.
AQIM has been blamed for a spate of attacks in Algeria – including a massive bombing at a military college that killed 43 – and a few beyond its borders.
Mauritanian officials blamed the group for an attack that killed four French nationals in that country in December 2007, and a separate attack that month on UN offices in Algiers, according to a Europol report on terrorism.
The group made threats against the Mauritanian government for hosting the off-road vehicle race the Dakar Rally – which the group called "collaboration with the Crusaders" – leading to the cancellation of that event last year, the report said.
A background report by the Council on Foreign Relations said that the group had also "funneled" North African insurgents to Iraq to become suicide bombers.
Monday, February 16, 2009
"Jackass" or marketing opportunity?
It's popular to be attacked by firecrackers in Taiwan, at least once a year.
By Jonathan Adams, Global Post, February 11, 2009
YENSHUEI TOWNSHIP, Taiwan — Wrapped tightly in coats, motorcycle helmets, scarves and gloves, a group of Taiwanese bounces up and down like teens in a mosh pit. In the sedan chair they're carrying, their God of War bounces along with them.
Suddenly, amid a thunderous roar, a wave of bottle rockets fires into the crowd and over their heads from a line of racks about 25 feet away.
Welcome to the Beehive Fireworks Festival, Taiwan's answer to Pamplona's running of the bulls. Every year, on the 15th day of the first lunar month, thousands descend on the township of Yenshuei, in the island's rural south, to deliberately put themselves in harm's way.
They'll be hit, over and over, by thousands of firecrackers — and they'll love it.
It may sound like a stunt from one of the "Jackass" movies, but the roots of this festival are religious. According to local officials, it dates to the late 17th century, when this part of Taiwan was afflicted by disease, especially cholera. Locals believed that parading the war god and setting off firecrackers could drive away the plague.
Now, this and other similar festivals are growing in popularity, as townships like Yenshuei hope to cash in on their folk rituals by attracting tourist dollars.
"It's getting bigger and bigger," said Ting Jen-chieh, an expert on Taiwanese religion at Academia Sinica. "Twenty years ago the scale wasn't so big, but now the city wants to promote the festival to get tourists."
This year officials estimated that up to 350,000 people attended. "The bad economy hasn't affected the festival," said Hsu Fu-kai, a festival volunteer. "In fact, it will be even bigger then last year, because we believe the more firecrackers you have, the more prosperity you'll get."
In the festival, bottle rockets are carefully packed in tight rows inside box frames — thus, the "beehive." Each rack contains up to 60,000 firecrackers. Organizers said some 200 racks were used in the main event Feb. 9.
Every year, there are injuries, sometimes serious. Glen Chin, who is making a documentary on the festival, was injured one year when a rack of bottle rockets went off near him before he'd put on his helmet and jacket.
But he says there's little risk if you follow the dress code. "It's a bit dangerous, but not as dangerous as it looks," said Chin. "There's a method to the madness."
I went to Yenshuei on Feb. 8, the eve of the festival, on a junket arranged by Taiwan's Tourism Bureau. The celebrations were a warm-up for the main event held the next night.
In Chinese tradition, the 15th of the first lunar month marks the end of Lunar New Year celebrations. Localities across the island celebrate in distinct ways, and Taiwan's tourism officials are now hoping to better market those festivals to visitors.
In northern Taiwan, the main attraction is the sky lantern festival in Pingsi. In the city of Taitung on the rugged southeast coast, there's a ritual called the "Bombing of Master Han Dan." In it, a male believer dressed only in red shorts, red head wrap and banyan tree leaf is paraded around in a sedan chair, as others lob firecrackers at him.
Still, Yenshuei's beehive festival is the island's most intense. It centers on the temple of Guan Yu, the God of War, a second-century Chinese general now revered as a deity (and also a character in John Woo's "Red Cliff" movies). During the celebrations, the God of War leaves home to visit every nearby temple and its gods.
Naturally, Guan Yu has to ride in style. So his icon is placed in a plastic-protected sedan chair (think the Popemobile). Flunky gods get their own, less lavish sedan chairs. Some Taiwanese temples pimp their gods' rides with gaudy neon displays and pulsing techno music on truck flatbeds.
On the night I attended, the holy motorcade proceeded to an open field at a local high school, where the sedan chairs were positioned in front of the bottle rocket racks for the first firecracker beat-down.
Then the God of War began his tour. At each stop, sedan chair carriers bounced the god up and down, sometimes stepping forward and back three times.
"The bouncing means possession by the god," explained Academia Sinica's Ting. "And when two deities meet each other, they need to go back and forth three times, to show respect."
At each temple, the God of War and his entourage are pummeled by more bottle rockets, usually in a nearby street or alley.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
UN official: Botched attacks on LRA rebels in Congo 'catastrophic' for civilians
By Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor
Terrorism and Security update
February 10, 2009
A top UN official said Tuesday that the recent US-backed military attack on Ugandan rebels had been "catastrophic" for Congolese civilians, according to media reports.
At least 900 civilians were killed in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo by small groups from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) as they fled a joint military offensive launched Dec. 14 by Uganda with help from the Congolese military. (See a BBC map of LRA bases and attacks here.)
The UN official's comments followed a New York Times report Friday breaking the news that the US had helped plan and fund the attack from its new Africa Command.
The BBC reported that John Holmes, the UN's humanitarian chief, made the comments while visiting Doruma, a city in northeast Congo near the scene of the atrocities.
But BBC and Reuters also quoted Mr. Holmes as saying that the offensive should continue against the LRA, a rebel group known for its brutal attacks against civilians and its abduction of children to use as child soldiers or sex slaves.
"I think they need to see the operation through. I don't know how long that will take ... but I think there is no point in putting a premature end to it," Holmes said. The decision lay with the Congolese and Ugandan governments, he said. "We, meanwhile, will try to pick up the pieces as best we can."
Reuters reports that some 13,000 civilians had fled their homes for Doruma, and that the UN had reported that 700 people – including 540 children – had been abducted by the LRA "to become fighters, porters, or sex slaves."
On Friday The New York Times reported that the US had paid for and helped plan the botched attack on the LRA.
Uganda and its neighbors had lost patience with the LRA for failing to sign a peace deal and were looking to wipe out or cripple the group via military means.
But the raid "went awry," the newspaper reports, and "the rebel leaders escaped, breaking their fighters into small groups that continue to ransack town after town in northeastern Congo, hacking, burning, shooting, and clubbing to death anyone in their way."
The New York Times detailed the extent of US involvement, citing US military officials.
It is the first time the United States has helped plan such a specific military offensive with Uganda, according to senior American military officials. They described a team of 17 advisers and analysts from the Pentagon's new Africa Command working closely with Ugandan officers on the mission, providing satellite phones, intelligence and $1 million in fuel.
Despite criticisms of the horrific consequences of the botched raid, a US official denied responsibility.
"We provided insights and alternatives for them to consider, but their choices were their choices," said one American military official who was briefed on the operation, referring to the African forces on the ground. "In the end, it was not our operation."
UN News reported that 40,000 civilians have also been displaced in south Sudan by LRA attacks. It said that the LRA was relatively restrained as long as peace talks were on.
The LRA has been present in the area around Duru in Haut Uele district [areas in northeast Congo where atrocities were committed] since 2005, but had mostly refrained from attacks on civilians, particularly while the peace talks continued. However, between Dec. 2007 and Aug. 2008, LRA rebels committed grave attacks on populations in DRC, Central African Republic and South Sudan, killing, pillaging, raping and abducting adults and children.
The news agency Afrol News said that 100 civilians had been massacred early this month in the most recent attack. It reported that the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for the LRA's leader, Joseph Kony. He has refused to sign a peace deal with the government until the warrant is withdrawn.
Uganda has negotiated with the LRA since 2006 in an effort to bring an end to a two-decade conflict in which tens of thousands of people have died and more than 1.5 million have been displaced.
The Associated Press reported that the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo has not been effective at preventing the LRA to spread terror at will.
The 17,000-strong UN mission in Congo is mandated to protect civilians, but its troops are mostly posted further south, around cities including Goma where separate fighting has taken place. Hunting the Ugandan rebels, who have split up into several groups, has been complicated by Congo's own brutal civil war and the involvement of troops from neighboring Rwanda.
"Dynasty" meets "Law and Order" as the trial of Taiwan's former president morphs into a media circus.
By Jonathan Adams, Global Post, February 3, 2009
TAIPEI — The trial of former president Chen Shui-bian hasn't even begun. But as far as the media and many Taiwanese here are concerned, the verdict is already "guilty."
The pro-independence Chen long riled Beijing and Washington with his full-throated defense of Taiwan's autonomy. Now, he's facing a pack of corruption charges that could put him in jail for life.
In a region where there's a wide perception that government officials are above the law (China) or simply ignore it (the Philippines), that's an encouraging sign. Democratic Taiwan is holding its top leaders to account.
But the case has turned into a media circus in which Chen is being tried in the court of public opinion. The island's paparazzi-style media are hounding his family, and TV stations are playing the story like a soap opera — think "Dynasty" meets "Law and Order" — while hyping every twist and turn.
All of this has some wondering if Taiwan's media and judiciary are giving Chen a fair shake.
"He hasn't been found guilty yet, but the media wants to tell their audience he is," said Connie Lin, a former TV journalist and now media expert at Hungkuang University in central Taiwan. "It's not healthy for Taiwan's democracy."
To be sure, Chen is deeply unpopular. He's been abandoned even by many of his former supporters. For them, his public admissions are damning enough. Chen has said his wife, Wu Shu-chen, wired some $20 million to the family's overseas accounts, and he apologized for not reporting the money.
But Chen insists the amount was leftover campaign contributions, which he's allowed to keep under Taiwanese law.
Many Taiwanese simply don't buy that. Neither do prosecutors. They charged him and family members with embezzling state funds, accepting bribes and laundering ill-gotten millions abroad.
Chen pleaded not guilty in a pre-trial hearing on Jan. 19, and remains in detention. The next court date is Feb. 24.
Meanwhile, Wu, also a suspect, has failed to show up for 17 court appearances, claiming poor health. That excuse doesn't sit well with most Taiwanese. This week her own lawyer quit, a week before she's due in court again.
The scandal has sucked in Chen's children. His son, Chen Chih-chung, recently admitted wrongdoing in connection with sending funds abroad, and has turned state's witness against his own parents.
Chen's daughter, Chen Hsin-yu, has not been charged. But the media has mercilessly badgered her nonetheless. She's become something of a laughing-stock in Taiwan for her screeching tantrums, directed at TV reporters who shadow her every move.
The latest outburst came Monday in New York City, which she's now visiting to take a dentistry test. After being followed by TV cameras to her hotel, restaurants and through Manhattan's streets, Chen Hsin-yu snapped — screaming at reporters in Chinese, as amused and puzzled New Yorkers looked on:
"The media feels they have the power to supervise the whole case, and make sure no one escapes," explained a friend who works in Taiwan's television media. "They think the whole family is guilty, so how can you let her leave the country? They think the audience has the right to know what she's doing in New York City."
Cynical TV commentators and legislators suspect Chen Hsin-yu may be in New York to deal with the family's accounts. And they complain that prosecutors aren't moving against the family quickly enough.
Meanwhile, some observers are questioning the judiciary's impartiality. In three open letters (read the latest one here), a group of foreign scholars criticized Chen's detention before being charged, the mid-case swapping of a judicial panel to one seen as less sympathetic to Chen, ongoing leaks about the case, and a skit — performed for a gathering of judicial officials — in which prosecutors publicly mocked Chen.
But Taiwan's government has defended the courts' integrity, saying such criticisms reflect a "misunderstanding" of Taiwan's judicial system.
In Sanchong City, a working-class Taipei suburb that's a stronghold of support for Chen's party, residents said the case was overblown.
Whiling away a sunny afternoon on a park bench, retirees Chou Tu-sheng, 75, and Li Wu-tsai, 85, said Chen's alleged corruption paled next to that of the Kuomintang autocrats who ruled Taiwan before him. "He took some money, but not nearly as much as the KMT," said Chou.
Wu Cheng-hsien, 42, came over with his two daughters, 12 and 4, after overhearing the conversation. Wu used to drive a delivery truck, but hasn't found work since last summer. He said Taiwan should focus on fixing the economy, not Chen's alleged misdeeds.
"Keeping all of that money was immoral," said Wu. "But why is the media attacking Chen every day? If he's proven guilty, then we should deal with that. But we have bigger problems. Some people now don't have enough to eat."
Friday, February 13, 2009
Tempest (or Worse) in a Punchbowl
Newsweek, "China Calling" blog
January 31, 2009
Talk about words coming back to haunt you. President Obama's pick for the nation's top intelligence post is probably wishing he'd picked a less vivid term to vent his anger at the Taiwan government back in 2000.
Retired Admiral Dennis Blair, denied that he ever called Taiwan a "turd in the punchbowl of US-China relations," according to an Associated Press report. He was responding in writing to a question from a US senator during his confirmation process (Blair was confirmed this week).
But then Blair went on with a lawyerly, Clinton-esque distinction. The retired admiral admitted he had used the "too-colorful phrase 'tossing a turd in the punchbowl" during a meeting in 2000, to describe "a single, specific action by the Taiwanese government, certainly not Taiwan itself."
In other words, he was dissing Taiwan's behavior, not Taiwan.
So what got Blair in a lather in 2000? The report doesn't say. But the George W. Bush White House had become increasingly displeased with the government of former President Chen Shui-bian, who took power in Taiwan that year. The U.S. came to see the pro-independence Chen as needlessly provoking China -- which considers Taiwan as a wayward province -- and causing Washington a major headache in the process.
Washington's displeasure finally burst out into the open when Chen insisted on going ahead with a referendum that China viewed as a step toward full independence. Standing next to a top Chinese official at the White House in late 2003, Bush said:
"We oppose any unilateral decision, by either China or Taiwan, to change the status quo. And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose."
Those may sound like tame words. But in the hypersensitive world of cross-strait relations, it amounted to an embarrassing verbal smackdown of Washington's island ally.
Turns out Washington and Beijing had good reason to be concerned. In his latest book "The Cross of Taiwan", ex-president Chen -- now detained on corruption charges -- said he had hidden the extent of his pro-independence bent to placate "those in Beijing and in the White House."
The Financial Times excerpted the book:
"I admit that I seek not just de facto independence for Taiwan but also de jure independence. Therefore the criticisms levelled at me by China and the US during my eight years in office were not groundless. Just like they said, I am a splittist. I am a seeker and practitioner of de jure independence for Taiwan."
Nigerian militants scrap cease-fire, vow offensive
A conflict could reduce Nigeria's oil output, affecting global oil supply.
By Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor
Terrorism and Security Update
February 02, 2009
Militants in the oil-rich Niger Delta on Friday called off a four-month cease-fire with the government, in a move that could plunge this part of Nigeria back into chaos and further disrupt global oil supplies.
The Associated Press reported that militants from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) vowed to wage a new military campaign dubbed "Hurricane Obama" that would sharply curtail oil and gas shipments from the region.
The ... militants had declared a cessation of hostilities in September after the worst spate of violence in years to hit the Niger Delta, where militants fought rare open battles against the armed forces after years of nighttime sneak attacks and sabotage....
On Friday, the Movement made good on a threat to end the cease-fire if the military engaged its fighters again, saying government forces fired on a camp run by one of its members. The group said it would retaliate with attacks against Nigeria's oil industry in an operation it called "Hurricane Obama." The militants promised a "sweeping assault" that would "change the face of oil and gas exports from Nigeria."
Reuters said that one faction of MEND, the Niger Delta Vigilante, confirmed an attack on its camp by government forces in gunboats.
"The battle lasted for almost one hour 30 minutes and we were able to sink one of the double-engined boats with all the occupants," said the faction's spokesman, who uses the pseudonym Tamunokuro Ebitari. There was no independent confirmation of fighting. A military spokesman said he was making checks.
The report added that militants have been holding two British oil industry workers for more than four months, "partly in an effort to dissuade the security forces from attacking."
The BBC quoted a military official as saying government troops were fired on first.
The news service reported last week that a young girl was shot dead by delta militants when she resisted gunmen who kidnapped her brother. The same day, militants released a Catholic priest that had been kidnapped on Jan. 25.
The Guardian, a Nigerian newspaper, reported that militants accused the government of negotiating in bad faith. It quoted MEND spokesperson Jomo Gbomo as saying:
"During this ceasefire, we had hoped the Nigerian government would take advantage of the cessation of hostilities to embrace dialogue and reconciliation but instead, the government deceived individuals into fake peace parleys where they were arrested and in some cases killed."
Gbomo said the latest attack was an indication that the Nigerian government prefers to make military inroads during the ceasefire instead of efforts towards genuine peace and reconciliation.
Various sources including the BBC say that oil production has dropped by about 20 percent since 2006 due to militant attacks. (See map of delta oil installations here.) The online edition of the Nigerian publication This Day reported that output of Shell Oil, Nigeria's largest oil producer, has fallen sharply.
Nigeria's largest oil producer, Shell, which until a few years ago was producing about 1 million barrels of crude oil a day from its operations in the Niger Delta, saw its output decline drastically to some 360,000 b/d in 2008. Confirming the fall in production, a company spokesman said the Shell Petroleum Development Company's output averaged 360,000 b/d in 2008, down from 409,000 b/d a year earlier, owing to increased militancy and disruptions to its operations in the region.
The online edition of The Punch, a Nigerian newspaper, warned Saturday that the end of the cease-fire could "soon give way to an orgy of violence."
The oil-rich but impoverished Niger Delta region has produced several violent militant groups and kidnapping gangs since the early 1990s.
Many protest what they say is the exploitation and pollution of the region by foreign oil companies and the central Nigerian government. Heavily armed, speedboat-borne militants prowl the region's "creeks" and launch periodic attacks on oil facilities.
A 2007 background report by the Council on Foreign Relations says MEND emerged in 2006 and quickly drew concern from the US and other governments.
Oil companies, the Nigerian government, and the United States (Nigeria is the United States' fifth largest supplier of U.S. crude imports) are concerned about MEND's ability to disrupt the global oil supply. Though skilled at leveraging international media, the group remains secretive and opinions vary on its power and ability to sustain itself.
The report detailed the group's stated goals:
Since its inception, MEND has articulated three major demands: the release of [Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, head of another delta militant group] from prison, the receipt of 50 percent of revenues from oil pumped out of the Delta, and the withdrawal of government troops from the Delta. Its broader aim is "resource control," but it has largely failed to delineate specific long-term goals.
Pimped panda, limping ox
Taipei Holiday: What happens when the global economic downturn mixes with "very cute" pandas?
By Jonathan Adams, Global Post, January 27, 2009
TAIPEI — Taiwan is ringing in the Year of the Ox with a mix of frenzy and gloom.
Gloom, because the island's economy has taken a beating amid the global economic downturn. Frenzy, because two pandas — goodwill gifts from arch-rival China — were presented for public viewing in Taipei Monday, sparking an acute case of "panda fever."
With business bad, many Taiwanese firms are laying off staff or cutting back hours. Digitimes reported last week that Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company — the world's largest contract producer of chips — may lay off 1,000 people this year, or 5 percent of its workforce.
Unemployment reached a five-year high of 5.03 percent last month. And most here expect things to get worse before they get better.
Still, the country has tried to forget its woes in the past few days and focus on something more important: pandas. Specifically, "hen ke ai de" (very cute) pandas, as the news anchors say.
TV stations ran relentless panda coverage, including tips on best times to visit the pandas (in the morning, when they're most lively) and complaints from visitors on the strict limits on their panda-peeping time (10 minutes at most).
Vendors tried to profit from the pandas with all manner of hats, stuffed and mechanical crawling bears, scarves, cell-phone holders, balloons, and even a "panda meal" (eggs, soup, broccoli, a bun and drink — with a stalk of bamboo on the side).
Meanwhile, the nation went through the motions of Lunar New Year, though with less gusto than in better times. "Usually, people travel abroad during the holiday," said Pierre Cheng, 24, at the Taipei pizza place where he works. "But this year, since the economy isn't good, many people are only traveling inside Taiwan."
The Year of the Ox, the second year in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac, began with the new moon Monday. The new year's celebration continues through the full moon on Feb. 9, which is the Lantern Festival.
Nowadays, Taiwanese observance of the holiday varies from family to family. Some traditions have faded with the island's dramatic economic development. Annual per capita income here has risen from $300 in 1968 to $16,590 last year. But many of the old ways persist.
One stubborn tradition is holiday visits. Married women spend Lunar New Year's Eve, and sometimes New Year's Day, at their husband's parents' home, only visiting their own parents on the second day of the holiday.
Take Cheng the pizza-seller's family. He and two of his sisters joined their parents to pray to the ancestors and the gods at about 1 a.m. on three successive nights. But his second sister, who is married, spent the holiday with her husband's family in Taichung, in central Taiwan.
Meanwhile, Taiwan media focused on celebrity billionaire Terry Guo, the founder and chairman of Hon Hai, the world's largest contract electronics manufacturer. On Tuesday, he and his new, young wife, both clad in "auspicious" red, visited her family's home in central Taiwan. They dutifully handed out "red envelopes" containing money to her relatives, and even to TV reporters covering the celebrity couple.
Some holiday traditions have been tweaked for the times. At Taipei's Longshan (Dragon Mountain) Temple, in one of the city's oldest districts, the temple website is now displayed on an electronic ticker running above the entrance.
The temple was thronged with Taiwanese coming to improve their luck. They bowed to the gods with incense sticks, left them food, drink and other goodies, and burned paper funny money. Taiwan families also "bai-bai" (pray) at family altars at about midnight New Year's Eve or other times, to ancestors and the "Tudi Gong" (the local "Land God," akin to a borough chief in the bureaucratic order of Heaven).
At Longshan Temple, visitors passed under an Ox lamp, rubbing its underside and a nearby ancient Chinese coin for good luck.
Outside the temple, Dennis Cheng, 43, watched the crowds with his 6-year-old son, Jason. He said when he was young, Lunar New Year was a much bigger deal. "Before, our economy wasn't developed, so this holiday was more important. Now, because we're wealthier the atmosphere is different — it's not as special."
Taiwan families used to live three generations under a roof, making for an especially noisy, festive holiday environment. With the rise of the nuclear family, new year's celebrations are much tamer. Cheng said he used to celebrate with 12 or 13 family members when he was young. Now they're "all divided up. It's hard to get us all together."
He said young people are already abandoning old ways, and admitted even he didn't know how to perform some of the rituals anymore.
"It's not good," said Cheng. "Little by little, our traditions are disappearing."
Drug violence surges in Mexico
President Felipe Calderón's decision to confront organized crime has spurred drug cartels to fight back.
By Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor
Terrorism and Security Update
January 26, 2009
Relatives of missing persons in Mexico pressed officials for help in finding their loved ones' remains after a man last week admitted to helping a drug gang dispose of more than 300 bodies using corrosive chemicals.
The macabre admission is just the latest indication of the depth of Mexico's drug violence. Some US observers say the cartels now pose a direct threat to the Mexican government's survival, and, by extension, a growing security threat to the US. But Mexican officials and analysts say such views are overly alarmist.
Reuters reported that more than 5,700 people were killed in drug violence last year in Mexico, "nearly double the number of 2007."
The wire service reported that dozens of families had approached officials for help in finding their relatives after the arrest of Santiago Meza Lopez last week.
News of Meza's arrest prompted dozens of families to come forward seeking news of missing loved ones. The state prosecutors' office said it was looking into more than 450 missing persons' cases from the past eight years. "We have hope that some of the victims are our relatives. I'll be at peace when I know where my son's body is," Fernando Oseguera, whose son disappeared in 2007, told a news conference.
The Mexican newspaper Prensa reported details of the case. Mr. Lopez, alias "El Pozolero [the stew maker]," said he was paid $600 per month to help the Arellano Pelix drug cartel dispose of bodies (link to article in Spanish).
The New York Times explained that "pozole" is a "popular Mexican stew that can feature pork, hominy and an array of vegetables and seasonings." The newspaper reported that police paraded Meza before reporters on Friday on the outskirts of Tijuana, and that Meza publicly asked for forgiveness from the families of the victims.
The Wall Street Journal wrote in an opinion piece that the "body count" in drug-related violence in Mexico so far this year is already 354. It noted that a police commander was recently beheaded in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, an "increasingly popular tactic."
The paper traced the recent surge in drug-related violence to the Mexican president's bid to confront gangsters.
President Felipe Calderón began an assault on organized crime shortly after he took office in December 2006. It soon became apparent that the cartels would stop at nothing to preserve their operations, and that a state commitment to confrontation meant that violence would escalate. As bad as the violence is, it could get worse, and it is becoming clear that the U.S. faces contagion. In recent months, several important American voices have raised concerns about the risks north of the border.
The paper reported that the US Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia, "warned recently that an unstable Mexico 'could represent a homeland security problem of immense proportions to the United States.'"
The Los Angeles Times added that the report said Mexico should be "monitored alongside Pakistan as a 'weak and failing' state that could crumble swiftly under relentless assault by violent drug cartels."
The newspaper said that the US Joint Forces Command report was only one of several alarms being sounded on the security situation south of the border.
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, the former U.S. drug agency director, said in a separate analysis on Mexico that the government "is not confronting dangerous criminality -- it is fighting for its survival against narco-terrorism" and could lose effective control of large swaths near the U.S. border. The outgoing CIA director, Michael V. Hayden, listed Mexico with Iran as a possible top challenge for President Obama.
And former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said this month that Mexico could turn into a surprise crisis for the new president by year's end.
But the newspaper noted that Mexican officials and some analysts dispute such alarmism. "'It's a very bad analysis,' said Raul Benitez, an expert on security and US-Mexico relations at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. 'Mexico has some failed institutions inside the government, but not the whole state.'"
In a letter to the El Paso Times published Sunday, Mexico's ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, rejected the notion that Mexico might be on the verge of collapse, saying that was "plainly preposterous."
The violence unleashed by trafficking organizations in response to President Calderón's effort to shut them down cannot be denied. [But if] one considers the criteria that could lead to a "sudden collapse" – loss of territorial control; inability to provide public services; refugees and internally displaced people; criminalization of the state; sharp economic decline; and incapacity to interact as a full number of the international community -- it is obvious that Mexico simply doesn't fit the pattern.
Filipina activist boosts overseas workers
Connie Regalado prods officials to do more for workers hit hard by the global financial crisis.
By Jonathan Adams
The Christian Science Monitor
January 26, 2009
Quezon City, Philippines -- In her office in this hectic part of metro Manila, Connie Regalado paints signs for a rally the following day. Her latest cause: calling on the government to do more for overseas Filipino workers who are losing their jobs due to the global economic slump.
A couple days earlier, she and other activists went to the airport to pick up 82 such workers, who flew from Taiwan at their own expense. They'd been axed from semiconductor-factory and other low-end jobs, victims of downsizing. The government was also at the airport, boasting of "one-stop shop" services for the workers, inviting them to the presidential palace, even offering them an appearance on a TV game show.
Ms. Regalado wasn't impressed. "It's a sham," said Regalado. "The 'one-stop shop' services aren't even palliative measures. There's no comprehensive plan to address the problem."
That no-nonsense approach has guided Regalado over nearly two decades of activism. Cynical yet committed to social justice, Regalado has dedicated much of her adult career to improving the working conditions, political voice, and basic rights of overseas Filipino workers.
Such workers make up more than 10 percent of the country's 96 million population, with 4 million Filipinos on contracts abroad, another 4 million with immigrant status, and more than 2 million more working undocumented in the United States, Malaysia, and elsewhere, according to Regalado. Last year these workers remitted some $15 billion to the Philippines – about 10 percent of the country's total economic output.
Filipinos go abroad in such great numbers out of necessity. Men leave wives and children behind to take construction work in the Middle East or join fishing-boat crews. Women leave behind husbands and children to work as maids in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan.
Regalado has been there. In 1983, she was a maid for two years in Singapore. In 1991, she left two children with her parents to become a domestic worker in Hong Kong. There she saw how exploitative bosses and unfair government polices push such workers around.
In Hong Kong, they fought back. Regalado and others blocked the government – three times – from cutting domestic workers' pay, which was already at minimum wage. They also persuaded the Filipino consulate to provide services on Sundays, the only day off for many domestic workers. They stopped a proposal that would have allowed an employer to fire a foreign maid if she got pregnant.
Regalado has been a key player in effecting much more far-reaching change. When she first went to work in Singapore and Hong Kong, overseas Filipino workers had no voting rights.
That changed in 2003, thanks to the activism of Regalado and others, with the passage of the Overseas Voting Act. For the 2004 elections, activists also organized the Migrante Sectoral Party and tapped Regalado as its chairwoman. In elections the following year, the results – in terms of the law and the party – were disappointing. Only 370,000 overseas Filipino workers registered to vote, with just over half of those voting. Regalado's party failed to win a seat.
But passing a law was just the beginning, she says. Now they need to push the government to better implement it. They need to make it easier for Filipinos abroad to register and cast their ballots. She cited the example of a Filipino construction worker in Saudi Arabia, who now must take leave and travel 500 miles to register to vote.
She's optimistic, too, about her party. Regalado's eyes brighten when she talks about expanding its base. Finally, she says, once-disenfranchised migrant workers have their own political voice.
"For a long time, politicians pretended to bring our voice inside Congress," she says. "Even if we didn't win one seat [in 2004], it was a breakthrough for us to be recognized as the one, legitimate group that can fight for the issues of migrant workers."
Her party will have another shot in 2010. In the meantime, Regalado wants to amend the basic law on overseas workers' rights. Another issue: services for overseas workers are currently paid for by a 10 billion peso ($205 million) fund, consisting of $25 payments from overseas workers, which they are charged when they sign a contract. Regalado says the funds should come from the government. "We don't have any illusions that legislation is a solution to these problems," she says. "But it can give temporary relief to migrant workers."
Regalado cut her teeth in student activism at university in Cebu, organizing and attending rallies and study sessions before Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972. Later she was a government social worker in Mindanao, but quit in frustration after witnessing corruption from "the top down to the bottom."
Instead, Regalado organized female laborers at the Dole Pineapple plantation. That experience carried over easily to Hong Kong, where her work began as outreach through the Roman Catholic church. In Hong Kong, too, she wasn't afraid to work, at times, from inside the system. She accepted a three-year term representing Filipinos on Hong Kong's Committee on the Promotion of Racial Harmony from 2002 to 2004.
Still, she seems most comfortable in an outsider's role, calling governments to account in her soft, measured voice. At present, she's focused on laid-off workers. Her group estimates some 1 million overseas Filipinos will lose their jobs in 2009 and 2010. In Taiwan alone, some 11,550 will likely be dismissed this year.
When laid-off workers at the airport asked her if they should play along with the government, Regalado's response was telling. "I said, 'I think it's good. Go, and list down their promises, and then later we can go to them and say, "Where are your promises now?" 'And we can expose their commitment."
Charter 08 — A 'Universal Idea'
by Jonathan Adams, FEER.com, February 6, 2009
Published online in early December 2008, "Charter 08" is a blistering indictment of Chinese Communist Party rule. It lays out a bold, detailed vision of a new China: one with the rule of law, multiparty elections, and the separation of powers.
One of the drafters, Liu Xiaobo, remains in Chinese police custody, facing charges of "inciting subversion" or worse. The police have questioned and warned at least dozens of Charter signers, muzzled state media, and blocked Web sites mentioning the Charter.
By now, the initial buzz about Charter 08 has died down, but some commentary continues. In two recent entries, Roland Soong at the widely-read EastSouthWestNorth blog (read here and here) dismissed the charter as holding little interest for most Chinese. (He quoted from an article I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor.) Rebecca MacKinnon also had a long essay on Charter 08 at her Web site.
I talked to Zhang Zuhua, one of the drafters of Charter 08, in Beijing last Dec. 26. In that interview, he made clear that Charter 08 was intended only as a political blueprint, and that reform could take decades, even generations. "We don't expect this change overnight," he said.
Mr. Zhang himself is a lesson in the rapid reversals possible within one lifetime in China. A 53-year-old Beijing native, he was "sent down" with other privileged youth to the countryside for "re-education" during the Cultural Revolution. He ended up making missile parts in a cave in Sichuan Province for eight years.
With the end of the Cultural Revolution's madness, he was part of the first generation to return to school. He studied at Sichuan Normal University, where he focused on Western constitutionalism. Later he rose through the ranks in the Communist Party Youth League, where he worked in the 1980s with Li Keqiang—now vice premier.
Mr. Zhang's own political career ended when he spoke out in support of the Tiananmen Square protests. He's been under off-and-on surveillance ever since. Most recently, police interrogated him for 12 hours on Dec. 8, 2008, over his involvement in Charter 08.
Here, in his own words, are his thoughts on Charter 08 and China's future. (The transcript has been edited and rearranged for readability.)
Jonathan Adams: Some critics say the ideas in Charter 08 are "Western" ideas, that China is in a special situation and so these ideas don't apply.
Zhang Zuhua: First of all, we have a very moderate attitude to such comments and critics. We welcome people to comment on this Charter, and we can learn from them.
I'm one of the charter's main drafters. When the police questioned me, I acknowledged that most of the ideas are Western ideas. The ideas of the charter come not only from the U.S. Bill of Rights, but also from the 1215 reforms in England [the Magna Carta], from the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and from the Czech Charter 77 [a 1977 call for political reform by Czech activists during the days of Communist rule].
But we also have a "native" (bentu) inspiration: that is, Taiwan. Before 1986, there were also many activists, people fighting for democracy and human rights in Taiwan, and publishing calls for those things. [Taiwan began democratizing in the late 1980s].
JA: Many Chinese say that China needs stability most of all, that it must focus on economic growth, and political reform can wait.
ZZ: Personally, I agree with this. China should take time to develop. [This] year will be the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. And so we hope China can move toward democracy and the rule of law with a very low cost. I hope China can accomplish this transition in a peaceful and nonviolent way.
JA: What will be needed for China to change?
ZZ: In my writings, I use a method of analyzing called "three plus one" analysis. Looking at all of the factors affecting China's future, I came up with three political elements and one economic. The political ones are the ruling party, civil society and international society.
The CCP is the ruling party and its choices about the future are obviously very important to Chinese society. However, the efforts of the ruling party are not enough. Without the participation of civil society and international society, it will be difficult to lead China down the right path.
JA: How soon do you think change can happen?
ZZ: I think it wouldn't be so difficult to accomplish a change in the [political] system, if the four factors that I mentioned are all ready. So I think in the next decade or two, this kind of change can be accomplished. However, consolidating and perfecting democracy—that will take a long time. Maybe it will require the efforts of several generations. So we don't expect to achieve this change overnight.
JA: Analysts I've spoken to say the Chinese government worries foreign influence is behind Charter 08—that foreign elements want to destabilize China from within.
ZZ: Personally, I don't agree with the opinion which rejects interference from other countries. I think this runs against the global trend of civil society. In Charter 08, we adopt a universal idea shared with the entire human race. It's not American, it's not European, it's not African. It works for all human beings. However, the CCP disagrees with this universal idea and criticizes it. That's our difference with them.
JA: What kind of response have you personally received to Charter 08?
ZZ: When we drafted Charter 08 we were concerned that it was only for elites, that it wouldn't be accepted by the common people. However, according to the response on the Internet, that's not the case. A lot of people, including peasants and workers, agree with Charter 08, and it's popular among more and more people.
Charter 08 calls for an independent judiciary and abolishing inequality. Ordinary people approve of all of these suggestions.
Actually, one of the most important suggestions in Charter 08 is to abolish the unfair principle of discrimination against peasants—or to abolish the difference between urban and rural residents, because many peasants are treated unfairly. I've received a lot of phone calls from peasants who advocate this proposal.
JA: What else explains the Charter's broad appeal?
ZZ: I think this Charter articulated what many Chinese people want to say. It's very rational and very constructive. First, a lot of people don't dare to speak out. Second, there's no place for them to speak out, because no media will publish them. And third, the first 303 people who signed the charter were very famous scholars.
For example, the first one to sign was Yu Haocheng [a prominent advocate of constitutional change]. Second was Zhang Sizhi [one of China's most famous lawyers]. And third was Mao Yushi [a very respected economist], and then He Weifang [a prominent advocate of legal reform in China].
And of course, they [the government] put people in jail—that attracts more attention.
JA: To what extent was the government's reaction to Charter 08 related to the upcoming anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown?
ZZ: The government has acknowledged that publicly. They have two concerns. One is the 1989 anniversary. The other is that the economy is very bad now—they're afraid of the chaos and problems caused by unemployment. … Actually, when the police interrogated me, they mentioned that high levels of the central government are really concerned about [this] year, because the situation may become quite serious.
JA: How important was the role of technology in distributing Charter 08?
ZZ: Thirty-one years ago, in the era of Charter 77, there was no Internet, so it was difficult to spread the document. Yesterday, I "Googled" Charter 08. Right now there are already more than 300,000 links about Charter 08. A lot of young people use blogs or QQ [referring to popular instant message software in China] groups to make friends, and they've also spread this new Charter. The English version of Charter 08 was spread rapidly. So thanks to the Internet, it's impossible to block information from society now.
JA: What is your situation now? Are you under surveillance, have you been questioned recently by police?
ZZ: Since Dec. 9, they haven't harassed me directly. However they [Chinese police] have people guarding our [his family's] building, and they've bugged my home phone and cell phone. They cut the home line from 11 p.m. to 9 a.m. I was joking that I will protest, because that means they aren't very professional—they don't work very hard at night, because they want to rest.
JA: How worried are you that you'll be sent to jail?
ZZ: I'm not concerned, but my family and wife are. When I started to work on this project, I predicted that the government would react like this, that I might be detained. So I was mentally prepared. When the police questioned me, they also said that this wasn't over, that they would investigate further and maybe talk to me again. So I'm facing the risk of being detained again.
JA: Why are you willing to speak out?
ZZ: When I was in the police station, I told the police, "In every country, the situation is the same. The people who stand up and fight for human rights and freedom—they're the ones who lose those things first. They have to pay the price for other people's democracy and freedom."
I really don't want to be jailed, but I may have no choice. The system [of CCP rule] is like this—it doesn't allow people to oppose them, to disagree with the system. So we have to stand up and fight for democracy—it's our responsibility.
Faced with economic crisis, Taiwan looks to its consumers for help.
By Jonathan Adams, Global Post, January 21, 2009
ZHONGHE, Taiwan — Wei Chi-chang served me a plate of fried worms, then showed off the vouchers he'd received from other customers.
The Taiwan government passed out NT$3,600 (US$108) in consumer vouchers to each citizen on Sunday, in a bid to jump-start the island's economy. A few used theirs immediately at Wei's restaurant, here in a gritty Taipei suburb. For Wei and other shop owners, the coupons are a helpful boost in tough times.
"I've already received over NT$2,000 (US$60) from customers today," said Wei.
The global economic slump has hit Asian economies hard. Countries like Taiwan are especially vulnerable, since their economies rely heavily on exports.
Taiwanese firms ship much of those goods to the U.S., either directly or via factories in China. So when American consumers get stingy, Taiwan suffers. Exports fell a stunning 42 percent year-on-year in December, and the island's GDP growth slowed to about 1.9 percent in 2008 from 5.7 percent in 2007, according to government statistics.
Like most other countries, Taiwan is fighting back with a range of stimulus measures. It's jacking up government spending to give the economy a jolt. The government has proposed a massive NT$858.5 billion (US$25.7 billion), four-year spending plan, including US$15 billion on infrastructure projects, and US$6 billion to create more competitive industries.
And it's giving money directly back to Taiwanese consumers, with the vouchers — in total, a US$2.6 billion handout.
The bonanza sparked a national frenzy starting Sunday morning, when voucher distribution began at schools and other stations around the island.
Taiwanese lined up in droves to get their "red envelope." In traditional Chinese culture, gift money is given in bright red envelopes at weddings, holidays and other special occasions. So the government, naturally, did the same with its consumer vouchers.
Taiwan's many cable TV stations ran nonstop coverage of "Voucher Day." They followed the president and premier as the two spent some of their coupons at a restaurant and flower market, respectively. TV anchors breathlessly listed all the goodies — apartments, cars, gold, even a year's stay on a deserted island — that local governments are raffling off to entice customers.
One man became a media focus when he started spitting blood while waiting in line for his vouchers ("I drank too much with friends yesterday," he explained to TV reporters from his hospital bed.) Others got cranky waiting in long lines.
Back in Zhonghe, Wei, 36, said business had slumped at his Yunnan- and Thai-style restaurant. "Before, most of my customers used to come in two or three times a week," he said. "Now, it's maybe a couple times a month, because the economy's bad. There's a big difference."
He said he'll spend his own vouchers on a flat-screen computer monitor for his two children. As he talked, a voice boomed over loudspeakers at a nearby school where they were distributing the coupons: "There's not much time left to pick up your vouchers, so please come get them soon, thank you."
At the voucher collection point in my own university neighborhood, some said the scheme wouldn't address the roots of Taiwan's economic ills. "It's like taking an aspirin for a headache," said 38-year-old Mr. Lo, who works in the IT industry. "I don't think it's a good solution. The government should create a better business environment — like Singapore."
Another man who declined to be named said the amount was disappointing. "It's small potatoes," he said, using a favorite English phrase of educated Taiwanese. "Maybe we'll buy some candy," he said with a laugh, as his wife smiled beside him.
But Norman Yin, a professor of finance at National Chengchi University, said the small amount might actually help the voucher scheme work. That's because Taiwanese will be more likely to spend then sock away such a pittance in bank accounts. He said similar voucher schemes in Japan in the early 1990s and last year, and cash handouts in Macau and Singapore last year, failed because people saved instead of spending.
Yin said the response to the policy so far was encouraging. The voucher scheme should add even more than US$2.6 billion to GDP, due to the multiplier effect (money getting spent over and over as it races through the economy). But he said it would take two or three months to see if the scheme would continue to spur consumption, and so lead to more manufacturing and hiring.
"It's a short-term measure, and we don't know how long it [the effects] will last," said Yin.
Standing by a stroller holding his two infant daughters at one voucher station, Eric Lai, 34, said he and his wife will spend their vouchers on diapers and other household goods.
Lai said the vouchers can help Taiwanese forget about the island's constant political feuding. "It's good for Taiwan to put our focus on economics, not just politics," Lai said.
The relief brought by the vouchers may prove temporary. But in an economy with a serious migraine, that's welcome all the same.
World welcomes Obama with (mostly) open arms
By Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor
January 21, 2009
Global reaction to Barack Obama’s inauguration yesterday brimmed with optimism, though many cautioned that the new US president faces huge challenges – and vaulting expectations that will be hard to meet.
In an editorial titled “Let change be contagious,” The Japan Times urged Tokyo to seize the chance to change a policy of “blindly following” its US ally, especially in the fight against terrorism.
With a new president at the U.S. helm, it is important that Japan shed its habit of passively following the course set by Washington….
If Japan merely obeys the will of the U.S. and ignores its own principles, it will not only arouse suspicion among neighboring countries but also invite disrespect from the U.S.
In the fishing village of Obama, Japan, a group of self-styled “Obama girls” performed a hula dance in honor of the president’s state of birth, Hawaii, Agence France-Presse reported.
In China, Reuters and others reported that state-run TV station CCTV censored references to communism and dissent in its simultaneous translation of Mr. Obama’s inauguration speech.
In an editorial in the China Daily, Yuan Peng wrote that Obama’s administration and China “should make joint efforts to prevent potential problems from hijacking bilateral ties.”
Yuan wrote that the two nations would face “thorny” economic issues and warned of possible trouble due to the US Democratic Party’s close ties with the Tibetan leader-in-exile, the Dalai Lama, and because of US arms sales to Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a wayward province. “On the Tibet issue and the Taiwan question, the US should avoid intervention in China’s internal affairs,” Yuan wrote.
In an editorial titled “Morning, Mr. President,” The Times of India noted the “enormous” challenges Obama faces, and urged him to shift the US military focus away from Iraq. “One war needs to be wound down responsibly while America’s attention has to shift to the real battleground in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
In Iran, the Los Angeles Times quoted an aide to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying the Iranian president “planned to ignore televised coverage of the inauguration,” due to Israel’s invasion of Gaza.
“The tragedy in Gaza made him so upset and he is so preoccupied with Gazans’ problems that he does not feel like being glued to the television,” the advisor told The Times, speaking on condition of anonymity.
On Friday, Ahmadinejad called the Obama team “hostile” toward Gazans.
In Gaza itself, Agence France-Presse quoted a Gazan woman dismissing Obama’s message of change.
“Obama won’t bring my husband back to life,” the Gazan woman, whose husband was killed during Israel’s bloody offensive on the Palestinian territory, told Agence France Presse (AFP)….
Khalil, who lost her husband when Israeli bombs fell on a school in north Gaza, says the new American leader will not bring her back what she has lost.
“He was martyred and left me with six children to feed on my own,” Khalil, 42, said of her late husband. “Obama won’t repair our house that was damaged in the raids.”
Reuters reported that many Arabs and Muslims who watched Obama’s inauguration speech were hopeful that he would take a new approach to the Muslim world, though many said they would be fully convinced by his actions, not his words.
With some exceptions on the fringes, a clear majority said they welcomed a new tone from Obama, who promised relations based on mutual interest and mutual respect.
“This is a speech that reflected a new spirit of dialogue, reaching out and working together. This is a new direction that is certainly not what the Bush administration has been pursuing,” said former Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher.
Writing in The Moscow Times, Fyodor Lukyanov warned that US-Russia relations will remain tense under Obama, due to the new US president’s likely commitment to further NATO expansion, and his choice of Hillary Clinton as secretary of State.
The Clinton name brings up direct associations with the 1990s, a period Russian propaganda views as a black hole from which Moscow miraculously escaped. On the other hand, those in former President Bill Clinton’s administration who were responsible for dealing with Russia cannot but help to experience an unpleasant aftertaste now.
The clash of those two opposing perceptions of the same events — one Russian and the other American — does not bode well for creating a climate of trust.
A 17-nation poll conducted for BBC found a high level of optimism that relations between the US and the rest of the world will improve under Obama, with 67 percent of those polled saying Obama would strengthen international relations.
Europe was the most optimistic, with almost 80 percent of respondents in Italy and Germany saying Obama would improve US foreign relations. Only two countries polled – Japan and Russia – had less than a majority share the general optimism.
In France, newspaper Le Monde quoted former presidential candidate and Socialist Party leader Ségolène Royal claiming that “I inspired Obama, and his team copied us.”
In an opinion piece in the same paper, a writer identified as historian “Pascal P” argued that “saying his [Obama’s] election is historic because of the color of his skin is itself simply racist.”
When will we learn from our mistakes? It’s time to move past the question of the color of one’s skin, and to judge people based on their abilities alone, not on their outward appearance.
In Belgium, a cartoonist complained that Obama’s good looks made him a far less enticing target for caricature than George Bush, Reuters reported.
“It’s never a gift for a caricaturist to draw a handsome man,” said Pierre Kroll, from Belgium, which prides itself on its comic book culture including Tintin.
“Somehow, we prefer overweight people, people with a beard, huge noses, ridiculous glasses … If caricaturists could elect presidents, we would choose people with faces we enjoy drawing, and not a playboy like him,” said Kroll.
The Spanish newspaper El Pais posted an interactive online guide to the new Obama administration.
In Brazil, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva over the weekend said he hoped Obama would talk to the leaders of Venezuela and Bolivia, who both had tension with the Bush administration, according to The Independent.
Mr da Silva said: “I see the fact that the American public voted in a black man as president… as an extraordinary sign, and I think that Obama must transfer this gesture of the American people into a sign of transcendence of American policy towards Latin America, respecting our sovereignty, our democracies.”
In a commentary in Canada’s Financial Post titled “More Bush than FDR,” Terence Corcoran noted that the themes in Obama’s inaugural “held close to themes that have dominated presidential inaugurals for many years – themes that reflect a lot more of George W. Bush than the legend of FDR … the long line of liberals and progressives who think the new president will usher in a New New Deal may well be in for disappointment.”
The website The Moderate Voice ran a sampling of cartoons about Obama from Canada, Sweden, and China.
A cartoon in The Times (of London) shows Obama in Superman garb lifting the entire globe out of a dark “Slough of Despond,” with the caption below asking, “Are we expecting too much?”
Cartoonist “Matt” in the Telegraph depicts a man with a briefcase telling his wife, as she holds a newspaper with the word “Obama” on the front page: “Right, that’s enough hope, I’m off to work.”
Ugandan rebels wage vicious attacks in Democratic Republic of Congo
In a separate conflict, Congolese rebels declare a cease-fire and plan to join government forces.
By Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor
Terrorism and Security Update
January 19, 2009
Ugandan rebels have massacred hundreds of villagers in the past month, blazing a trail of terror through neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, a major human rights watchdog said in a press release Friday.
Meanwhile, officials over the weekend hailed progress toward peace in a separate conflict in Congo (formerly Zaire), after several ethnic Tutsi rebel officers agreed to a cease-fire.
Human Rights Watch reported that the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a vicious group that abducts and employs child soldiers in its long-running fight against the Ugandan government, committed atrocities against civilians while fleeing Ugandan-led military assaults last month, according to Reuters.
The LRA has hacked, beaten to death or burnt alive at least 620 villagers in Democratic Republic of Congo amid a struggling multinational offensive against the rebel group, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Uganda's army, with the backing of Congolese and South Sudanese troops, launched assaults on LRA bases in northern Congo on December 14, aiming to crush the rebels and capture their leader, self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Kony.
Agence France-Presse quoted one Human Rights Watch official who underscored the barbarity of the LRA's attacks.
"The LRA went in intending to kill and they left few survivors," Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher at the New York-based rights group said in a statement received Sunday.
The assessment came after researchers from HRW and Congolese rights group Justice Plus conducted a two-week mission in DR Congo, collecting lists of people killed or abducted between December 24 and January 13.
A Human Rights Watch press release documents in chilling detail atrocities committed by the LRA, as described by witnesses and survivors.
According to the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based think tank, the Lord's Resistance Army has been active in northern Uganda since the mid-1980s.
Kony uses a combination of fear and mysticism to maintain control over the LRA and sustain the conflict in northern Uganda.
The LRA is mostly made up of children between the ages of 11 and 15. Half of these are porters and sex slaves who would leave if they could, but do not for fear of being captured by the LRA and killed, or because they simply have nowhere to go.
In a separate conflict in Congo, hopes for peace were raised when officers of the main ethnic Tutsi rebel group, the National Congress for the Defense of the People, declared a cease-fire in their fight against a progovernment militia, and said the group would now join government forces.
The BBC reported that several Tutsi rebel officers had gone over to the other side, a move that will isolate the remaining Tutsi rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda.
The breakaway faction of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) said its fighters would join the Congolese army.
The move is expected to increase pressure on CNDP leader Laurent Nkunda to declare a full ceasefire....
Gen Nkunda says he is fighting to protect his Tutsi community from attacks by Rwandan Hutu rebels based in DR Congo, some of whom are accused of taking part in the 1994 genocide.
Reuters reported officials praising the latest developments.
A pledge by Congolese Tutsi rebels to abandon their four-year insurgency marks a major step towards ending more than a decade of conflict in the war-ravaged east, Congo's government and foreign diplomats said on Saturday....
"For the government, this is a very good thing that renders the evolution towards peace more real. This is a significant advance," Information Minister Lambert Mende told Reuters.
Xinhua reported that the Congolese government would open a center in the eastern province of North Kivu to help Tutsi rebels reintegrate into the national army.
The agency reported that the effect of the announced cease-fire was rapid:
Barriers were being removed in an area 40 km away from the provincial capital of Goma, where Ntaganda's generals announced an end to hostilities on Friday.
Goma is relieved of pressure with the dissident CNDP fighters and a pro-government militia burying the axe. The militia, known by its French acronym PARECO, said they saw no reason for continued fighting with Ntaganda's men.
Both factions have agreed to be reincorporated into the government army FARDC.
As recently as last November, the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in an analysis that "an escalation of violence in the east has raised concerns that the Congolese government could fall, with serious repercussions possible for countries throughout central Africa."
With the latest cease-fire, that possibility now looks more remote. The Congolese military will now be able to focus its efforts on the Rwandan-backed Hutu militia, the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (known by the French acronym FDLR).
According to GlobalSecurity.org, that group includes Hutu extremists from Rwanda who were involved in the 1994 genocide against minority Tutsis, and later fled Rwanda.