Archive for 11/07/2019

’42 die in fire’ in Thailand refugee camp

The toll from a blaze that swept through a camp in northern Thailand has risen to 42, a Thai official said, after hundreds of temporary homes for refugees from Myanmar were reduced to ashes.

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Dozens of people were injured in the fire, which broke out on Friday at the Mae Surin camp in Mae Hong Son province, with women, children and the elderly believed to make up the majority of the victims.

Rescue workers were on the scene at the remote mountainous camp area, Mae Hong Son provincial governor Narumol Paravat told AFP by telephone.

“The latest death toll we can confirm through military walkie-talkies is 42,” she said, adding the toll was likely to rise further as rescue workers search the area.

Authorities believe the fire was sparked by an unattended cooking flame.

A local district official said hot weather, combined with strong winds caused the fire to spread quickly among the thatched bamboo shelters.

Police on Saturday said around 400 temporary homes had been incinerated, while the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Bureau said a school, clinic and two food warehouses had also been destroyed.

The Thai government pledged an investigation into the fire at the camp, which houses roughly 3,700 refugees.

Ten camps strung out along the Thai-Myanmar border house a total of about 130,000 people, who first began arriving in the 1980s.

Many of the refugees have fled conflict zones in ethnic areas of Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Families often live cheek-by-jowl in simple bamboo-and-thatch dwellings.

Many of the camp residents have been registered with the UN as refugees, and an ongoing resettlement programme has allowed tens of thousands to move to third countries.

After a new quasi-civilian government replaced the long-ruling junta in Myanmar two years ago, Thailand announced it wanted to shut the border camps, raising concern among their residents.

But so far the displaced residents have been allowed to stay and the Thai government has stressed that it will only send them back when it is safe.

Many of the refugees are from Myanmar’s eastern Karen state, where a major rebel group, the Karen National Union (KNU) signed a ceasefire deal with the new regime last year after decades of civil war.

Vast numbers of people fled the former Myanmar junta’s counter-insurgency campaign, which rights groups say deliberately targeted civilians, driving them from their homes, destroying villages and forcing them to work for the army.

Years of war have left the Karen region littered with landmines while development has been held back, leaving dilapidated infrastructure and threadbare education and health services.

Hundreds of homes were destroyed at a different border camp in February last year by a fire that the authorities also blamed on cooking.

Pakistan remembers Benazir Bhutto’s murder

Vast crowds have gathered to mark the fifth anniversary of the assassination of former Pakistan premier Benazir Bhutto and to witness her son launch his political career.

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More than 200,000 people were at the Bhutto mausoleum in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh in the southern province of Sindh to pay their respects and to hear Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of Benazir and President Asif Ali Zardari, make his first major public speech.

Bhutto, twice elected prime minister, was killed in a gun and suicide attack after an election rally in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of Pakistan’s army, on December 27, 2007.

No one has ever been convicted of her murder. Security was tight around a huge stage, adorned with the tricolour of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), where Oxford-educated Bilawal will speak. Police said more than 15,000 officers had been deployed, as well as about 500 government paramilitary forces.

The Bhutto family has been a force in Pakistani politics for almost all of the country’s 65-year history.

Benazir’s father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who founded the PPP, led the country from 1971 until he was ousted in a military coup in 1977.

He was hanged in 1979 after being convicted of authorising the murder of a political opponent.

Bilawal was 19 when his mother was killed, and his spokesman Aijaz Durrani said Thursday’s anniversary would mark a new chapter in Pakistan’s political history.

“A new Bhutto is emerging today in the shape of Bilawal who has (the) vision of his mother and grandfather,” he told AFP. As head of state, President Zardari is barred from leading the PPP election campaign. He is also hugely unpopular, tainted by years of corruption allegations.

A general election is due early in 2013 and though 24-year-old Bilawal is too young to stand, political analyst Hasan Askari said he could be the new figurehead for the PPP campaign.

Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf said the country should “shun prejudices and maintain unity” to pay homage to Benazir.

“Let us resolve to defeat the forces of extremism and terrorism and work for the progress and prosperity of the country,” he said in a statement. Bilawal, in May, accused former military ruler Pervez Musharraf of “murdering” his mother by deliberately sabotaging her security.

A UN report in 2010 also said the murder could have been prevented and accused Musharraf’s government of failing to protect Bhutto.

The Musharraf regime blamed the assassination on Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who denied any involvement and was killed in a US drone attack in August 2009. There has been a surge in terror attacks in Pakistan in recent weeks.

Brigadier Saad Khan warned the Taliban may continue their campaign with an attack on events marking the anniversary. AFP lhh

Comment: French intervention won’t fix the mess in Mali

By Binoy Kampmark, RMIT University

The French government has announced it will triple its troop deployment to the conflict-plagued state of Mali.

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On Monday, France’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gerard Araud, explained that France had received UN Security Council approval to intervene. An aerial campaign on Thursday commenced at the request of Mali’s government, targeting al Qaeda-linked rebels marching on the capital, Bamako.

Echoes of Libya

The fear from France and its allies is that Islamist group al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, shortened to Aqim, poses a grave threat, through its efforts to create what would amount to a Taliban-style regime in Mali.

The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn has pointed out that this action resembles the “protective” intervention by the French against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi two years ago. For this reason, the implications of UN Resolution 2085, which charts the legal boundaries of military assistance designed to restore Mali’s government, are dangerously unclear.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sees the move as limited and controlled. He said the intervention was only taking place to restore “Mali’s constitutional order and territorial integrity”.

Afghanistan in Africa

The political and cultural activities of the seemingly eclectic mishmash of Islamic groups in Mali have been vicious. Music has been banned in some areas, something seemingly unthinkable in the country, which has produced such world-renowned acts as Salif Keita. Islamists have also engaged in that all too familiar pattern of destroying Sufi shrines such as those in Timbuktu. There is little doubt that Mali is fast becoming another Afghan experiment in militant Islamist nation building (or sheer deconstruction).

The clay-mosques in Timbuktu have been attacked. EPA/Ulrike Koltermann

Look for fundamentalists, and you will find them. The born-again Salafist Iyad Ag Ghaly, leader of the Islamist movement Ansar-ud-Deen, exemplifies this. Long gone is the man who used to smoke and keep company with the musicians from Tinariwen. As the director of the Festival in the Desert Manny Ansar explains, “He believes in what he’s doing. And that’s what frightens me”.

The musicians have gone underground. Last year, on August 22, the city of Gao received a governing decree banning all Western music.

Andy Morgan, writing for The Guardian, noted one striking example of this in the Malian desert town of Kidal in October last year. Seven militia men sporting AK47s were on the search of a local musician. He was not found, but the message to his sister was unmistakable:

If you speak to him, tell him that if he ever shows his face in this town again, we’ll cut off all the fingers he uses to play his guitar with.

The other side of the experiment is less the matter of Allah and more the issue of money and basic greed. Power and finance come before the establishment of caliphates for some of the vying groups. That side of the equation is neglected in the Western security debate.

The intervention, however, is not premised on cultural salvation but political order. If Mali falls to Islamism, a haven will be established though it’s bound to be confused and bloody. And what will come of that is anybody’s guess. The US support for the French is premised on the simple basis that Islamic “terrorists” are involved, plain and simple. “We share the French goal of denying terrorists a safe haven,” US State Department Official Victoria Nuland explained.

An intractable problem

Mali, to put it bluntly, is in a mess. Such messes, when they take place in former colonial bastions – notably those with strong historical ties to powers such as France – invite more than a spectator’s interest. That interest tends to come in the form of guns and material when the “natives” misbehave.

With their current resources, a conquest of Mali from either Aqim or ethnic separatist group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) is highly unlikely. Neither group is friendly with each other, with Ansar-ud-Deen keen to muscle past the nationalist MNLA with the help of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao).

So, we are back to the usual debates about international intervention – to curb an untested, unclear threat, with motives that are themselves historical, ill-directed and disingenuous.

We can dismiss the altruistic motive from the start, despite the icing of UN legalism. The Mali conflict, fought by its various players, is based on a bloody challenge for control, and no side, at this point, looks likely to gain ascendancy.

Binoy Kampmark does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Comment: Too much, too young for Italy’s Five-Star Movement?

By Duncan McDonnell

“Paris is worth a mass”, replied my friend, citing Henry IV’s probably apocryphal comment on his conversion to Catholicism in order to break the religious impasse in sixteenth-century France.

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She was explaining her decision, despite reservations, to support Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement (M5S) in Italy’s election two weeks ago. The point, she stressed, was that voting for the M5S was worth it in order to mark “a complete break with the mainstream parties”. Sending that message was the important thing.

Almost nine million Italians voted for the Five-Star Movement. More than anyone – pundits, mainstream politicians and probably even Grillo himself – expected.

To put it into context: we still talk about the performance of Silvio Berlusconi’s new party, Forza Italia, in the 1994 general election. Forza Italia got 21% of the vote that time. The M5S took 25.6% in 2013. It is the best new party result in a general election in Western Europe, excluding “repackaged” or merged parties, or the first rounds of democratic elections when all parties are new.

The M5S is now Italy’s largest party in terms of vote share. Only the fact that the two main parties were in centre-left and centre-right alliances prevented it claiming the majority seat bonus (awarded to the largest coalition) in the chamber.

This instead went to the centre-left which, although frittering away a seemingly unassailable lead during the campaign, still finished 0.3% ahead of Berlusconi’s centre-right.

But in the senate (which uses a different electoral system), there is a logjam since the centre-left lacks the numbers to govern. So the M5S now finds itself under pressure from many in Italy’s media and elites to strike an accord with the centre-left so a government can be formed.

Party vote shares in the Chamber of Deputies. Parties in a coalition are the same colour. Data based on that provided by the Ministero dell’Interno. It does not include the ‘Italians abroad’ and Valle D’Aosta constituencies. Duncan McDonnell

For this, and many other reasons, the M5S is between a rock and a hard place. It is a victim, to some extent, of its own success.

First, it suddenly has to contend with 163 new MPs, not one of whom has served even a day on a town council. That’s a big ask of a movement which was only founded in late 2009 and eschews the normal structures of political parties. Imposing discipline both inside and outside parliament will be extremely difficult.

To take just one example: the M5S prohibits its representatives from speaking, unauthorised, to the media. Good luck with that when the new faces find themselves running a gauntlet of tempting microphones and cameras every day in Rome.

Second, the movement in its parliamentary votes will have to balance the diversity of ideologies among both its new representatives and its supporters. If you read the M5S programme and listen to Grillo’s speeches, you find something for everyone – from environmental protection, to universal unemployment benefit, to the ending of monopolies, to reform of the political system and the state. The Movement claims to be “beyond left and right”, but there are clear differences in this respect among its activists and voters.

In a survey conducted with the think-tank Demos of almost 2000 Grillo and M5S Facebook fans last August, we asked respondents to position themselves on a political spectrum ranging from 1 to 10, with 1 being furthest left and 10 furthest right.

The average score for respondents was 3.88, indicating they are generally left of centre. However, it is also clear both from our study and post-election analyses that the M5S is fishing among discontented citizens of right, left and centre. These range from former voters of the northern regionalist Lega Nord to ex-Berlusconi supporters in the South to left-wingers in the “red zones” of central Italy and elsewhere. Convincing all these to come on board in a campaign is one thing. Keeping them there while voting in parliament on the bread-and-butter issues that divide right and left is quite another.

All the above is exacerbated by the calls now for the M5S to support a centre-left administration in order to prevent the country undergoing a second general election or the installation of another technocratic executive (a solution which would extend the suspension of party government in place since November 2011).

However, this would be a bitter and damaging pill to swallow for a movement, whose principal unifying message to supporters and voters – like my friend – is its rejection of the mainstream political class in its entirety.

The irony of course is that, had the M5S not taken quite so many votes from those mainstream parties, it would now be focused solely on settling into a parliamentary opposition role and acclimatizing to institutional life. Instead, it is having to justify its refusal to help provide the country with a governing majority. Sudden and enormous success brings sudden and enormous challenges.

Or, to put it another way: sometimes, a little bit less really can be more.

Duncan McDonnell does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Vietnam escapees sorry, Qld court hears

Father-of-two Tuan Quoc Vu feared he would be detained indefinitely by police for taking part in a protest in Vietnam.

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But to his wife’s relief he was released after 40 days behind bars.

Fearing he’d again be arrested, he decided to board a boat destined for Australia with other asylum seekers.

Earlier this year he arrived in Darwin and was transferred to the Scherger Detention Centre near the Cape York township of Weipa.

Fearing his application for asylum in Australia would be rejected, he and a group of other Vietnamese men decided to escape from the centre on May 23.

They scaled a fence and then, with the aid of helpers, drove to Weipa Airport where six of the men flew 800km southeast to Cairns.

Tipped off by a travel agent, police arrested six of the men at a popular backpackers in Cairns less than 13 hours after they escaped.

A seventh escapee was arrested at Weipa Airport.

On Tuesday six of the men pleaded guilty to one charge under the Immigration Act in the Cairns Magistrates Court.

A seventh escapee, Van Doan Dinh, was due to appear in court but it was revealed that he has again managed to flee from detention centre authorities.

The Immigration Department says Dinh escaped over the weekend, this time from Sydney’s Fairfield Hospital where he was being treated for a medical condition.

A warrant for his arrest was issued on Tuesday.

During Tuesday’s court appearance defence lawyer Kellie Walker told the court the men had fled Vietnam because they feared for their safety.

At least two of the men said they were worried they would be arrested for taking part in student protests.

Thanh Minh Le, a 32-year-old builder, said he had been persecuted because he was Catholic.

Anh Dang, a 23-year-old lumberjack, said he came to Australia because he feared he was going to be arrested by police for cutting down a tree he didn’t have permission to fell.

Dang told Ms Walker he escaped from Scherger because he had heard that applications for asylum by Vietnamese nationals were being rejected.

All of the men, except for Dang, said they didn’t want to return to Vietnam.

During sentencing Magistrate Anthony Gett acknowledged the reasons why the men had fled Vietnam and said the men were genuinely remorseful for escaping from Scherger.

However, he described their plan to escape as sophisticated.

“It is clear that there has been a level of planning in your escape,” he said.

The magistrate said most of the men knew few details about the escape plan, other than to climb the fence at Scherger during the early hours of May 23.

He released the men on 18-month good behaviour orders but they will remain at Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney.