Obama reportedly planning Myanmar visit this month

Myanmar
NEW DELHI — President Obama is considering a visit to Myanmar within the next few weeks, according to news reports Thursday, as part of his administration’s bid to bolster democracy and strengthen ties with Asian nations in the region.

Neighboring Cambodia said this week that Obama will attend an Asian summit meeting in its capital of Phnom Penh on Nov. 18. Myanmar has made security arrangements for a Nov. 18-19 presidential visit, an unnamed official in the capital of Naypyidaw told the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France Presse news services, adding that the schedule has not been finalized.

While such a visit would carry risks -– most notably by staking presidential prestige on a government still dominated by generals with a brutal past -– it dovetails with the administration’s visible support for Myanmar’s nascent democracy. It also fits with its so-called pivot strategy aimed at checking China’s influence by bolstering military and political ties with democracies on its periphery.

The timing of the visit, if it does come off, would presumably not be appreciated in Beijing as it prepares for a once-in-a-decade leadership change early next year in which Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to replace Hu Jintao as president. Analysts said little news is expected out of the summit of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, attended by regional leaders, with any Myanmar trip more likely to grab headlines.

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Myanmar, Laos see large increase in opium cultivation, U.N. says

NEW DELHI -- Despite stepped-up eradication efforts by the government, the amount of land used to grow opium in Myanmar increased 17% during 2011, the sixth straight annual increase, according to a United Nations report released Wednesday.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is the second-largest opium grower in the world after Afghanistan. In contrast with Afghanistan's production, which tends to be on larger plots and on a more industrial scale, growers in Myanmar tend to work smaller fields in remote border highlands areas.

Land devoted to opium production in neighboring Laos, meanwhile, grew 66%, albeit from a far smaller base, while in Thailand it declined by 4%, according to the report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. The area where the three countries meet, called the Golden Triangle, has been a notorious region for drug production and smuggling for decades.

"The opium numbers continue to head in the wrong direction," Gary Lewis, the U.N. office's regional representative, said in a statement from Bangkok, Thailand. "Unless the farmers have a feasible and legitimate alternative to give them food security and reduce their debt, they will continue to plant poppy."

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Fresh clashes break out between Myanmar's Buddhists, Muslims

Myanmar
YANGON, Myanmar -- At least three people were killed and hundreds of houses burned in a fresh wave of violence pitting Buddhists against Muslims in western Myanmar, news agencies reported Tuesday.

The latest clashes started late Sunday night in villages in Rakhine state's Min Bya township and spread north to another neighboring remote community accessible only on foot, the Associated Press reported, quoting state Atty. Gen. Hla Thein.

Officials said the riots killed one ethnic Rakhine Buddhist man and two Muslim women and destroyed more than  340 homes in related arson attacks that spilled over into Monday. Authorities imposed a dawn-to-dusk curfew after the violence, with calm reportedly restored by Tuesday. The term Rakhine is shared by both the state and the ethnic group.

Although the state, among the nation’s poorest, has been the site of fighting between these two groups for decades, the issue hit the international spotlight in June when a state of emergency was declared after clashes killed hundreds of people and saw thousands of houses burned and several mosques and monasteries destroyed.

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Attack on retired Indian general evokes '84 Golden Temple assault

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AMRITSAR, India -- A painful chapter in India’s history was reopened this week when a retired general who oversaw the storming in 1984 of the Sikh’s most revered site was stabbed in London in an alleged “revenge attack” by disgruntled Sikhs.

The story has made headlines in India since Sunday’s attack on Lt. Gen. Kuldeep Singh Brar, who directed the controversial Operation Blue Star storming of the Golden Temple. Brar, 78, who says he fought his attackers off using his military training, spent an hour in surgery after receiving cuts on his face and neck in the assault near a central London hotel. The injuries were not serious and he returned to Mumbai on Wednesday afternoon.

Although London police declined to speak about the attackers’ alleged ethnicity in line with department guidelines, Brar told Indian media he was the object of a “pure assassination” attempt motivated by revenge, while his wife Meena told India’s the Hindu newspaper her husband was “101% certain” the assailants were Sikhs. In an appeal for witnesses, Scotland Yard described the four assailants as having long beards, dark clothes and long black jackets.

So far there have been no arrests in the ongoing investigation.

Brar, himself a Sikh, oversaw the Indian army’s two-day assault starting June 5, 1984, after then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi directed the armed forces to remove well-armed militants from the Golden Temple complex in northern Punjab state. The fighters had been holed up there for months seeking an independent Sikh state known as Khalistan.

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Muslims in Bangladesh torch Buddhist temples over Facebook image

Muslims in Bangladesh torch Buddhist temples
AMRITSAR, India -- Hundreds of angry Muslims in southeast Bangladesh torched at least 10 Buddhist temples and dozens of homes Sunday after alleging that a Buddhist man insulted Islam on his Facebook page, authorities said.

The protest gained momentum late Saturday in the area of Cox’s Bazar about 200 miles from the capital of Dhaka when Muslims, claiming that a Facebook page showed a burned copy of the Koran, headed to several Buddhist villages in the area.

Although there have been periodic clashes between the majority Muslim population and Hindus, tension is relatively rare with Buddhists, who make up less than 1% of Bangladesh’s 150 million people.

Authorities said extra security forces were called in to restore order after the mob burned and vandalized more than 100 homes.

"We brought the situation under control before dawn and imposed restrictions on public gatherings," Salim Mohammad Jahangir, Cox's Bazar district police superintendent, told local media. 

Analysts said this clash was unfortunate and disturbing given a general pattern of tolerance of religious minorities in Bangladesh, which gained its independence from Pakistan in 1971.

“This comes as a real surprise, and I feel sadness that this happened,” said Manzoor Hasan, advisor to the Institute of Governance Studies at Dhaka’s BRAC University. “Generally, not just with Buddhists, but the small Christian community and relatively larger Hindu community, as a society we’ve been tolerant and respectful of each other’s religions and ways of conducting ourselves.”

Tensions have increased in recent months, however, over a crisis in neighboring Myanmar involving clashes between the majority Buddhist population and members of the minority stateless Rohingya Muslim community, in some ways a mirror image of Sunday’s attacks.

Many people in predominantly Muslim Bangladesh also have been angered recently by a low-budget film called "Innocence of Muslims" that was made in California and mocks the prophet Muhammad. It has sparked protests across the Islamic world.

“Generally, there is extra sensitivity at this moment, not just in Bangladesh, but in other countries,” Hasan said. “We see people taking advantage of this, and there are copy-cat tendencies. The population as a whole needs to be far more vigilant in protecting minorities.… We all need to be a bit more careful and circumspect so we don’t incite sensitivities.”

Bangladesh's English-language Daily Star newspaper reported that the Buddhist who allegedly posted the offensive image on Facebook mistakenly tagged it on his Facebook profile and that his account was closed soon after violence erupted even as police escorted him and his mother to safety.

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Photo: The Shima Bihar Buddhist temple at Ramu, about 200 miles southeast of the capital of Dhaka, was burned Sunday after thousands of rioters attacked Buddhist temples and homes in southeastern Bangladesh over a photo deemed offensive to Islam was posted on Facebook. Credit: AFP / Getty Images

 



 


Indian drug kingpin mysteriously escapes police custody

NEW DELHI — Indian police are embarrassed after word leaked out this week that an alleged drug kingpin suspected of running a $40-million heroin and methamphetamine network walked away from the police unit guarding him and the escape was kept from the public for days.

Ranjit Singh, who uses the alias Raja Kandola, was reportedly being transported back to Delhi’s Tihar Jail by train Monday after a court hearing in northern Punjab state when he flew the coop about 11:30 p.m.

Police officials were not available for comment, and versions differ on exactly what happened. Some media reports say Singh was escorted by four officers aboard the Jammu Mail express train, others by six. Most agree that the train made a stop at Ludhiana, about 160 miles north of New Delhi.

Mukesh Gautam, a crime reporter with the Dainik Bhaskar daily newspaper, says sources told him that five of the officers were asleep when the train stopped and Singh asked the sixth to go buy him some tea. When the officer returned, Singh was gone. Another version has Singh offering spiked drinks to the policemen and slipping away, although it’s unclear why Singh would be entertaining the police.

Gautam says even these versions may be questionable. A few years ago in a similar case, he said, police initially reported that a prisoner escaped from a rail carriage only to eventually admit he had slipped away earlier from the hotel where they were all staying. “Maybe it’s the same situation,” he said.

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Insurgents kill two NATO troops in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A suicide bomber wearing a vest packed with explosives killed two foreign troops in eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday, according to NATO and Afghan officials.

Din Mohammad Darwesh, the governor's spokesperson in Logar province, said the bomber targeted a vehicle inside a NATO convoy that was on its way to a nearby district. Although the NATO-led international military coalition declined to give further details on the casualties, citing policy, Darwesh said both of those killed were Americans, one immediately and one who died of his wounds a short while later. A third soldier was injured, he added.

Wednesday's deaths bring the number of coalition fatalities to at least 3,190, including 2,123 Americans, since the war started in 2001, according to icasualties.org.

On Tuesday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai told the United Nations General Assembly in New York that his country has made progress after decades of war, but that it still has a ways to go. "Our achievements have not come about easily," he said. "The Afghan people continue to pay the biggest price any nation has paid -- in both life and treasure."

Insurgents in Afghanistan remain heavily reliant on homemade bombs when carrying out attacks, although the coalition says it's seen growing success foiling such attacks. More than half of all roadside bombs and mines were discovered and cleared before they detonated between January and July, NATO said in its monthly casualty report for August, while those that detonated were down 14% compared with the January-July 2011 period.

Insurgent attacks involving weapons other than homemade bombs -- including those involving machine guns and surface-to-air missiles -- fell 9% in August after hitting a 10-month peak in June. Afghanistan's poppy-growing season, when many insurgents head off to tend their crop, was shorter than usual this year, the coalition said, leading to an earlier-than-normal fighting season in May and June. That pushed everything up, it added, leading to diminished violence in July and August.

But significant regional differences remain. Though there were fewer such enemy attacks in Kabul and in the eastern, southern and southwestern parts of the country between January and August, attacks rose in northern and western Afghanistan.

NATO said that in August, insurgents were responsible for 98% of all civilian deaths and injuries -- a politically sensitive issue -- in those cases where responsibility could be determined.

The insurgents' continued heavy reliance on roadside and suicide bombs is evident in the daily report of incidents produced by the coalition.

On Wednesday, NATO said that an orphaned Afghan boy in Helmand province who was approximately 11 years old -- not knowing your exact age isn't unusual in south Asia -- managed to escape from insurgents planning to use him as a suicide bomber.

The boy, whose name was not given, reportedly told Afghan police that the insurgents gave him money hoping to persuade him to wear a suicide vest and detonate himself near NATO or Afghan army forces, which he refused to do.

NATO also reported Wednesday the arrest earlier in the week of an insurgent leader in eastern Khost province suspected of planning and coordinating roadside bombing attacks throughout the region. The coalition added in a statement that he was responsible for distributing significant quantities of explosives and weapons and for training other insurgents to use homemade bombs.

At the time of his arrest, he may have been trying to infiltrate the Afghan security forces, the coalition added, although it was not immediately clear why a regional leader would be inserting himself into the Afghan armed forces rather than using underlings.

Attacks by Afghan police and troops, as well as insurgents using stolen or otherwise acquired Afghan uniforms, have increased in recent months, sowing distrust between Afghan and coalition forces.

Also on Wednesday, NATO forces reported, a Taliban homemade bomb expert was arrested in eastern Ghazni district. The coalition also reported that Taliban leader Malang was killed Tuesday in a "precision airstrike" in central Wardak province.

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Indian opposition calls nationwide strike over reforms

Mane68pd
NEW DELHI — For years, critics frustrated at the slow pace of economic reform in India heaped criticism on the government for its muddled policies and inability to stare down vested interests.

On Thursday, days after officials finally announced decisive reforms, those "vested interests" made eminently clear their displeasure over the Cabinet's decision to cut fuel subsidies and allow foreign investment in the retail, aviation and broadcasting industries.

In a show of force, the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party backed by left-wing parties called a nationwide general strike. Trains, buses and rickshaws stopped rolling from early morning in several of India’s 35 states and union territories, over 1 million stores were shuttered and effigies of the prime minister were burned as thousands of workers and small-shop owners marched, waved flags and blocked traffic.

Some kiosks were also attacked and tires were burned to block traffic, while some shops that remained open, including a Wal-Mart outlet in central Uttar Pradesh state, were forced by angry mobs to close for the day.

But the picture was mixed. Even as activity ground to a near halt in the states of West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa, things remained relatively normal in New Delhi and the states of Kerala and western Maharashtra state, where Mumbai is based.

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Protesters in India embrace waterlogged tactics

India protests
NEW DELHI -- There’s never a shortage of creative ways to protest in India, the world’s largest democracy. The tradition stems at least as far back as the 1930 salt march against oppressive taxation led by Mohandas Gandhi that helped bring down the British empire, and Gandhi’s “fasting unto death,” employed effectively to pressure politicians and stem sectarian violence.

Several times a day somewhere in India, roads, highways and byways are blocked over one issue or another, ranging from power blackouts and land grabs to farm prices and ethnic separatism. One highway blockage in northeast Manipur state last year carried on for 92 days.  

Other arguably less subtle forms of protests in recent years meant to spotlight corruption, inflation, education policy and military crackdowns include self-immolation, women stripping in front of army barracks, slapping senior officials on live television and throwing shoes at politicians -- considered a grave insult in parts of Asia and the Middle East. Then there was the rather imaginative, if short-lived, idea of handing out “zero rupee” notes to crooked officials in order to stem bribery.

In recent days, demonstrators have opened a new front: water. The move started in late August in the central state of Madhya Pradesh when villagers opposed to a dam stood in a reservoir for 17 days. Their drive for building a smaller structure and receiving compensation for lost land turned the sight of their disembodied heads into a fixture in news photos.

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Suu Kyi's U.S. visit may lead to more easing of sanctions on Myanmar

 
This post has been updated. See the note below.

NEW DELHI -- Democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi’s first trip to the U.S. in decades starting Monday could prompt a further easing of U.S. economic sanctions against Myanmar, analysts said, although the visit will mainly serve as a victory lap for the demure figure celebrated by Republicans and Democrats alike.

During her six-stop, near three-week trip, the Nobel laureate is expected to meet with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest U.S. civilian award. She also may spend a night in the White House and be feted at a dinner in her honor attended by former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton as well as Microsoft head Bill Gates.

The Obama administration is keen to highlight her visit as a foreign policy success in an election year, analysts added, given her role in pushing the long-isolated pariah state also known as Burma to open its doors, legalize protest, ease media restrictions and release hundreds of political prisoners.

“It should be quite a good visit for Obama,” said Sean Turnell, editor of the Burma Economic Watch website and a professor at Australia’s Macquarie University. “Burma policy, it’s one little corner of the world getting a little bit better on his watch.”

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