Philippines rains kill dozens, drive thousands from homes

Manila

Pounding rains in the Philippines have driven more than 260,000 people from their homes and claimed dozens of lives as landslides buried homes and streets turned into swamps, disaster officials said Tuesday.

Benito Ramos, executive director of the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council, told reporters the nation “looks like waterworld,” calling to mind the 1995 Kevin Costner film about a future where Earth is covered by water.

The deadly downpour has blocked roads and shuttered schools and offices, paralyzing Manila with rainfall as heavy as 2 inches an hour. Water  reportedly was neck deep in some areas. Philippine media ran images of people stranded on metal roofs, floating on makeshift rafts and clinging to trees and lamp posts as the muddy water rose.

Authorities reported at least 53 deaths as of Tuesday morning, most of them due to drowning in the aftermath of Typhoon Saola last week. Monsoon rains have continued to hammer the country since.

The death toll ticked even higher Tuesday when a family of nine was buried by a landside in their Quezon City home; at least two other people were reported to have been electrocuted. Dozens more people were injured by falling trees, mudslides and other effects of the raging floods.

President Benigno Aquino III assured Filipinos that the government was doing everything possible to cope with the flooding. The government has been criticized for its handling of previous disasters.

“They shouldn’t just respond to crises, they should prepare for them,” Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila, told Bloomberg, complaining that infrastructure had improved little under Aquino.

The United States pledged Tuesday to provide $100,000 for disaster relief; Philippine disaster officials said government agencies and nonprofits have given more than $400,000 to aid affected families.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Residents try to cross through floodwaters as others wait on the roofs of their houses after a river overflowed in Manila on Tuesday. Credit: Noel Celis / Agence France-Presse


U.S. warns China against further moves in South China Sea

China-protest
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration on Friday warned China against further moves to tighten control over a disputed section of the South China Sea, as tensions rose in the flashpoint region.

In a statement, the State Department cautioned China about its addition of a military garrison and civilian officials near the contested Scarborough Reef and its use of barriers to deny access to foreign ships.

These moves “run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region,” said the statement, issued early Friday morning and attributed to Patrick Ventrell, the acting deputy spokesman.

Six countries have complex competing claims to the region's water and islands, which are rich in fish, oil and gas and other resources.

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China creates city on disputed island, angering neighbors [Video]

China has declared a tiny island its newest city, angering Vietnam and the Philippines, which have sparred with Beijing over its claim that it controls nearly all of the South China Sea.

About 1,000 people inhabit the newly christened city of Sansha on the island of Yongxing, also known as Woody Island, which relies on ships from the mainland for fresh water and medicine. Billing the new city as a bulwark for Chinese sovereignty, China has announced that the island city will host troops and serve as the administrative center for nearby islands claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and neighboring nations.

The Chinese flag was hoisted over the new city on Tuesday to the strains of the national anthem, the official New China News Agency reported. The fledgling city now has its first mayor.

Vietnam, which also claims the Paracel islands where Sansha is located, argued the move violates international law, calling on China to “immediately stop and cancel its wrongful activities.” The Philippines has contested the establishment of the city as well.

“If someone enters your yard and told you he owns it, will you allow that?” President Benigno Aquino argued Monday in an annual address, insisting his country would not back down from its island claims.

Disputes involving the South China Sea have grown increasingly tense and confrontational this year as China and its neighbors expand their military reach and hard-liners have gained political power, the International Crisis Group wrote in a new report released Tuesday, warning of a growing risk of skirmishes at sea.

"While the likelihood of major conflict remains low, all of the trends are in the wrong direction, and prospects of resolution are diminishing," the research group wrote.

Creating Sansha is the latest of those troubling trends. The idea is not new: The Hainan provincial government has repeatedly tried to establish a governing body over the Paracel and Spratly islands in the past. Its plan to create Sansha made headlines five years ago, triggering protests in Vietnam.

Beijing suspended the plan at that time. The fact that it has blessed Sansha this time around is a sign of worsening relations with Vietnam, said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, North East Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. Vietnam, in turn, issued a law declaring the islands under its jurisdiction.

"These moves have been planned for years -- but both sides had held back," Kleine-Ahlbrandt said.

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Global death toll of environmental activists rising, report says

Funeral

In April, Chut Wutty was shot to death in the Cambodian forests he was so outspoken in defending, a slaying that outraged human rights activists suspicious of the conflicting explanations given by police.

His death appears to be part of a chilling trend. Growing numbers of activists and others defending the environment have been killed over the last decade, according to a new report from the environmental watchdog group Global Witness.

The London-based group says more than 100 people were killed last year while protesting or investigating environmental causes -- the highest death toll it has found in a decade of tracking such killings.

It linked the apparent rise in environmental slayings to fierce competition for dwindling resources worldwide that have put local activists "in the firing line" as they protest against being forced out of their homes to make way for development, losing the forests they rely on and other disputes.

Such killings often go unpunished, Global Witness lamented. In Brazil, for example, fewer than 10% of such cases have gone to court and barely 1% of them have led to convictions, the report said, quoting the Catholic Land Commission.

The death toll is "the sharpest of wake-up calls" for delegates convening in Rio de Janiero on Wednesday as the United Nations holds the biggest conference in its history to save the environment, Global Witness campaigner Billy Kyte said. "Over one person a week is being murdered for defending rights to forests and land."

The watchdog group consulted with other human rights groups, journalists and the United Nations and scoured website and academic studies to come up with its figures. It found that Brazil, Peru, Colombia and the Philippines had the highest numbers of killings, though it cautioned that there was an alarming lack of information and monitoring in much of Asia and Africa, which might mask killings there.

"It's difficult to know whether [the apparent increase in killings] is because there are more murders or whether it has now become more difficult for these things to be ignored," Radford University professor Bill Kovarik was quoted in the report released Tuesday. Either way, it's "an emerging and visible pattern."

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: A woman cries during the funeral in April for Chut Wutty, a prominent environmental activist killed in the Cambodian forests he was so outspoken in defending. Credit: Mak Remissa / European Pressphoto Agency


China cancels tours to Philippines over South China Sea dispute

Philippines

BEIJING -- China warned its nationals against traveling to the Philippines, canceled tours and raised trade barriers on imported pineapples and bananas as the squabble over disputed fishing grounds in the South China Sea grew more intense.

At issue is a triangular-shaped cluster of reefs known as Scarborough Shoal about 130 miles from the Philippines’ Subic Bay. The Chinese call it Huangyan Island and complain that the Philippine navy has been harassing its fishing boats there.

In keeping with the prevailing jingoism, a Chinese journalist on Thursday posted a photograph of himself planting a Chinese flag on an outcropping of rock. An enthusiastic microblogger promised, “We’ll plant the flag all the way to Manila.’’

"We want to say that anyone's attempt to take away China's sovereignty over Huangyan Island will not be allowed by the Chinese government, people and armed forces," warned the PLA Daily, the newspaper of the People’s Liberation Army in an article Wednesday entitled, "Don't Attempt to Take Away Half an Inch of China's Territory."

Filipino activists have planned demonstrations Friday at Chinese embassies. As a result, Beijing issued a warning for Chinese citizens in Manila to stay indoors. In Beijing, Filipinos residing in China got a similar advisory from their embassy.

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Philippines to seek counsel from the U.S. in standoff over Chinese ships

Protesters in Makati, Philippines on April 20, 2012
BEIJING -- The Philippines plans to seek counsel from the United States military over its two-week standoff with Chinese ships operating in the Scarborough Shoal, a new step in the simmering dispute.

Chinese officials have repeatedly expressed their commitment to resolving tensions in the area through diplomatic channels. China recently removed two ships from the area to mitigate the conflict, stressing that it was deescalating the situation.

Philippine leaders said Monday that they would bring up the issue when they met with U.S. officials next week. The ruling Chinese Communist Party strikes a tougher note when U.S. involvement in the disputes is concerned: After the U.S. launched into two weeks of annual military drills with the Philippines last week, one commentary argued it was a clear provocation.

“Anyone with clear eyes saw long ago that behind these drills is reflected a mentality that will lead the South China Sea issue down a fork in the road towards military confrontation and resolution through armed force,” argued the recent commentary in the Legal Daily, a mouthpiece of the People’s Liberation Army.

The Pentagon maintains that the drills are not related to the territorial dispute.

The Scarborough Islands dispute began when China blocked a Filipino warship from arresting Chinese fishermen in the area, a group of islands and reefs about 140 miles from the Philippines shoreline. Manila requested to take the issue to international court last week. Beijing refused, maintaining that the area is an indisputable part of Chinese territory.

On Friday, Chinese hackers defaced the University of the Philippines’ official website in protest, according to the state-run China Daily. The hackers posted a map to the website with a caption reading, "We come from China! Huangyan Island is Ours.” Huangyan Island is the shoal’s Chinese name. 

The South China Sea has been at the center of long-running territorial disputes involving China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines. The sea is vital for the fishing industries of nearby countries. Some speculate that it could also contain vast oil and natural gas reserves, but surveys have yet to show any large-scale deposits.

Official Chinese maps use a U-shaped dotted line to demarcate most of the 1.4-million square-mile sea as China’s own. Within the last year, China has sent fishing boats, military patrols and even sightseeing tours to disputed areas of the sea, eliciting official protests from Vietnam and its neighbors.

According to a report released on Monday by an influential think tank, many territorial conflicts in the area are motivated by jockeying among Chinese agencies rather than high-level strategic maneuvering.

The report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said that at least 11 state-controlled ministries -- and beneath them, five law enforcement agencies -- share management of the South China Sea.

“The conflicting mandates and lack of coordination among Chinese government agencies have stoked tensions in the South China Sea, many of which use this issue to try to increase their power and budget,” said the report, called “Stirring Up the South China Sea."

 “Ultimately, the ability to manage relations in the South China Sea and resolve disputes will present a major test of China’s peaceful rise,” it said. 

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 -- Jonathan Kaiman

Photo: Protesters hold a rally outside the Chinese Consulate in Makati city, east of Manila, to protest the standoff between Philippine and Chinese vessels at the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea on Friday. Credit: Bullit Marquez / Associated Press

 


Philippines says China claims to South China Sea threaten neighbors

Southchinasea

Philippine leaders warned Monday that increasingly aggressive Chinese claims to the valuable South China Sea threaten its neighbors, and called on other countries to take a stand. The debate over how much of the disputed waters belong to China has fueled ongoing unease in the region.

"The bigger picture is that anybody can be targeted," Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told ABS-CBN News in the Philippines. "China claiming everything, as having sovereign rights over the entire South China Sea, what is the message? The message is: I can set the rules for everybody."

China and the Philippines have been in a standoff over a group of islands in the South China Sea for weeks, with both sides claiming the Scarborough Shoal. China said it had withdrawn two ships from the area on Monday, de-escalating the situation, Xinhua reported Monday.

"China is ready to settle this incident through friendly diplomatic consultations," Chinese Embassy spokesman Zhang Hua was quoted as saying by Xinhua.

Unnerved by the dispute, Philippine officials say they'll bring up the matter with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta next week, the Agence-France Presse reported. The Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations should also take a stand, President Benigno Aquino said Monday.

"The dispute has to be settled. It can’t be left hanging forever,” Aquino told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

China has pressed its claims to South China Sea outcroppings more aggressively after declaring the sea a "core national interest" two years ago.

Vietnam has sparred with China over another set of islands, last year accusing a Chinese boat of cutting the cables to a ship owned by its national oil and gas company. Brunei and Malaysia have also laid claims to the waters, which are lucrative fishing grounds and believed to cover oil and natural gas reserves.

Despite China having agreed to a U.N. convention on maritime zones that limited its reach at sea, official maps of China show almost all of the South China Sea as being in its territory, alarming neighboring countries. Even some of its own agencies don't seem to respect the same boundaries.

“The Sea will remain volatile unless China’s internal coordination problems and the legal confusion surrounding its maritime territorial claims are addressed,” said Robert Templer, Asia Program director for the International Crisis Group, which released a report Monday on the disputed waters.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: This undated file handout photo taken by the Philippine navy and released on April 11 by the Department of Foreign Affairs shows Chinese surveillance ships off the Scarborough Shoal. Credit: Agence France-Presse / Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs / Philippine navy


North Korea rocket launch reportedly fails

Japan korea rocket

This post has been updated. See the note below.

BEIJING --  North Korea launched a three-stage rocket from a missile base near the west coast city of Sinuiju today, claiming that it was carrying a weather satellite of purely civilian use. [Updated 4:35 p.m. Thursday, April 12: But U.S. officials said the rocket broke apart shortly after launch.]

Its projected trajectory was almost due south on a course 150 miles east of Shanghai.  The second stage of the rock was to splash down east of the Philippines, which prompted Manila to cancel northbound flights as a precaution.

The rocket, named Unha-3 and emblazoned with a North Korean flag, was based on the same technology as the long-range Taepodong missile that the country is developing, which has triggered accusations that North Korea is actually conducting a weapons test.

Since 1998, Pyongyang has conducted three previous long-range launches but has not succeeded in sending a satellite into orbit, although it has claimed otherwise.

Today’s launch will be closely analyzed to determine how far North Korea has advanced its technological prowess.

"If they actually are successful, they can in theory deliver a weapon with a range sufficient to reach the United States," said Scott Snyder, an analyst from the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

The launch occurred despite  warnings from the United States, as well as China and Russia.

“We don't really care about the opinions from the outside. This is critical in order to develop our national economy,” Paek Chang Ho, head of the satellite control center at the Korean Committee for Space Technology, had told reporters who were invited to North Korea for the occasion.

Paek said that a weather satellite had been installed on the rocket as part of North Korea’s “peaceful space program,”  but officials of the U.S. and other countries fear that North Korea’s missile program  masks an effort to develop a delivery system for a nuclear weapon.

The rocket launch was the centerpiece of celebrations taking place this week to mark the centennial of state founder Kim Il Sung’s birth, April 15, 1912 — the same day, North Koreans sometimes note with irony, as the sinking of the Titanic.

The launch also served as a distraction from the despair in one of the world’s hungriest nations. One-third of North Korean children are reported to be permanently stunted because of chronic malnutrition. North Korea recently had to lower the minimum height requirement for soldiers to 4 feet, 9 inches.

The Defense Ministry in rival South Korea released figures this week saying that North Korea could afford to feed its population for a year with the money it is spending on the missile launch.

North Korea struck a deal Feb. 29 to suspend its weapons program in return for 240,000 metric tons of food aid from the United States, but the U.S. had said the aid would not be delivered if North Korea went ahead with the launch.

The rapid collapse of the deal raises the possibility of a rift in the leadership between those who would like to end North Korea’s pariah status and hard-liners in the military.

 

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-- Barbara Demick

Photo: Japanese Self-Defense Forces personnel guard a Patriot air defense system that was on standby to respond to a North Korean long-range missile launch. Credit: Hitoshi Maeshiro / EPA 

 



Philippines braces for North Korean rocket debris

Philippine

As North Korea prepares to launch a rocket in a path that could put it near the Philippines, the islands have cleared their northeastern waters and airspace and warned people to stay inside, unconvinced by North Korean assurances that the rocket will follow a "safe trajectory."

"They are testing something that lands in somebody else's territory. That is not right," Philippine President Benigno Aquino III reportedly said at a summit of Southeast Asian nations last week.

Thursday begins the five-day period during which North Korea has said it will send a satellite into space, meant to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung.

Japan and South Korea say they'll intercept any falling debris from the rocket in their airspace, but the Philippines says it doesn't have the same capabilities, which has added to its anxiety. Boats were being barred  from a 366-square-mile zone in the Pacific Ocean, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported. Flights have been diverted across the region.

“We make sure that no fisherman, no aircraft, no ship will be crossing in that area so that we expect zero casualties in the event that there will be fallout,” civil defense administrator Benito Ramos told the Voice of America.

Philippines officials say it is unlikely that any rocket debris will be flung onto land but have nonetheless cautioned people near the coast to stay indoors. Scrap metal dealers have been warned not to touch any fallen debris. Emergency teams and disaster agencies have been put on alert.

Rocket expert Maximo Sacro Jr. estimated it would take a falling booster three or four hours to tumble into Philippine territory after splitting from the rocket, the Inquirer reported.

That could give them a crucial window to warn people away from its projected path,  provided they get word when the North Koreans launch, he told reporters during a disaster risk briefing this week.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Philippine Vice Admiral Alexander Pama talks with foreign correspondents Tuesday in Manila. Pama talked about the preparations for possible debris from the North Korean rocket launch. Credit: Ted Aljibe / AFP/Getty Images


Craze for 'noynoying' annoys Philippine leaders

A craze for "noynoying" is annoying Philippine leaders as activists spread photos of themselves lazing around with bored expressions -- a dig at President Benigno Aquino III for supposedly doing too little.

Government critics argue that Aquino, nicknamed "Noynoy," has sat idle while oil prices surge in the Philippines. College students in Quezon City popularized the trend this month by lounging on university steps to mock a "do-nothing president" during a protest, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported.

"That our government seems helpless in the face of rising oil prices is nothing new. ... The real problem of our government today is the impression that the Department of Energy has given up on doing anything more beyond giving a small subsidy to jeepney drivers," Boo Chanco opined in the Philippine Star.

The jab has quickly become part of the political debate. When leftist politician Teddy Casiño criticized the government for not taking on bills to address oil prices, he told Philippine outlet Bulatlat: “It is no time to be ‘Noynoying’ when the economy and the peoples’ livelihood are taking a hit."

Trying to fend off the dig, the Philippine government released photos of the president at work, only to find them parodied on Twitter and Facebook. Critics made hay of the fact that one shot of the president with a stack of papers included a few remote controls, suggesting that he might not really be working.

Allies say Aquino, who has promised to tackle corruption, is being unfairly maligned. Education Secretary Joel Villanueva argued to a Philippine paper that the president and his cabinet worked until 2 a.m. and came back at 5 a.m. One provincial governor argued that millions of jobs had been created.

“For me, "Noynoying" means somebody who always tells the truth. For me "Noynoying" means somebody who is careful about the people’s money, not the kind of person who spends the people’s money carelessly,” Transportation Secretary Manuel Roxas II told the Philippine Star when asked about noynoying.

Despite the criticism, Aquino still has a 70% approval rating, according to a recent PulseAsia poll. He has been praised for cutting unemployment, reducing crime and steering clear of scandal in a recent op-ed that slammed "rabble-rousing Leftists and P-Noy haters."

But while Aquino is still popular, those polling numbers have slid since the president was elected less than two years ago, warned Val Abelgas, former managing editor of the Manila Standard.

"Aquino must now get up from his comfort chair and move," Abelgas wrote.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Video: Protesters upset about rising oil prices lounge idly on the street in an act dubbed "noynoying." Credit: GMA News / YouTube


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