South African court sentences rhino horn smuggler to 40 years

Rhino
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A South African court on Friday sentenced a Thai national to 40 years in prison for his part in a syndicate that smuggled dozens of rhino horns out of the country, the stiffest sentence ever handed down for such a crime in South Africa.

Two government ministers praised the court for sending a strong message that rhino horn smuggling would not be tolerated. But critics questioned why Chumlong Lemtongthai was convicted while charges were dropped against a South African farmer accused of involvement in the crime.

South Africa, home to about 90% of Africa's rhinoceroses, has faced an alarming rise in poaching with 488 of the animals illegally killed this year by Oct. 30, compared with 13 in 2007. According to the Department of Environmental Affairs, 2.4% of South Africa's rhinos were poached last year, with the rate increasing this year, posing a serious threat of extinction to rhinos.

The previous harshest sentence, 29 years, was handed down for poaching in August to two foreigners, Gearson Cosa, 35, and Ali Nkuna, 25, convicted of killing a rhino cow and her calf in the Kruger National Park, where around half the incidences of rhino poaching in South Africa occur.

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Laos to begin building hotly debated Xayaburi dam this week

Laosdam

Laos plans to start building a dam on the Mekong River this week, a step that neighboring Cambodia and Vietnam fear could imperil fish and cripple rice fields.

The Xayaburi dam is expected to reap profits for Laos by generating hydropower to sell to Thailand. The $3-billion-plus project would be the first major dam on the lower part of the Mekong, a massive waterway that provides food and jobs to millions of people in Southeast Asia.

Building the dam marks the latest push toward development for Laos, a growing economy seeking to shed its “least developed country” label. The communist country has opened up its economy over the last few decades and was recently accepted into the World Trade Organization.

“Hydropower is a big natural advantage for Laos,” Deputy Minister of Energy and Mining Viraphonh Viravong told Bloomberg on Monday.

But Vietnam and Cambodia worry dams could endanger fish that families eat and hurt crops in the Mekong Delta, the “rice bowl” of the region. Environmental experts warn if fish dwindle and croplands are lost, damming the river could cost more than it brings in. A Portland State University study last year estimated losses could run as high as $274 billion if a passel of planned dams are built.

A regional report recommended waiting for more studies to assess the dangers, but Laos has pressed ahead.

“They are playing roulette with the Mekong River,” said Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers. “There are serious risks for the river and the people who depend on it.”

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Google censored videos offending Thai king, denied other requests

Lesemajeste

Google stopped more than 300 YouTube videos from being viewed in Thailand last year, hewing to a deeply controversial law that forbids Thais from insulting their king.

The century-old lèse majesté law, championed by backers as a way to uphold the dignity of the king, has been increasingly criticized as a swipe at free speech that makes it easier to jail government opponents.

Thai officials asked Google to remove 374 videos last year, saying they violated the disputed law, the California company revealed in its most recent Transparency Report. To follow the law within Thailand, Google agreed to restrict Thais from viewing most of the targeted videos.

It was one in a growing list of requests from governments around the world that the powerful search engine company heeded. Operating a search engine that scours the globe, Google must contend with a thicket of local laws and court orders, weighing thousands of requests to erase or restrict search results.

It releases information about what it has been asked to remove and why twice a year, a sometimes surprising chronicle of what governments and companies worldwide want to scrub from the Internet.

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Beyond the United Kingdom -- a royal rundown

King

The United Kingdom isn’t the only kingdom out there. As Queen Elizabeth II is feted this weekend in a Diamond Jubilee marking 60 years on the throne, here are some other monarchs from around the globe and what they've been up to.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej:  The deeply revered 84-year-old king of Thailand has little direct power, but offending him can land Thais in jail. Critics complain that the lese-majeste law -- meaning "injured majesty" -- undercuts free expression. Royalists see the law as an important way to uphold his dignity.

King Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz al Saud: The elderly king heads the Sunni Muslim royal family that gives Saudi Arabia its name. His attempts to loosen the religious lock on Saudi life have been crimped by religious fundamentalists. Despite steps toward reform, such as giving women the right to vote, the kingdom has continued to be criticized for human rights abuses under his rule.

King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia: The Spanish royals have had a difficult year. The king was scolded for going on an elephant hunt. His grandson shot himself in the foot. And his son-in-law was named as a suspect in a corruption case. As the country grapples with economic woes, some Spaniards are asking why they should have a monarch at all.

King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa: For more than a year, the Sunni monarch of Bahrain has been confronted with protests agitating for greater democracy. The ongoing unrest threatened to overshadow the Formula 1 races earlier this year as the king argued that reforms were already underway.

Emperor Akihito: The emperor has no formal political sway, but his imperial role still has symbolic power in Japan. Before the princess gave birth to a boy six years ago, the absence of young male heirs nearly caused a succession crisis and revived debate over whether women should be allowed to take the throne.

Prince Albert: When the Monaco monarch got married last year, his nuptials got an unfortunate nickname -- "the other wedding." Just weeks after Prince William and Kate Middleton tied the knot, Prince Albert II married Charlene Wittstock in the European principality.

King Abdullah II and Queen Rania: The Jordanian monarchs have weathered criticism for extravagance and faced demands to stop corruption, but the protests have been less heated than in other countries rocked by the "Arab Spring."

King Mswati III: The king of Swaziland holds absolute power in this landlocked southern African country and has faced growing anger over financial woes, especially in light of his own extravagance. Earlier this year, Swazi officials said a new law was in the works to punish people who insult the king online.

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck: The Bhutan monarch is an Oxford graduate who loves Elvis Presley. He has said his wedding last year will be his only one, a break from the polygamous past of the royal family. (His father wedded four sisters.)

Crown Prince Haakon: Though King Harald V is the reigning monarch in Norway, it was his son who grabbed headlines by marrying a single mother with a wild past more than a decade ago, stirring up talk about whether Norway really wanted such down-to-earth royals.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: A man holds up a portrait of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej as thousands of people wait for his arrival for a ceremony in Thung Makham Yong in Ayutthaya province, north of Bangkok, on May 25, 2012. Credit: Christophe Archambault / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images


While 'Obamacare' under fire, universal care catches on globally

India

Even as the Obama administration comes under scrutiny for overhauling healthcare and requiring all citizens to have insurance in the United States, the idea of universal healthcare is taking off elsewhere around the globe, according to a new report from the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Unlike the United States, emerging economies are not buying the argument that healthcare is largely the responsibility of individuals and businesses, with a public provision relegated to the elderly, veterans and the indigent,” writes Yanzhong Huang, its senior fellow for global health.

Government plans that aim to ensure universal health coverage have been launched everywhere from Kyrgyzstan to India to Brazil. Though the programs differ from country to country, they share the idea of splitting the costs of care broadly so that a sudden illness doesn’t plunge someone into poverty.

As of three years ago, nearly 50 countries had achieved almost universal health coverage, International Labor Organization data show. China had 95% of its citizens covered by the end of last year, the official New China News Agency reported last month. If more countries follow the lead of countries such as China, India and Rwanda, the Council on Foreign Relations report argues, most people in the world could have affordable healthcare in a decade.

Expanding health coverage has created some striking success stories elsewhere in the world: Six years after Thailand started its program, both rich and poor people ended up spending half as much on unexpected health catastrophes as they had previously, according to the report.

Yet “health coverage is not a guarantee of lower out-of-pocket costs or reduced financial hardship,” the report finds.   In the Philippines, for instance, private hospitals sometimes charged higher prices to treat people using government insurance, hiking their out-of-pocket costs to generate the same revenue.

Other effects have been mixed worldwide. Universal health coverage led to dramatic increases in the number of times that people visited the hospital in Rwanda and Taiwan, but not in the Chinese countryside, where the government created a rural health coverage program.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: In the northern Indian city of Jammu, residents register this month for the national health insurance program for people living below the poverty line. Credit: Jaipal Singh / European Pressphoto Agency


New warning systems appear to work amid Indonesia tsunami scare

Indonesia-quake

This post has been corrected. See note at the bottom for details.

NEW DELHI -- Warning and monitoring systems put in place after the 2004 Asian tsunami appeared to work well Wednesday after an 8.6-magnitude earthquake that struck roughly the same area off Indonesia, said officials, civic groups and citizens in affected areas.

However, the real test will only come with another major disaster.

Fortunately, no more than slightly higher than normal waves were seen in only a few coastal towns along the southwestern coast of Sumatra island, with no reports of deaths or major damage.

PHOTOS: Off-shore earthquake triggers tsunami scare

The rapid dissemination of warnings and relatively rapid evacuation of coastal areas throughout the Indian Ocean, including fairly isolated communities, were helped by fresh memories of the tsunami that battered the region eight years ago, killing 230,000 people.

Also helpful was the footage aired after Japan’s massive March 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster, motivating people to take the risk seriously, even though ultimately the wave proved elusive. From a public safety perspective, complacency is often the biggest killer, especially if people have not  experienced or heard about a tsunami in decades.

“Things worked quite well,” said Dailin Wang, oceanographer with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, Hawaii. The Indonesian earthquake and tsunami of 2004 “was not too long ago. People took it seriously and moved away from the coast. The challenge is to keep the knowledge alive.”

GRAPHIC: How a tsunami-warning system works

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Population growth: Fastest growing urban area? It may surprise you

Urbangrowth

It has a smaller population than San Jose, Calif. -- but it’s the fastest growing urban area in the world.

New estimates from the United Nations peg Samut Prakan as the population center expected to grow the most between 2010 and 2015, its population anticipated to surge 9%. The Thai province located south of Bangkok is known for its fishing and boasts that it has the world’s largest crocodile farm.

Close behind are the booming metropolises of Can Tho (Vietnam), Mogadishu (Somalia), Yamoussoukro (Ivory Coast), Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso.)

Of course, it’s easier for little cities to grow quickly, and even with big growth smaller burgs like Mogadishu and Yamoussoukro aren’t going to catch up to Tokyo, Delhi or Los Angeles anytime soon.

But the cities on the list reflect a wider trend: Africa and Asia are expected to make up 86% of the growth in urban populations worldwide in the decades leading up to 2050, according to the United Nations. Newly released estimates show the urban population in Africa is expected to roughly triple, exceeding 1.2 billion; urbanites in Asia will soar from 1.9 billion to 3.3 billion.

There's an upside to urbanization: Educating people and bringing them other services is easier when they’re clustered in cities. The downside: Countries will have to scramble to provide enough urban jobs, housing, energy and infrastructure to avoid an explosion of slums, the U.N. says.

Where in the world is urbanizing fastest? The United Nations map above shows which cities are anticipated to grow the most between 2011 and 2025. For more information, check out the U.N. website, which includes online databases showing the projected growth of urban areas worldwide.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Image: The expected growth of urban areas around the world between 2011 and 2025. Credit: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division.


Blasts kill nine in southern Thailand

At least nine people were killed and dozens wounded when a series of coordinated bombs detonated in Thailand's restive Muslim-dominated southern area Saturday, according to police and officials
REPORTING FROM NEW DELHI -– At least nine people were killed and dozens wounded when a series of coordinated bombs detonated in Thailand's restive Muslim-dominated southern area Saturday, according to police and officials.

Three bombs went off within minutes as shoppers ventured out around lunchtime in the city of Yala. An investigation is underway, but officials said the devices were apparently placed in cars or motorcycles. Yala Governor Detrat Simsiri told Thai television that many people were injured when the third bomb exploded as they gathered to see what had happened and help survivors.

A number of shops near the blast sites caught on fire, and many parked cars and motorcycles were damaged by the powerful explosions. In the immediate aftermath, rescue workers helped bloodied victims and searched for others as smoke filled the street.  

The shadowy southern Thailand separatist rebellion playing out near the border with Malaysia has killed more than 5,000 people. Once a separate kingdom, the area was annexed by Thailand in 1909. After a period of relative calm, violence flared again in 2004, leading to near-daily attacks since then. Authorities said this was the worst such attack in five years.

Many in the Muslim community feel that a succession of Thai Buddhist governments has sought to deny their identity. Last week, the military admitted troops had shot and killed four Muslim villagers heading to a funeral in late January because of a "misunderstanding," fearing they were under attack from militants. Human rights groups say the military's ability to act with relative impunity has added to local resentment.

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-- Mark Magnier

Photo: Authorities inspect the wreckage of a car after three bomb went off in Yala, Thailand. Credit: Muhammad Sabri / AFP/Getty Images


Thai police pursue fifth bomb suspect [Updated]

Lzh7japd

REPORTING FROM NEW DELHI -- Thai police said Friday that they were looking for a fifth suspect in connection with explosions this week at an apparent bomb factory in Bangkok that authorities have linked to several Iranians.

Thai investigators said the explosives recovered from a rented house used by the suspects were rudimentary in design but not common to Thailand.

Police forensics expert Peerapong Damapong told a local radio network that the explosives used hollowed-out transistor radios filled with C-4, a type of plastic explosive, capped with a bolt, pin and detonator. These were configured with a five-second delay, he added, while an attached magnet allowed the device to be placed under a car and activated by pulling on a string attached to the pin.

"From what we've seen, it's possible for the components to be bought in Thailand,” he said. “The explosive isn't that complicated, it's just something that we haven't really seen in this country."

Thai police have said the bomb-making operation may have targeted Israeli diplomats, but provided no details.

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Thai police hold injured Iranian suspect after blasts

Thailand explosions

REPORTING FROM BANGKOK AND NEW DELHI -- Three explosions rattled downtown Bangkok on Tuesday, a day after bombers targeted Israeli embassy staff in India and Georgia, and police announced that at least one of the suspects in Thailand's capital is an Iranian national.

Israeli officials quickly blamed Iran for the afternoon blasts, which authorities said injured the Iranian and four Thais.

“I would like to ask the people not to panic,” Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said as security was stepped up throughout the Thai capital. “The authorities have now arrested an attacker.”

Thai police said an explosive device detonated in a home rented by Iranians in downtown Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Road area. Two men in the house managed to escape while a third reportedly tried to flag a taxi, which refused to stop given his bloodied condition.

The man threw a grenade at the taxi, Bangkok Police Deputy Commissioner Pisit Pisutsak told reporters, injuring the driver. As police closed in, they said, the man threw another grenade at them — only to have it detonate near the attacker, seriously injuring his legs.

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