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Freeing Myanmar’s political prisoners

Posted by Nuttapon_S On January - 7 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

President promised to release all political prisoners by end of 2013, but some are calling for more sweeping change.

Yangon, Myanmar – Khin Lai Yee looks despondently at a photograph of her father. Framed with a black bow and white flower, his is just one of scores of black-and-white portraits of political prisoners in Myanmar who died while in custody honoured at a memorial in Yangon.

“There is no justice,” the 46-year-old woman said. “They forced me to sign a document agreeing he died of a heart attack, but I know it isn’t true. I want to sue the government for what they did to us.”

But there is no recourse for the suffering of this general’s daughter and the families of other political prisoners who perished in Myanmar’s notoriously brutal labour camps.

Even for released political prisoners, most presidential amnesties granted are “conditional”, meaning they can find themselves back behind bars at any time. Furthermore, their convictions bar them from most forms of employment and schooling, leaving them in a perpetual limbo some describe as akin to being in a prison without walls.

Still behind bars

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), as many as 46 persecuted people remain behind bars in Myanmar’s prison system, with around 70 others awaiting trial and another 148 sentenced, some in absentia, during 2013 under catch-all laws for locking up dissidents.

Reformist president Thein Sein granted amnesty to five political prisoners on Tuesday as the quasi-civillian government strove to uphold his personal commitment to release all political prisoners by the end of 2013. Presidential spokesperson Ye Htut said in a Facebook post on December 31, “I would like to say that the president has fulfilled his promise given to the people, because there will be no political prisoners at all at the end of 2013”. He attached a report of the Remaining Political Prisoners Scrutinising Committee (RPPSC), which has overseen the release of 354 prisoners in 2013.

But developing the list is at times hampered by competing views among the committee’s members about who should be classified as a political prisoner. In a release issued on January 3, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights criticised the government for not releasing human rights activists Dr Tun Aung and U Kyaw Hla Aung, detained since June 2012 and July 2013 respectively, as well as three workers at international non-governmental organisations jailed since 2012. “We ask the authorities to release those prisoners and to ensure that the prisoner review committee continue(s) its work to resolve all pending cases,” the statement reads.

The RPPSC, comprised of government officials, rights group advocates and former political prisoners, proposes lists of political prisoners to the president’s office for Thein Sein’s personal approval and amnesty order.

Recently, opposition parliamentarian Thein Nyunt pushed forward a motion to consider classifying 21 former military intelligence officers incarcerated during a 2004 power struggle within the military as political prisoners. But the bid has been blocked by both rights groups and government members on the committee, leaving the former military officers with no avenue for appeal.

“We appreciate his [the president’s] order; however, we are still struggling to find who are political prisoners and with poor living conditions we need for there to be rehabilitation programmes in place to help them,” said Aung Myint, a member of the Former Political Prisoners group.

Aung Myint, who spent seven years in prison in Mon State from 1998 to 2004, said that during his time in prison he was locked in a small cell and allowed to come out just four times a day in 15-minute increments. “I lived alone in the cell, so they only opened the door for one hour a day total,” he said, adding that he was forced to watch as other inmates suffered from malnutrition. “The food was bean soup and rice, or fish soup with a lot of bones. We were poorly clothed and because there was no good way to clean ourselves, we smelt a lot.”

Amnesty, not change

“There have been some political changes but it is not really fundamental change yet,” said Moethee Zun, a student activist during Myanmar’s violent 1988 uprising, who fled the country and spent years living at a Thai refugee camp. “We see only small, superficial changes. You know we can make a celebration here, you can go around the country, very basic changes – [but] we want to see more political change.”

Between 3,000 and 4,000 activists were imprisoned in 1988 and in the following years for their role in protests that brought Yangon, then the capital, to a standstill. Many have since been released, most since 2011 under decrees issued by President Thein Sein.

Others died in custody and some continue to suffer in prison, Moethee Zun said. “Because of this, people still feel fear,” he said, adding that even full amnesty could not erase the trauma of seeing loved ones tortured, harassed and locked up.

Kyaw Hoe, a senior litigator and member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition party, said that despite the 2013 amnesties, many opposition activists continue to be imprisoned for their political activities. “These political cases where people are sued by the government, the government has everything – information, resources – human and money,” Kyaw Hoe said.

While he has noticed a decline in politically motivated cases since 2010, Kyaw Hoe estimates he provided 1,540 hours in pro bono legal assistance to NLD members in 2013 alone. “These are cases where NLD members have been assaulted, sued on trumped up charges or accused of leading illegal political protests,” he said. Hearings can drag on for up to a year, with the accused often behind bars for the duration of the trial, unable to make bail.

Upon conviction, inmates can be moved regularly through Myanmar’s geographically expansive prison system. Released prisoners speak of being moved up to 15 hours’ travel away from their family and rotated in and out of hard labour detention centres.

“I cannot focus on the future,” said one 28-year-old political prisoner who was recently released, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “I have been in prison for five years and I don’t know anything anymore. I have to stay with my family,” he said.

“I used to want to work with computers,” he said of his teenage ambition. “But then I joined the army, and…” he shakes his head – an echo of Khin Lai Yee gazing upon her father’s photocopied face.

Additional reporting by Bridget Di Certo.

A cautionary tale of dogs, imposters and North Korea

Posted by Nuttapon_S On January - 6 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

An anonymous blogger is a tenuous enough source for a news story. But an imposter posing as that anonymous blogger?!

Perhaps not since “curveball” – the now discredited Iraqi defector whose evidence was used to make the case for war – has an unreliable single source had such a field day.

The extraordinary claim that the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had his uncle fed alive to a pack of hungry dogs comes from this posting on a Chinese microblog.

It’s been pointed out by those who’ve unearthed the trail that all it took was a bit of Chinese and some basic curiosity. But as the sensational story was splashed around the world the original, extremely shaky sourcing on which it was based was lost.

The post containing the gory details of the alleged execution is from a blogger calling himself Choi Seongho and claiming to be a North Korean newspaper editor now studying in China. His blog on Tencent, the country’s second most popular microblogging platform, carries satirical comments about life in North Korea. He has 30 thousand followers and he doesn’t reply to direct messages.

He also has a namesake. There is a Choi Seongho very much alive and blogging on Sina, China’s leading platform. The content is very similar, a mix of seemingly tongue-in-cheek North Korean patriotism and mild satire. But he has more than 2 million followers, was the first of the two to open an account, and although he keeps his identity anonymous, does reply to direct messages.

When asked by the BBC whether he was the source for the dog story, he denied it, saying; “The person on Tencent is someone trying to be me, who is not me.”

Admittedly, many of the news organisations carrying the North Korean execution story have wondered out loud at its authenticity. Now we know the original sourcing, a single anonymous Chinese blog masquerading as another, more popular, Chinese blog, the story looks too weak to be worth the ink.

In the end, what all this tells us, as others have pointed out, is that when it comes to North Korea we’re too ready to entertain our darkest imaginings, even if we don’t quite believe them ourselves.

It is certainly a dark and secretive place, but that makes it all the more important that we report the truth, not a sensational parody of it.

Blogger: Google Glass is ‘doomed’ — for now

Posted by Nuttapon_S On January - 3 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

(CNN) — A noted tech journalist and early adopter of Google’s Glass headset is declaring the technology “doomed,” at least for 2014.

There’s a tongue-in-cheek nature to Robert Scoble’s pronouncement, which he shared with the 4.7 million people who follow him on Google+. His strong language, he said, was a send-up of the tech press’s sometimes over-the-top approach to news.

But Scoble, who got his Glass headset in April on the second day the devices became available to some journalists and early testers, predicts the connected eyewear will flop with consumers when it goes on sale to the general public, presumably this year. Scoble said he thinks the price will be too high and there won’t be enough apps or useful functions to make the wearable tech worth the cost.

He has a sunnier view of Glass’s long-term prospects, though.

“By 2020 I’m quite convinced this will be a big deal and there will be lots of competitors by then,” he wrote. “So, if you make it about 2020, then it isn’t doomed. If it’s about beating the Apple iWatch in 2014? Yes, totally doomed.”

Apple has not rolled out a smartwatch yet but is widely rumored to be doing so soon, marking the tech giant’s entree into the emerging wearable-tech field.

Google did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment for this article.

Glass is a headset with a camera and small screen situated above the wearer’s right eye. The wearer can access the Internet and snap images and video by using voice commands.

A blogger and author, Scoble works as a new-tech “evangelist” for IT company Rackspace. But his influence in the tech community is broader and his writing helps shape opinion in some quarters.

Scoble has 374,000 followers on Twitter and has been one of the most visible Google Glass users. A photo of him wearing the headset in the shower went viral last year.

Scoble noted that Glass, which has sold for $1,500 to a limited number of beta testers, is likely to be released at a cost of more than $500. He says that’s too much for the public at large.

“Price is gonna matter a LOT. But I’m hearing they won’t be able to get under $500 in 2014, so that means it’s doomed. In 2014,” Scoble wrote. “When they get under $300 and have another revision or two? That’s when the market really will show up. 2016, I say.”

He said the headset will need to be custom-fitted to its wearer, and that customers will need to receive an hour or two of training before using it — which will inflate its price. Scoble also believes that battery life, at least on the current Glass models, won’t be enough for some people.

He said a lack of apps could also hurt.

“That will start getting fixed after a few months of release, but early users are gonna continually ask ‘where’s the Uber app?”‘ Or ‘where’s the Foursquare app?’ Or ‘why does the Facebook app suck?’ he wrote.

Scoble criticized the lack of a quality Facebook app in particular.

“Sorry Google, but Google+ still isn’t used by my family, friends, or those I speak with …,” he wrote. “Google+ isn’t nearly as ubiquitous or as nice, truth be told, particularly for mobile users. This lack of Facebook support is the #1 thing that pisses me off about Glass.”

All of that said, Scoble holds out hope. He said he still loves his Glass and that it’s unfair to judge a test version of the still-new device as if it’s a finished product.

“So, what would I do if I were Google? Reset expectations,” he wrote. “Say ‘this is really a product for 2020 that we’re gonna build with you.’ First release is in 2014, but let’s be honest, if it’s $600 and dorky looking, it’ll be doomed — as long as expectations are so high.”

While still in limited release, Google Glass has already stirred up some controversy.

Some restaurants and other businesses have banned Google Glassover concerns about the headset’s ability to take photos and record video. And users have already been ticketed for wearing them while driving, as lawmakers in several states consider laws to ban them behind the wheel.

And then there’s their appearance. Glass’s part-futuristic, part-dorky look has been mocked in such spots as the blog, White Men Wearing Google Glass.

The morning after: Asia’s top hangover cures

Posted by Nuttapon_S On January - 1 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

Waking up to 2014 with a booze-induced illness? Forget the greasy breakfasts. Rice gruel and ox blood are the surefire restoratives your body seeks

It’s a self-induced ailment that transcends culture and language barriers. The hangover.

Whether you’ve binged on sake or baijou, the result is too often the same: pounding headache, mouth like a Russian wrestler’s jockstrap, urge to spend the day close to something white and made of porcelain.

Though hangovers might be universal, cures for the brown bottle flu are not.

Some boozers swear that a greasy breakfast does the trick. But if you find yourself in an Asian city New Year’s Day with nary a greasy English fry-up in sight, these local hangover cures should make you feel half-human in no time.

China: Congee

Nothing like a big bowl of gruel to pick you up off the floor.What is it: On the surface, congee is a pretty simple dish. Chinese rice porridge. Gruel, if you really want to get fancy.

But it takes on many variations throughout the country. You can add almost anything to your congee, such as salted duck eggs, lettuce and various meats — just not all at once.

Why people think it works:Congee has long been considered a comfort food for people who simply aren’t feeling well, which aptly describes anyone hungover.

Being a soupy solid, it tackles both causes of hangover by rehydrating and soothing irritated stomach lining.

Unlike some popular hangover cures, congee is easy to swallow when you’re in rough shape and tastes pretty good with the right flavorings.

Where to find it: While not quite as easy to find as other Chinese hangover cures, such as tea or ginger, the best bet is to head for the nearest dim sum restaurant (though many Chinese restaurants carry it).

More on CNN: Chinese hangover cures that don’t involve more alcohol

Japan: Green tea

No need for Powerade when you’ve got green tea.What is it: The most Japanese of all beverages. A bitter yet refreshing drink served hot or cold.

Why people think it works: Green tea is high in antioxidants and will help detoxify an abused liver a lot better than the self-destructive “the hair of the dog that bit you.”

It may also help with headache and nausea. At the very least, its stimulating side effects will allow you to walk upright like a triumph of evolution so you don’t hit that business meeting looking like you just rolled off the couch with bits of popcorn in your hair.

Be warned: most Japanese green tea also contains a fair amount of caffeine, which won’t help someone who just wants to sleep off a hangover.

If you’re not afraid of the funky, drop a few umeboshi (plum-like ume fruit soaked in sea salt) into your green tea. It’s super-salty and sour, but said to aid in restoring all those eletrolytes you killed off the night before.

Where to find it: Green tea is available in cold form pretty much everywhere and incredibly easy to brew on your own, even with a nasty, grating hangover. Chances are, your hotel room will have a few green tea packets next to the hot water kettle.

South Korea: Hangover stew

Blood of ox beats hair of dog. So say many Koreans.What is it: You know you’re in a country of late-night boozers when a dish is named in honor of the ailment it’s designed to eradicate.

Korea’s haejangguk actually means “stew to cure a hangover.”

Though versions vary throughout South Korea, the usual bowl of haejangguk is made from a beef broth, with cabbage, bean sprouts, radish, egg and chunks of congealed ox blood. Mmmm. Guess which is the secret ingredient?

Why people think it works: The deeply satisfying taste does wonders to kick-start a sluggish brain in the morning, while the thick, hearty ingredients soothe soju-irritated stomachs.

The only challenge is convincing yourself to take that first bite. It’s not pretty to look at, what with that big raw egg yolk staring you in the eye like a disapproving grandmother.

Where to find it: Haejangguk can be purchased in the morning from street vendors all over Seoul.

If in doubt, look for the nearest cart surrounded by tired, sluggish Koreans in need of a pick-me-up on the way to the office.

Thailand: Spicy noodle soup

Kway tiew nahm sai (clear noodle soup) is made with pork bones, radish, cilantro, sliced pork, pork balls, bean sprouts and Chinese kale.What it is: Almost every recipe for pad kee mao (Thai drunken noodles) posted online comes with the claim that this simple dish is a good hangover cure.

But according to locals, pad kee mao is best eaten while you’re in the process of drinking. Not after.

Instead, spicy noodle soup is what cures what ails you the morning after.

It comes in many forms. Yellow noodles. Glass noodles. Wide noodles. Noodles topped with beef, fish balls, pork, chicken, pigs blood or duck.

And all are made with different flavors of broth, including the all-powerful tom yum.

Why people think it works: Many Thais claim extra spicy soup helps freshen them up by letting them sweat out some of those nasty booze toxins and shake that queasy hangover feeling. The hearty ingredients, on the other hand, tame the angry beast crying for attention in your stomach.

For some, the idea of slurping a bowl of spicy liquid when your stomach lining is already irritated is about as appealing as knocking back another five shots of tequila.

Fortunately, at Thai noodle stands you can add your own spice from a dispenser on the table (few travelers can handle the spice intensity the locals can).

Where to find it: Hit up the nearest street noodle stand. If you’re really desperate, any Thai convenience store carries cups of instant noodles, which will do the trick if you’re in a hungover pinch.

More on CNN: A noodle soup lover’s guide to Bangkok

Hong Kong: Ginseng tea

That’s going to make a lot of tea.What is it: American ginseng, sliced up and steeped in hot water.

Why people think it works: The mildly bitter root calms the body by purging excessive Yang, or hot positive energy, from the body.

Chinese elders will also tell you that the herb generates fluids and curbs thirstiness –- perfect for hangover dehydration.

Where to find it: Ginseng tea is widely available in grocery stores and tea shops. Or just make it yourself.

All you have to do is simmer fresh slices of American ginseng in hot water. To mellow out the mildly medicinal flavor, mix in some honey.

India: Coconut water

Even if you’re not hungover, coconut water is refreshing. Just ask Indian star batsman Suresh Raina.What is it: Not to be confused with coconut milk, coconut water is the liquid inside unripened coconuts.

Why people think it works:Again, it’s all about electrolytes. Many Indians swear by coconut water as a hangover cure, as it’s full of nutrients and potassium, making it fantastic for rehydrating.

Best of all, it’s natural and healthy.

Where to get it: Throughout the tropics in Asia, plenty of vendors can be found on the streets selling fresh, young coconuts.

But these days you can get it anywhere. Though scientists say its benefits aren’t fully proven, big companies are capitalizing on the coconut water health trend by bottling it for convenience store shelves.