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Southeast Asia, explained

Vietnam: girl suspended over Ho Chi Minh joke

"Never shall we have to take the exam again. We have to stand up!"
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A Vietnamese girl holds a flag during a ceremony at a local elementary school in downtown Hanoi on September 5, 2012. (HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

Stuffy Vietnamese authority figures: 1, middle-school humor: 0.

An eighth-grade Vietnamese girl has been suspended for one year over a Facebook post parodying a 1946 speech by revered freedom fighter Ho Chi Minh, the news outlet Thanh Nien reports.

It's a decent parody, especially for a middle schooler. It adopts Ho Chi Minh's revolutionary tone and, in lieu of stoking an uprising against the colonial French, vows resistance against exams.

This is an excerpt from Ho Chi Minh's original 1946 speech: "We have made concessions. But the more concessions we make, the more the French colonialists press on. Never shall we be enslaved. Our resistance war will be hard and protracted but certainly successful."

Here's the girl's Facebook post via Thanh Nien: "As we desire peace, we have made concessions. But the more concessions we make, the more the teachers press on, for they are bent on failing us once again. No, we would rather sacrifice all than be dismissed."

It gets better: “All students, whether boy or girl, good or stupid, tall or short have to find ways to get good marks in the exam. Those who have health will use their health, those who have heads will use their heads. Those who have neither health or head have to copy or use cheat sheets.”

The school's authorities tell Thanh Nien the girl is guilty of “insulting her school and teachers” and “distorting history.”

But isn't this the sort of kid you wanted to sit next to in home room?


Myanmar: how the regime sees its widely condemned war

State-aligned press depicts guerrilla forces as brutal, duplicitous
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A soldier from the All Burma Students Democratic Front - Northern Burma, an ally of the Kachin Independence Army, holding his weapon in September, 2012, as he looks out from an outpost near Laiza. (AFP PHOTO/ Soe Than WIN) (SOE THAN WIN/AFP/Getty Images)

The ongoing air strikes lobbed by Myanmar's military at resistance forces along the Chinese border is drawing predictable condemnation.

The U.S. State Department calls the attacks on the largely Christian guerrilla fighters -- the Kachin Independence Army -- "extremely troubling," the New York Times reports. Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations head honcho, has also urged the military to cease the conflict, according to Reuters.

But how is the conflict playing out in the government-aligned press?

Look no further than the New Light of Myanmar, an often-mocked source of government propaganda that, in recent years, blasted Western media for its "killer broadcasts" and "sowing hatred."

From yesterday's edition, we learn that the Kachin guerrillas "sabotaged railroads and motor roads" all while "extorting money" from a local ethnic group and "planting land mines near villages ... to generate misunderstanding" between villagers and the government.

On January 6, New Light readers were told the guerrillas "blasted trucks, abducted local women, sabotaged railroad and bridges and planted mines in urban area."

And in the New Year's Day issue, the government alleges that the Kachin soldiers "committed 101 mine attacks in Kachin State" since late May, 2011.

Is any of it remotely true?

We first must consider that totally independent, on-the-ground reporting out of Myanmar's conflict zones is notoriously hard to come by. Typically, the only witnesses to these conflicts are the combatants themselves and nearby villagers. Among Western media outlets, writing negative copy about guerrilla resistance factions -- which often defend villagers from army abuses and land grabs -- is uncommon and taboo.

But given the government's long track record of abuse -- and the New Light of Myanmar's penchant for pro-state hyperbole -- these stories of sabotage and abduction can't be afforded the benefit of the doubt.


Malaysia: much ado over "Allah" bibles

Some Muslim leaders begrudgingly accept Christians sharing holy word
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A Malay Christian prays on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on November 20, 2012. (SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

There are signs that influential Muslim leaders in Malaysia are finally coming to terms with a long-standing gripe against Christians.

The dispute? To some Muslims' dismay, Malay Christians also prefer to use the word "Allah" when describing their god.

Given Islam's deep influence on the Malaysian peninsula and the Malay language, many Christians see "Allah" as the go-to word for their maker. Some Muslims, however, feel the word should be reserved exclusively for their God.

This is no gentle debate over semantics. Just two years ago, authorities blocked the import of "Allah" bibles and relented only after customs officials adhered stickers reading "FOR CHRISTIANS" to every cover. And in 2010, when courts ruled in the Christians' favor, irate Muslims torched several churches.

But, as the Malaysian Insider reports, even one of Malaysia's most conservative religious parties -- the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party -- is acknowledging that Christians are within their rights to use the word "Allah." A spokesman with the fundamentalist party had urged Christians to forego "Allah" in a Christmas statement but was overruled by the party's leader who, according to the Insider, quickly cleared up the party's official stance.

There are plenty of Islamic fundamentalists in Malaysia who will never grow comfortable with non-Muslims using "Allah."

But an agreement to share the word by one of the nation's bastions of fundamentalism suggests that, just maybe, Malaysians can overcome this semantics quarrel that has drawn out for far too long.


Cambodian transport minister: what billion-dollar railway deal?

Questions surround Cambodia's largest-ever project
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Cambodians sitting along railroad tracks outside their shanty homes in the Boeng Kak slum area of Phnom Penh in 2009. (NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)

Cambodia's latest approved mega-project is a doozy: an $11.2 billion China-funded endeavor to build a steel mine in the country's north linked to a coastal port via 250 miles of railway tracks.

It's difficult to overemphasize this project's scale, which amounts in dollar figures to nearly 90 percent of the country's current annual GDP. As an Asian Development Bank official tells Reuters, it "must be the largest-ever project in Cambodia."

Cambodians and the world at large have reason to wonder about the project's impact: building a 250-mile railway is likely to trigger home evictions, which have a reputation for violence and abuse in Cambodia. The government also acknowledges that they haven't completed an assessment of the mine's potential environmental damage.

The entire project is surrounded with questions. You might assume that Iv Tek -- Cambodia's transport minister, who presided over the deal's preliminary approval -- would be the man with the answers.

But when the small-but-aggressive Cambodia Daily newspaper confronted the minister with questions, they found that "he did not know a great deal about the project."

“I don’t know what the companies will do," he told the newspaper. "Let’s wait and see all together."

Is he really that clueless? Is he playing dumb to ward off tough questions? Either way, these are not so comforting words from an official holding the reigns of a project that will drastically shape lives and Cambodia's already ailing environment.


Myanmar: war skirting Chinese air space?

Reports of air strikes against Kachin guerrillas
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Kachin Independence Army soldiers ride elephants toward the front lines in Kachin state, Myanmar, April 1, 2012. (Will Baxter/GlobalPost)

There are growing reports of Myanmar military choppers and jets buzzing above Kachin State, where a mountain-dwelling resistance force (the Kachin Independence Army) has long defended terrain against state-backed incursions.

That helicopters and jets are circling above this war zone is not in dispute. The government, according to the AP, says its aerial fleet is simply resupplying zones struck by rebels. The guerrillas insist they're being bombarded by airborne munitions and they've circulated grainy video to support their claim. A pro bono, anti-government medic squad, the Free Burma Rangers, has some unverified shots of choppers and jets as well.

But geography makes this uptick in fighting doubly interesting

All of these attack aircraft are whizzing above an area that's right next to China. Sending jets and attack choppers into this air space without at least notifying China -- a stalwart economic and military benefactor in Myanmar -- would be outlandishly bold. Myanmar generals would most likely prefer China's blessing.

As Myanmar-focused journalist Francis Wade writes, the Kachin fighters' insistence that the aircraft are dipping into Chinese air space is plausible.

This amounts to an escalation in a seemingly intractable conflict -- with an added international twist. Hardly the brightest New Year's beginning for a nation hoping to overcome a war-ridden past.


Myanmar's first-ever New Year's countdown

At last, a big, messy and joyous countdown
People wait before the countdown to the New Year near the Shwe Da Gon pagoda and Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon on December 31, 2012. Some 50,000 people were expected to gather at the revered golden Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon for the city's first public countdown to the New Year and fireworks. (Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images)

Focusing on the long toil for big-issue freedoms in Myanmar -- free elections or freedom from land-grabbing army battalions -- can sometimes overshadow the small pleasures that were forbidden by the former military regime.

Like getting tipsy and joining thousands of compatriates in a New Year's countdown.

But last night, at Yangon's resplendent Shwedagon Pagoda, the citizens were allowed to do just that, the Associated Press reports. One organizer told news outlet The Irrawaddy that roughly 50,000 were expected to turn out. (GlobalPost has posted a slideshow of the gala.)

Large and uncontrollable gatherings on this scale have long been prohibited in Myanmar, an authoritarian nation on the mend.

This giant New Year's bash, standard fare in most countries, is just one of many signs that the nation is swinging towards normalcy. Still, given Myanmar's odd time zone, which is 30 minutes off from its neighbors, the nation was largely alone in celebrating at the stroke of midnight. Only Australia's remote Cocos Islands -- population 600 -- share the same time zone.

It's impossible to neatly sum up Myanmar's 2012, a year that saw draconian laws relaxed and U.S. President Barack Obama's historic visit along with intense ethnic violence both in the mountains along China's border and the tropical coast. This year may prove whether Myanmar's reform movement is really powerful enough to tame the nation's worst abuses.

But here's to a less bloody and more free Myanmar in 2013.


Muted nuclear ambitions in Myanmar

As nation's nuclear weapon threat subsides, door open for nuclear energy
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Demonstrators in Myanmar walk with lit candles in a protest against severe power cuts in Yangon on May 23, 2012. (SOE THAN WIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Not so long ago, American officials openly fretted over the possibility that Myanmar -- then an outright U.S. foe -- was actively seeking nuclear weapons.

So it's remarkable that a recent public declaration of nuclear ambitions by a Myanmar official came and went with little fanfare last week.

In 2009, in my piece "Fears of a Nuclear Burma," I summarized the evidence that Myanmar (formerly titled Burma) was seeking a nuke: military ties to North Korea, a mysterious underground facility and a paranoid, ostracized government.

One of the more welcome outcomes of U.S. engagement in Myanmar, from a global security perspective, is the fact that Myanmar's designs on nukes appear to be totally stalled. As the State Department cozied up to Myanmar, the government's North Korea friendship has withered.

Now, as the Associated Press reports, Myanmar's military chief is talking about nuclear technology in public. But he's insisting that any and all nuclear developments in the impoverished nation will revolve around health care (think radiation treatment) and energy. Not bombs.

That's not all that different than the line Iran espouses publicly.

Nor is it all that different from the line towed by Myanmar during the 2009 spell when the State Department feared the nation was close to acquiring nuclear material.

The difference? U.S. officials now appear to be taking their word for it.


Indonesia: death by soap opera?

Child's family says soap opera's hospital shoot contributed to daughter's death
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A screen shot of the Indonesian soap opera "Love in Paris." (YouTube)

Soap opera-crazed Indonesia is watching a tragically ironic drama play out in the death of a 9-year-old, whose parents blame a hit soap for playing a role in their daughter's death.

"Love in Paris" is a romance starring a young starlet, actress Michelle Zudith, whose character suffers from leukemia and is expected to die before 20 -- a plot device that affects her search for love.

Ayu Tria Desiani was a 9-year-old who suffered leukemia in real life. According to the Jakarta Globe, she frequently required treatment in hospitals. After experiencing a burst blood vessel, the Globe reports, she was rushed to an ICU ward yesterday.

Turns out the ward was filled with atypical guests: the perfectly healthy cast and crew shooting a scene for "Love in Paris."

Ayu didn't survive. And her family, according to the Jakarta Post, now claim the soap opera crew contributed to her death by crowding the ward, disturbing her treatment and walking around without sterile clothing.

The hospital insists the received adequate treatment though the Post reports that Indonesia's health minister insists that active ICU wards can never be used legally as filming locations.

Whether Ayu's family can prove a hit soap opera interferred with their daughter's treatment is up in the air. But the accusation alone is stirring up a publicity nightmare for both the show and the hospital.


Myanmar: a Christmas crash and the tourism effect

Is the nation's commerical fleet fit for a tourism boom?
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A man walking by a burning Air Bagan passenger plane after it crashed near Heho airport in Myanmar's eastern Shan state. The aged Fokker-100 plane, carrying 65 passengers including foreign tourists, crash-landed. Two are dead and 11 others are injured, the airline and officials said. (AFP/Getty Images)

Want to travel across Myanmar, the poor, isolated nation that's becoming a tourism hot spot practically overnight?

You're probably going to end up boarding an aging airplane regulated by a government with dubious credibility.

The Christmas day crash landing of a plane in Myanmar's eastern Shan State -- home of idyllic holiday destination Inle Lake -- could potentially tame the nation's tourism boom. As the Associated Press reports, two of the passengers were killed and American, French and Taiwanese travelers were hurt.

As with many aircraft in the nation's commercial fleet, the plane that crashed was quite old. According to the Aviation Safety Report database, the now-destroyed Bagan Air plane, a Fokker 100, first flew in 1991 and spent years operating under a British carrier. Just four years ago, another Bagan Air commercial flight suffered an aborted takeoff that broke its fuselage in two. (That said, I've flown Air Bagan twice and the service was quite pleasant.)

But Air Bagan isn't the only airline with a dubious record. Myanmar Airways, another major domestic carrier, is so worrisome that the United Kingdom urges its staff to avoid the airline altogether.

Compounding the problem is that, in Myanmar, air travel is often the only way to go. Your other options are creaky British colonial-era trains that can take 20 hours to traverse the distance a plane can cover in one hour.

Or buses bumping along potted roads through countryside where modern hospitals have yet to arrive. Depending on the destination, these overland routes sometimes pass through conflict regions where foreigners are often forbidden to travel.

This is unlikely to scare off the small set of adventure-seeking tourists who've been zipping in and out of Myanmar for quite some time. But I suspect the Dec. 25 crash will give pause to more cautious travelers seeking a whimsical holiday in Myanmar.


Vietnam: grim remembrance of America's 'Christmas Bombing'

40 years since Nixon's carpet bombing blitz
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A boy sits on top of wreckage of a downed US Air Force B-52 aircraft on display in Hanoi, Vietnam, on December 19, 2012. (HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

As Americans celebrate Christmas this week, Vietnam's government is hoping to animate patriotic sentiment with a grim 40th anniversary remembrance of the U.S.-Vietnam War's most horrific aerial blitz.

For Americans, there's nothing to celebrate about the "Christmas Bombings," a 12-day wave of Dresden-style carpet bombing over Vietnam's communist north. More than 1,600 civilians were killed in short order. As the killings commenced, the New York Times denounced President Richard Nixon's "Stone Age barbarism."

Despite the horrific casualties, Vietnamese can at least take pride in the felling of more than a dozen U.S. aircraft and the fact that, soon thereafter, the U.S. withdrew from their country.

This week, as Agence France Presse reports, the government has decorated Hanoi with posters of flaming B-52s plummeting to the earth.

But does a war victory from four decades back still resonate with the Vietnamese public?

This AFP article suggests that they'd rather see the government revive the nation's flailing economy than stoke nostalgia over war victories in the 1970s.

As an ex-soldier and former Vietnamese state official told the news outlet, "The government should spend less time and money on celebrating historic events and pay more attention to improving people's lives."