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Southeast Asia, explained

Indonesian clerics vs. Santa Claus

Is "Merry Christmas" forbidden in Muslim-majority Indonesia?
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An Indonesian child receives candy from a man dressed as Santa Claus in Jakarta on December 25, 2011. (ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images)

Another Christmas season, another year of hand wringing for Muslim-majority Indonesia's arbiters of piety.

As the Jakarta Globe reports, Indonesia's top Islamic rule-making body (the Indonesia Ulema Council) is again warning Muslims to forego all Christmas "rituals".

In other words, don't plop your kid down on Santa's lap at the mall. And don't even say "Merry Christmas," the clerics warn -- it's a slippery slope towards religious impurity.

Those who've never experienced Christmas in Asia may wonder why clerics would feel compelled to issue such a warning in the first place.

But in malls across Asia -- in Shanghai, Buddhist Bangkok and even Muslim-majority cities such as Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur -- shoppers are deluged with cheesy carols piped through intercoms. And Christmas trees. And neon wreaths and, occasionally, a plump Asian dude waving to tots in a Saint Nick suit.

Directly participating in much of that, the clerics say, is "haram" or forbidden for Muslims.

As for "Merry Christmas"?

“It’s still up for debate whether it’s halal or haram, so better steer clear of it," the council's chairman tells the Jakarta Globe. "But you can say ‘Happy New Year.’ ”

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Lao activist Sombath Somphone (center) at a 2005 award ceremony in the Philippines. (JOEL NITO/AFP/Getty Images)

Sombath Somphone is a 60-year-old activist in a country where even a whiff of dissent can draw harsh reactions from authorities.

That's why, in the wake of his mysterious disappearance, Sombath's family and supporters have wasted little time in pointing fingers at the government.

Sombath isn't a hardcore rabble rouser. He's best known for drawing attention to Laos' deep poverty and starting foundations to help Lao people find self-sustaining employment. 

But his family is demanding answers after Sombath went missing earlier this week. As the Associated Press reports, he was en route to meet his wife for dinner five nights ago and never showed up.

They are hardly encouraged by the emergence of grainy closed-circuit footage that appears to show cops stopping Sombath's car and men escorting him to a separate vehicle that drives off into the night.

The Lao government denies any role in Sombath's disappearance. They suggest he may have been kidnapped over personal or business disputes. That hasn't stopped Human Rights Watch from accusing the government outright and insisting that authorities "immediately reveal his location and return him to his family.”

Whoever absconded with Sombath may have underestimated the scholarly, English-speaking activist's international profile. Pressure on the Lao government to make sense of this mystery is likely to increase by the day.


Vietnam: invasion of the mystery worms

Unidentified creatures must be killed with fire
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Villagers float on rafts made of bananas trees in the central Vietnamese province of Quang Binh. (HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

Courtesy of Vietnam's Tuoi Tre newspaper, a wildlife mystery surrouding worms that can withstand blades and lime but not fire.

Even village elders can't identify a worm-like creature that has suddenly appeared in central Quang Binh province. A couple whose house has been beset by the tiny, wriggling insects tells Tuoi Tre that the beings are strangely resilient. (Photos of the worms can be seen here.)

At first, they tried to destroy the worms with pesticide.

The worms lived.

Then they tried to destroy the worms with lime.

The worms lived.

Then they tried to destroy the worms with scissors.

But, when cut in half, both severed parts continued to live.

Can anyone identify accurately identify the species of this mystery worm?


Cambodia's premier: don't be a homophobe

"Most of them are good people and are not doing alcohol, drugs or racing vehicles."
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Hun Sen, Cambodia's prime minister, in 2012. (TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images)

Cambodia's strongman premier is not known for his poignant appeals for tolerance.

Here's a quote, cited by Human Rights Watch, that reflects his take on dissenters in Cambodia: “I not only weaken the opposition, I’m going to make them dead ... and if anyone is strong enough to try to hold a demonstration, I will beat all those dogs and put them in a cage.”

And yet, the tough-talking prime minister has come out with a welcome -- but awkwardly worded -- statement encouraging Cambodian society to accept homosexuals.

As the Associated Press reports, he publicly stated that "there should be no discrimination against them just because of their destiny ... most of them are good people and are not doing alcohol, drugs or racing vehicles."

This is all the more confounding given his take, in 2007, on his adopted daughter's lesbian coupling. According to China's Xinhua outlet, he kicked her out of the house and worried aloud that her "girls" would bring bombs and poison to his home.

So has Hun Sen had a change of heart?

Was he just looking to score politcal correctness points last week on United Nations' Human Rights Day -- a day that might otherwise draw attention to his dismal human rights record?

And might he show some of that tenderness towards his Cambodian detractors who are locked up for daring to criticize his rule?


Vietnam: dog abbatoirs rabidly opposed to new law

Rabies law pits bureaucrats against dog farmers
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A vendor selling dog meat to a customer at a roadside market in Hanoi, Vietnam in 2012. (HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

The Vietnamese government's campaign to eradicate rabies by 2015 is clashing with a fringe agricultural demographic: dog farmers.

As if running a dog farm wasn't difficult enough.

As I found out in 2009, when researching the series "Dog Meat Mafia," there are reasons most cultures don't farm dogs that run deeper than moral hangups.

Unlike cows, dogs don't just gently plod around and munch grass. Corralled into close quarters, they fight. They swap skin diseases. They reek.

To all that, add a new worry for Vietnam's dog farmers: notifying the government every time a dog is bought, sold or killed. To track and stamp out rabies, Vietnam's government wants a full headcount of every canine occupying homes and farms, the Thanh Nien newspaper reports. Farmers are telling the outlet that this new rule amounts to a bureaucratic nightmare.

Vietnam copes with recurring spikes in rabies cases. The state-run Vietnam News counts a whopping 240 deaths in northern provinces since 2010 and contends that "increased public awarness" is vital in stemming the disease's spread.

Part of the problem is that, while dog-borne rabies spreads to humans in most societies through bites, it also spreads in Vietnam through consumption. Eating an unvaccinated dog -- even after cooking -- appears to pose a rabies transmission risk, according to a study backed by the South East Asia Infectious Disease Clinical Research Network.

A hospital case study offered by the report is worth quoting at length:


At last, Philippine contraception wars near final act

Condoms, birth control pills and Catholics portending moral decay
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An illegal abortion cocktail known in the Philippines as "pampa regla" purchased on the black market outside one of Manila's most exalted churches, the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene. Vendors promise the concoction can cause even a 1-month-old human embryo to bleed out with menstruation. (Patrick Winn/GlobalPost)

Filipino Catholic priests have warned that, if lawmakers pass a bill promoting contraception use among the Philippines' fast-growing population, the nation's spiritual foundation would crumble.

But this morning, at 2 a.m., politicians passed the bill anyway, the Manila-based Inquirer reports.

The long-debated "Reproductive Health" bill is still winding its way through Congress. But it appears that the best efforts of Filipino bishops will fail to stop its enactment.

This bill has been the obsession of Vatican-appointed Filipino bishops for more than a decade. The law, by Western standards, is fairly uncontroversial: it subsidizes birth control in a nation where families who can't afford birth control produce more kids than they'd like to and find themselves mired in poverty.

Just a few months ago, while reporting "Abortion Cocktails and Condom Wars," I met one of these women: a homeless mother of eight named Josephine. She'd breastfed until her calcium was depleted and her teeth fell out.

Just a short taxi ride from where Josephine slept, vendors sold black-market abortion kits outside one of Manila's most exalted churches. As you can see from this photo, this kit amounted to a purplish liquid and a set of herbal pills taken over the course of a few days.

Lawmakers promoting this bill have been called wayward Catholics, agents of spiritual ruin and accessories to murder. Still, a majority of them appear intent on passing it. Perhaps the church will resort to following through on a previous threat: excommunicating the bill's most ardent supporters. 


Vietnam: legit Gucci passing as bogus for profit?

A counterintuitive case of corruption
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A young couple poses for their wedding photos outside a Gucci store in Hanoi on December 6, 2012. (HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

Try to wrap your head around this convoluted luxury goods scam, uncovered by Vietnam's Thanh Nien news outlet.

Unlike their bootlegging competitiors, a Gucci shop in Ho Chi Minh City intended on selling real-deal handbags.

But police suspect that, because they didn't want to pay full import fees for their high-end, Italian-made goods, they had their shipments routed through Hong Kong and passed off as Chinese fakes worth less than $7.

The alleged scheme, Thanh Nien reports, has led to the suspension of three customs agents accused of colluding with the Gucci store's owners.

The takeaway: importing bogus brand-name goods into Vietnam through legal channels? No problem.

Just don't try to pass off your genuine luxury goods as cheap knock-offs.

Just another case of corruption from Vietnam which, according to a Transparency Internationl report released last week, is experiencing a spike in graft.


Silver lining to Philippine disaster? A rebel truce

Maoist rebels cool off in wake of brutal typhoon
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A New People's Army guerrilla in a remote village in the southern island of Mindanao on December 26, 2010. (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

There is little to celebrate about a horrific typhoon that has took the lives of nearly 650 Filipinos and ruined more than $200 million worth of crops. The storm, known as Bopha, has devastated the Philippines in a year already stricken with destructive monsoons.

But at least the storm has convinced the island nation's communist rebels, the New People's Army, to suspend its strikes while damaged regions recover. As the Manila-based GMA outlet reports, the Maoists, whose struggle has left more than 40,000 dead, have offered a truce in the storm's wake.

This disaster won't reverse the rebels' ideological stance.

Nor will it resolve the fundamental problems the fuel their decades-running insurgency.

But history has shown us that extreme weather events can sometimes be parlayed into peace -- or at least open the door to improved negotiations. In Islamic Aceh, wracked by rebellion for decades, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami played an invaluable role in pushing the rebels and the Indonesian military to draw down their bloody conflict.


Vietnam: a brief burst of anti-China rage

Shout down the Chinese but, please, keep it brief
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Police disperse protesters during an anti-China rally in downtown Hanoi on December 9, 2012. (HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

As a rule, taking to the streets with placards, banners and angry rhetoric in Vietnam invites harsh retribution from the authoritarian government.

But rallying against China in Vietnam, where resistance to Chinese aggression is central to the national identity, presents a tricky case for the nation's communist rulers.

Rare protests attended by hundreds sparked off in both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, according to the BBC and other outlets.

Their cause: shouting down China for its perceived aggression in the South China Sea, where China is doing its damndest to assert dominance over waters claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines.

On one hand, the security-obsessed government is deeply uneasy with politically charged street protests. On the other, the powers that be are loathe to come off as bending to China's will -- despite the fact that, like much of Asia and the world, Vietnam is now deeply dependent on Chinese trade.

That's likely the reason that, in lieu of cracking heads, Vietnamese authorities "urged (protesters) to disperse and tried to reassure them that 'the Communist Party and government are resolutely determined to defend our country's sovereignty and territory through peaceful means based on international law,'" according to Al-Jazeera.

Since China's push for total control of the South China Sea isn't about to vanish, I suspect more protests are inevitable. This round saw roughly 20 detainments, the BBC reports, and it's unclear whether those protesters have been released.

This will increasingly force Vietnam's government -- uneasy with both street rage and Chinese dominance -- to walk a tightrope.


Cali 'burbs to Vietnam officials: don't come 'round here

Why are Orange County suburbs beefing with Hanoi bureaucrats?
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A young Vietnamese girl shields herself with a national flag at a Hanoi stadium. (HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite a history of brutal warfare, followed by a long spell of deep mistrust, ties between Vietnam and America are growing warmer by the year. 

You would be hard pressed to locate many people who regard this as a negative development. Unless you happened to start looking in the suburbs of Orange County, that is.

As if stuck in the Cold War, the governing council of Orange County's Garden Grove issued a formal resolution discouraging Vietnamese officials from visiting their city, according to the Orange County Register.

The paper also reports that the city's incoming mayor recently told a rally that "We really don't want 'em." Similar policies are on the books neighboring cities, including Santa Ana.

I suppose this plays well to the area's large Vietnamese immigrant population which, like most Vietnamese immigrants to the U.S., trace their exodus back to the former American client state of South Vietnam.

The relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam, while not cuddly close, is warmer than ever. A mutual fear of China's rise, and America's appetite for cheaply manufactured goods, has a way of stoking the embers of friendship. As I reported earlier this year, the two nation's militaries -- despite having blown each other to shreds a few decades back -- and even conducting joint drills together.

This suggests that, in Vietnam's halls of power, the head honchos are more interested in mutually beneficial progress than stewing over Agent Orange or My Lai or, say, the White House-sanctioned coup and assassination of South Vietnam's president.

As Vietnam's Tuoi Tre outlet reports, Hanoi's foreign ministry has stated that "such resolutions are wrong, like a fish out of water, and go against the trend of the two countries’ development relations."

Spokesmen for the communist government have a habit of sounding like propagandists. Leave it to suburban Orange County politicians to make them sound perfectly reasonable.