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Southeast Asia, explained

Indonesia: beached whales stoke island feast

“Locals have hacked into around 11 whales so far and will probably use the flesh for meat."

A mass stranding of pilot whales on a distant island in Indonesia has, according to Agence France-Presse, provided a windfall for locals who've sheared off the whale's meat for food.

The outlet reports that Savu Island's fisheries chief claims "locals have hacked into around 11 whales so far and will probably use the flesh for meat." According to AFP, more than 40 pilot whales have wriggled ashore.

The good news: enough pilot whales ply the seas that the species is considered to be at little risk of becoming endangered, according to National Marine Fisheries Service.

But they're notorious for beaching themselves en masse for reasons that are, apparently, sometimes rather poignant. 

"Pilot whales are very social animals," said Allison Garrett, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association rep interviewed by the Associated Press regarding a different beaching in Florida last month.  "One scenario could be one of the animals was sick. They won't leave (a sick whale). They'll stay together."

Samaritans who attempt to roll the whales back into the surf find that the whales wiggle back towards their beached pack, a phenomenon AFP describes as taking place among the dying Savu Island whales. 

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Myanmar's president: reforms not owed to Arab Spring

NYT interview: "It was not because of Arab Spring or anything else."

The reform movement in Myanmar is likely a bit baffling to most news consumers. There was no violent street uprising and no images of rulers dragged off or locked behind bars.

Statements by the ruling ex-generals who've engineered these reforms aren't terribly illuminating either. When asked what spurred the reforms, they offer bland odes to the "democratic process" and the "will of the people."

That leaves us with varied analyses from academics and others. Were the men in charge simply seeking to save their skin? Did a band of decent men on the inside convince the others that their system was untenable? Are they just offering a faux democracy facade to get rich on Western investment?

Or were they afraid of an Arab Spring-style revolt?

Myanmar's President Thein Sein has an answer to the last question: no. Interviewed by Bill Keller of the New York Times in New York, the president attempted to explain why exactly the reforms are taking place:

"Since the beginning, we knew the people wanted a democratic system, but we didn’t want to introduce changes abruptly. It would be quite dangerous to society. The changes in our country were gradual. But we did it because people wanted it. It was not because of Arab Spring or anything else."

A few days earlier, at a forum with the Asia Society, Thein Sein offered this answer to a similar question:

"I would like to use driving a car as an analogy. The transition process in Myanmar is not like driving a car with high speed and turning it around abruptly. It took us two decades to make it happen."

I wouldn't expect Thein Sein (or any leader) to admit fearing revolt. For starters, that would acknowledge a position of weakness and perhaps indicate such a revolt could prove successful. Secondly, it would rob the reformists of their moral high ground.

But there's his answer nonetheless.

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World's biggest millionaire boom? It's in Indonesia

Total wealth of Asia's millionaries could exceed American GDP in just two years.

In discussing Asian giants with soaring economies, India and China often overshadow Indonesia, a Muslim-majority archipelago that holds the world's fourth-largest population.

Perhaps Indonesia deserves a closer look. According a new report from the Switzerland-based Julius Baer Group, Indonesia has the world's fastest-growing number of millionaires, known in financial market lingo as "high net worth individuals."

Is Indonesia on track to becoming a wealthy country in the near future? Heavens no. Half the population, according to the World Bank, is scraping by on $2 per day.

In other words, in Indonesia, you are more likely to encounter someone like this guy pushing a fruit cart than the person receiving that new Ferrari. That said, Indonesia could very well grow its stock of millionaires from 33,000 to a whopping 104,000 in just two years, according to the report.

China and India will still claim the Asia's largest stock of millionaires: the group anticipates China's number of millionaries nearly tripling to 1,370,000 and India's figure nearly doubling to 403,000. All told, if they report proves accurate, Asia's total number of millionaries will nearly break 3 million in the next two years. 

Their estimated total "stock of wealth": $16.7 trillion.

With a T.

That would exceed America's total GDP -- now at $15 trillion, according to the World Bank.

And now you know how that flashy Singaporean nightclub can get away with selling a $26,000 cocktail.

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Asia's priciest drink? A $26,000 cocktail in Singapore

A glass of booze equal to Greece's per capita GDP

Do you ever lie awake at night, unsettled by fears that the Western world is collapsing, all while Asia's elites grow increasingly rich and hold decadent parties that you'll never be invited to?

You may be on to something. Introducing the "Jewel of Pangaea," a cocktail sold in Singapore for $26,000. That is roughly the per-capita GDP of Greece in a glass.

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NatGeo: Philippine priests complicit in ivory smuggling

“Wrap it in old, stinky underwear and pour ketchup on it."

“Wrap it in old, stinky underwear and pour ketchup on it ... so it looks shitty with blood. This is how it is done.”

That's free advice on smuggling ivory into the United States, offered by a high-ranking Catholic cleric in the Philippines, according to an exhaustive report in National Geographic.

In reporting his "Ivory Worship" piece, journalist Brian Christy travels to the Vatican, China and Thailand to explore various cultures' obsessions with rhino and elephant horns and the weak international laws that enable smuggling. (I explored this subject several months ago in a piece titled "Time to Ban Ivory for Good?")

But the Philippines offers his most compelling material: when interviewing a Cebu monsignor with a serious ivory fetish, the cleric is astonishingly candid about smuggling techniques and underground routes and seems almost intent on implicating himself in crime. Christy makes clear that he identified himself as a writer for National Geographic. Either the Monsignor Cristobal Garcia didn't understand he was speaking to a journalist or he's completely nutty.

Either way, he's probably wishing he never met this journalist. Acccording to Agence France Presse, Philippine government investigators have been dispatched to Cebu to pore through his trove of ivory carvings and determine their origin.

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Indonesian president pushes for United Nations blasphemy law to defend Islam

Anti-Muslim film prods Muslim leaders to urge global blasphemy ban

Today in New York, at a major United Nations General Assembly gathering, Indonesia's president is expected to push for a global "blasphemy" law to prevent the denigration of religion, according to the Jakarta Post.

This is a curious move for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, leader of the world's largest Muslim-majority nation. His proposal is a reaction to the anti-Islam "Innocence of Muslims" online video (calling it a "film" is far too flattering) that sparked bloody protests worldwide.

Yudhoyono must know that this proposed bill will never, ever pass.

He must also know that the United States government -- the location where the low-rent video was filmed and the location of YouTube, its primary distribution platform -- would never submit to a U.N. law that contradicts the nation's basic freedoms of speech.

This push is doubly curious given that Indonesia's Muslims, by and large, were not baited by the film into destructive protests. The film brought out the familiar cast of characters who forever rally over perceived slights to Islam and, yes, there were acts of mob violence outside U.S. embassies that ended in injuries. But angry crowds of several hundred or even 1,000 hardly represent popular sentiment in a nation of 242 million people.

It appears that Indonesia's president is simply doing his bit for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation or OIC. The Saudi Arabia-based league of 57 nations, Indonesia included, has long pushed for this sort of blasphemy law on a global scale. 

As noted by the Jakarta Post, Indonesia already has its own blasphemy law, a code that has helped jail a host of Muslims who stray from the nation's mainstream Sunni branch. Similar laws exist in large Muslim states such as Iran and Pakistan.

But this is a pitch to extend such laws across the world and, in the words of the current OIC leader quoted by Reuters, force the West to "come out of hiding from behind the excuse of freedom of expression."

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On sale in Thailand: a cream to lighten the vulva

Start enjoying a "brighter, clearer" vulva in just seven days

"Everyone wants to look good!"

So chirps the model in Lactacyd's new commerical for "White Intimate," a cream that promises to "gently lighten" a woman's vulva. Seconds later, the camera pans to her crotch as she warns about "skin coloration in parts we overlook."

In India and Asia, there's nothing particularly novel about creams, backed by huge advertising budgets, that claim to whiten skin.

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Aung San Suu Kyi: kill the sanctions

"Our people must start taking responsibility for their own destiny."

Aung San Suu Kyi's historic fêting in Washington D.C. has yielded little news -- so little, in fact, that the Associated Press has published a story headlined "Suu Kyi lets on she's a light sleeper." 

But she has offered her strongest denunciation yet of America's Myanmar sanctions, which are already suspended.

"I do support the easing of sanctions because I think that our people can start taking responsibility for their own destiny," said Suu Kyi, according to BBC, while on a trip that will send her home with the Congressional Gold Medal.

It's no secret that the U.S. takes policy cues from Suu Kyi and, historically, has looked for her to bless and legitimize any major decisions on Myanmar. Sanctions are currently in limbo -- suspended but not axed entirely -- but language such as this seems to confirm that all sanctions (except for, perhaps, arms deals) will be wiped out in the near future.

So who's still speaking in favor of punitive trade embargoes against Myanmar, a nation still largely under the sway of active and retired generals from the previous junta?

The list has dwindled to groups without all that much power in Myanmar.

You have international watchdog groups, such as Human Rights Watch, which warns against being "blinded by a romantic narrative of sweeping change" as varied abuses continue. You have the United Nationalities Federal Council, representing Myanmar's beleagured ethic minorities, urging a "wait and see" approach to sanctions while warfare is ongoing in Kachin State along the Chinese border. (Check out GlobalPost's video from the war-torn region here.)

In Karen State, yet another long-running war zone temporarily quelled by ceasefire talks, the leader of the Karen ethnic group's political wing (the Karen National Union) hints that Suu Kyi's eagerness to kill sanctions will lead to bad blood with armed minority factions.

The union's secretary general, Zipporah Sein, tells the Irrawaddy outlet that "it is only Aung San Suu Kyi’s idea for sanctions to be eased in Burma and she should have discussed this with other people before saying this."

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Jailed Indonesian cleric: mimic attacks on U.S. in Libya

Abu Bakar Bashir, linked to Bali bombings, urges violent payback for anti-Muslim film

One of Indonesia's most notorious hardline Muslim clerics has issued a jailhouse proclamation to his faithful: feel free to mimic the coordinated attacks on America's Libyan embassy in Indonesia.

There is still speculation as to whether those attacks, which killed U.S. envoy J. Christopher Stevens, were provoked by the poorly made, anti-Islam "Innocence of Muslims" video posted on YouTube.

But Abu Bakar Bashir, a cheerleader for violent jihad still in prison for organizing the 2002 bombings in Bali, is clear in stating that the film must be answered with violent reprisals. 

In an interview with Indonesian outlet "Voice of al-Islam," according to a translation by the Jakarta Globe, Bashir said that "what happened in Libya can be imitated ... If it is defaming God and the Prophet [Muhammad], the punishment should be death. [There are] no other considerations.”

This is, to my knowledge, the most extreme call to violence to come from any Southeast Asian Muslim leader. But there is good news: Indonesian security forces have already cracked down on Bashir's followers with a vengeance and scattered them into fragmented groups. They are probably incapable of mounting such an attack at the time being.

Better still is that, for the most part, Southeast Asia's varied Muslim societies have registered their disgust at the film but stopped short of advocating violence. As I wrote earlier this week, the region's mainstream Muslim leaders are largely disturbed that America values one troublemaker's freedom of speech rights over the aggrieved feelings of Muslims worldwide.

Still, wild rallies outside American embassies in Indonesia, which have degraded into bloody fighting between Muslim protesters and cops, may continue in days to come. According to the Jakarta Post, protests have scared a U.S. consulate in Medan, a bustling provincial capital, into temporarily closing.

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Speak English or else rule nets Filipino nurses nearly $1 million in suit

Filipino nurses in California hospital punished for speaking native tongue at work

American hospitals can rightly expect nurses to speak comprehensible English.

American patients, however, shouldn't be surprised if their nurses speak with an accent. The U.S. is suffering through a severe nursing shortage and foreigners are filling the gap in droves.

Nursing is a choice career path (and potential path towards an American green card) for many men and women in middle-income countries such as the Philippines. Foreign-born nurses, according to figures quoted by Businessweek, now account for more than 16 percent of all registered nurses in the U.S.

In other words, foreign nurses walking U.S. hospital halls will increasingly bump into other staff members who share a native language other than English.

Can the hospital force these employees to speak English to one another at all times? In break rooms? On smoke breaks? Over lunch?

Probably not, according to a lawsuit's verdict in California.

A group of 70 Filipino nurses, according to a report in the Bakersfield Californian, will be awarded $975,000 after their hospital's management threatened penalties up to termination for speaking Tagalog (a native Philippine language) while clocked in.

The suit suggests management had it out for Filipinos and didn't crack down heavily on employed speakers of other languages: Spanish, Hindi and Bengali, according to the L.A. Times. The Bakersfield Californian, citing the plaintiff's attorney, reports that other staff were asked to "act as vigilantes, constantly berating and reprimanding Filipino-American employees" who spoke Tagalog.

Lesson for hospital administrators (at least in California): if American patients want to hear English while receiving care, as most of them do, you can reprimand nurses for speaking another tongue.

But you have to let them speak their native language in the canteen and the break room.

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