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Southeast Asia, explained

Thailand: ex-premier facing murder charge

British-born former leader accused in death of bystander during violent protests
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Former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on March 2, 2012. (TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images)

Former Thai premier Abhisit Vejjajiva and his camp -- targeted for toppling by the "Red Shirts" anti-establishment protesters in 2010 -- have exhibited little remorse over the 80-plus deaths racked up during army crackdowns that year.

They've mostly stuck to their contention that the deaths, while lamentable, were largely the fault of unruly protest factions holding the city hostage with the help of shadowy militants.

But that's a shaky explanation for the killing of Phan Khamkong, a 44-year-old guy who moved to Bangkok from rice-farming country. He never went out protesting and never antagonized military crackdown units. The poor guy was just looking for a bus back home to his neighborhood when he was shot dead on May 15, 2010, during the height of the protests.

According to the Bangkok Post, a court ruling states that "all the circumstances lead to the conclusion that the volley of gunfire with war weapons came from the military authorities  who were on duty that night."

Now, as Agence France Presse reports, Phan's death has led to a murder charge against Abhisit, who ordered the army to disperse protesters.

This is extremely bad news for the former premier.

Charges against high-ranking, well-connected figures in Thailand have a way of getting clogged up in the legal system and withering on the vine.

That said, if Thai authorities are really intent on prosecuting Abhisit for this, then he could catch more charges over the others who were shot even though little to no evidence suggests they ever posed a mortal threat to soldiers dispatched to scramble the protest encampments.

At the risk of understatement, let's just say prison would not suit the Oxford-educated, well-heeled former premier.

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Cambodia: Khmer Rouge honcho not so senile after all

Ieng Sary, brutal regime's foreign minister, sane enough for trial
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Former Khmer Rouge official Ieng Sary, who was foreign minister under the regime, appears in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia on November 22, 2011 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Handout/AFP/Getty Images)

There are plenty of reasons why plotters of horrific atrocities shouldn't get to wait more than three decades before facing their day in court.

But here's the most obvious one: once on trial, they're prone to dementia and have few years left to mete out in bleak cells.

Cambodia's Khmer Rouge trials have already seen one top-tier figure argue, via her legal team, contend that she's too senile to stand trial. That would be Ieng Thirith, the regime's so-called "first lady," who occupied senior positions while the Maoist forces went about bludgeoning, shooting, starving, overworking and generally robbing life from more than 1.5 million people.

The good news is that, despite his lawyers' best efforts, core Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary (Thirith's husband) has just been deemed sane enough for trial, according to the Phnom Penh Post.

This is a refreshing development for a trial that, as I reported in August, has recently teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.

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More South China Sea sabotage

Cut cables, heightened patrols and threats all around
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Vietnamese border guards watch the US Seventh Fleet's USS Blue Ridge entering port as Vietnam welcomes the port call of three US naval ships in the central city of Danang on April 23, 2012. (HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

On his recent spin through Southeast Asia, U.S. President Barack Obama urged calm among nations defiant over claims to the South China Sea.

Well, here's an update from the region's most hotly disputed body of water.

Reuters reports today that Chinese vessels are sabotaging Vietnamese ships scouting for oil.

China, via its state media, is promising that it will speed up its already rapid development of contested territories.

And in a development that has serious potential to spark violent resistance, both Vietnam and China vow to stop, search and seize any foreign vessels plying disputed waters, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Obama's remarks on the contested waters hit all the right notes. But it's now safe to say that his pleas had almost no effect on the disputed sea's claimants.

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Indonesia's fastest growing HIV demographic? Housewives

In parts of the archipelago, housewives top prostitutes in new HIV cases
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A woman displays inflated condoms during a World Aids Day campaign in Bali island on December 1, 2012. (SONNY TUMBELAKA/AFP/Getty Images)

Here's a statistic that begs an explanation from married Indonesian men: housewives in parts of the island nation now outnumber prostitutes when it comes to new cases of HIV.

Those are the latest findings from the Surabaya Aids Prevention Commission, which monitors the spread of HIV in Indonesia. According to the Bernama news outlet, the commission states that a full 60 percent of new HIV cases in populous Bogor, West Java, are housewives. The same report notes that the disease's spread among sex workers is leveling out.

The commission encourages all pregnant women to take HIV tests but, as the Jakarta Globe reports, less than one in ten consent and "those who tested positive became hysterical and immediately pointed their fingers at their husbands." Husbands who criss-cross provinces for work -- and spend long stints away from home -- are seen by the commission as some of the top culprits.

But as long as Indonesians read headlines about children getting expelled for having HIV-positive dads, and HIV-positive couples run out of villages, it will be hard to convince many women that their communities will still embrace them even if they're infected with HIV by philandering husbands.

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Myanmar's government-sanctioned Dos and Don'ts

Smile, mind your feet and stop making out in the street
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A panel from Myanmar's government-sanctioned "Dos and DONT's" guide. (Screengrab)

As Myanmar kicks open its long-shuttered gates and welcomes in the world, it will almost certainly struggle to cope with hordes of tourists.

Most will conduct themselves pleasantly. Some will behave like insufferable pricks.

So far, the country has been spared from the worst breeds of travelers. If you want to get hammered by the beach, or prowl for prostitutes, there are much more welcoming locations in Thailand, Cambodia or the Philippines.

But, for now, Myanmar isn't a choice destination for a boozy, carefree holiday. Getting a visa requires a few bureaucratic hoops and, once you arrive, the power might short out and your taxi might break down.

In the midst of this tourist rush -- no doubt accelerated by Barack Obama's recent visit -- the government has released a "Dos and Don'ts" cartoon guide for visitors.

This is not something I expected to say about government-sanctioned instructions from Myanmar, long a propaganda and police state.

But the guide is really quite impressive.

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In Thailand, Barack does Buddhism

A POTUS in search of "good vibes"
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US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listen to the dean of the Faculty of Buddhism, Chaokun Suthee Thammanuwat, during a tour at the Wat Pho Royal Monastery in Bangkok on November 18, 2012. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

"I always believe in prayer. I believe in prayer when I go to church back home.

And if a Buddhist monk is wishing me well, I'm going to take whatever good vibes he can give me to try to deal with challenges back home."

So said Barack Obama at a Bangkok Q&A that followed an afternoon spin through Wat Pho, one of the Thai capital's most revered temples. Ditching their shoes per temple protocol, both Obama and Hillary Clinton strolled the grounds and chatted with a senior Thai monk. 

The president confirmed he'd suggested to the monk that he could use some prayers to up his chances of reversing America's fiscal woes. Apparently all he received were some "good vibes," a phrase that sounds oddly Jeff Spicoli-esque from the lips of a POTUS.

Prayers? Good vibes?

Even an 8-year-old Thai kid could have told Obama that the easiest way to gain karma points -- i.e. making merit or "tom bpun" in Thai -- entails walking outside, buying a bag of live fish and "freeing" them in the temple canal. In Thailand, that's the go-to karma point cheat code.

However, given the gravity of America's economic woes, perhaps Obama should consider freeing a few blue whales.

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Cambodian villagers' SOS to Obama lands them in jail

How not to stifle dissidence in advance of a presidential visit
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A Cambodian girl paints "SOS" by a portrait of US President Barack Obama on the roof next to the Phnom Penh International Airport on November 14, 2012. (TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images)

In the make-believe Cambodia that government leaders hope to present to Barack Obama on his upcoming visit, the streets are free of urchins and villagers are content with well-connected business interests running them out of their homes.

Land grabbing by government cronies is a major blight on Cambodia's record. (This op-ed by a Cambodian opposition figure offers a brief primer.) Most Cambodians chased out of their villages have no way to complain about their plight to the outside world.

But it just so happens that one slum village slated for demolition is situated in the path of incoming flights to the capital Phnom Penh's airport. So, as the Associated Press reports, they painted SOS on their tin roofs alongside photos of Obama. Perhaps they thought he'd awkwardly ask, "What's the deal with that SOS village?" when drinking tea with Hun Sen, Cambodia's strongman premier.

Had the police not arrested eight of the villagers, according to AFP, I'd imagine the odds of this plea for help coming up in Obama's private talks would be very low. But they did. And in lieu of letting a handful of poor people paint SOS on their roof -- an act likely to be ignored -- Cambodian authorities have given this story legs.

As a president visiting with a highly corrupt and abusive ruling cabal -- who are propped up, in part, by U.S. donors -- Obama will need to make some statement on Cambodian soil that portrays him as tough on human rights. It's a long shot, but maybe the SOS village will get a nod from the U.S. president after all.

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Malay farmers riled by French anti-Nutella tax

Why Southeast Asian palm oil producers resent the French government
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A worker sorts palm bunches before processing them at a factory on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on November 4, 2009. Malaysia is the world's second-largest exporter of palm oil. (SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Depending on who you ask, palm oil is either a wonderous, vitamin-rich substance or an unhealthy abomination that should be taxed out of existence.

The first perspective comes from the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, which does a brisk trade with France. It just so happens that Nutella, the addictive chocolatey spread beloved in France, sources its palm oil from Malaysian farms.

The second comes from the French government which, like a fretful mom guarding the cookie jar, may soon triple its tax on palm oil to protect its citizens' arteries and waistlines. According to the Telegraph, lawmakers describe the potential tax hike as a means of forcing food makers to "replace these oils by new recipes" that are "more respectful of human health."

Nutella, the Guardian reports, will not tinker with their recipe even if the tax goes forward.

Perhaps Nutella sans palm oil would taste all wrong.

It appears that an unlikely alliance of Nutella advocates and Malaysian farmers is being born. The Malaysian Palm Oil Council, according to the Borneo Post, is now putting a pressing question to the French government: given all the butter and cheese you people eat, why do you have to slag off palm oil?

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Screw off, beggars. Obama's coming to Cambodia.

Phnom Penh Post: street kids to be hidden from view before presidential visit
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A Cambodian woman offers bank notes to beggars in Phnom Penh on September 15, 2008. (TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images)

Ravaged by internal strife, foreign bombs (including unexploded U.S. ordnance) and deep poverty, Cambodia is home to a fair number of beggars.

But just imagine one of them approaching Barack Obama's motorcade, with an outstretched hand and a molded squeegee, as he cruises Phnom Penh during his historic, late November visit to Cambodia.

How embarassing.

To spare Obama the sight of poor urchins, Cambodia's government will round up the capital's street beggars and lock them in a "social affairs" center for the duration of the presidential trip, according to the Phnom Penh Post. Obama, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and other leaders, will be attending the East Asia Summit, an influential conference held this year in Cambodia.

As a city hall spokesman explains to the Post, witnessing "beggars and children on the street" might cause world leaders to "speak negatively to the government.”

This attitude suggests that Obama will not be treated to a stroll down Phnom Penh's riverside promenade, where he could very well receive offers for ganja, bootleg copies of "Lonely Planet" and a visit to gun ranges stocked with rusty AK-47s -- all from the same tuk-tuk driver.

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"Evil Man from Krabi": rape case inspires sinister justice song

Musician father warns man alleged to have raped his 19-year-old daughter
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The YouTube-posted music video "Evil Man From Krabi," created by the Dutch father of a 19-year-old woman raped near a Thai beach, promises vengeance against her alleged attacker. (Screengrab)

Dutch musician Cees Koldijik is not quietly accepting the brutal assault of his 19-year-old daughter, whose birthday bash on a Thai beach ended with a trip to the emergency room and a horrific account of rape committed a Thai bargoer.

That's the father in the video below, prowling a dirt road with a rifle, vowing to bring justice to his daughter's attacker. His tune "Evil Man From Krabi," which bears a sonic resemblance to early work by ska pioneers The Specials, asks his daughter's rapist:

Would you like to face me?

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