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Southeast Asia, explained

Indonesia: anti-US protests turn ugly

Stones, DIY fire bombs hurled in clashes with police
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Indonesian protesters from a group called "Sharia For Indonesia" throw a demonstration against the U.S. government to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks outside the US embassy in Jakarta on September 11, 2012. (ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images)

Anti-American rallies held by hardline Islamic groups in Jakarta appear to be sliding into disorder. 

The Jakarta Globe, which puts the protester headcount at about 1,000, reports that riot police and demonstrators exchanged stones and tear gas grenades. Al-Jazeera reporter Step Vaessan, who counted 500 protesters at the scene, has taken to Twitter to describe flying rocks and molotov cocktails in front of the Indonesia's American embassy.

And Agence-France Presse reports cops using water cannons and warning shots to scare off the crowd.

These are the first significantly violent scenes prompted by the low budget, anti-Muslim film "Innoncence of Muslims" to break out in Southeast Asia. The movers and shakers here are the Islamic Defenders Front, still on high from thwarting Lady Gaga's planned performance earlier this year, and the global Hizbut Tahrir network, which has active chapters in Indonesia.

More rallies are expected later this week in Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, and on Tuesday afternoon in Bangkok, Thailand.


Khmer Rouge "First Lady" too senile for punishment

Courts rule Pol Pot's sister-in-law unfit for trial
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Former Khmer Rouge minister Ieng Thirith attends the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia (ECCC) in Phnom Penh on April 30, 2010. (TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images)

Another month, another crippling setback for the Khmer Rouge trials.

Ieng Thirith, the 80-year-old sister in law of reviled communist revolutionary Pol Pot, belongs to a quartet of Khmer Rouge leaders who held power during the communist regime's hyper-violent killing spree in the 1970s.

All are old and frail.

But the passage of time has left Thirith, the so-called "First Lady" of the Khmer Rouge, with serious dementia, her lawyers say.

The judges now agree: her "progressive, degenerative illness (likely Alzheimer’s disease)" has rendered her "unfit to stand trial," according to a statement released by the courts.

Thirith is now a free woman. But it is an indisputable, historical fact that she occupied the Khmer Rouge's highest rungs of power during its horrific killing spree.  She is directly accused of "crimes against humanity" and "genocide" during Khmer Rouge reign, which left 1.7 million dead from force labor, starvation, sickness and systematic murder. 

So what's next for the Khmer Rouge's first lady?

Probably wasting away at home. The courts mandate that she can't meddle with witnesses or evidence (which she is probably too senile to do anyway) and she can't leave Cambodia (which she probably had no intention of doing). She's asked to refrain from giving interviews. She'll be medically reevaluated each year. 

As Global Post reported last month, the trials are teetering on financial collapse. Judges have quit and accused the government of undermining the trials.

But this is the first time since the trials began that Khmer Rouge victims have had to watch one of regime's key architects face judges only to turn around and walk free.


Surf, sun and simmering tension in the Chinese-claimed Sansha Islands

Government pushes cruise-ship tourism in disputed territory
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A photo posted to the state-run outlet China Daily site of a cruise ship traveling to Sansha, China's newest city. (Screengrab)

Want to visit China's newest, most exclusive, state-promoted island hideaway?

Go right ahead. But you'll have to enter a hotly disputed oceanic territory to get there.

By cruising towards the Sansha Islands, you are entering territory claimed by Vietnam, which adamantly insists the islands are Vietnamese soil. The city's establishment several months ago as a Chinese center of governance for the South China Sea is also considered outrageous in the nearby Philippines, which condemns China for stationing troops and erecting military outposts on Sansha.

But that hasn't stopped China's state-run press from publishing a flurry of articles promoting tourism in Sansha -- translation three sandbanks -- a barely inhabited string of islands scattered far from the mainland.

China Daily has a series of Sansha photos that include one shot of woman stepping along an idyllic beach. The Shenzhen Daily describes Sansha's "blustery island winds" and "palm trees." Yet another China Daily article quotes an island hopper who gushes that the "dazzling blue sea and sky really took my breath away." The Global Times tells of locals thrilled over the islands' coming economic development.

How do you get there? Perhaps by contacting this tour agency, which is already promoting its Sansha packages.

Can China actually convince tourists to go out of their way to visit tiny specks of land in the middle of nowhere? Perhaps. If so, their sun-and-fun holidays will provide the Chinese government one more way to rationalize their dominance of this far-flung territory.


Thailand: police bribe caught on video

Anti-corruption campaign sets up Bangkok cop for $12 bribe
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Thai policemen in the southern province of Narathiwat on March 15, 2012. (MADAREE TOHLALA/AFP/Getty Images)

Back in July, when blogging about a volunteer cop filmed while kicking a couple off a speeding motorbike, I wrote that "police corruption is one of Thailand's most intractable problems. Roadside shakedowns and abuse are common. But perhaps an army of camera phone-wielding, dashboard video-recording motorists is part of the solution."

The latest contribution to the Thai cops behaving badly on YouTube collection depicts a commonplace payoff to a traffic cop.

This isn't a Rodney King moment in which cameras happen to be running when abuse goes down. This is more like reverse entrapment: a cabbie pulls an illegal U-Turn in a spot known for shakedowns, offers up 400 Thai baht ($12) and an accomplice records the payoff. Anyone who routinely rides in Bangkok taxis has seen this sort of transaction take place.

I'll translate the dialogue between the taxi driver and the cop.

Cop: Little brother, let me see your papers.

Taxi driver: Sorry, big brother! I'm taking my foreign friend out for fun. Please help me out here.

And with that, cash changes hands and the taxi driver skates away. (For what it's worth, I suspect he could have paid much less.)

It's important to consider the source of this video. It's been released by Chuvit Kamolvisit, the former owner of a brothel empire and a confessed briber of police who has since entered parliament with an anti-corruption agenda. (Here's my interview with him back in 2010.)

Regardless, videos such as this reveal the role discrete video cameras (and mobile phones) can play in exposing routine police corruption.


Indonesia's new tourism campaign: where are the Muslims?

State-funded "Wonderful Indonesia" campaign shies from Islamic imagery
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An image used in the government-funded "Wonderful Indonesia" tourism campaign. (Screengrab)

Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim-majority nation and, naturally, Islam helps define the landscape. Provided they venture outside the Hindu island of Bali, most travelers to the archipelago will come home with memories of women in hijabs on the street and the Islamic calls to prayer in the air.

But you will find few traces of Muslim life in the latest "Wonderful Indonesia" campaign, a state-funded effort to draw in tourists.


Video: tigers toddling in a proposed dam's flood zone

WWF footage captures rare tigers in Thai jungle
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Tigers play at a buddhist temple in Kanchanaburi province, Thailand, on April 24, 2012. Worldwide, tiger stocks are estimated to have fallen to only 3,200 tigers from approximately 100,000 a century ago. (PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images)

First, the good news. The World Wildlife Foundation and Thailand's parks department have captured rare footage of a tigress scampering through the jungle with her two cubs.

This is significant: catching up to wild tigers in Thailand (or anywhere in the world for that matter) is increasingly difficult. Only about 300 wild tigers remain in Thai jungles, according to the WWF, which asserts that global wild tiger stocks have shrunk from 100,000 a century ago to a frightening low 3,200.


Vietnam: we're too poor to fuel rhino horn craze

Official says Vietnam "not even close" to being horn consumption mecca
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A conservationist watches over a four-month-old black baby rhino at the Entabeni Safari Conservancy in South Africa. The country has seen a huge rise in poaching as black market demand for rhino horn soars. (STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images)

As my Johannesburg-based colleague Erin Conway-Smith write this week, wildlife watchdogs believe Vietnam's high society is driving demand for rhino horn and thus helping drive African rhinos towards extinction.

As Erin explains, buyers believe "drinking a tonic made from the horn will detoxify the body after a night of heavy boozing, and prevent a hangover. One Vietnamese news website described rhino horn wine as 'the alcoholic drink of millionaires.'"

Apparently, it's also thought to alleviate cancer. Science disagrees.

The source of these allegations is TRAFFIC, a high-profile organization devoted to stopping the endangered animals trade. Their recent report on the phenomenon, and all the bad press it's generating, has prompted a rebuttal from a Vietnamese official, Do Quang Tung, who is deputy director of the country's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora authority.

The Asia News Network has his response. According to Do:

1. Vietnam is too poor to sustain a huge market for pricey rhino horn. This Associated Press report documenting Vietnam's luxury market boom suggest otherwise.

2. The rhino horn flowing into Vietnam is only in "transit" to other countries.

This premise is easier to defend. Ivory, another luxury product coveted by some wealthy Chinese, has also stoked a similar underground Africa-to-Asia trade route that pass goods en route to China through Southeast Asia (I described this in detail in my piece "Time to Ban Ivory for Good?") China is Asia's largest consumer of illegal wildlife products by a landslide.

Regardless, Do insists that "Vietnam could not be the main market for South African rhino horn. Not even close".


Myanmar's president to farmers: work harder

A pep talk on stepping up your farming game
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Myanmar farmer U Thein Hlaing, 62, poses in his paddy field on the outskirts of Yangon on October 24, 2011. (SOE THAN WIN/AFP/Getty Images)

The lot of the typical Myanmar farmer is bleak. They are too often over their heads in debt, eating much of what they grow and reliant on archaic equipment.

But Thein Sein, Myanmar's president, has a message for his nation's farmers.

Work harder!

In a recent presidential speech, recounted by the government-run New Light of Myanmar, he requested "high morale" from farmers and compelled them to "try their best in their works." The long-suffering nation, now charting a wobbly ascent towards development, must first modernize its agriculture before becoming an industrialized nation, he said.

He's right.

A nation's labor force doesn't march straight from paddy fields into cubicles.

But there is irony in a senior Myanmar official urging high morale from farmers living hand-to-mouth. The nation is decayed by government neglect. Though now run by a quasi-democratic body headed by Thein Sein, the previous junta hoarded money for the military and dribbled crumbs towards infrastructure, education and healthcare.

This created a society where most farmers, despite their best efforts, can achieve very little.

Big yields require irrigation systems, equipment and roads to deliver crops to market. Acquiring seeds, buffalo and tools often requires loans but, without a functional banking system, most farmers resort to predatory private lenders. Myanmar economic expert Sean Turnell has warned of a rural debt crisis in rural Myanmar where, as he told the Myanmar Times, there is "no finance available ... truly nothing."

While on assignment recently in Myanmar's eastern Karen State, partially under the control of ethnic guerrilla forces, I met a farmer in his 50s named Ko Hae. His frame was bent from hard labor. But no matter how hard he worked, and even though he ate only once a day, he believed he could never pay off a $200 debt owed to a village lender. The farmer was quite sure he would die before clearing his debt.

According to the New Light of Myanmar, Myanmar's president told farmers that "only when they work hard will they enjoy fruits of works."

Most farmers are already working plenty hard. Their productivity, however, is severely limited by debt, sickness, isolation and government neglect.


Myanmar's first foreign movie screening in decades? Not quite.

20th Century Fox wades into a land dominated by film pirates
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YANGON, MYANMAR: A Burmese student walks past a large, hand-painted poster featuring the latest film from America in 2002. (Stephen Shaver/AFP/Getty Images)

Much has been made of the uber-blockbuster Titanic 3-D's premiere in troubled, impoverished Myanmar.

The L.A. Times calls Titanic 3-D the "first movie released in Myanmar in decades." Time Magazine calls it "the first American studio picture to screen in (Myanmar) in recent history."

But both statements fall somewhere between highly misleading and just plain wrong.

Indeed, Titanic 3-D is the first "licensed" Hollywood film to appear in Myanmar for some time. But even in tightly controlled countries such as Myanmar, Hollywood has always found a way to seep through the cracks.

The only novel aspect of the Titanic 3-D screening is that, through a Fox licensing agreement, it was actually legal.

In Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, major-market Hollywood films have screened without direct licensing from American entertainment firms for decades. When I last visited Yangon in June, "The Avengers" was playing in the city's time-worn cinema row. I suspect Robert Downey Jr. and Paramount Pictures did not receive a cut of those ticket sales.

Some cinemas even advertise with magnificently colorful, hand-painted displays to advertise Hollywood flicks. The photo to the right offers a theater artist's rendering of Gene Hackman in "Behind Enemy Lines."

Here's an attempt at the painting Charlize Theron's character in "Aeon Flux."

And here's a depiction of "Ghost." Patrick Swayze is kissing a Demi Moore that looks mysteriously like Myanmar's pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Yes, Myanmar has a well-founded reputation as a land lost in time. Years of Western embargoes and pervasive censorship have limited the nation's exposure to pop culture from abroad. Even citizens lucky enough to have electricity are simply too poor to waste money on luxuries such as CDs or cinema tickets.

Ideally, a still-nascent commerical revolution in Myanmar will create a broader middle class that can afford a night at the movies. Fox is simply joining a slew of other American corporations (General Electric, Coke, etc.) in setting up shop inside Myanmar as Western sanctions fade away. 

The Wall Street Journal, in a much smarter take on Titanic 3-D's official Myanmar debut, reports that 20th Century Fox International's top executives are looking forward to "visiting our newest territory when we travel Asia later this year."

If their itinerary includes a full tour of downtown Yangon, they will find run-down cinema houses screening unlicensed Hollywood flicks and teenage boys hawking pirated movies by the boxful.


Southeast Asia's oldest known immigrant

Newly discovered skull places humankind in Laos 63,000 years ago
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A 63,000-year-old skull, discovered by University of Illinois researchers in Laos, offers some of the earliest evidence yet of ancient human migration through Southeast Asia. (F. Demeter / University of Illinois/Screengrab)

An ancient skull pulled from a cave in Laos suggests human beings wandered out of Africa and dispersed through Southeast Asia much earlier than previously thought.

The fairly-intact, 63,000-year-old skull was discovered by a University of Illinois anthropologist, Laura Shackelford, according to a university news release. This find dials back the clock on mainland Southeast Asia's earliest known human migrants by about 20,000 years, according to Shackelford's research.

The takeaway: this discovery suggests that humans didn't always simply follow the coast as they drifted out of Africa. Early migrants also pushed into what Shackelfod calls "very different types of terrain": higher-altitude mountains in Laos, which is quite distant from the nearest sea.

Our understanding of humankind's origins is forever evolving. The "dawn monkey" theory, furthered by an American paleontologist, contends that man's earliest predecessors were extremely tiny primates in Asia that gradually wandered towards Africa where, 5 million years ago, they spun off into breeds that preceded modern human beings.

This syncs with the discovery of a "Siam Ape," a long-extinct 15-pound simian whose bones were found in Thailand. (My interview with the Thai scientist who found the bones is here.)

That could mean the simian spark of humanity began in Asia, laid the foundation for species that later drifted into Africa, where some species evolved into modern humans that then reversed their ancestors' paths and pushed back towards Asia.