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Southeast Asia, explained

A "Pentagon II" to command Thailand's terror fight?

Deputy premier inspired by Pentagon's killing of Osama bin Laden
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Thai hospital workers aid a man bloodied amidst a series of explosions in Yala, Thailand, on October 25, 2011. Suspected Muslim insurgents set off more than a dozen co-ordinated explosions that killed at least one civilian and two rebels, a local official said. The explosions are the latest in a series of increasingly brazen attacks by shadowy rebels in the Muslim-majority Thai south, which has been plagued by more than eight years of conflict claiming more than 4,800 lives. (MUHAMMED SABRI/AFP/Getty Images)

Thailand's insurgency-torn deep south is currently coping with a wave of bombings and killings -- perhaps timed to the Ramadan holidays -- that recently left a hotel popular with military and political leaders scarred by explosions. Last week, the coordianted ambush of soldiers on motorbikes was captured on video. According to Agence Presse France, the government is considering a regional curfew.

Having covered Thailand's Islamic rebellion for several years, I've seen these spasms of violence inspire all sorts of ideas from officialdom.

A former army commander hoped to win Muslim hearts and minds by distributing mudballs, laced with beneficial microorganisms, that were reputed to boost farmer's yields.

Another senior-ranking army official hoped an $11 million blimp would offer soldiers an all-seeing "eye in the sky" to surveil militants. The blimp has struggled to stay airborne.

But the most curious concept to date comes from Thailand's hard-nosed deputy prime minister, Chalerm Yubamrung, who told the Bangkok Post of his hopes to set up a new command center operating under Pentagon-level standards.

His name for this new entity?

Pentagon II.

And his rationale? According to the Bangkok Post, Chalerm believes that "Pentagon II would improve efficiency in the government's fight against the southern insurgency just as the Pentagon worked successfully to hunt down Osama bin Laden."


Philippines: hackers infiltrate phone system for six-cents discount

System infiltrated to cheapen long-distance calls to South Korea
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A woman uses a Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. (PLDT) phone in Manila on March 1, 2011. (JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images)

Is this the least nefarious criminal gang in the Philippines?

According to the Manila-based Inquirer, a cyber crime police unit apprehended a group of eight South Koreans living in four "hideouts" in the Philippines. Officers confiscated a trove of computers and modems -- not to mention two cars -- and charged them with hacking into Globe Telecom, a huge communications conglomerate in the Philippines.

Their motive? They weren't out to covertly shift millions into an offshore account. They weren't driven by a political agenda to stick it to the man.

They just wanted a discount on long-distance calls to South Korea.

The group somehow used their tech skills to trick the system into processing select calls to their homeland, South Korea, as local calls. This, according to an AP report, roughly halved the price of each call, which would normally cost 11 to 15 cents per minute.

So when Filipino inmates ask "What are you in for?", I suspect they'll be the only crew on the cell block with the answer, "Saving Koreans six cents per minute on long-distance calls."


Vietnam: a detained blogger's mother self-immolates

Anti-corruption blogger's mom expresses the ultimate form of dissent
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Ta Phong Tan (in white glasses to the right) is a former Vietnamese police officer turned anti-corruption blogger. She is currently on trial under accusations of dispersing anti-government propaganda. (Screengrab)

By Vietnamese standards, Ta Phong Tan's blog was dangerously rebellious.

Before she was locked up, the former police officer posted rants against the one-party state interspersed with Bible quotes. No one familiar with the communist government's opinion of democracy agitators or politically active religious groups should be surprised that she's now in prison facing charges of posting anti-government propaganda.

But the detained blogger's mother, 64-year-old Dang Thi Kim Lieng, has protested her daughter's detention with an even more radical method of dissent.

According to Voice of America and other outlets, she approached a government office yesterday and set herself on fire.

The Web site Dan Lam Bao, sympathetic to the family, appears to have verified the immolation with extremely graphic photos of Dang's charred remains.

To those alive during the Vietnam War era, her demise may recall the death of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who famously burned himself alive in 1963. But Thich Quang Duc was resisting very different forces: the anti-communist, pro-Catholic former state of South Vietnam.

Modern-day Vietnam's heavy-handed approach to silencing bloggers and activist Catholics is no secret. Before the police separated her from her keyboard, Tan Ta Phong was both.

Her mother has now drawn even more attention to her cause through one of the most disturbing means of protest imaginable.


Vietnam's murky meteorite market

Selling tar and painted rocks as magical stones from the beyond
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A meteor streaks across the sky against a field of stars during a meteorite shower early August 13, 2010 in Spain. (Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images)

How do you sell a tiny lump of tar for $32 million?

Apparently you just tell buyers it's a meteorite blessed with space magic.

Vietnamese outlet Thanh Nien is reporting an elaborate scam in Ho Chi Minh City that nearly lured an (apparently quite rich) man into buying a fake meteorite for millions. The con artists even planted faux customers to "get dizzy and talk nonsense" after touching the chunk of tar. The kicker? A weak current was fed into the rock via wires to shock the duped customer, Thanh Nien reports.

According to Vietnamese media, meteorite scams are somewhat common and often sap victims of gigantic sums.

Late last year, newspaper Tuoi Tre printed an account of a meteorite scam that duped a woman into paying $95,000 for a perfectly boring terrestrial stone. In February, Thanh Nien reported the attempted $96,000 sale of a "meteorite" that, upon closer inspection, turned out to be a normal rock painted black.

Other accounts of meteorite scams, according to claims printed by Tuoi Tre, invite disbelief. If this report is true, a Vietnamese woman paid $4.7 million for a fake meteorite. Other reports suggest such staggering figures are a typical asking price.

It seems that people with million-dollar meteorite shopping budgets and their money are soon parted.


Video: Islamic insurgents ambush troops in Thailand

Closed-circuit camera captures coordinated attack
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A Thai soldier stands next to the body of a Muslim rubber merchant shot dead by suspected separatist militants in Thailand's southern province of Narathiwat on May 19, 2012. (MADAREE TOHLALA/AFP/Getty Images)

Most soldiers found dead along the roadside in Thailand's deep south, plagued by a separatist Islamic insurgency, are killed by men who slip away unseen.

But closed-circuit footage of a bloody weekend ambush offers some of the clearest images yet of separatist tactics.

The video, posted below, is disturbing. It shows a relatively well-coordinated team of more than a dozen insurgents in pick-up trucks firing on soldiers riding motorbikes. After the troops crash, the assailants appear to rifle through their clothes and steal their guns. Others jump out of a pick-up to lay down cover fire. (According to the Bangkok Post, police say they've apprehended the shooters.)

The clip adds video evidence to two well-established facts: the insurgents have grown tactically savvy and Thai soldiers, many of them conscripts, are often sitting ducks. Despite roughly $5 billion spent on the conflict, many Thai troops must resort to riding around on cheap scooters to get from point A to B. Soldiers are the most desired targets of the insurgents because they're symbols of Thai power and they tote M-16s that can be looted. They're also relatively vulnerable: here's a photo we ran in 2009 of soldiers' home-made bomb-proofed truck, which has steel plates welded to the truck bed.

For a more on the conflict -- including more video and an interview with a separatist leader -- please check out our series "Buddhists in Arms," which was reported from insurgency's so-called red zones. I focused much of that series on Buddhist militias and Buddhist wrath towards the insurgents. That anger is on full display in the YouTube video's Thai-language comments section, which doubles as a primer on hardcore Thai swearing. (The comment "f***ing animal savages" pretty much captures the tenor of the posted comments.)


Southeast Asia's intriguing Olympians

A pregnant shooter, a disqualified cat impressionist, a 4'11" female weightlifter
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Malaysian Olympian Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi, a heavily pregnant shooter, arrives in London in July, 2012, for Olympic ceremonies. (Lars Baron/AFP/Getty Images)

London's 2012 Summer Olympics are unlikely to send many Southeast Asian athletes home with gold medals. That's the consensus from professional bookmakers as well as the Wall Street Journal, which has extensively analyzed each region's competitors.

But at least this year's crop of Southeast Asian Olympians isn't boring.

Malaysia: That woman to the right who appears ready to burst is Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi.


Video: Anatomy of a nasty Thai traffic stop

YouTube clip shows couple kicked off motorbike by police volunteer
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Thai policemen inspecting vehicles at a late-night traffic checkpoint in Bangkok, Thailand in 2003. (Luis Enrique Ascui/AFP/Getty Images)

It's easy to find Thais with a personal anecdote (or ten) about unpleasant run-ins with the police.

But it's not so easy to find high-quality footage of Thai cops behaving badly.

Perhaps that's why this Thai-language YouTube clip of a couple kicked off their motorbike at a police checkpoint has accumulated more than 230,000 views. That's no small feat in a middle-income nation of 65 million.

The video, captured by a dashboard camera, requires a quick primer on the Thai police checkpoint procedure.

Cops in Thailand seldom pull over motorists in the American fashion: squad cars with flashing rack lights trailing motorists.

In Thailand, cops typically pull cars by standing on the roadside and simply motioning for drivers to pull over. At night, both cities and dark highways are studded with barricades and checkpoints. Most drivers pass through without inspection. But others are yanked aside and searched. This selection process is highly arbitrary. It makes New York City's controversial "stop and frisk" tactic look like it was designed by the ACLU.

The YouTube clip, filmed in Bangkok, is sarcastically titled "Technique for Stopping Motorbike Riders Without Helmets." At 0:42, you'll see two motorbikes pass through a checkpoint on a narrow lane. After the couple on the second bike is kicked, they skid into a post and go crashing to the asphalt.

According to the account of the driver who uploaded this clip, he lowered his window to complain. An officer allegedly replied, "I wasn't the one who kicked the bike" but grew quiet when the driver revealed his dashboard camera.

As for the man who kicked that young couple off their motorbike? He's a volunteer cop, according to the Facebook page of a senior traffic police general. This general apparently realizes the clip's potential to embarrass his department. He's posted copies of the offender being charged for his transgression in the precinct as well as copies of his court summons.

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.


In Indonesia, a debate over holy volume knobs

Are minaret sound systems cranked too loud?
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Loudspeakers installed on mosque's minaret in central Jakarta, Indonesia. (ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)

The Islamic call to prayer, broadcast through speakers installed in minarets, is as essential to the Indonesian soundscape as songbirds, traffic noise and street kids busking with out-of-tune ukeleles.

Anyone near civilization should expect to hear the "azhan" (prayer call) five times per day in Indonesia. But during Ramadan festivities, mosques broadcast prayer recitations more than usual. And the ongoing celebration of Islam's holy month has revived a debate over the sheer loudness of some mosques' sound systems.

A recent Reuters article touches on the loudspeaker arms-race mentality that can take over when multiple mosques compete for attention in a small, urban space. According to the Reuters, even the head of the Indonesian Ulema Council, the highest Islamic body in the nation, is concerned.

In the Kalimantan area, better known as Borneo Island, officials have asked mosques to keep it down during Ramadan and cease their recitations by 9 p.m., according to the Borneo Post.

But if there is any proof that prayers through feedback-prone, crackly speakers are out of hand, it's this: even the Islamic Defenders Front, an ultra-pious vigilante group known for trashing nightclubs and beating up Christians, is now campaigning against overly noisy azhans, according to the Jakarta Globe. (Our in-depth report on the vigilante network is here.)

As the Jakarta-based regional head of the Islamic Defenders Front told the Globe: "Please don’t be too loud and do it only during the day not at night."


Drip by drip, China dominates its oceanic backyard

Favoring cruise ships and hastily erected cities over all-out war
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This picture taken by Vietnam News Agency and released on June 14, 2011 shows Vietnamese sailors patrolling on Phan Vinh Island in the Spratly archipelago. Vietnam put on a show of military strength in the tense South China Sea on June 13, risking the ire of Beijing in the face of a deepening maritime rift with its powerful neighbor. (Vietnam News Agency/Getty Images)

Perhaps China, in the end, will have asserted its dominance over the South China Sea one cruise ship, military outpost and hastily assembled city at a time.

Armed skirmishes are appearing increasingly unlikely in the oil-rich oceanic zone. Varied parts of the region are defiantly claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and others. Almost all of it is claimed by China.

In lieu of heavy conflict, China is patiently channeling its abundant resources into building a presence on these unpopulated specks of land bit by bit.

First, we have China announcing plans this week to erect a (likely small) military garrison in an island chain known as the Paracels that is largely claimed by Vietnam, the BBC reports. This outpost will defend a "city" called Sansha that, until last month, didn't even exist.

Today, the Philippine Star reports that China will construct an air strip on an island in the Subi Reef claimed by the Philippines. The island is already home to several Chinese-built structures and a large radar, the paper reports.

The Chinese are also indulging in a bit of surf-and-sand statecraft. In the government-owned outlet Xinhua, officials are playing up the disputed Xisha Islands as equal in beauty Thailand's beaches and promising to bring in cruise ships. Chinese holidaymakers will have to sleep on the boat, however, as the islands are almost totally barren.

Make no mistake: in an all-out battle, China's navy would almost certainly crush the Vietnamese or Philippine navies.

But why waste men, torpedoes and national reputation on humiliating weaker enemies through force?

The government is content to use its comparative economic might to gradually build a presence on these South China Sea islands.

Eventually, the Philippines and Vietnam may be in the undesirable position of claiming islands filled with Chinese troops, Chinese buildings and Chinese resorts are, somehow, not Chinese.


Vietnam: skip a concert, lose your career

Singers banned after snubbing government-sponsored performance
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Trong Tan, a Vietnamese singer famous for patriotic war anthems. (YouTube)

If you're a Vietnamese singer famous for patriotic anthems, it's best not to snub gigs booked by the communist government.

Some official might just ruin your career.

Singers Trong Tan and Anh Tho are both known for performing "red music," i.e. rousing songs extolling the splendor of Vietnam. In addition to crooning about unrequited love, the duo's catalogue is stacked with Lee Greenwood-style flag-waving tunes. Just swap out odes to the "plains of Texas" to rice fields and "freedom" to glorious revolution and you're getting close.

The two are now in serious trouble with Vietnam's "arts authorities" for "skipping a diplomatic performance in Laos without permission," according to the Thanh Nien news outlet. It appears they embarrassed the government for ditching an event attended by "leaders and "high-ranking officials."

Their punishment? Both singers are suspended from performing in public, according to Thanh Nien news.

I don't think this performance ban will merit a statement from Human Rights Watch. But it does demonstrate the tendency of Vietnam's government to punish any citizen that embarrasses the state whether the offender is agitating for democracy or just flaking out on a government gig.