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Myanmar's first-ever New Year's countdown

At last, a big, messy and joyous countdown
People wait before the countdown to the New Year near the Shwe Da Gon pagoda and Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon on December 31, 2012. Some 50,000 people were expected to gather at the revered golden Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon for the city's first public countdown to the New Year and fireworks. (Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images)

Focusing on the long toil for big-issue freedoms in Myanmar -- free elections or freedom from land-grabbing army battalions -- can sometimes overshadow the small pleasures that were forbidden by the former military regime.

Like getting tipsy and joining thousands of compatriates in a New Year's countdown.

But last night, at Yangon's resplendent Shwedagon Pagoda, the citizens were allowed to do just that, the Associated Press reports. One organizer told news outlet The Irrawaddy that roughly 50,000 were expected to turn out. (GlobalPost has posted a slideshow of the gala.)

Large and uncontrollable gatherings on this scale have long been prohibited in Myanmar, an authoritarian nation on the mend.

This giant New Year's bash, standard fare in most countries, is just one of many signs that the nation is swinging towards normalcy. Still, given Myanmar's odd time zone, which is 30 minutes off from its neighbors, the nation was largely alone in celebrating at the stroke of midnight. Only Australia's remote Cocos Islands -- population 600 -- share the same time zone.

It's impossible to neatly sum up Myanmar's 2012, a year that saw draconian laws relaxed and U.S. President Barack Obama's historic visit along with intense ethnic violence both in the mountains along China's border and the tropical coast. This year may prove whether Myanmar's reform movement is really powerful enough to tame the nation's worst abuses.

But here's to a less bloody and more free Myanmar in 2013.


Delhi gears up for renewed protests after gang rape victim succumbs to injuries

Anger mounts over government's decision to send victim to Singapore for treatment, and police barricades designed to limit protests.
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Indian protesters burn a rapist in effigy Dec. 26, 2012, in New Delhi, India. (Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images)

Protesters have already begun to gather at New Delhi's Jantar Mantar on Saturday morning, as the city wakes to the news that the victim of a brutal gang rape died in a Singapore hospital overnight.


Muted nuclear ambitions in Myanmar

As nation's nuclear weapon threat subsides, door open for nuclear energy
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Demonstrators in Myanmar walk with lit candles in a protest against severe power cuts in Yangon on May 23, 2012. (SOE THAN WIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Not so long ago, American officials openly fretted over the possibility that Myanmar -- then an outright U.S. foe -- was actively seeking nuclear weapons.

So it's remarkable that a recent public declaration of nuclear ambitions by a Myanmar official came and went with little fanfare last week.

In 2009, in my piece "Fears of a Nuclear Burma," I summarized the evidence that Myanmar (formerly titled Burma) was seeking a nuke: military ties to North Korea, a mysterious underground facility and a paranoid, ostracized government.

One of the more welcome outcomes of U.S. engagement in Myanmar, from a global security perspective, is the fact that Myanmar's designs on nukes appear to be totally stalled. As the State Department cozied up to Myanmar, the government's North Korea friendship has withered.

Now, as the Associated Press reports, Myanmar's military chief is talking about nuclear technology in public. But he's insisting that any and all nuclear developments in the impoverished nation will revolve around health care (think radiation treatment) and energy. Not bombs.

That's not all that different than the line Iran espouses publicly.

Nor is it all that different from the line towed by Myanmar during the 2009 spell when the State Department feared the nation was close to acquiring nuclear material.

The difference? U.S. officials now appear to be taking their word for it.


Indonesia: death by soap opera?

Child's family says soap opera's hospital shoot contributed to daughter's death
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A screen shot of the Indonesian soap opera "Love in Paris." (YouTube)

Soap opera-crazed Indonesia is watching a tragically ironic drama play out in the death of a 9-year-old, whose parents blame a hit soap for playing a role in their daughter's death.

"Love in Paris" is a romance starring a young starlet, actress Michelle Zudith, whose character suffers from leukemia and is expected to die before 20 -- a plot device that affects her search for love.

Ayu Tria Desiani was a 9-year-old who suffered leukemia in real life. According to the Jakarta Globe, she frequently required treatment in hospitals. After experiencing a burst blood vessel, the Globe reports, she was rushed to an ICU ward yesterday.

Turns out the ward was filled with atypical guests: the perfectly healthy cast and crew shooting a scene for "Love in Paris."

Ayu didn't survive. And her family, according to the Jakarta Post, now claim the soap opera crew contributed to her death by crowding the ward, disturbing her treatment and walking around without sterile clothing.

The hospital insists the received adequate treatment though the Post reports that Indonesia's health minister insists that active ICU wards can never be used legally as filming locations.

Whether Ayu's family can prove a hit soap opera interferred with their daughter's treatment is up in the air. But the accusation alone is stirring up a publicity nightmare for both the show and the hospital.


Myanmar: a Christmas crash and the tourism effect

Is the nation's commerical fleet fit for a tourism boom?
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A man walking by a burning Air Bagan passenger plane after it crashed near Heho airport in Myanmar's eastern Shan state. The aged Fokker-100 plane, carrying 65 passengers including foreign tourists, crash-landed. Two are dead and 11 others are injured, the airline and officials said. (AFP/Getty Images)

Want to travel across Myanmar, the poor, isolated nation that's becoming a tourism hot spot practically overnight?

You're probably going to end up boarding an aging airplane regulated by a government with dubious credibility.

The Christmas day crash landing of a plane in Myanmar's eastern Shan State -- home of idyllic holiday destination Inle Lake -- could potentially tame the nation's tourism boom. As the Associated Press reports, two of the passengers were killed and American, French and Taiwanese travelers were hurt.

As with many aircraft in the nation's commercial fleet, the plane that crashed was quite old. According to the Aviation Safety Report database, the now-destroyed Bagan Air plane, a Fokker 100, first flew in 1991 and spent years operating under a British carrier. Just four years ago, another Bagan Air commercial flight suffered an aborted takeoff that broke its fuselage in two. (That said, I've flown Air Bagan twice and the service was quite pleasant.)

But Air Bagan isn't the only airline with a dubious record. Myanmar Airways, another major domestic carrier, is so worrisome that the United Kingdom urges its staff to avoid the airline altogether.

Compounding the problem is that, in Myanmar, air travel is often the only way to go. Your other options are creaky British colonial-era trains that can take 20 hours to traverse the distance a plane can cover in one hour.

Or buses bumping along potted roads through countryside where modern hospitals have yet to arrive. Depending on the destination, these overland routes sometimes pass through conflict regions where foreigners are often forbidden to travel.

This is unlikely to scare off the small set of adventure-seeking tourists who've been zipping in and out of Myanmar for quite some time. But I suspect the Dec. 25 crash will give pause to more cautious travelers seeking a whimsical holiday in Myanmar.


Vietnam: grim remembrance of America's 'Christmas Bombing'

40 years since Nixon's carpet bombing blitz
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A boy sits on top of wreckage of a downed US Air Force B-52 aircraft on display in Hanoi, Vietnam, on December 19, 2012. (HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

As Americans celebrate Christmas this week, Vietnam's government is hoping to animate patriotic sentiment with a grim 40th anniversary remembrance of the U.S.-Vietnam War's most horrific aerial blitz.

For Americans, there's nothing to celebrate about the "Christmas Bombings," a 12-day wave of Dresden-style carpet bombing over Vietnam's communist north. More than 1,600 civilians were killed in short order. As the killings commenced, the New York Times denounced President Richard Nixon's "Stone Age barbarism."

Despite the horrific casualties, Vietnamese can at least take pride in the felling of more than a dozen U.S. aircraft and the fact that, soon thereafter, the U.S. withdrew from their country.

This week, as Agence France Presse reports, the government has decorated Hanoi with posters of flaming B-52s plummeting to the earth.

But does a war victory from four decades back still resonate with the Vietnamese public?

This AFP article suggests that they'd rather see the government revive the nation's flailing economy than stoke nostalgia over war victories in the 1970s.

As an ex-soldier and former Vietnamese state official told the news outlet, "The government should spend less time and money on celebrating historic events and pay more attention to improving people's lives."


India: Narendra Modi is nothing to fear

By winning a third consecutive term as Gujarat's chief minister, the controversial Narendra Modi has boosted his chances to become the BJP's candidate for prime minister. Here's why you needn't worry.
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While he failed to improve on the majority he attained in Gujarat's last state election, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Chief Minister Narendra Modi's convincing drubbing of the Congress to win a third consecutive term has boosted calls for his selection as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate in 2014. (AFP/Getty Images)

Narendra Modi delivered a convincing victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Gujarat elections Thursday, winning an unprecedented third consecutive term in a nation where elections are nearly always decided by the "anti-incumbency" factor.


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.’ ”


India: Playboy unveils Bunny sari as nation rages against rape

Playboy is betting that sheer saris will be enough to stave off protests. Don't count on it.
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Sari, boys: Playboy Bunnies at the upcoming (and simultaneously retro) Playboy Clubs in India will be almost fully clad. Meanwhile, nationwide outrage over Sunday's gang rape of a 23-year-old physical therapist will likely put a cramp in some public relations firm's style. (AFP/Getty Images)

Playboy unveiled the bunny costumes for its upcoming Indian Playboy Clubs on a day when thousands protested violence against women, following a brutal gang rape.

As GlobalPost reported earlier, India is confronting brazen and spectacular acts of violence with the same national outpouring of grief, rage and confusion with which Americans are reeling from the Sandy Hook shooting.

“The reason it's become such an emotive issue is that the expression of violence, particularly gender violence, is in a way a public event,” said Delhi University sociologist Radhika Chopra. “This is not secret violence. This is not happening in a dark corner of a street or shady corner of a park. It's on a bus. It's in broad daylight. It's on flyovers. It's in the most public spaces of all. And there are always people there.”

Plenty of people will see the entrance of Playboy -- even with demured-down Bunnies -- as throwing fuel on the fire.

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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.