- Yangon - From stately city to crumbling symbol of isolation
- New Zealand set for asset sales after crushing election win
- FARC rebels execute 4 military hostages - Colombia
Posted: 26 Nov 2011 08:35 PM PST
YANGON (Reuters) - There are no skyscrapers in Yangon. No gleaming shopping malls. Certainly no subway system. Its rutted sidewalks are laced with treacherous holes and broken slabs of concrete.
Myanmar's former capital and biggest city is a crumbling monument to almost half a century of isolation and mismanagement at the hands of generals who took power in a 1962 coup and ruled with an iron first until a nominally civilian parliament opened in March this year.
The city that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit this week wasn't always that way.
In the early 20th century, the country then known as Burma was one of Asia's richest nations and a shining part of the British empire.
Imposing Victorian buildings rose on the waterfront of the capital. Department stores sold goods imported from Europe. Crowds packed into majestic cinemas with grand names such as the Palladium and Excelsior.
After seizing Yangon in 1852 and anglicising its name to Rangoon, Britain developed the area into its administration base, building law courts, parliament buildings, shady parks and botanical gardens. Rangoon University, founded in 1878, became one of Asia's premier universities.
The city was laid out by many of the same British urban planners who helped to design another strategic British colony, Singapore. Its public services and infrastructure rivalled London's.
Rangoon was ravaged during the Japanese occupation in World War Two, but still retained much of its imperial grandeur when it was granted independence by Britain in 1948.
But independent Burma was plagued by insurgencies and the military took over in a 1962 coup. A disastrous "Burmese Way to Socialism" adopted by the then-leader, General Ne Win, led to sweeping nationalisation and global isolation.
Today, chronic power outages and deteriorating buildings are constant reminders of decades of troubles.
Yellow and orange diesel generators, some as big as buses, are ubiquitous, symbols of a failing power grid behind the city of about 5 million people that accounts for a quarter of Myanmar's economic activity.
"Sometimes the power is cut and sometimes it's regular. We're used to it," said 71-year-old Abdullah Mingala, an ethnic Indian Burmese who was born and raised in Yangon and who makes a living renting out a pickup truck and a sedan as taxis.
"The best thing about the city is its weather and people. The weather is not too hot and everyone is simple and friendly and open."
Myanmar has not had a record of being simple or friendly.
The United States and Europe imposed sanctions in the years after the junta refused to hand power to the winners of a 1990 election and threw hundreds of democracy activists in jail. Thousands of activists were killed. Continued human rights abuses over the years sealed the country's pariah status.
Aid from organisations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund ended. Investment from the West dried up.
The government moved the capital to the interior, a new city called Naypyitaw, in 2006.
Signs of Myanmar's isolation include a dearth of major international brands, save a few Asian consumer goods and computer manufacturers such as Hitachi and Samsung.
There are no Coca-Cola or Heineken signs in Yangon. Instead, billboards proudly advertise made-in-Myanmar goods such as "Sunday Coffee Mix and Tea Mix," "Wellman Vitabiotics Supplements," "Fresh Up" toothpaste and "Denim" men's care products.
"Beer stations," Yangon's humble answer to the pub, sell cold Myanmar beer on tap for 600 kyat (76 U.S. cents) a glass.
On the steeets, booksellers throw plastic tarpaulin over sidewalks stained with rust-red betel nut spittle and offer used titles such as Frederick T. Wood's 1961 book "Current English Usage." One even had the March 30, 1992, issue of Newsweek for sale, a youthful Bill Clinton on the cover with the headline "Can He Beat Bush?"
At Cherry Mann, a restaurant in Yangon's Chinatown that's been serving the community for 42 years, customers sit at fold-out tables in the street on a cool night and tuck into curried meat and fried 'pratha' flat bread.
"It's hard to say if business conditions now are good or bad or improving. They're okay. They could be better," said Htat Kyo, a restaurant employee, as he prepares cheques.
U Thu Myint, a 77-year-old former professor of Burmese history, said he was forced to retire from his job at a state university at the age of 64, a year before he would have been eligible to collect his pension. Life is a struggle, he says.
He spends his days shuffling around Myanmar's holiest of shrines, the dazzling, gold-domed Shwedagon Pagoda, where he offers visitors facts about the stupa, its history as the anchor of Yangon and the principles of Buddhism. He asks for cash donations.
"The cost of living is very high now. One kg of rice went from 1,000 kyat a few months ago to 1,500 kyat now," he said. "I may move back to my place of birth and become a monk next year."
But Myanmar's economic stunting has one silver lining: it may have saved once-stunning landmark colonial-era buildings in Yangon from the wrecking ball.
A riverside grid of streets that forms the downtown area, a colonial vestige in and of itself, is full of buildings constructed when the country was one of Britain's most-prized colonial crown jewels from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s.
The $300 (194.17 pounds)-a-night Strand Hotel, opened in 1901 and refurbished in 1995, is an example of what many buildings could be, with marble floors, lazy ceiling fans and dark wood paneling.
Some locals fear the new government's recent eagerness to end its isolation could threaten stately but time-worn structures that are reminders of Yangon's former glory. A sense of urgency to protect the architectural heritage appears to be growing.
There has been outcry in recent weeks, for instance, in Myanmar's flourishing private newspapers over comments by a well-heeled businessman and member of parliament that the derelict, red-brick former colonial government complex known as the Secretariat might be turned into a hotel.
The complex that occupies an entire city block is abandoned, overgrown with weeds and surrounded by a fence to keep the public out. Some consider it beyond repair, yet it holds a place in history as the site where revered General Aung San, the father of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated in 1947.
In recent weeks a feeling of cautious optimism has begun to infect the slow-moving city as the nominally civilian government that took office eight months ago shows signs of embracing reforms and engaging with the world, as illustrated by Clinton's thee-day visit from Wednesday, the most prominent by an American since before the 1962 coup.
"We are all talking about it," said Abdullah Mingala. "We are all hopeful."
(Editing by Jason Szep, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Ron Popeski)
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Posted: 26 Nov 2011 07:12 PM PST
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand's re-elected centre-right government claimed a mandate on Sunday to push on with up to $5 billion (3 billion pounds) worth of asset sales and welfare reforms and said it would quickly get down to forming a new administration.
The National Party, led by former foreign exchange dealer John Key, scored 48 percent of the vote, increased its number of seats to 60 from 58 and gained the support of two small parties to guarantee a majority in the 121-seat parliament.
"It's a pretty strong endorsement of where the Government sits, and we're confident we'll be able to build the relationships needed to go ahead with the programme," National's campaign manager Steven Joyce told TVNZ.
National campaigned on promises to consolidate policies of the past three years and work towards economic growth by cutting debt, curbing spending, selling state assets and returning to a budget surplus by 2014/15.
Ray Miller of Auckland University said National had effectively neutralised its biggest weakness -- the unpopular asset sales, slated to raise NZ$5 billion to NZ$7 billion.
"They got the policy out early, they sold it in positive terms and in the end, while it was still a negative, it was one policy among many and not an overriding one," he said.
National plans to sell minority stakes in state-owned power energy companies and further reduce the stake in Air New Zealand. Key has promised local small investors will have preference in share sales, with a 10 percent cap likely on how much any single investor can hold.
WELFARE REFORM, SLOW CARBON TRADE
It also plans to reform welfare by getting people off benefits and back to work, and will slow down the expansion of its carbon trading system to lessen the cost on businesses and households.
Key's strong personal rating, his easy going, affable, unifying style was also a factor behind National's showing, despite continuing worries over the economy.
"I've got a PHD in geology and I still can't get a full-time job," said Sami Alshidi, 52, who has been working as a taxi driver and voted National because he felt it would steer the economy better.
Financial markets had already priced in no change of government and a broad continuation of policies.
"The National Party has a clear mandate to proceed with asset sales to lower fiscal deficits and government debt," said TD Securities head of research Annette Beacher.
"But this election was not on the global radar screens...(and) will likely be completely ignored."
The final tally of seats could yet change when tens of thousands of absentee votes are counted over the next two weeks, although the initial turnout of nearly 74 percent was one of the lowest in more than a century, election officials said.
The main opposition centre-left Labour Party slumped to 27 percent, the lowest share of the vote in its 95-year history, and lost nine seats. The environmentalist Greens upped their share to more than 10 percent and gained four seats.
The re-emergence of the nationalist New Zealand First Party, led by the maverick veteran Winston Peters, from three years in the political wilderness, is expected to add fireworks but not impede National.
"We will make sure of a huge amount of sunlight on New Zealand politics," Peters said.
(Additional reporting by Ed Davies in Auckland, Mantik Kusjanto.; Editing by)
Copyright © 2011 ReutersFull content generated by Get Full RSS.
Posted: 26 Nov 2011 04:42 PM PST
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian FARC rebels executed four members of the security forces during a botched mission to free them from a decade as hostages, the most violent act by the group since troops killed its leader Alfonso Cano this month.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which has a policy of killing hostages if troops approach their camps, shot three of the captives in the head and the fourth in the back, President Juan Manuel Santos said.
The bodies were found in chains, he said.
"These heroes of Colombia sacrificed their lives trying to bring peace to Colombia," Santos said. "This is another demonstration of the FARC's cruelty ... It's an atrocious crime."
One police sergeant who was also being held hostage by the FARC managed to escape and was found alive by the military on Saturday, Defence Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said.
Latin America's No. 4 oil producer has been wracked by bloodshed from guerrillas and cocaine barons for decades, although the FARC - once a powerful force controlling large parts of Colombia - has been severely weakened.
Santos said on Thursday the Andean nation was nearing the final phase of nearly 50 years of war and that his government would be willing to talk peace if the guerrillas were serious.
Troops launched the operation in southern Caqueta province 45 days ago after a tip that FARC captives were being held in the area, Pinzon told a news conference. The killings of the four hostages happened after a firefight between soldiers and the rebels.
"This is a reality shock," said security analyst Alfredo Rangel. "It shows that despite all the hits they have received in recent years that they are determined to fight the state, they are determined to continue their violent ways."
Bombings and kidnappings have eased sharply as Colombian troops use better intelligence, U.S. training and technology to take the fight to the rebels.
Foreign investment, especially in oil and mining, has surged as the insurgency weakens. But the FARC and other groups pose a threat in rural areas where the state's presence is weak and cocaine trafficking lets the rebels finance operations.
The FARC, considered a terrorist group by European nations and the United States, has lost key commanders in the past four years, including its founder Manuel Marulanda, military leader Mono Jojoy last year and Cano earlier this month.
The new leader Timoleon Jimenez - or "Timochenko" - has vowed to continue the fight against the government.
"What a great Christmas the FARC guerrillas have given the families of the police and military," said Marleny Orjuela, director of Asfamipaz, an association that represents families of kidnapped members of the armed forces.
"Santos has killed our hope, rescuing them when he knows they would be executed."
The FARC, which funds operations with extortion as well as drug trafficking, has held scores of politicians, police officers and soldiers as hostages, including French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt seized in 2002 and three Americans taken a year later.
They were rescued by the military in 2008, when Santos was defence minister.
This was the third group of hostages killed by the FARC.
In 2003, Guillermo Gaviria, governor of Antioquia province, was shot along with an adviser and eight military captives when troops attempted to free them. In 2007, 11 lawmakers were shot when the rebels falsely believed troops entered their camp.
(Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta and Nelson Bocanegra; Editing by Anthony Boadle, John O'Callaghan and Paul Simao)
Copyright © 2011 ReutersFull content generated by Get Full RSS.
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