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Pakistan turns to China for development


ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's launch of work on its largest nuclear power plant last week is the latest example of big-money Chinese infrastructure projects in the troubled nation.

Cash-strapped Pakistan, plagued by a bloody homegrown Taliban insurgency, is battling to get its shaky economy back on track and solve a chronic energy crisis that cripples industry.

Politicians in Beijing and Islamabad are fond of extolling the profundity of their friendship in flowery rhetoric and on the ground this has translated into around 10,000 Chinese engineers and workers flocking to Pakistan.

Chinese companies are working on more than 100 major projects in energy, roads and technology, according to Pakistani officials, with an estimated $18 billion expected to be invested in the coming years.

"Some projects are being done by the government, then most of the projects are being done by the Chinese companies, by the provinces and also with the state enterprises and authorities," Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan's federal minister for planning and development, told AFP.

"In the energy sector, Chinese engineers are building up to 15 power projects that include hydel (hydroelectric), thermal and nuclear plants."

Pakistan faces an electricity shortfall of around 4,000 megawatts in the sweltering summer, leading to lengthy blackouts that make ordinary people's lives a misery and have strangled economic growth.

To combat the crisis, Pakistan has sought Chinese help in building power generation projects across the country, including nuclear.

Aside from the 2,200 MW project near Karachi launched by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last week, Chinese companies built two of Pakistan's three operational reactors.

Chinese engineers are also busy in the construction of a 969 MW hydropower project in Kashmir. They have also committed to generate 6,000 MW of electricity from coal and wind in southern Sindh province.

But cooperation goes beyond energy.

Visiting in May during his first overseas trip after taking office, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang linked growth in his country's restive west with that in Pakistan, saying the two sides wanted to create an "economic corridor" to boost development.

The concept involves improving road and rail networks to link China through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea and planning minister Iqbal said its benefits would extend to other neighbouring countries.

"The biggest flagship project is going to be the economic corridor. I hope with its completion, we will be able to create opportunities not just for China and Pakistan but for the entire region," he said.

"If the economic corridor is constructed, trade between China and India can also take place from this corridor. Similarly, trade between China and Central Asia and also between India and Central Asia can take place," Iqbal said.

In January the Pakistani cabinet approved the transfer of Gwadar port, strategically located in the country's far southwest, to a Chinese state-owned company.

Once the road network is improved, Gwadar will slash thousands of kilometres off the distance oil and gas imports from Africa and the Middle East have to be transported to reach China.

The bloody six-year Taliban insurgency and threat of expat workers being kidnapped and beheaded by militants has made many foreign firms wary of investing in Pakistan.

Chinese engineers on construction sites are guarded at all times by armed policemen, and some AFP spoke to seemed happy with their time in Pakistan.

"Pakistani people are very friendly with Chinese. That is why I am here since last three years and I will spend some more years over here," said Wang Yanjun, supervising a road-building project in Muzaffarabad, the main town in Pakistani Kashmir.

"They provide respect and support to Chinese, so cooperation between China and Pakistan is increasing. I think we will do much more development projects in future than now."

Wang Yanjun's company China Xinjiang Beixin, has already worked on projects in Pakistan ranging from roads to airports.

Another engineer, Wang Songqiang of China International Water and Electric Corporation, is looking after the construction of a shopping centre in Muzaffarabad.

"Our company is working in 38 countries, but we have special feelings while working here in Pakistan," he told AFP.

Pakistan and China presently have annual bilateral trade of around $12 billion and are trying to take it to $15 billion in the next three years, though Iqbal said Sharif is dreaming of doubling even this volume.

For China, investing in Pakistan's crumbling infrastructure is a chance to boost trade but also about using its southwestern neighbour's workforce as it seeks to keep prices down while satisfying growing domestic demand.

"Some industries are becoming very costly in China and their government feels they can get cheaper labour in Pakistan for those factories, which includes electronics and autos," Ahmed Rashid Malik, senior research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, told AFP.

"For that they need energy in Pakistan and investing in Pakistan's energy sector can prove beneficial for China in future."

But there are dissenting voices, raising worries about possible corruption in the somewhat opaque deals struck between Pakistani government departments and provincial administrations and Chinese firms.

"The capacity of Pakistani bureaucracy and the issue of transparency in this whole development plan is a source of concern for me," Senator Mushahid Hussain, chairman of Pakistan China Institute and a strong advocate of Pakistan-China friendship, told AFP.

"There have been allegations of corruption against them in the past, so it's a challenge for us to utilise this opportunity which came to us through Chinese cooperation," he said. -AFP

A chronic disease in Thailand


The 'Thaksin system' is a reflection of a deeper illness that pervades and perverts Thai democracy.

BANGKOK: "Please help me," im­­plored the woman sitting at the roadside.

I was near the popular Bobae wholesale clothes market. Government House, a main target of the anti-government protesters trying to unseat the Yingluck Shinawatra administration, was only a few blocks away.

The intermittent pops of rubber bullets being fired were growing in intensity and frequency, while a haze billowed down the street, bringing with it the faint odour of gunpowder and an acrid smoke that immediately burned the eyes and nose.

The barricades began just two blocks away, where traffic was being redirected away from the protests.

Although we were close to the site of the clashes, the woman was not a protester, nor had she been hurt.

Not physically.

"I have barely sold anything all day," she lamented.

Daeng was a middle-aged roadside vendor who sold jackfruit, and what should have been a bustling market was nearly deserted, the vendors whiling away the time with gossip.

Several were unsteady on their feet, nursing bottles of local rice whisky.

"It has been like this for over a week now but has been especially bad (since the violence broke out)." She gestured towards a pile of unsold, peeled jackfruit.

"I'm not going to make back my investment today."

Daeng invests about 200 baht (RM20) each day to purchase several whole jackfruit, which she peels and sells on the roadside.

This neighbourhood, located close to Government House, Rajdamnoen Avenue and its symbolic heart, the Democracy Monument, and several major ministry buildings, is no stranger to political turmoil.

Almost every major political uprising in Thailand has taken place in or around the area, including the "1932 revolution" that ended absolute monarchy.

As I did what I could to help Daeng recoup her investment, groups of protesters passed through, frequently wearing black, with the Thai flag emblazoned on a T-shirt, scarf or wristbands, and with the latest local fashion accessory – a whistle – strung around their necks.

Many had towels or swimming goggles handy, and several were helping each other rinse out their eyes with bottles of drinking water.

At the time of writing, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban says the prime minister's resignation and dissolution of the House would not satisfy the anti-government campaign's demands.

Instead he has given Prime Minister Yingluck a nebulously worded ultimatum of two days to "return power to the people" so that a "People's Democratic Reform Committee" comprised of unelected individuals can oversee political reform and uproot the so-called Thaksin system.

As a physician, I have learned to make a clear distinction between the disease and its symptoms. One of the cardinal manifestations of the disease malaria is high fever, which can be treated with anti-pyretics such as paracetamol while treatment against the causative parasite can be administered.

Similarly, the "Thaksin system" is a reflection of a deeper illness that pervades and perverts Thai democracy: that of patronage networks, where personal loyalties – rather than platforms, performance or ideals – are of paramount importance.

Such networks can make or break careers, open or close doors to power, and even allow those with the right connections to flout the law.

Thaksin Shinawatra has been indicted for conflict of interest, abusing his position to help his wife purchase land, for which he was sentenced to two years in prison.

Meanwhile, those close to his family were promoted to positions of power.

His cousin Chaiyasit Shinawatra was elevated to army commander-in-chief in 2003.

Yet the man who would lead the charge against the scourge of the "Thaksin regime" and undertake political reform is, himself, no stranger to controversy and scandal.

Suthep Thaugsuban, a veteran politician, has been implicated in several cases of corruption and conflict of interest, and it was Suthep's involvement in shady land deals in Phuket which, in 1995, brought down one Democrat government.

Although his current message has struck a chord with many, mobilising the largest protests since 2010 in an expression of anger against the government's unpopular amnesty bill to absolve corrupt politicians, Suthep's past, coupled with his nebulous goals and undemocratic tactics and statements, belie his exhortations for reform.

True, durable political reform in Thailand will not simply come about with the removal of the Shinawatras.

To paraphrase the words of a friend who works as a medic in the jungles on the Thai-Myanmar border, their removal would be akin to providing just paracetamol for malaria, masking the symptoms of fever without curing the disease.

The bitter pill to swallow, the treatment for the disease, will require a sea-change in the country's value system.

> Voravit Suwanvanichkij, MD, is a Research Associate at the Centre for Public Health and Human Rights, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Brothers held for hacking PMO site face 16 charges


TWO brothers, initially arrested over the hacking of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) website, now face a total of 16 cybercrime charges between them.

The prosecution yesterday tendered 10 charges in court against Mohammad Azhar Tahir, 27. They include the unauthorised modification of content on the PMO site, illegally accessing a neighbour's wireless Internet service, and hacking into various social media and e-mail accounts of Ah Boys To Men actor Ridhwan Azman.

The younger brother, Mohammad Asyiq Tahir, 21, faces six similar charges, including one for hacking into the Facebook page of his former girlfriend Woo Huijing, on Nov 4.

Azhar, who is unemployed, was accused of hacking into the PMO site on Nov 7, causing it to show an image of a mask and two phrases over what the webpage would normally display.

One of those phrases had references to the Anonymous hacktivist group.

The two brothers are also accused of separately hacking into seven different social media and e-mail accounts belonging to Ridhwan on Nov 5.

Yesterday, the 20-year-old entertainer said Asyiq was the former boyfriend of Woo, 19, before he started seeing her.

The brothers were released on S$10,000 (RM25,395) bail yesterday with their passports impounded.

Their case will be heard again on Jan 6. — The Straits Times / Asia News Network


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