- Monasteries decline as TV and smartphones grip Bhutan
- International flights resume at Nairobi after fire
- Yemen says Qaeda plotted to take hostages at oil port
THIMPHU, Bhutan (AFP) - Kencho Tshering, a red-robed Buddhist monk, takes a call from the King of Bhutan's office, then duly dashes off to start a ceremony praying for a break in the monsoon rains.
But while he may be on speed dial for royal requests, the clout of his fellow monks is on the wane in the remote kingdom as it absorbs the impact of technology and democracy as well as an abuse scandal.
"Bhutan is changing. The monastic body is going down and down," Tshering told AFP at Dechen Phodrang, the monks' school where he is principal, which is perched with majestic views over the capital Thimphu.
"Even for senior monks, there's no respect in the city," he sighed.
Bhutan -- nestled in the Himalayas and flanked by both India and China -- is renowned for its rich Buddhist culture, and villages are still steeped in its traditions.
Fluttering prayer flags are a common sight, as are giant flying phalluses painted on walls to ward off evil -- a symbol of a national saint, the "Divine Madman", who is believed to have subjugated demonesses with his penis in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Protecting the Buddhist culture is a key pillar of Bhutan's unique "Gross National Happiness" development model, which aims to balance spiritual and mental well-being with economic growth.
Yet Tshering, who spent three years, three months and three days in silent meditation, believes Buddhist devotion has waned since Bhutan allowed television in 1999 -- the world's last country to do so.
"People are less god-fearing, less superstitious... The number of rituals they do has gone down," agreed Karma Phuntsho, author of "The History of Bhutan" and a former monk.
Phuntsho said the Bhutanese worldview has changed dramatically since secular education was widely introduced in the 1960s, weakening the dominance of monastic schools that for centuries were a powerful force.
Bhutan was unified in the 17th century by a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, and the old 'dzong' fortresses, part-monastery and part-government offices, are a reminder of the previous intertwining of religion and politics.
The decline in monastics' clout was clear with the onset of democracy five years ago. Bhutan's monks, nuns and a large community of lay priests are now barred from the process to ensure religion and politics are kept apart.
"They don't have a say at all, they don't have a franchise to vote. So political authority has really waned," said Phuntsho.
In terms of spiritual influence, some say monastic materialism is partly to blame for a decline.
Although usually associated with a spartan existence, Bhutan's strand of Buddhism allows monks to own a range of possessions -- "there are even monks with big cars," said Damber K. Nirola, a psychiatrist in Thimphu.
But the monasteries still play a vital social role, providing homes to thousands of children whose parents may have died or feel unable to support them.
At Dechen Phodrang, young monks can be found busy learning the national 'dzongkha' script, making colourful cakes to offer the deities, or blowing the sound of the long 'dungchen' Buddhist trumpet over the valley.
With a government allowance per boy of less than a dollar a day, Tshering says it is a struggle to look after their 260 students, aged as young as six, who sleep in rows on classroom floors.
While just over 7,000 monks are registered with the central monastic body, on the ground about 9,000 to 11,000 exist at any one time, according to Karma Penjor, secretary at the Commission for the Monastic Affairs of Bhutan.
"They can't say no when people come with their children," he told AFP, saying the monasteries look after and educate "Bhutan's poorest of the poor".
They are also not without controversy.
A recent report by The Raven, a Bhutanese magazine, told the story of two young boys who said they escaped their monastery after being sexually abused by two of the older monks, who are supposed to be celibate.
The National Commission for Women and Children confirmed to AFP that the case had been dealt with internally by the monastic body, and one of the accused had been disrobed.
Between young monks, non-penetrative "thigh sex" is also "common", according to a UNICEF-supported report in 2012 on vulnerable Bhutanese adolescents.
Psychiatrist Nirola, a former district medical officer, said he found sexually transmitted diseases were quite regular among monks and possibly from heterosexual liaisons outside the monasteries.
He also came across youngsters suffering stress from the highly disciplined lifestyle, which was often not one of their own choice.
"They want to go to town, play on smartphones. That creates a lot of problems in their mind."
In May, the monastic commission opened a child protection office for the welfare of young monks and to raise awareness about their rights, but Penjor said better backing was crucial to its success.
"It's one thing to keep having awareness workshops, but if support for infrastructure is not there, after a while rights keep falling off, it's not very effective."
Some monks have embraced Bhutan's modernisation in a bid to get more support.
The Phajoding monastery, which is a three-hour uphill hike from the nearest road, is using social media to spread its news and raise funds, with regular updates on Twitter and Facebook.
Phuntsho thinks it will take more than PR to get Bhutan's monastic body on the rise again, and a key to that is modernising its education system.
"It's a big challenge for the monastics. I can see a very urgent need for them to reform and develop, but it's very unfair to expect that of them when they don't have the resources." - AFP
NAIROBI (AFP) - International flights landed at Nairobi airport Thursday morning, the first since a fire a day earlier gutted the arrivals terminal causing widespread chaos and delays, airport officials said.
The fire forced the cancellation or diversion of scores of flights at east Africa's biggest transport hub.
Using the domestic terminal for passengers instead of the fire-damaged international hall, flights from London and Bangkok safely landed early Thursday morning, said Eric Kiraithe, head of security at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA).
"We have received two flights from London and Bangkok, and currently we are checking in passengers flying to other destinations including Zanzibar, Johannesburg and Paris," Kiraithe told AFP.
Some of those passengers will fly first to Kenya's second city Mombasa before taking connecting international flights, but others are expected to leave directly for their destination from Nairobi, he added.
"We are confident we will process other flights in the course of the day, although we are not fully operational," Kiraithe said.
Cargo and domestic flights out of the Kenyan capital had already resumed on Wednesday evening.
However, it was not clear when airlines other than the national carrier Kenya Airways would also land at Nairobi.
The fierce fire, which started before dawn on Wednesday, took around four hours to bring under control, with firefighters hampered by a lack of both water and equipment.
The interior ministry was forced to issue public appeals for Nairobi's notoriously congested traffic to give way to trucks ferrying water to the airport after firefighters tackling the blaze ran "dangerously low on water".
Some 16,000 passengers usually transit through JKIA every day, according to official figures.
The airport is a regional hub for east Africa, with many long-distance international flights landing there to connect to countries across the region.
There were no casualties in the fire but two people -- an airport worker and a passenger -- were taken to hospital due to smoke inhalation.
August is one of Kenya's busiest months for tourism, a key industry for the country, as foreign travellers fly in to see its wildlife and enjoy the white sand beaches on its Indian Ocean coast.
The airport offers direct connections to Europe, the Middle East, the Far East and other African cities. - AFP
ADEN (AFP) - Yemen said it had foiled an Al-Qaeda plot to storm a Western-run oil terminal and seize a port city, as a terror alert kept US Middle East missions closed.
The jihadist network's feared Yemeni affiliate planned to assault the Canadian-run Mina al-Dhaba oil terminal on the Arabian Sea coast and take staff hostage, including Western expatriates, government spokesman Rajeh Badi told AFP.
A nearby export facility for oil derivatives was also targeted, Badi said.
Al-Qaeda also plotted to seize the nearby Hadramawt provincial capital Al-Mukalla, a port city of 100,000 people, and the Ghayl Bawazeer area to its north, where they briefly declared an Islamic emirate earlier this year.
"If they were to fail in seizing control of the facilities, the plan was to take foreign experts away as hostages," Badi said.
The attack was planned for Monday, which coincided with the 27th day of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and was the second day of a mass closure of US missions across the Middle East and North Africa.
The plot was foiled around two days before its planned launch, Badi said.
Both Washington and London pulled diplomatic personnel out of Sanaa on Tuesday citing intelligence reports of an imminent attack by the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The United States took the unusual step of closing some 25 diplomatic missions in the Muslim world Sunday, and then extending the closure for a week at 19 of them, in response to what it said was a credible and imminent threat of a major Al-Qaeda attack.
The Netherlands late Wednesday became the latest Western power to close its embassy in Yemen, citing "information that several western countries are potential targets of an upcoming terrorist attack."
An intercepted conference call between Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and top operatives was reportedly the trigger for the US embassy closures.
More than 20 Al-Qaeda operatives from across the globe were on the call, including representatives of Nigeria's Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Iraq as well as AQAP, US media reported.
In the call, Zawahiri is said to have named AQAP chief Nasir al-Wuhayshi as the operational controller of the group's affiliates throughout the Muslim world.
A lack of clarity about the wider threat, however, remains. Late Wednesday, a UN report said Zawahiri has struggled to unite Al-Qaeda's various factions though the group continues to pose a threat.
"A fragmented and weakened Al-Qaeda has not been extinguished," said the report, adding: "The reality of Al-Qaeda's diminished capabilities and limited appeal does not mean that the threat of Al-Qaeda attacks has passed."
This was later stressed by US President Barack Obama, who told some 3,000 marines that while Al-Qaeda's top ranks had been "hammered", "the end of the war in Afghanistan doesn't mean the end of threats to our nation."
While the closures span cities across the Arab world, the focus of concern has been Yemen, where Washington has been fighting a drone war against AQAP militants for several years.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Wednesday that Washington's embassy in Sanaa remained closed, "and we continue to evaluate the threats on a daily basis".
Tribal sources said a US drone killed seven suspected jihadists in Shabwa province, to the west of Hadramawt, on Wednesday, the second such strike in as many days.
The early-morning attack in the town of Nasab destroyed two vehicles, the sources said.
It was the fifth US drone strike in Yemen since July 28. At least 24 suspected Al-Qaeda militants have been killed.
Washington has launched scores of drone strikes in Yemen, where AQAP thrives in vast, lawless areas largely outside the government's control.
In recent days, Yemeni authorities beefed up security in Sanaa, where they feared the attack would be launched.
But they responded angrily Tuesday to the withdrawal of Western diplomats, saying they acknowledged the safety fears but noting that the pullout "serves the interests of the extremists."
"It undermines the exceptional cooperation between Yemen and the international alliance against terrorism," the foreign ministry said.
Yemen-based AQAP has attempted several attacks on the United States, including a failed bid to bring down a passenger plane by a man wearing explosives in his underwear and another to send bombs concealed in printer cartridges.
The intent of the foiled plot on oil facilities appears to have been similar to a spectacular January attack by Islamist militants on a gas plant deep in the Algerian desert.
Thirty-eight hostages died, all but one of them foreigners, along with 29 militants, in the four-day siege at the In Amenas plant, which was ended by the Algerian army.
|You are subscribed to email updates from World |
To stop receiving these emails, you may unsubscribe now.
|Email delivery powered by Google|
|Google Inc., 20 West Kinzie, Chicago IL USA 60610|