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Thai ruling party opposes delay to troubled election

Posted: 27 Jan 2014 02:46 AM PST

Bangkok (AFP) - Thailand's ruling party called Monday for controversial elections to go ahead, despite widespread disruption to advance voting by opposition protesters who besieged polling stations Sunday and stopped hundreds of thousands from casting ballots.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has faced nearly three months of mass street demonstrations demanding her elected government step down to make way for an unelected "people's council" that would oversee reforms aimed at curbing the dominance of her billionaire family.

Ten people have been killed and hundreds injured in grenade attacks, drive-by shootings and street clashes since the protests began at the end of October.

An anti-government rally leader was shot dead in broad daylight Sunday while giving a speech from the back of a pickup truck in a Bangkok suburb.

Yingluck is due to meet election authorities Tuesday to discuss a possible delay to the February 2 general election, after the Constitutional Court ruled that the polls could legally be pushed back because of the civil strife.

But the head of her Puea Thai Party said Monday he opposed a postponement and accused the Election Commission (EC) of not doing enough to ensure an orderly vote.

"The EC is authorised to hold the election and Puea Thai as a political party fielding candidates does not agree with a postponement or delay to the election," Jarupong Ruangsuwan told AFP.

Thai Buddhist monk and co-protest leader 'Luang Pu Buddha Isara' points as he talks with government officials during negotiations in Bangkok on January 27, 2014

"The EC is stubborn and wants the election to be postponed," he said. "I think the Constitutional Court and the EC are coordinating with the protesters."

It was unclear whether his view reflected that of the government, which said it was ready to listen to the poll body's comments at Tuesday's meeting.

About 440,000 people out of two million registered for advance voting were prevented Sunday from casting their ballots, the election commission said.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has threatened to "close every route" to polling stations again this coming Sunday, saying the election would not be allowed to take place.

The opposition Democrats are boycotting the February polls, saying reforms are needed to ensure the election is truly democratic and to prevent abuse of power by the next government.

In an interview with AFP, Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said Monday that the opposition would consider taking part in a delayed vote.

He called for talks to draw up a "roadmap where reforms can be initiated and we can set a reasonable timeframe for elections that would be accepted by all sides".

Abhisit distanced himself from the protesters' proposal for an unelected "people's council" to run the country, saying that was not the demand of his party.

But he added that Yingluck "does not have the credibility" herself to oversee the reform process.

Thai anti-government protesters hold placards during a rally in Bangkok on January 27, 2014

The kingdom has been bitterly divided since Yingluck's older brother, the then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was overthrown by royalist generals in a coup more than seven years ago.

Critics accuse the billionaire tycoon-turned-politician of controlling his sister's government from Dubai, where he lives to avoid prison for a corruption conviction.

His opponents have staged a self-styled "shutdown" of Bangkok since January 13, erecting roadblocks and rally stages at several main intersections, although attendance has gradually fallen and disruption has been limited.

The government has declared a 60-day state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas, giving the authorities the power to ban public gatherings of more than five people, although they have not yet done so.

Labour Minister Chalerm Yubamrung, who is overseeing the government's security response, warned protesters Monday to vacate besieged state offices in the capital, but reiterated a pledge not to use force.

"I'm giving them 72 hours to end their occupation of government offices," he said, adding that the authorities would set up "rapid movement teams to arrest them all".

When a state of emergency was last imposed in 2010 during pro-Thaksin protests, the government then led by Abhisit cracked down with armoured vehicles and soldiers firing live rounds. More than 90 people were killed and nearly 1,900 injured.

Philippine priests swap sermons for 'selfies'

Posted: 27 Jan 2014 02:51 AM PST

Manila (AFP) - For some of the Philippines' most powerful clergymen, stepping off the pulpit and into cyberspace felt impossibly daunting until they took their first "selfies" and posted them on Facebook.

Their initial forays into the brave new virtual world took place in a groundbreaking class for 50 of the Philippines' top bishops and monsignors in Manila earlier this month, part of the Catholic Church's strategy to remain relevant in the digital age.

Sean-Patrick Lovett, a programme director with Vatican Radio who flew in from Rome to lead the seminar, said Social Media 101 had not been taught to such a group of senior Church figures anywhere in the world before and he was surprised by his students' reactions.

"I've never seen bishops so happy and so excited. They were taking pictures of themselves and putting them on Facebook," Lovett told AFP after the three-hour session, which saw the priests partner with younger, more tech-savvy seminarians or nuns to show them the ropes.

"After half an hour on the web, one bishop became very emotional. People he hadn't heard from in years were contacting him."

Bishop Buenaventura Famadico, who leads the major San Pablo diocese near Manila, gave the impression the class was a lightbulb moment after years of largely avoiding computers.

"I am a very private person. I still have a very limited appreciation about the Internet and social media," the 57-year-old told AFP.

"But now there is that opening, about staying in touch with others through Facebook."

Famadico recounted that during the training seminar he opened the webpage of his own diocese and found it was so out of date it still had his predecessor listed in his place.

"Now I have new friends, I contacted my brothers and sisters abroad. I am very encouraged to upload my thoughts and homilies to my Facebook account," he said.

The class involved teaching the clergymen, some of them in their 70s, simply how to use the Internet, set up Facebook and Twitter accounts and, most importantly, how to make their messages worth reading.

One seminarian said that, while some priests already had their own Facebook pages, most did not and one elderly bishop had never even used a computer before.

"Just typing on the keyboard was a new experience for him," said the seminarian, who asked not to be identified.

The Catholic Church is already using social media as a powerful tool to deliver God's messages, and Lovett said his students were encouraged by Pope Francis having nearly 3.6 million Twitter followers.

The Philippines' top clergyman, Archbishop of Manila Cardinal Luis Tagle, is also prominent on social media with his Facebook account attracting more than 450,000 "likes".

Yet Lovett said the bishops had struggled with following their leaders' examples because they simply felt overwhelmed with unfamiliar technologies.

"The bishops know that social media is important. But it is one thing to know it and another to experience it," Lovett said.

Lovett said it was important for Church leaders to adapt so they could reach the widest audience possible, particularly in countries such as the Philippines where the youth demographic is so strong.

"The average age of the Filipino population is 23 years. If you want to talk to 23-year-olds, you have to use the language they use," he said.

And the Philippines is so important to the Church because it has about 80 million Catholics -- the biggest number of any country in Asia -- a legacy of Spanish colonial rule that ended in 1898.

Lovett said one key part of the class, which was also attended by the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, was how to attract and hold the interest of the youth.

"The old days of putting long homilies (online) and expecting young people to read them is over," he said.

Monsignor Crisologo Manongas, 56, said he and his fellow students were taught not to use long sermons but use "short messages that can be picked up by the people".

They were also told to use more photographs rather than words. "Nowadays, it is pictures that talk," he said.

Lovett said the class also addressed the priests' fears of being too vulnerable on the web by teaching them how to use privacy settings and set up special "groups" where access is restricted.

"We taught them how to be careful about who you invite and who you befriend, and what you say and how you say it," he said.

Lovett said he hoped the initial enthusiasm shown by the clergymen would not flare out after the class.

"Because people want to be contacted by their bishops. They want to know that their bishops are out there, they want to be inspired by their presence," he said.

However Lovett also indicated that the priests had deep reservations that may prevent them from fully embracing the Internet.

"Some bishops said to me, 'I'm afraid I might become addicted to Facebook,'" he said.

"Then they asked: 'If I become addicted, can I pray while I'm on Facebook?'"


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