Ahad, 26 Januari 2014

The Star Online: World Updates

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The Star Online: World Updates

More than 300 fall ill on Royal Caribbean ship; cruise cut short

Posted: 26 Jan 2014 08:45 PM PST

(Reuters) - More than 300 passengers and crew members fell ill aboard a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, many with vomiting and diarrhoea, the Centres for Disease Control said on Sunday.

Royal Caribbean confirmed the outbreak of a gastrointestinal illness, saying that the 10-day cruise would end two days early, with the ship returning to its home port in New Jersey.

"New reports of illness have decreased day-over-day, and many guests are again up and about," Royal Caribbean said in a written statement. "Nevertheless, the disruptions caused by the early wave of illness means that we were unable to deliver the vacation our guests were expecting."

The CDC said in a statement that 281 passengers and 22 crew members aboard the Explorer of the Seas reported becoming sick during the voyage. The ship was carrying 3,050 passengers and a crew of 1,165.

The ship was on a Caribbean cruise after departing Cape Liberty, New Jersey on January 21.

The CDC said the cause of the sickness was unknown but that an environmental safety officer and an epidemiologist would board the ship in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands to determine the cause of the outbreak and the proper response.

The ship's crew increased cleaning and disinfection procedures and had collected specimens from those who reported being ill following the outbreak, the CDC said.

"After consultation between our medical team and representatives of the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, we think the right thing to do is to bring our guests home early, and use the extra time to sanitize the ship even more thoroughly," Royal Caribbean said.

The cruise line said it believes the illnesses are consistent with norovirus, a highly contagious virus spread from an infected person, contaminated food or water, or by touching contaminated surfaces, according to the CDC.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Edith Honan and Eric Walsh)

Thai red-shirt heartland backs government despite rice fiasco

Posted: 26 Jan 2014 08:36 PM PST

CHAIWAN, Thailand (Reuters) - Rice farmer Thiwakorn Chomchan hasn't been paid in 2 months, but he is not angry with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose flagship policy is meant to guarantee him an above-market price. Instead, he blames anti-government protesters in Bangkok.

"Some farmers in the north and northeast of the country who are part of the rice scheme are not upset. They know the government has its hands tied," said Thiwakorn, 51.

Elsewhere across Thailand thousands of farmers, many of whom are owed 4 months' pay, are demonstrating against the multi-billion dollar scheme they say is riddled with corruption and have threatened to join the protests disrupting the capital.

In the northeastern heartland of Yingluck's Puea Thai Party and her brother, ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, nobody is switching sides.

A meeting convened by Thiwakorn around a smoky fire in Chaiwan, a district in the northeastern province of Udon Thani, captured the mood: the 20 assembled farmers decided unanimously that they would not be joining the demonstrations.

"We're loyal people. We have faith in the government's policies," said Sunanta Wimasee, who owns 9 rai (1.4 hectares) of rice fields.

The rock solid support of the poorer but populous north almost certainly guarantees Yingluck will win a February 2 election if legal challenges escalating violence do not force its postponement.

But the erosion of rural support elsewhere leaves her increasingly reliant on the electoral bastion built by Thaksin - further polarising an already deeply divided country where a protest movement based in Bangkok and the more prosperous south is determined to drive her from office.


The protests are the latest chapter in an 8-year conflict that broadly pits the Bangkok-based middle class against the mainly poorer supporters of Yingluck and Thaksin, who was toppled by the military in 2006.

Ten people have been killed since the protests began in November. In a sign tensions are escalating, an anti-government protest leader was shot and killed in Bangkok on Sunday as demonstrators blocked polling stations set up for early voting.

Last Wednesday, Kwanchai Praipana, an outspoken leader of the pro-government "red shirt" movement, was seriously injured after an unidentified gunman opened fire as he sat reading a newspaper on his front porch.

Just a day earlier, he had told Reuters a nationwide "fight" would ensue if the military launched another coup.

"We won't accept them seizing power, if we need to divide the country then we will," Kwanchai, who leads thousands of red-shirted supporters in Udon Thani. "We won't send people to Bangkok to fight empty-handed."


Thailand's central plains, the country's main rice-growing region, have traditionally been up for grabs at election time, with no party dominating and constituencies keenly contested.

In 2011, voters there helped Yingluck sweep to power after she promised to kick-start the rice intervention scheme. Out of the 265 seats won by Yingluck's party in 2011, more than 39 percent were from northeast, while 15 percent came from the central "swing" region.

The rice policy, however, has been a fiasco, with losses of 136 billion baht ($4.14 billion) in the 2011-2012 crop year. Critics of the scheme, including former Central Bank Governor and Finance Minister Pridiyathorn Devakula recently estimated the total at 425 billion baht ($30.42 million).

As financing strains mount on what has been a centrepiece of the government's programme, unpaid farmers are getting angry.

"The government took our rice and they haven't paid us and those poor farmers can barely make a living," Prasit Boonchoy, head of the Thai Farmers Association, told Reuters, adding that more than 10,000 farmers would march to Bangkok.

Over the past week protesting farmers in 26 of the country's 76 provinces blocked major roads demanding compensation.

"Almost everyone in the northeast has been paid because they've already harvested their rice. Elsewhere that's not the case," said Nipon Poapongsakorn from the Thailand Development Research Institute.

"It's life and death for them and the farmers that are protesting now are really mad. The government will certainly lose a few farmers' votes in the next election."

Unlike in "Isaan", as the northeast region of the country is called, provinces in central Thailand are well-irrigated. Farmers there can grow rice as much as three times a year.

But a long dry season in northeastern Thailand means farmers harvest rice once a year and diversify by growing other crops including sugar-cane, rubber and cassava.


Thaksin, who lives in Dubai to avoid a corruption sentence handed down in his absence in 2008, remains a hero to many in the mostly poor, rural north and northeast for his big-spending populist policies, including free healthcare and cheap loans.

In interviews with Reuters, farmers in Udon Thani blamed the protesters in Bangkok for delayed payments for their rice.

Donning a green cap with a five-pointed red star as he erected campaign signs for Yingluck's Puea Thai Party, Thongpoon Promying, 61, said the government's critics were deliberately discrediting the scheme.

"It isn't the government's fault," said Thongpoon, a former member of the Thai Communist Party.

"There's money but the farmers' bank is playing politics. They call themselves a bank for grassroots people but they bend to the will of the elite," he added, referring to the state-owned Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives


Under the scheme, the government uses loans from the BAAC to fund the purchases, and is supposed to repay the loans by selling rice on the world market.

The bank's labour union has threatened an investigation against the government if it continues to use its reserves to pay farmers. Many of the bank's clients, fearing their savings will be used to pay off the scheme, have withdrawn their money.


Prasert Satitthammanit, owner of "Udorn Permsin" rice mill in Udon Thani, admits the scheme is flawed.

"It's the government's fault. The policy is fine, it's the way officials execute it. It should be first in, first out. They shouldn't leave rice to rot over three years," said Prasert.

Thailand now sits on stockpiles of 18 million tonnes, almost double a normal year's exports and nearly half of annual global trade of 38 million tonnes, and has had little success in offloading its mountains. The government has even resorted to storing rice in airport hangars.

The anti-corruption agency says it will investigate allegations Yingluck was negligent in her role as head of the National Rice Policy Committee. She could eventually face charges and be banned from public office.

Bangkok's protesters have urged farmers to join them - but the offer finds few takers 450 km (280 miles) away in Udon Thani.

"The protesters are stunting the country's growth," said farmer Somboon Pansa, 61. "This is the old way of thinking... keep the power in Bangkok and keep us poor."

(Additional reporting by Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Drawn-out Thai crisis unsettles investors, may deter new money

Posted: 26 Jan 2014 08:35 PM PST

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Long-term foreign investors say they are sticking with Thailand despite its political woes but the threat of worsening chaos may scare away new money as companies scope out other options in neighbouring countries such as Indonesia.

Protesters trying to topple the government have rallied in the capital, Bangkok, since November. This month they have forced ministries to close and blocked major roads. They say they will stop a general election being held on February 2.

"Assuming the political woes go on, foreign investors may decide to shift to other countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar," Kyoichi Tanada, president of Toyota Motor Corp's Thai unit, said this week.

"Many investors want to invest in Thailand. If the situation has not been resolved, the ones which are already invested may not go away, but whether they will invest more, it's questionable," said Tanada, also vice-president of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, which represents 1,524 Japanese firms in the Southeast Asian country.

Thailand gets more than half of its foreign direct investment from Japan. That foreign capital brings much-needed money into a country that recorded a current account deficit in 2013 and may again this year.

It is the biggest car market in Southeast Asia and a regional production and export base for top manufacturers such as Toyota, Nissan Motor Co and Ford Motor Co.

It is also a major global production centre for hard disk drives with big players such as Seagate Technology and Western Digital having operations in the country.

Thai partners are putting a brave face on things.

Hemaraj Land and Development runs seven big industrial estates, home to factories for the likes of Ford Motor, General Motors and Caterpillar.

David Nardone, its chief executive, said 10-20 percent of new customers had postponed signing contracts to take up facilities since December.

"It's short-term disruption," Nardone said, hopeful there would be a recovery in the next few months. "There may be some people who don't know Thailand so well and they may take longer, have more questions and wait for clarity."

The optimists point to 2010, when more than 90 people died in another protracted bout of political unrest. Foreign direct investment jumped 88 percent that year, the stock market surged 41 percent and the economy bounded ahead by 7.8 percent.

This time, however, the protests have gone on for three months and government work is being disrupted.

Some $60 billion (36.38 billion pounds) of infrastructure spending may not get started this year, for example. Consumer confidence fell for the ninth month in December to a two-year low and investors worry about a possible escalation of violence, which will hold back Southeast Asia's second-largest economy after Indonesia.


"Political instability is always preventing investment flows. Long term investments projects may be reconsidered and other locations may be reassessed," said Rolf-Dieter Daniel, President of the European ASEAN Business Centre, which groups 14 European chambers of commerce in Thailand.

Foreign direct investment probably totalled almost $13 billion in 2013 but could drop to less than $8 billion in 2014 even if tension eased and investors returned in the second half, said Pimonwan Mahujchariyawong, an economist at Kasikorn Research Center in Bangkok.

Investment also dropped in 2011 when widespread flooding disrupted the activities of global electronics and car firms.

"Multinational firms tend to diversify their investments to other ASEAN countries as well, to reduce risks (either from politics or disasters)," Pimonwan said, adding FDI could return to a more normal $8-9 billion per annum in the next 3-5 years.

Economists say Thailand's fundamentals - a relatively large market of around 67 million people, a growing middle class, pro-business environment, good infrastructure and geographical advantages including access to emerging markets such as Myanmar - helped it stand out in Southeast Asia and attract investment.

Jongkie D. Sugiarto, chairman of the Association of Indonesia Automotive Industries (Gaikindo), said Indonesia with its 240 million people was well placed to catch up.

But the regulatory environment had to be improved and the domestic market developed, he said. "We also have to build our infrastructure, from ports to the provision of electricity and gas, roads and so on. How can we possibly ask car companies that want to invest in Indonesia to build power plants first?"

This year was always going to be tough for Thailand.

"Lacklustre exports and weak consumer spending from 2013 have resulted in low average capacity utilisation at around 64 percent and high growth of inventory accumulation," said Sutapa Amornvivat, chief economist at Siam Commercial Bank, expecting private investment growth of about 3 percent in 2014, much lower than the average 10-year rate of 6 percent.

"But, looking beyond 2014, we think Thailand still makes a very good long-term bet," she said.

That sentiment was echoed by Honda Automobile (Thailand), part of Honda Motor.

"New potential investors may be spooked by the political woes," said Pitak Pruittisarikorn, its executive vice-president. "For Honda, we have been in Thailand for more than 50 years and we are still confident in Thailand's long-term outlook." ($1 = 32.8350 Thai baht)

(Additional reporting by Orathai Sriring, Manunphattr Dhanananphorn, Pisit Changplayngam and Pairat Temphairojana in Bangkok and Eveline Danubrata in Jakarta; Editing by Alan Raybould and Emily Kaiser)

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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