- Syrians vote in wartime election set to extend Assad's rule
- Thai confidence jumps on hopes army will bring order after chaos
- Clowning around in a time of war
Posted: 02 Jun 2014 11:40 PM PDT
DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrians voted on Tuesday in an election expected to deliver an overwhelming victory to President Bashar al-Assad in the midst of a civil war that has fractured the country and killed more than 160,000 people.
Assad's opponents including rebel fighters, the political opposition in exile, Western powers and Gulf Arabs have dismissed the election as a charade, saying no credible vote can be held in a country where wide swathes of territory are outside state control and millions of people have been displaced.
Insurgents battling to overthrow Assad stepped up attacks in government-controlled areas in the buildup to the election, seeking to disrupt the vote.
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) in parts of Syria where Assad continues to rule and state television broadcast footage of people queuing to cast their votes in several cities.
"We hope for security and stability," said Hussam al-Din al Aws, an Arabic teacher who was the first person to vote at a polling station at a Damascus secondary school. Asked who would win, he responded: "God willing, President Bashar al-Assad."
Assad is running against two relatively unknown challengers who were approved by a parliament packed with his supporters, the first time in half a century that Syrians have been offered any choice of candidates.
The last seven presidential votes were referenda to approve Bashar or his father, Hafez al-Assad. Hafez never scored less than 99 percent, while his son got 97.6 percent seven years ago.
Neither of Assad's rivals, former minister Hassan al-Nouri or parliamentarian Maher Hajjar, is expected to make major inroads into those levels of support.
Syrian officials confidently predicted a big turnout and said that a high level of participation would be as significant as the result itself.
"The size of the turnout is a political message," Information Minister Omran Zoabi told Reuters on Monday night.
"The armed terrorist groups have increased their threats because they fear (a high level of) participation," he said, referring to the rebels.
"If these terrorist groups had any popularity it would be enough to ensure the failure of the election," he said. "But they realise they have no popularity, so they want to affect the level of participation so they can say the turnout was low."
Tens of thousands of Syrian expatriates and refugees cast their ballots last week in an early round of voting, although the number was just a fraction of the nearly 3 million refugees and other Syrians living abroad.
The election took place three years after protests first broke out in Syria, calling for democratic reform in a country dominated since 1970 by the Assad family. Authorities responded with force and the uprising descended into civil war.
Assad's forces, backed by allies including Iran and Lebanon's militant group Hezbollah, have consolidated their control in central Syria but the insurgents and foreign jihadi fighters hold broad expanses of northern and eastern Syria.
Peace talks in Geneva between the government and the opposition National Coalition, which the opposition said must be based on the principle of Assad stepping aside in favour of a transitional government, collapsed in February.
Since then Assad's forces and Hezbollah fighters have seized back control of former rebel strongholds on the Lebanese border, cutting off supply lines for weapons and fighters, and the last rebels have retreated from the centre of the city of Homs.
The withdrawal from Homs has focused attention on the northern city of Aleppo, formerly Syria's commercial hub, where fighting has escalated in the last few weeks.
Rebel rocket fire on government-controlled areas of Aleppo killed 50 people over the weekend, while barrel bombs dropped by army helicopters on rebel-held areas of Aleppo have killed nearly 2,000 people this year, a monitoring group said.
State media said on Monday that a car bomb killed at least 10 people in Homs province.
(Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
Posted: 02 Jun 2014 11:05 PM PDT
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai consumer confidence jumped in May on hopes a new military government would impose order after months of political chaos that had threatened to tip the economy into recession.
The army toppled the remnants of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government on May 22 after sometimes deadly protests since November that had forced ministries to close, hurt business confidence and caused the economy to shrink.
The coup was the latest convulsion in a decade-long conflict between the Bangkok-based royalist establishment, dominated by the military, old-money families and the bureaucracy, and the supporters of Yingluck and her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who are adored by the poor in the north and northeast.
Since then the ruling junta has moved to suppress criticism of its seizure of power and nip protests in the bud. Yingluck and prominent supporters of the Shinawatras have been briefly detained and warned against any anti-military activities.
But the crackdown does appear to have brought some stability for now, after months of paralysis under a caretaker government that lacked the power to make policy or approve new spending.
The University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce said on Tuesday its May consumer confidence index hit its highest level since January, just before protesters disrupted a Feb. 2 election called by Yingluck in a failed bid to end the crisis.
The index rose to 70.7 in May from 67.8 in April, when it had fallen for the 13th month in a row and was at its lowest level in more than 12 years. Polling for the index was carried out last week, after the coup.
"The main factor boosting sentiment was confidence in the future due to political clarity. People were more confident the economy would get better," Thanavath Phonvichai, an economics professor at the university, told a news briefing.
University President Saowanee Thairungroj said an index on the political situation jumped to 59.6 in May from 37.3 in April. "It rose 22 points in a month, compared with just a few point changes previously, and that came in just one week," he said.
ABUSE OF POWER
Yingluck herself was ordered to step down two weeks before the coup when a court found her guilty of abuse of power.
Her brother Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon who was widely considered the power behind her government, had been ousted as prime minister in the last military coup in 2006. He has lived in self-imposed exile since fleeing a 2008 conviction for abuse of power.
The military council has been anxious to show it is moving swiftly to revive an economy that contracted 2.1 percent in the first quarter of 2014.
It has extended cuts to valued-added and corporate taxes and moved quickly to pay billions of dollars owed to rice farmers after a state rice-buying scheme collapsed when Yingluck's government was unable to raise funds.
It has also extended price caps on fuel to help consumers. Inflation hit a 14-month high of 2.62 percent in May, although the Commerce Ministry reckons it will be contained this year in a range of 2.0 to 2.8 percent.
The military is keen to fast-track foreign investment proposals plus some of the big infrastructure projects Yingluck was unable to push through, in part because a court rejected the funding methods.
Air Chief Marshal Prajin Juntong, in charge of economic matters for the junta, said on Monday a backlog of investment applications worth about 700 billion baht ($21.3 billion) would be acted on within two months.
The Board of Investment says this includes applications from 10 global car makers for investments totalling about 139 billion baht related to plans to promote the production of more environmentally friendly vehicles.
Shares in industrial land developers Amata Corp and Hemaraj Land Development jumped on Tuesday on expectations they would benefit from new investment projects.
At 0540 GMT, Amata was up 2.4 percent and Hemaraj 4.4 percent. The main Thai index was 0.8 percent higher. On Monday, it jumped 1.8 percent to its highest level since Oct. 31, just before the protests against Yingluck flared up.
Prajin is also looking at longer-term projects such as the development of special economic zones on the borders with Myanmar, Laos and Malaysia, but 30 urgent proposals on the economy will be discussed with military leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha this week.
Prajin has told the Finance Ministry to look at a complete overhaul of the tax structure and report to him next week.
In a televised address on Friday, Prayuth said the military would need time to reconcile Thailand's antagonistic political forces and push through reforms, indicating there would be no general election for about 15 months.
The United States, European Union countries and others have called for the military to restore democracy quickly, release political detainees and end censorship.
The military has banned political gatherings of five or more people. On Sunday, 5,700 troops and police were sent into central Bangkok to stop anti-coup protests, which were mostly limited to small gatherings held around shopping malls.
(Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)
Posted: 02 Jun 2014 10:35 PM PDT
JABINE Lebanon (Reuters) - Does aid work always have to be serious? Do you have to be a doctor working on the frontline or an aid worker distributing food to refugees? David Clay, a clown from Oregon, thinks not.
Once a construction worker, Clay now volunteers for Clowns Without Borders, an international non-profit organisation that uses laughter to relieve suffering among children in refugee camps, conflict zones and natural disaster areas.
On Monday, Clay dressed up in his navy blue suit, crooked black hat and a polka dot tie to entertain 200 Syrian refugee children who are now living in neighbouring Lebanon.
The tiny Mediterranean country hosts one million refugees, who have fled cluster bombs, chemical weapons and al Qaeda militants in a war that has killed more than 160,000 in three years. Lebanon has not allowed official refugee camps, so many families live in unfinished buildings and wooden shacks.
Clay, along with three other clowns - another American, a Chilean and Lebanese - juggled, played instruments and acted like buffoons for the children, who first appeared withdrawn but started to cheer and clap as the performance unfolded.
Describing himself a humanitarian, Clay has worked in Indonesia, the Philippines and Haiti. In Haiti, where a 2010 earthquake killed more than 250,000 people, Clay said other aid groups were originally suspicious of his work, dubious of the results in a high stress situation with limited resources.
"Doctors were cold to us. But their attitude changed distinctly," he said, preparing for the show at a school in central Lebanon, multi-coloured handkerchiefs hanging out of his back pocket.
"When the doctors heard those people laughing, especially in the children's ward, they saw that it was the first time some of the children had reacted to anything at all after the earthquake."
This trip is sponsored by Layan, a Kuwait-based aid group, and the team will take their stilts, Hula Hoops and blue trombone to camps over Lebanon during the next two weeks.
One million Syrian refugee children live in the region, millions are trapped by conflict inside Syria and public health researchers and aid workers say they are displaying symptoms of psychological trauma. Aid group Save the Children says one in three children it surveyed last year had seen a close friend or relative killed.
During the singing and the dancing on Monday, Clay pulled a young boy, Ahmed, from the audience up from the crowd and gave him a wooden mop to ride like a horse around the dusty playground.
The boy's teacher said Ahmed was exceptionally shy in class and had fled from the Syrian city of Raqqa to get to Lebanon.
Raqqa has been repeatedly bombed by Syrian air force jets and is also a focal point of fighting between Islamic insurgent groups. Al Qaeda-linked fighters have carried out public executions in Raqqa's main square.
Ahmed did not appear to like the attention as he followed Clay around the audience, but the other clowns asked the children to encourage him.
A broad smile slowly filled his face and he picked up speed as his friends shouted: "Ahmed! Ahmed! Ahmed!"
(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)
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