Author: Alisa Tang
Author: Alisa Tang
Author: Alisa Tang
BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On Monday, more than two weeks after the monster typhoon tore through the central Philippines, a photographer colleague hopped into a helicopter with the Philippines military as they flew to remote areas, hovered a few metres above the ground and dropped water and USAID boxes to survivors waiting below.
The pictures show clearly that most of those who had rushed to the drop spot were young men and boys - able-bodied, strong.
Super Typhoon Haiyan pushed ashore a tsunami-like storm surge that uprooted trees, washed away entire villages, cut off roads and communications, and claimed more than 5,200 lives.
The latest report from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that food, water and shelter are still “urgently required”, and that attention must be paid to “persons with special needs, including those with disabilities, elderly, single-headed households, and single women”.
“Affected communities have access to small food stocks but are increasingly concerned about the lack of food in the long term, with limited or no access to markets,” it says, adding that debris clearance remains a priority and more heavy equipment is needed to hasten the work.
Many reader comments on various news websites propose airdrops as the obvious way to get assistance to still hard-to-reach communities.
Yet humanitarian organisations say airdrops are expensive and inefficient and are a last resort, because once the life-saving aid hits the ground, it is pounced upon by the strongest and fittest and may not reach those most in need.
I asked some organisations with staff on the ground in the Philippines their opinion of airdrops. Here are their answers:
Ewan Watson, spokesman for the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC)
“As a general rule, the ICRC does not air-drop aid.
“Firstly, we need to be on the ground to understand the basic needs of the population, so that we know exactly what aid to bring them. Then, we want to make sure our aid goes to those most in need, and that means targeting distributions at the neediest beneficiaries.
“For example, how would we ensure through airdrops that those who have difficulty moving due to age or disability (or for a socio-cultural reason) actually receive aid? There would certainly need to be a strong community mechanism in place to ensure air-dropped aid is redistributed to the most vulnerable.
“We work in close coordination with the local authorities and the beneficiary communities, but we prefer and always endeavour to distribute directly to individual beneficiary households, often with the help of the Philippine Red Cross in the case of the Haiyan response.
“This avoids the possibility of needy families being excluded and ensures that beneficiaries receive what they’re entitled to.”
Samir Wanmali, emergency coordinator for the U.N. World Food Programme’s (WFP) Typhoon Haiyan response
“WFP has clear guidelines for the organisation of airdrops: they should be planned in advance with a drop zone cleared and secured, staff prepared to collect and log dropped goods, and then to subsequently organise a distribution to beneficiaries who have been previously identified according to vulnerabilities and needs.
“WFP does use airdrops in operations where there is no other way to reach people in need – for example, in South Sudan in order to bring food supplies to an isolated refugee camp to which access roads were completely washed out by seasonal rains.
“However, due to the considerable cost and organisational requirements, it is not the first choice delivery mechanism.
“In the response to Typhoon Yolanda, WFP has not used airdrops, since alternative transport modalities by sea and road are available to get food to distribution points.”
Oxfam responds in a Typhoon Haiyan Q&A posted online:
“Oxfam’s experience is that aid airdrops … can very occasionally help but typically are hugely expensive and very limited in what they can deliver. Air-dropping aid does not guarantee food and other relief supplies reach the people most in need. In many cases it’s the strongest and fittest who get to the aid first and not the sick or injured who most need help and assistance.
“In a natural disaster such as this one, it’s not only food that’s needed but also sophisticated equipment such as clean water and sanitation systems weighing tons as well as highly skilled staff to operate them - none of which can be dropped from the sky. If there isn’t an aid operation on the ground to distribute the aid, airdrops can exacerbate any tense relations within communities, with only the fittest and fastest benefiting.”
Reuters pictures show USAID boxes being dropped by military helicopter, so I asked USAID to respond to this issue, too.
Rebecca Gustafson, press officer for the USAID Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda response management team
“For various reasons, humanitarian airdrops of relief supplies or food aid are considered a last resort option. The U.S. Government is working in support of the government of the Philippines response effort, and I would encourage you to (speak with) them to learn more about their efforts.”
The Philippines government could not immediately be reached for comment.
Author: Alisa Tang
Randy Homeres shows a board with the name of his idol, a basketball player LeBron James, and hopes that James will see it and help his community in an area totally devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban November 21, 2013. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Super Typhoon Haiyan - one of the strongest storms ever recorded - left at least 5,000 people dead and more than 4 million displaced across the ravaged central Philippines, but few Americans are opening up their wallets or even paying attention, according to a survey.
Fewer than one in three Americans (32 percent) is “very closely” following news about the typhoon, drawing less attention than the 2011 tsunami in Japan (55 percent), the Indian Ocean tsunami (58 percent) or the 2010 Haiti earthquake (60 percent), according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
The national survey, conducted Nov. 14 to 17 through telephone interviews with 1,013 adults, found that Typhoon Haiyan tied with economic news as the second-most closely followed story that week, while the Obamacare rollout was the top story, with 37 percent following it very closely.
The share of Americans donating to the Philippines is also trailing giving in the aftermath of other natural disasters: 14 percent say they have donated to storm relief efforts, compared to 52 percent giving to Haiti quake efforts.
An additional 17 percent say they plan to give to the Philippines, but two-thirds (67 percent) say they do not think they will donate right now, the survey found.
Although the number of people killed by the Indian Ocean tsunami - 226,000 - dwarves the Philippines death toll, Typhoon Haiyan has displaced more people than Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami combined, the Wall Street Journal reported.
By Alisa Tang
BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An initiative to stamp out human trafficking, child labour and forced labour in Thailand’s multibillion-dollar seafood industry lacks teeth and will do little to end the problem in the Southeast Asian country, rights activists say.
Under the “Good Labour Practices” programme, launched in the Thai capital Bangkok last week, government officials and businesses are meant to work together to ensure international labour standards are met in the industry employing up to 2 million people.
Gross human rights abuses have long tarnished the Thai seafood sector with campaigners documenting many cases of violence and the use of underage workers. Earlier this month, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that one in 10 fishermen were being beaten severely at sea, and many others were going unpaid.
"To date, these violations are systemic - they are part of the labour policies that make these industries function and that make them so profitable," said Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, Phil Robertson, noting that the abuses he documented "sound like they come out of a medieval dungeon".
Robertson criticised the new initiative as “a cynical charade because there is no effective implementation mechanism with teeth for non-compliance”. He also said there were no clear penalties for not complying with labour standards.
"Sadly, this is more of the traditional Thai practice of ‘pak chee roi na’ - putting a sprig of coriander on top of a food dish that is not so tasty to try and make it look better," he said in comments emailed to Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The production of shrimp here has been classified by the U.S. Department of Labor as an item produced by both child and forced labour since 2009, while fish from Thailand was added to the 2012 list for the use of forced labour.
"When we did our research, we found multiple problems with child labour at multiple factories," said Nick Rudikoff, a global affairs coordinator for Change to Win, a Washington DC-based labour union coalition.
Rudikoff, an author of a briefing paper about violations at the factory of a former Wal-mart supplier, Narong Seafood, said relying on the industry to regulate itself would not guarantee workers’ rights.
"Without workers at the table, their auditing regimes are really nothing but a whitewash because they haven’t been shown to identify problems because it’s in nobody’s interest to find those problems," Rudikoff told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
"Our main point is that the industry is not just driven by Thai producers, but by Western retailers like Wal-mart who buy the vast majority of these goods. They need to be a part of this solution as well," he said.
"In order to fix the problems in the Thai seafood industry, it will take a collaborative effort between Western buyers, the Thai seafood industry, and grassroots workers’ organisations and NGOs. Without all those ingredients, these problems won’t be solved."
Thai industry and government officials said their participation in the initiative was proof that they took reports of rights violations seriously.
"We are happy to join this Department of Labour and Fisheries Department GLP (Good Labour Practices) programme because no matter what we have said in the past, the media would not believe us," Thai Frozen Foods Association President Poj Aramwattananont said.
"I wouldn’t dare to say that 100 percent of (frozen food processors) are in the right. There may be some businessmen here and there who are unknowingly not in the right, or who may not know they are doing something wrong," he said. "The minority who are not in the right should go and fix it so it is right."
By Alisa Tang
BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Some 250 Rohingya Muslim men who fled Myanmar by sea and were bound for Malaysia swam ashore in southern Thailand after their boat was hit by a storm and drifted off course, the Nation newspaper reported on Thursday.
The men, ranging in age from 15 to 40, came ashore on Wednesday morning in Satun, a Muslim-majority province bordering Malaysia, and were taken to a public park where locals provided food and medicine, while police and officials “conducted an inspection”, the report said.
The Nation said the men left Myanmar on August 26, and nine days later their food and water ran out. When they saw the coast they swam ashore to survive, and were being “kept at the park, pending further action by Internal Security Operations Command officials,” it said.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar by sea in the past year, in one of the biggest movements of boat people since the end of the Vietnam War. The number of people boarding boats from Myanmar and neighbouring Bangladesh reached 34,626 from June 2012 to May this year - more than four times the number in the previous year, the Arakan Project says. Almost all were Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.
Their exodus is a sign of Muslim desperation in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where communal unrest last year in Rakhine state left 192 dead and 140,000 homeless, most of them Rohingya. Rohingya activists put the death toll as high as 748.
By Alisa Tang
BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Researchers in Thailand will move ahead with another phase of an HIV vaccine study, building on a 2009 efficacy trial that provided the first evidence that a preventive HIV vaccine is possible.
The 2009 trial - known as RV144 - involved more than 16,000 volunteers in Thailand and found that the vaccine regimen tested reduced the risk of HIV infection by 31.2 percent at the end of the study, though the scientists noted that the efficacy rate at 12 months was significantly higher.
"The RV144 Thai HIV vaccine study results, announced in 2009, showed that a HIV vaccine is possible, and the protective effect at one year may have been as high as 60 percent,” Col. Jerome Kim, principal deputy of the U.S. Military HIV Research Program(MHRP) told Thomson Reuters Foundation by email after the AIDS Vaccine Efficacy Consortium (AVEC) Summit last week in Bangkok.
“Later scientific studies told us why the vaccine might have worked. This will allow us to tweak the vaccine and the schedule, which will hopefully increase the level of protection.”
MHRP began a small clinical study, RV305, in April 2012 in Thailand to evaluate re-boosting in volunteers who participated in the RV144 study.
RV306, the immunogenicity study to begin this year, will compare additional vaccine boosts in 360 new volunteers and aims to determine “what types of immune responses the vaccine regimen generates, and which boost combinations generate the strongest response,” said Lisa Reilly, the MHRP’s communications director.
“It is not an efficacy study, so it does not need to be large… We are hoping to conduct an efficacy study with an improved vaccine boost/adjuvant in Thailand, but it will not start until 2016/17,” she said.
The RV306 study will be conducted at three sites: the Vaccine Trial Centre at Mahidol University and the Royal Thai Army Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences (AFRIMS), both in Bangkok, and the Royal Institute for Health Sciences (RIHES) in Chiang Mai.
Scientists have long sought an AIDS vaccine, with several failed attempts, including a 2007 trial in which a Merck vaccine appeared to make people more vulnerable to infection, not less.
Since the findings from the 2009 trial in Thailand, discoveries have pointed to even more powerful vaccines using HIV-fighting antibodies.
As many as 34 million people are infected with HIV worldwide. With 2.7 million new infections in 2010 alone, experts say a vaccine is still the best hope for eradicating AIDS.
By Alisa Tang
BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A new survey has found widespread forced and child labour in Thailand’s multibillion-dollar fishing industry, with one in 10 fishermen being beaten severely at sea, many going unpaid, and in one extreme case, a 12-year-old Cambodian boy who said he toiled 20 hours a day.
The U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO) report - the largest survey to date of working conditions in the Thai fishing industry - was based on interviews with 596 fishermen, more than 90 percent of them Burmese or Cambodian. Only one of these had a valid work permit, while more than half those surveyed had no documents at all.
“The vast majority of workers were an irregular status and thus more vulnerable to exploitation,” said Max Tunon, senior programme officer with the ILO. “There are a significant proportion who are working against their will and don’t have the freedom to leave.”
The survey found that 16.9 percent of those questioned were working against their will and unable to leave because of the threat of penalties, and 17.3 percent had been threatened with violence by their employer, captain, supervisor or co-worker.
Twenty-four said they had been sold or transferred to another boat against their will, and 33 were under the age of 18, including seven who were under 15. Of those interviewed, 103 had been threatened with violence, and 60 had been “severely beaten”.
“This is one of the main means through which fishers are forced to work in the sector - the threat of violence - and here it shows that that threat is very real,” Tunon said.
SLAVES AT SEA
With an annual catch of 1.8 million tonnes in 2010, Thailand exports $7.13 billion of fish annually, and the sector employs an estimated 2 million workers, the report said.
Attempts to cut labour costs have led to the large-scale employment of migrant workers, “in some cases using deceptive and coercive labour practices,” it said.
The report cited National Fisheries Association of Thailand estimates of 142,845 fishermen employed on 9,523 boats, and an industry shortage of 50,000 workers.
The survey did not set out to talk to foreigners or migrants, but “…the preponderance of migrant workers in the sample … demonstrates the extent to which the Thai fishing industry relies on foreign migrant labour, with Thai workers making up less than 5 percent of the workers surveyed in three of the sample provinces,” the study said. Overall, 51.3 percent of those surveyed were Burmese and 40.4 percent Cambodian.
One group of seven men, from Banteay Meanchey province in Cambodia, met a broker at the Thai border who offered them construction jobs. They were told that the boat they boarded would be used to haul cement, but they had in fact been sold for 25,000 baht ($800) each and spent more than two years working on a fishing vessel, where they endured increasingly severe physical abuse and verbal threats.
They managed to escape while docked in Indonesia, but their captain refused to pay their wages. After several months in an immigration detention centre, they were repatriated.
From another boat with 23 Cambodians and four Thais, a 28-year-old Cambodian man said he worked 8 to 24 hours a day, with no days off. His boat was seized in August 2012 by authorities in Mauritius, and after seven months he and other workers were repatriated to Phnom Penh, but he was never paid for the 2-1/2 years he worked on the Thai fishing vessel.
The youngest fishermen surveyed were 12 and 14. The 14-year-old had tried to escape once because he was homesick, but said he could not leave because of the threat of violence. Three children interviewed said they were forced to work on the boat by their parents.
NOWHERE TO TURN
Despite these abuses, only 31 of those surveyed (5.1 percent) complained, most of them to their employers or NGOs. Three – all Thai nationals - lodged complaints with authorities, Tunon said.
The report said 84 fishermen did not complain because they did not want to “cause trouble”, 10 thought complaining would not change anything, and 33 did not know where or to whom to complain.
“This shows how inaccessible complaints mechanisms are to irregular migrants and those in the fishing sector as a whole,” Tunon said. “Obviously, as irregular migrants, they are concerned about what will happen to them if they go to authorities. They are afraid of being detained or deported.”
Tunon said the government was establishing seven labour coordination centres for the fishing sector, which would be responsible for registration of vessels, crews and captains, as well as recruitment and training. They will also be the places for fishermen to submit complaints.
There also needs to be a mechanism to handle complaints from the most vulnerable fishermen - those on long-haul vessels who do not set foot on land for months or even years, said Supang Chantvanich, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Asian Research Center for Migration, which co-authored the study with the ILO.
“When those people are in the fishing boats, and when they go very far, some kind of complaints mechanism must be established so that people can contact the shore at all times,” she said, otherwise they have no protection.
Supang said they should be able to contact either their embassy or NGOs, so they can report labour violations and get help.
The report also recommends setting and enforcing standards for the maintenance of crew lists, payment, contracts and rest hours, and guidelines for labour inspections on shore and at sea.
By Alisa Tang
BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than half a billion people in the Asia Pacific region suffer from hunger, yet an estimated 42 percent of fruit and vegetables and a fifth of the grains produced here are lost or wasted, U.N. food experts said as they kicked off a campaign to cut the region’s massive food waste and feed its growing population.
“The Save Food Asia-Pacific Campaign seeks to raise awareness about the high levels of food losses - particularly post-harvest losses - and the growing problem of food waste in the region,” Hiroyuki Konuma, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) assistant director-general, said in an FAO statement.
Worldwide, 1.3 billion tonnes of food - enough to feed 3 billion people - is lost every year.
“FAO estimates that if the food wasted or lost globally could be reduced by just one quarter, this would be sufficient to feed the 870 million people suffering from chronic hunger in the world,” said Konuma, who is the FAO regional representative for Asia and the Pacific.
With the world population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, he emphasised the need to increase food production by 60 percent, amid constraints such as the decline of arable lands, scarcity of water and the impact of climate change and natural disasters.
“We have to attain this goal and produce and supply sufficient food to meet the needs of our future generation. Otherwise, social and political stability and world peace and stability would be compromised, as we already witnessed in the recent past,” he told 130 representatives from 20 countries at the meeting.
“There is no room to entertain food losses and food waste any more in the future.”
HUNGER AMID GROWTH
While the region’s economies expanded rapidly in the first decade of the 21st century, the benefits of the growth were unevenly distributed, resulting in a wider income gap in several countries, so the economic growth did not alleviate hunger and poverty, Konuma said.
According to U.N. statistics, an estimated 653 million people across the region lived below the national poverty line in 2010. In 2012, the Asia-Pacific region was home to 536 million hungry people, or 62 percent of the world’s undernourished.
The problem is the amount of food wasted, not inadequate production.
“The world produces more or less sufficient food to meet the demand of its current population of 7 billion. However, 12.5 percent of the global population, or 868 million people, equivalent to one in eight people, go hungry every day,” Konuma said.
Some households waste food because they buy too much, do not store it properly, or fail to eat it before the expiration date.
“At our dining tables, nearly 15 to 20 percent of foods cooked are left over, thrown away and wasted in Europe, North America and industrialized Asia,” he said.
In Asia, food is lost in transit from rural production areas to urban consumers because of poor quality roads, hot and humid weather conditions and poor packaging, he said.
“Not only do these food losses increase the cost of food for consumers and reduce incomes for producers, they threaten food security as a whole.”
The meeting’s delegates pledged to support research into farming practices that would prevent food rotting in fields or being attacked by pests, and the improvement of infrastructure and development of farm machinery, packaging, storage and transport systems to prevent post-harvest losses along the supply chain to the consumer.
“In view of consumers wasting food, we campaign for greater respect for food and behaviour change of consumers,” they said in a conference closing statement late on Wednesday.
By Alisa Tang
BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A 13-year-old boy was killed and five other boys wounded in northern Laos after a cluster bomb exploded as they were trying to open it with a knife, the Vientiane Times reported Thursday.
The boys, aged 5 to 13, had been foraging for bamboo shoots in Huaykhae village of Luang Prabang province over the weekend when they found the unexploded ordnance (UXO), the report said.
The surviving boys told officials that they threw the bomb back and forth while walking home, and when they arrived back in the village, tried to open it to see what was inside. They tried to cut it open with a knife, striking it a few times until it exploded, according to the report.
During the Vietnam War, more than 2.5 million short tons of U.S. munitions were dropped on Laos - more than were dropped on Germany and Japan combined during World War II. Per capita, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world.
According to the Lao government, a quarter of the country’s villages are contaminated with UXO.
The Vientiane Times reported that deminers have cleared more than 39,821 hectares of land (98,400 acres) since 1996, and identified and destroyed 1,345,431 items of UXO.
UXO in Laos maims an average of about 300 people every year, though that figure dropped to 56 in 2012, and to 16 in the first six months of this year, the Vientiane Times said.
Nearly a quarter of the casualties are children.
By Alisa Tang
BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Focusing the lens of social and economic development on women and girls is the most inexpensive and effective tool in the fight against hunger and malnutrition, says a new study on gender and food security in the Asia Pacific region.
Women’s education alone resulted in a 43 percent reduction in hunger from 1970 to 1995, while women living longer led to an additional 12 percent decline in hunger levels, according to the report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
Gender equality is “the single most important determinant of food security”, wrote Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food and author of the report, Gender Equality and Food Security: Women’s Empowerment as a Tool against Hunger, released this week.
Increasing economic growth or improving people’s access to food were not enough on their own to combat hunger, he said.
The Asia Pacific region “is particularly illustrative of the fact that neither strong economic growth nor increased food availability per capita are sufficient to reduce hunger, and especially child malnutrition, unless we integrate the gender dimension more fully,” De Schutter told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
He specifically noted a shift five years ago in the understanding of the causes of hunger and malnutrition: the 2008 global food crisis led to a realisation that there was an underinvestment in agriculture, and especially in small-scale family farms, in which women play a key role as food producers.
Also that year, a series of studies in the Lancet highlighted the importance of nutrition during pregnancy and the first 24 months of a child’s life on a child’s development.
“Bring these two shifts together … and you see why, suddenly, the intersection of gender and food security becomes key,” De Schutter said. “The report builds on these shifts, providing compelling evidence, I think, that empowering women and achieving gender equality is the most cost-effective measure to ensure food security.”
COSTLESS MEASURES, HUGE IMPACT
In the Asia Pacific, widespread discrimination against women and girls – socially, culturally and legally – results in lower agricultural productivity and poorer health and nutrition, especially among women and girls, who make up 60 percent of undernourished people worldwide, the report says.
It details how three crises – the spike in food prices, the global economic downturn and climate change – disproportionately affect women and girls. They are given less food than men and boys, are not sent to school when household funds are low and are the first to be laid off when employers suffer financial setbacks.
Amid more drought and floods, women, who make up the bulk of small-scale farmers, are hard hit in both their loss of income and their ability to feed their families.
De Schutter proposed the establishment of school-feeding programmes that source food from women farmers. In the report, he describes a school-feeding programme at 81 schools in India that offers employment to poor women, who make up two-thirds of the programme’s cooks.
“It does not require massive investment. In fact, some measures are costless, yet their impact can be huge in improving nutrition within the household,” he said.
LABOUR AND LAND
The removal and amendment of discriminatory land and labour laws would also help women farmers and food producers, said De Schutter and ADB food security and agriculture specialist Lourdes Adriano, who provided technical support for the report.
“Paying women a decent wage, improving their access to tools, fertilisers, and credit, and guaranteeing their right to own and access land will have a huge multiplier effect on food security and hunger reduction,” Adriano said.
Change might not be easy to achieve because “it requires socio-cultural paradigm shifts and political commitment,” Adriano told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “But investing in rural women to have equal access to inputs and other productive resources is cheap and will take a shorter time to achieve more wide-reaching, multiple, and long-lasting developmental outcomes.”
She cited a $1 million, 6-year ADB project in Nepal that reached 12,150 people, 70 percent of them women. For about $100 per person, the project enabled them to organise self-help groups and access funds for quality seeds, irrigation tools, fertilisers and technical skills for cash crop production and financial management. Their incomes increased by more than 33 percent and more than half of the households moved out of poverty.
“The next agenda is to up- and out-scale these experiences,” she said.
By Alisa Tang
BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The Myanmar government has abolished the Nasaka border guard force, a much-feared group in the western Rakhine State that has controlled the lives of stateless Muslim Rohingyas and is notorious for human rights abuses.
The one-line July 12 announcement from the office of President Thein Sein gave no reason for the abolishment.
The Nasaka – a word derived from the initials of its Burmese name – comprises police, military, customs and immigrations officials, and has had a heavy presence in Rakhine State where it has overseen the Rohingya.
Documented human-rights abuses blamed on the Nasaka include rape, forced labour and extortion. Rohingyas have not been allowed to travel or marry without the Nasaka’s permission, which is never secured without paying bribes, activists say.
“The Nasaka’s interest was to make money, and being posted in Rakhine State was a good place to make money,” Chris Lewa, founder and director of the Arakan Project, a human rights group which monitors the situation of the Rohingya in Rakhine State, told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “The corruption of the Nasaka was very extreme.”
Lewa said her sources in Myanmar told her that members of the Nasaka have not come out of their camps since Sunday, while the army took away the head of the Nasaka, though it is not clear why.
Police are now manning checkpoints once staffed by the Nasaka, though people were still paying the same bribes, Lewa’s sources told her. Police had also taken over the responsibility of issuing border passes for people who crossed into Bangladesh.
“My understanding is the police are replacing the Nasaka, but it’s difficult to say whether it is positive or negative. Let’s wait and see. Generally people are not positive, they just hope it’s not worse,” she said. “Yesterday there was no change in extortion at checkpoints, or at the border crossing.”
Rakhine State suffered two bouts of sectarian violence, in June and October 2012, that left 192 dead and 140,000 displaced – most of them Muslims. Ethnic hatred has deepened since then, with the enforcement of apartheid-like policies separating minority Muslims from the Buddhist majority.
"We’re happy to see it (the Nasaka) go. It’s a unit that has been synonymous with human rights abuses in Arakan state," Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said, referring to Rakhine State by its former name. "The question is what’s going to replace it? We already see police extortion in Maungdaw (township) … Who’s going to fill the security void?”
He said Human Rights Watch would be watching closely to make sure abuses do not merely transition from the Nasaka to other security forces.
"It’s about accountability, not an administrative reshuffle and doing away with one abusive system and replacing it with another," he said.
"We’re watching very closely: in other ethnic states, there has been use of ethnic-controlled militias. That would be something that would be much worse if that came up."
By Alisa Tang
Last week, MasterCard’s Global Destination Cities Indexdeclared that Bangkok - the capital of Thailand and portal to some of the country’s renowned beaches - would be the most visited city on earth in 2013.
The Southeast Asian megacity beat London, Paris and New York for the title, with 15.98 million visitors expected this year. London was a close second, with 15.96 million people expected.
This is the first time an Asian city has grabbed the top spot on the index, which, since its launch in 2010, has predicted visitor numbers based on scheduled flights and expected tourist spending for 132 destinations around the world.
Having lived in Bangkok for most of the past decade, I get the lure. As one of Asia’s main travel hubs, it is an easy hop to Thailand’s mountains, beaches and ancient temples, or onward to other countries.
Some visitors to the “land of smiles” - as the country’s tourism machine has dubbed the kingdom - come for high-end shopping and luxurious spas, while others meander through the myriad temples or revel in a bacchanalian night of clubbing. Yet others - and this comes as no surprise - are seduced by the city’s numerous red light districts.
However, lurking beneath the smiles in this country is a dark, dismissive attitude toward crime - with the rich and famous getting away with murder, and foreign tourists suffering mysterious deaths - as well as crimes against women.
THAI CULTURE SAYS …
My tireless colleague Thin Lei Win has written extensively about violence against women - including Thai women, foreign tourists and migrant labourers - and their futile struggles for justice in a country that only extended the definition of rape to cover all sexes and all types of sexual penetration in 2007.
Thin met a 17-year-old Thai woman who had been raped repeatedly for four months by her employer’s brother. When she mustered the courage to press charges, his family threatened to kill hers and she had to go into hiding in a women’s shelter. She writes of another rape victim who, after speaking out about the incident a decade ago, lost her job, her boyfriend and even her surname because relatives accused her of sullying the family name.
In marriage, Thai women fared no better. Former beauty queen Areewan Jathuthongdescribed how her husband - the son of a retired army general - hit her, poured hot candle wax on her body and once forced her at gunpoint to walk naked down the street.
“Thai culture says if you get married, you stay married, and I was taught that as a wife you bear with it,” Areewan told Thin. Areewan later became a lawyer and an advocate for victims of domestic violence.
Last year, after a Dutch woman was beaten and raped by a Thai man, a senior police officer said that it wasn’t really rape because she had dinner with the guy - an outmoded, insensitive sexist claim that the tourism minister had the gall to repeat.
Worst off in the socio-economic hierarchy are Burmese migrant workers, who have little choice other than to endure daily abuses. More or less impotent in a country that considers them lucky to have a job - no matter how dirty, dangerous, demeaning and underpaid - the Burmese find it virtually impossible to complain to police who often wring them for bribes or who may even be attackers themselves.
I don’t mean to scare you away though - Bangkok and Thailand are well worth the trip, and you will have a grand time. Just don’t be fooled by the “land of smiles” tag line and come visit with your eyes wide open.
By Alisa Tang
“The biggest problem in the developing world is that we don’t have quality tutors and lack of healthcare workers,” Geeta Lal told me in Kuala Lumpur after the close of a two-day midwifery symposium at the Women Deliver conference, one of the world’s largest gatherings devoted to the health and rights of women and girls.
“There’s a huge deficit of healthcare workers - about 4 to 5 million workers are lacking. Even where we have these workers, they are not properly trained. That’s what causes maternal and newborn mortality.”
Lal, the midwifery programme coordinator for the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), succinctly summed up the crux of the problem pregnant women face in the impoverished, hard-to-reach pockets of the world. Each year, 287,000 women die from pregnancy-related causes, while 5.7 million suffer severe illnesses or disabilities.
To close this learning gap, UNFPA – teaming up with microchip giant Intel, the U.N. World Health Organization (WHO) and the Johns Hopkins University-affiliated NGO Jhpiego - devised multimedia e-learning modules that are currently being piloted in Bangladesh and Ghana.
Most e-learning programmes are basically uploaded textbooks, Lal said, but these new ones are interactive and include graphics and videos, making the lessons more accessible.
There are three modules so far, training health care workers on how to handle conditions such as pre-eclampsia and eclampsia, post-partum hemorrhage, and prolonged and obstructed labour. They also address clinical decision-making, giving instruction on proper medicine dosages and protocols and provide checklists key to managing emergency cases.
According to UNFPA and its partners, enhancing skills of frontline healthcare providers in these three areas alone would help prevent half of all maternal deaths in countries with high maternal mortality rates.
E-LEARNING IN REMOTE VILLAGES?
The e-learning modules - which can be adapted to any language -do require a computer, electricity, computer literacy, and Internet access, though Intel’s technical expert on the project said that the heaviest data – such as high-definition videos – could be shipped on thumb drives to health centres, where workers could upload them onto their laptops or tablets.
The modules run on the skoool Healthcare Education platform (skoool HE, for short, and you read it right, with three O’s in skoool), which tracks the worker’s usage. Offline, it records what modules are opened and how often, as well as how workers performed on the embedded quizzes. The Internet connection is necessary to send this usage information so managers know whether or not the modules are useful.
“It holds onto that information until the health worker returns to the hospital where there might be a connection. When they connect back at the hospital – whether it’s a day later, a week later or a month later – the device has saved the records of how they’ve done so that then that information gets transferred up to the cloud so that administrators or managers know are the people I work with being successful with this capability,” Mathew Taylor, the information and communication technology solutions architect for the Intel World Ahead Programme, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during a demonstration of the module.
“There will be places where this won’t work, but with a tool like this, you’ll know because if they’re not using it, you won’t see the results showing up.”
When I told him I could not yet envision this e-learning module in the middle of nowhere – where it’s most needed – Taylor made a good point: “There are people in the middle of nowhere who have cell phones.”
BETTER THAN A BOOK
The true test of these e-learning modules’ success will be the results from the pilot programmes in Bangladesh and Ghana. Meanwhile, some midwivery experts from Africa are optimistic.
“It’s more useful than a book because there are some demonstrations that require gestures. It is necessary that people see the images. It’s much more clear… learning with videos is much easier,” Henriette Eke Mbula, of UNFPA in Democratic Republic of Congo, said, pointing out that comprehension can be difficult from textbooks alone.
Others said the module would help places like South Sudan, where there are limited opportunities for continuing education. The fact that it is interactive and based on new technologies would also attract young people considering the profession.
“Everything is moving forward. Midwifery cannot stay behind while everything is moving forward,” said Frederica Hanson, who heads the midwifery programme of UNFPA in Ghana.
“There’s a lot of interest in technology in upcoming midwives. In Ghana, we are training the young midwives. In order to get people interested in midwifery, we have to reach the young people… they are interested in technology.”
By Alisa Tang
BANGKOK (TrustLaw) - The latest witch hunt in Papua New Guinea’s South Bougainville district was triggered by the death of a former teacher, a man. As often happens in this southwest Pacific nation, villagers looking for the cause of a respected man’s death last week grabbed their firearms, knives and axes and tracked down the ‘witches’ they held responsible — all women.
One woman - a retired school teacher and prominent women’s advocate - was beheaded, said Kate Schuetze, Brisbane-based Pacific researcher for Amnesty International.
Another woman - who suffered a severe laceration to her neck and is coughing up blood - and her two daughters remain captive in the village, Schuetze said. Three others have been taken to a medical centre in Bana district, where Lopele is located.
“We’ve today issued an urgent call on the Papua New Guinea government and regional police to allocate all necessary resources to ensure the safety of those six women,” she said on Wednesday in a telephone interview from Brisbane.
The Lopele witch hunt is not an isolated incident: When misfortune or death befall the tribal communities of Papua New Guinea, accusations of witchcraft, sorcery and black magic are commonly made, often ending with a witch hunt, torture and killing. The accused are usually women - sometimes the oldest or weakest, maybe a widow, and at other times, the strongest who has fought for women’s rights.
To help the captives in Lopele, the government sent one policeman.
“The response of the police to this and other appalling similar incidents in Bougainville and Papua New Guinea has so far been seriously inadequate,” Schuetze said.
Papua New Guinea’s 6.5 million people are among the world’s most heterogeneous populations, many of them subsistence farmers living in small communities that speak one of the country’s 800-plus languages.
Disputes over land, women and even pigs have sparked tribal conflict and even civil war in parts of the country, while domestic violence and violence against women are widespread.
Sorcery, black magic and witchcraft are ingrained in the culture, as are the punishments meted out.
“It’s a very big problem. It’s a very sensitive issue… (Christian) churches are trying to address the problem, but it’s very deeply rooted in the belief system of the people,” said Jack Urame, director of the Melanesian Institute in Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands province.
The institute has extensively researched sorcery, and Urame says he reads about a murder in the newspapers at least once a month. While there are male victims, the majority are women.
“Normally when people die of sickness or disease, people blame sorcery or witchcraft. Even medical reasons, people don’t believe,” Urame told TrustLaw by telephone.
“The traditional belief is very, very strong… This is the way people see the world. It’s the way they explain sickness and death in their own cultural belief system.”
It is so strong that it is enshrined in law in the 1971 Sorcery Act, which punishes those practising sorcery with up to two years in prison and allows murderers to appeal against their sentences by alleging black magic was involved.
“The government is trying to repeal the old Sorcery Act and come up with something completely new to criminalise sorcery killings,” Urame said.
“It will take a long time. It’s a matter of awareness and education… The entire community is behind these sorts of things, and the police feel powerless. According to the people, to remove a sorcerer or witch is protecting the community. That is their belief.”
JUSTICE AND RIGHT TO LIFE
In February, 20-year-old Kepari Leniata was burned alive in front of a crowd in the central city of Mount Hagen by relatives of a 6-year-old boy she was accused of using sorcery to kill. Law enforcement officials tried to intervene, but failed, according to a statement from the UN human rights office.
After Leniata’s death, “local people started to say, maybe we should be speaking out about this,” and that might mark a turning point, said Schuetze, who recently returned from a month-long research trip in Papua New Guinea for Amnesty.
PNG’s Constitutional and Law Reform Commission called on the government in March to repeal the Sorcery Act, while the Cabinet last week approved the Family Protection Bill.
Amnesty urged the government to follow through on both measures, by repealing the sorcery law and implementing the Family Protection Bill as a measure to prevent violence against women. The government also must ensure that police do their job, it said.
By Alisa Tang
BANGKOK (AlertNet) - No one knows yet what sparked the fire two weeks ago in the remote Burmese refugee camp in northern Thailand, but what is clear is that the refugees’ makeshift bamboo-and-leaf thatch homes stood no chance against the flames.
As the midsummer wind swept through the area, the leaf thatch roofing fuelled the inferno, leaving 37 dead and two-thirds of the residents homeless in the worst tragedy ever to hit the camps. Their clinics, hospital, pharmacy and food storage buildings were also lost.
“We’ve never had such a death toll in the entire 29 years of the camps. We’ve been through fires, attacks, shelling, mortars. We’ve had 12 camps burnt down in attacks” by the Burmese army across the border, said Sally Thompson, executive director of The Border Consortium (TBC), the NGO that manages shelters in Ban Mae Surin in Mae Hong Son province.
“It really is a tragedy when it is such a small community as well. The whole camp is 3,500 people, and 2,300 have lost everything.”
There are currently 140,000 Burmese ethnic minority people living in the nine official refugee camps in Thailand’s border areas. They have fled their homes in Myanmar since the mid-1980s whenever conflict between the Burmese army and ethnic minorities flares.
Although the refugees have been here for decades, the Thai government, which has granted them temporary asylum, forbids them from building shelters with materials that might suggest putting down roots for a permanent stay - ruling out widely available durable, non-flammable construction materials, and leaving bamboo and leaves from the forest.
“THE CAMP IS A TINDERBOX”
So each year, several months into the December-to-April dry season, the nine Burmese refugee camps along the border suffer as stray sparks from cooking accidents or nearby brush fires set a leaf thatch roof on fire.
Sometimes a few homes are lost, sometimes more. In February 2012, a massive fire in a camp in northwestern Thailand destroyed 1,000 homes, but the refugees were able to escape to safety, and there were no major casualties.
“It does happen because at this time of the year the camps are overcrowded, and the houses are made of temporary material - bamboo and roof thatch,” Thompson told AlertNet in a telephone interview.
“It’s very hot, you get very high wind, and the camp is a tinderbox at this time of year. All you can do is pull it down as quickly as possible. Because (Ban Mae Surin) camp is so far, it’s not realistic to think that the fire trucks can get here in time. The community knows that the first course of action is to tear down the building that’s burning.”
Each house is equipped with a long bamboo stick with a metal hook on the end, so when the thatch roof catches fire, they quickly tear it down. The refugees practice evacuation drills and keep the camp clean to prevent rubbish fires, but there is a limit to prevention in these conditions, with these materials.
“A major issue is the type of material used for construction of the refugees’ homes, i.e. bamboo walls and leaf thatch roofing,” Vivian Tan, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), told AlertNet by email. “This was a major factor in the rapid spread of the fire in Ban Mae Surin.”
In the fire that late afternoon on March 22, as refugees rushed to put out the flames engulfing Ban Mae Surin’s healthcare and food storage buildings, a strong wind swept through the valley, wafting burning debris east across a river that runs through the camp to a densely packed residential area and trapping dozens of refugees.
In front of them, flames blocked them from the river. Behind them rose a steep hill - too steep to climb to safety.
The dead included 10 children, four disabled adults and an 80-year-old woman. With 400 houses burnt down, another 2,300 people were homeless.
To use any “permanent” materials - even cement, to build stronger foundations in this termite-infested region - the camps need permission from the Thai government.
After the most recent fire in Ban Mae Surin, TBC again asked the Interior Ministry to allow the use of non-flammable metal roofing.
“If we can replace new housing with tin roofs, that will reduce the fire risk. We tried to do that last year in Umpiem Mai, but it was turned down. We’re trying again now, and we’re hoping we’ll be able to replace with tin,” Thompson said. “The government in Mae Hong Son (province) is considering it favourably… It would be a practical solution, and it will reduce fire risk.”
An Interior Ministry official based in Bangkok acknowledged that the leaf roof was a main problem. “The wind was strong, and the houses have leaf roofs which burn easily,” she said on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media.
As for using flame-retardant building materials, she said “The ministry is in charge of this matter, and we have to wait for their policy.”
Meanwhile, the UNHCR has delivered more than 800 plastic sheets, 60 family-sized tents, 1,200 blankets and 1,200 sleeping mats as emergency assistance.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC), which manages the camp healthcare, lost its maternity clinic, hospital and store of medicines. IRC country director Christine Petrie said the organisation will need at least $500,000 to rebuild health facilities, and water and sanitation infrastructure in the camp.
TBC has launched an emergency appeal to raise $433,000 to replace food, homes and community buildings destroyed by the fire.