Friday, July 17, 2015

“It’s good news for Cambodia and the people who live near minefields.”

Meet the giant hero rats training to   

sniff up Cambodia's landmines      


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — A rat called Pit scampers back and forth between two handlers, running up and down the length of a measuring tape they hold between them. Suddenly he stops, stands on his hind legs and sniffs the air. Something is nearby. We wait. Finally he puts his paws to the ground and scratches the hot, Cambodian earth. Marking the presence of TNT.
Pit arrived in Cambodia in April. He is one of 15 African giant pouched rats who have been trained to detect landmines by Belgian non-profit organization APOPO at their Tanzania headquarters. This is the first time so-called “Hero Rats” have been deployed abroad.
“We believe the rats will increase the efficiency of our operations,” says Heng Rattana, director of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC). “We are currently verifying the quality of their work.”  
Pit nibbles a rewarding banana. A handler runs her fingers along the measuring tape and notes the location of the TNT trace. If this were real life, a human deminer would return later and remove the mine.
Pit gets extra marks for avoiding dummy scents. “We plant oil filters, tuna cans and coffee grains in the ground — all kinds of things to confuse the rat,” explains Hulsok Heng, supervisor of the Hero Rat program in Cambodia.
Cambodia remains riddled with landmines after decades of war. There are an estimated 4 to 6 million landmines and unexploded ordnances littering fields, forests and riverbeds. Explosive remnants have killed or injured over 64,000 people; the “vast majority” civilians, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor. And, with over 25,000 amputees, Cambodia has the highest ratio of landmine amputees per capita in the world.
Serey Pov, a fruit seller in Phnom Penh, has a prosthetic leg after she stepped in a landmine back in 1993. She was lucky it was just the lower half of her leg that was destroyed. Now, from the way she moves around her stall stacked with pink dragon fruit, hairy rambutans and mangoes, you wouldn’t know.
Today, fewer people are experiencing the searing pain of amputation and the struggle of learning to walk again. In the last 20 years CMAC has cleared 2.6 million landmines and unexploded ordnance, according to Rattana. Casualty rates have fallen from 3047 in 1996 to 134 in 2013 — a record low. “We have received consistent support from the international community,” he says.
The rats will be a welcome addition to CMAC’s operations. While metal detectors beep for every coin, can and piece of foil in the ground, rats only locate TNT; so when they signal by scratching the ground, there is usually a landmine beneath. And they are speedy too. One rat can search 200 square meters in 20 minutes while a deminer with a metal detector can take 1-4 days to search the same area, according to James Pursey, APOPO’s communication manager.
Compared to sniffer dogs they are easy to transport, their diet of fruit and grains is cheap and they are willing to work with different handlers. “If a dog handler gets sick it would take one or two months to acquaint the animal with a new handler,” says Heng. “But the rats can transfer handlers easily.”  
While cheaper than advanced scanning systems it still costs over $6,500 to fully train one rat, according to the APOPO website. It’s important they are husbanded well so they live out their eight-year lifespans.  
Bred as-needed in APOPO’s breeding program in Tanzania, the rats begin training when they are five or six weeks old using a process called operant conditioning — being rewarded with favorite treats, like bananas and peanuts, when they successfully locate a target smell. As well as TNT, the rats have also been trained to identify tuberculosis in human sputum samples.
Pit was chosen for the demonstration at CMAC’s Siem Reap headquarters because he is a hard worker. According to Heng and his team, all the rats have different personalities. Some are industrious while some prefer to relax. Others have a prodigious sense of smell while others need more training.

Despite initial positive results (Hero Rats have cleared over 18 million square meters of contaminated land in six countries, according to APOPO) others in the demining community have yet to be convinced. “Right now, we would not change to the rats,” says William Morse from the Landmine Relief Fund. “To take everyone and retrain them would be too costly and time-consuming.” For Morse, the big question is, if the rats are so effective, why aren’t millions of them being used around the world?
It’s because of funding, says Pursey. And the considerable bureaucracy that has to be traversed when sending rats abroad. After all, metal detectors aren’t subject to quarantine laws. 
Critics of Pit and his cohort are hard to find. “The rats have shown that they can contribute to the surveying and clearance of landmines,” said Chris Loughan, Director of Policy & Evaluation at Mine Action Group. “I would consider them part of our asset list.” 
Pit’s cage is in a cool room at CMAC. The training over, he scurries into a large clay pot and rearranges the straw inside. He’s nocturnal so he immediately curls up and squints his eyes shut. “I was amazed when I learned that rats could sniff landmines,” said Sean Enah, a rat handler who has over 20 years of experience clearing Cambodia’s minefields. “It’s good news for Cambodia and the people who live near minefields.”

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Destroying Syria To Make It Safe For American Values

By Eric Margolis

July 14, 2015 "Information Clearing House" -  

"The Turks have passed by here; all is in ruins and mourning."

So wrote France’s great writer, Victor Hugo, of the horrors he had witnessed during the Balkan liberation wars of the 1880’s. 

If Hugo were alive today, he might well have used the same haunting lines to describe the smoking wreckage of the Mideast. Except this time it was the United States, France and Britain who  wrought havoc in the Arab world, assisted by modern Turkey.

The UN’s refugee czar, Antonio Guterres, just asserted that there are now 4,013,000 Syrian refugees outside their homeland, and another 7.6 million as internal refugees from the war raging there since 2011.

That total’s some 11.6 million refugees - a staggering 50% of Syria’s population. Over a quarter million are refugees in Europe; the rest spread across the Mideast with the largest numbers in Lebanon and Jordan.

This flood of displaced people is the largest number of refugees in the past 25 years, according to the UN’s Guterres. 

In fact, Syria’s refugees now exceed in number the 5.5 million Palestinian refugees. At least the Syrians may one day return home; by contrast, Palestinians, stateless for over six decades,  have no realistic hope of returning to their former homes in what is today Israel.

Before the 2011 war, Syria used to be a vibrant, growing  nation with beautiful old cities and a rich, ancient culture going back over 2,500 years. Damascus is believed to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world.

Syria was always regarded as the beating heart of the Arab world and its intellectual epicenter. It was also the progenitor of Arab nationalism, a long-time defender of the Palestinians, and a determined foe of Israel – though in recent years the Israeli-Syrian border has been very quiet. Damascus, two generations behind Israel in military strength, dared not confront the powerful Jewish state directly.

For the past four decades, Syria has been ruled by its Alawi minority, an offshoot of Islam’s Shia faith. Alawi, like their fellow Shia in Lebanon, were the nation’s poorest, most marginalized people. The only work many could get was in the military. Eventually, an iron-fisted Alawi air force general, Hafez al-Assad, seized power. After Assad’s death, his second son Bashar took charge of the regime, backed by a strong army and  ruthless security organs.

The Bush administration, prompted by Israel, toyed with the idea of toppling Syria’s Assad regime but it backed down when a few smart minds in Washington asked who would the US get to replace the existing government? 

Syria’s main opposition came from the outlawed, underground Muslim Brotherhood that spoke for Syria’s long-repressed Sunni majority. Washington wanted no part of the Muslim Brothers. Better the Assads, who quietly cooperated with Washington in spite of being backed by Iran.

But in 2009-2010, Washington changed policy. 

As anti-Iranian war fever in the US mounted, the White House demanded that Damascus renounce its alliance with Iran, or else. The plan was to isolate Iran prior to its being attacked. 

But Syria refused to cut its vital ties to Tehran. So Syria was marked for regime change. Washington was fed up with Arab leaders who defied  the writ of the American Raj. 

The Assads would meet the same grisly fate as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Khadaffi.

In spring, 2011, anti-Assad guerillas, armed and trained in Jordan by CIA, infiltrated from Lebanon into southern Syria at Deraa. 

This was the squalid little town in which Lawrence of Arabia was captured by the Turks.  Derna was a hotbed of anti-government agitation. 

Soon, more US proxy rebels infiltrated across the Lebanese border. British and French special forces joined the rebels.  Saudi Arabia provided the financing.

France, former colonial ruler of Syria and Lebanon, was particularly interested in re-asserting its influence in the Levant and the oil-rich Gulf states. 

Israel was convinced that overthrowing the Assad regime in Damascus would isolate its two main enemies, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbullah movement, leaving the latter vulnerable to a new Israel attack.

A propaganda blitz was unleashed  against Syria’s President Assad, branding him the butcher of the Middle East. This was nonsense. 

The mild-mannered Assad was a former London-trained ophthalmologist who became Syria’s leader when his older brother Basil was killed in a car crash. The Assad regime had some very tough, nasty senior figures, but certainly no worse or more brutal than many other American Mideast allies like Egypt, Iraq, Algeria or Morocco.

No matter.  Bashar Assad became America’s new Mideast devil and the object of western-engineered regime change. 

The means was to be a replay of the 1980’s Afghanistan jihad against the Soviets that this writer had covered.

An Arab army of young man ranging from idealists to malcontents was formed by western intelligence services. But unlike Afghanistan, the new Arab force was mostly composed of fanatical, Salafist jihadists created by Saudi Arabia and aided by Turkey and Jordan to pass into Syria.

“America’s Salafists” were the cutting edge of Washington’s grand Mideast strategy, developed during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to divide and rule by turning Sunni Muslims and Shia against one another. 

Results in Iraq were spectacular. The idea was to do the same again in Syria, where  a minority Shia regime ruled a sullen, restive Sunni majority.

The result, as we have seen, is the relentless destruction of Syria by civil war. 

The entire nation has become a patchwork of warring groups similar to Germany during the 30 Year’s War of the 1600’s. Salafist jihadis fight al-Qaida-aligned jihadis who fight ISIS forces who fight Kurdish militias, French, Turkish and British special forces are deep in the fray.

Syria’s Christians, about 10% of the population, are backing the Assad government. They saw the destruction of Iraq’s ancient Christian communities, that had been formerly protected by President Saddam Hussein, after the US invasion of 2003 unleashed fanatical Salafists.

The massacres and butchery in Syria is unprecedented in the Mideast. The carnage  even exceeds the many horrors of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war. Street fighting is destroying many of Syria’s villages, towns and cities. 

Beautiful Aleppo, a world heritage site, is being blown apart.

Syria’s anti-regime groups could not continue fighting without arms, munitions, medical supplies, radios and cash from the western powers. 

Washington’s fatuous claims it is deploying “moderate” jihads is a sour joke.  The US is fully backing the region’s extremists against one of its oldest secular regimes. 

Who will finally win this multi-faceted civil war remains unclear. But it is clear that Syria has been largely destroyed. It joins Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia in ruins and mourning – all examples of states that defied the American Raj. 

The plight of some 11 million Syrian refugees huddled in tents, drowning in the Mediterranean, or fleeing for their lives must be laid directly on Washington’s doorstep.

The nation of the Statue of Liberty is supposed to welcome and shelter  huddled masses fleeing hunger and danger, not cause millions of refugees because of its ruinous Mideast policies.

Eric S. Margolis is an award-winning, internationally syndicated columnist. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune the Los Angeles Times, Times of London, the Gulf Times, the Khaleej Times, Nation – Pakistan, Hurriyet, – Turkey, Sun Times Malaysia and other news sites in Asia.

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2015

"Made in the U.S.A"

Monday, July 13, 2015

Only-in-Vietnam? ~  Shielding from the sun, Vietnamese style
To cope with the scorching heat in Hanoi, people usually use sun protection clothing, masks, sunglasses and umbrellas  but some. . .

From VietNamNet Bridge:

Friday, July 10, 2015

For the first time ever, a General Secretary of the Communist Party of Viet Nam is visiting the USA.

Party leader reinforces US friendship

WASHINGTON DC (VNS) — Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong delivered a speech titled US-Viet Nam relations in a changing world at the Washington D.C.-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) yesterday.

Trong underlined Viet Nam's consistent aspirations for friendship and sound co-operation with the US, noting that bilateral relations had developed vigorously in the last 20 years. This started with the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1995, the signing of a bilateral trade agreement in 2000 and the inauguration of the comprehensive partnership in 2013.

Trong said both nations had made positive and substantive progress in co-operation on the basis of respecting international law, respect for each other's independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and political regimes.

He said this contributed to peace, stability, co-operation and development in the Asia-Pacific region and the world.
He added that the outcomes were the result of efforts by both countries' leaders and peoples in the spirit of putting the past behind, overcoming differences, promoting similarities and looking towards the future.

The General Secretary said Viet Nam was independent, self-reliant, peaceful and co-operative.

He said Viet Nam had set up diplomatic relations with more than 180 countries and established many comprehensive and strategic partnerships.

He said the two sides should intensify their partnership and elevate their relationship to a new level.

The Party chief described economic-trade-investment collaboration as a driving force for bilateral ties, highlighting the potential for affiliation in science and technology, education and training, healthcare and the environment.

He said defence-security co-operation could increase mutual trust and the value of strategic links, pointing to humanitarian collaboration and people-to-people exchanges as possible focus points.

Trong said Viet Nam attached "the utmost importance" to human rights issues, and was working to build a better society for all. He also expressed his country's willingness to co-ordinate with the US on global matters of shared concern, including anti-terrorism, cyber security, epidemics and climate change.

After the speech, the Party leader candidly exchanged opinions with US researchers, experts and diplomats.

He said that although investment-trade relations had grown in past years, they had not met expectations. He hoped for stronger co-operation through endeavour by both nations and the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.

The leader noted Viet Nam and the US signed a defence-security agreement in 2011 and asked for it to continue.
He said Viet Nam considered it a strategic and fundamental goal to ensure the legitimate rights and interests of its citizens and the entire community.

Trong said people arrested for violating laws were handled in line with legal regulations, completely independent of their faith or religious reasons.

Viet Nam highly values the US Congress's role in fostering relations between the two countries, said Trong.

Trong met with a US Democrat and Republican delegation led by US Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy in Washington on Wednesday.

During the meeting, US lawmakers expressed their pleasure at the robust development between the two legislative bodies in recent years. They also expressed concern over the recent developments in the East Sea.

For his part, the Party leader said Viet Nam appreciated the US's constructive, responsible contributions to the East Sea issue. Viet Nam had pursued a foreign policy of independence, self-reliance, peace, co-operation and being a responsible member of the UN.

Viet Nam wanted to settle all disputes in the East Sea through peaceful dialogues and respect for international law, especially the 1982 Convention on Law of the Sea and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties, Trong said. — VNS

More news from Viet Nam today ~

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Throughout history, debt and war have been constant partners

As Greece’s spending on weapons shows, it’s not pensions or benefits that cripple economies, it’s the military-industrial complex
Greek frigates and torpedo boats during a military exercise in 2005. 'In the years following their EU entry, the Greeks were the world’s fourth-highest ­spenders on conventional weaponry.' Photograph: Petros Giannakouris/AP

Somewhere in a Greek jail, the former defence minister, Akis Tsochatzopoulos, watches the financial crisis unfold. I wonder how partly responsible he feels? In 2013, Akis (as he is popularly known) went down for 20 years, finally succumbing to the waves of financial scandal to which his name had long been associated. For alongside the lavish spending, the houses and the dodgy tax returns, there was bribery, and it was the €8m appreciation he received from the German arms dealer, Ferrostaal, for the Greek government’s purchase of Type 214 submarines, that sent him to prison.

There is this idea that the Greeks got themselves into this current mess because they paid themselves too much for doing too little. Well, maybe. But it’s not the complete picture. For the Greeks also got themselves into debt for the oldest reason in the book – one might even argue, for the very reason that public debt itself was first invented – to raise and support an army. The state’s need for quick money to raise an army is how industrial-scale money lending comes into business (in the face of the church’s historic opposition to usury).

Indeed, in the west, one might even stretch to say that large-scale public debt began as a way to finance military intervention in the Middle East – ie the crusades. And just as rescuing Jerusalem from the Turks was the justification for massive military spending in the middle ages, so the fear of Turkey has been the reason given for recent Greek spending. Along with German subs, the Greeks have bought French frigates, US F16s and German Leopard 2 tanks. In the 1980s, for example, the Greeks spent an average of 6.2% of their GDP on defence compared with a European average of 2.9%. In the years following their EU entry, the Greeks were the world’s fourth-highest spenders on conventional weaponry.
So, to recap: corrupt German companies bribed corrupt Greek politicians to buy German weapons. And then a German chancellor presses for austerity on the Greek people to pay back the loans they took out (with Germans banks) at massive interest, for the weapons they bought off them in the first place. 

Is this an unfair characterisation? A bit. It wasn’t just Germany. And there were many other factors at play in the escalation of Greek debt. But the postwar difference between the Germans and the Greeks is not the tired stereotype that the former are hardworking and the latter are lazy, but rather that, among other things, the Germans have, for obvious reasons, been restricted in their military spending. And they have benefited massively from that.
Debt and war are constant partners. 

“The global financial crisis was due, at least in part, to the war,” wrote Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, calculating the cost of the US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, pre-financial crash, to have been $3tn. Indeed, it was only this year, back in March, that the UK taxpayer finally paid off the money we borrowed to fight the first world war. “This is a moment for Britain to be proud of,” said George Osborne, as he paid the final instalment of £1.9bn. Really?
The phrase “military-industrial complex” is one of those cliches of 70s left wing radicalism, but it was Dwight D Eisenhower, a five-star general no less, who warned against its creeping power in his final speech as president. “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government … we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.” Ike was right.
This week, Church House, C of E HQ, hosted a conference sponsored by the arms dealers Lockheed Martin and MBDA Missile Systems. We preach about turning swords into ploughs yet help normalise an industry that turns them back again. The archbishop of Canterbury has been pretty solid on Wonga and trying to put legal loan sharks out of business. Now the church needs to take this up a level.

For the debts that cripple entire countries come mostly from spending on war, not on pensions. And we don’t say this nearly enough.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Greece’s Downfall and Redemption

By Finian Cunningham

…European governments and news media portray the problem of Greece’s financial woes as public spending profligacy. The truth is that Greece’s debt mountain has been incurred from years of wasteful military splurging

Instead of more austerity imposed on workers and pensioners, the solution is for Greece to embark on a massive disarmament programme to overturn decades of reckless militarism…

Even after five years of economic catastrophe, Greece’s annual military budget amounts to $4 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. That translates to 2.2 per cent of the nation’s GDP – a colossal drain on the economy.

To put Greece’s military spend into perspective, it is double the ratio that most other EU countries currently spend on defence. For example, Germany spends 1.2 per cent of GDP, Italy 1.1 per cent, Netherlands 1.2 per cent and Belgium 1.1 per cent.

If Greece were to cut its outsized military budget by half that would generate $2 billion in one year alone, which would pay off its immediate bill to the IMF and help the country reach a 1 per cent budget surplus that the Troika has set for 2015. 

In other words, that source of finance would obviate any further need for cutting pensions and workers’ salaries.

[Greek PM] Tsipras offered to cut the military budget by $200 million – or a mere 5 per cent. But the offer was rebuffed by the IMF because it stated that its rules do not permit interference in a country’s defence policy. To which Tsipras and the Greek electorate should respond with their own rebuff of IMF absurdity – especially evident with the IMF’s throwing billions of dollars to the regime in Kiev which is waging war on the eastern Ukrainian population.

But that’s only a trifling start to addressing the Greek tragedy. The Greek people have legal and moral grounds to repudiate the entire debt mountain as illegitimate or, as economists would say, “odious debt”…

As Greek economist Angelos Philippides told the Guardian back in April 2012: “For a long time Greece spent 7 per cent of its GDP on defence when other European countries spent an average 2.2 per cent. If you were to add up that compound 5 per cent [difference]… there would be no debt at all.”

Moreover, Greece’s past military expenditure was mired in corruption.

In October 2013, ex-Defence Minister Akis Tsochatzopoulous of the previous PASOK government was jailed for 20 years in a bribery case involving $75 million in kickbacks.

And here is an ironic twist in this Greek tragedy. The biggest European weapons dealers to Greece are German and French companies. In the Tsochatzopoulous scandal, German company Ferrostaal paid a fine of $150 million for its part in using bribes to clinch the sale of four submarines.

It was an open secret that Greece’s military largesse was for years stinking with corruption. Yet the German and French authorities did nothing to derail this gravy train. The Berlin and Paris governments continued to ply Greece with loans because the country was using the money to buy massive amounts of weapons from their manufacturers.

Today, the single biggest institutional creditors to Greece are Germany and France. Those countries stand accused of criminal irresponsibility in racking up Greece’s debt precisely because so much of the money was being spent to prop up the German and French economies through lucrative arms sales

Still Waiting for USS Liberty’s Truth

By Ray McGovern
The most potent and poignant example of how much American independence has been surrendered to Israel when it comes to events in the Middle East may be the contortions of cover-up that followed Israel’s attempt to sink the USS Liberty during the Six-Day War in 1967, killing 34 American seamen. Continue

This Dome in the Pacific Houses Tons of Radioactive Waste From Bomb Tests – and It's Leaking

The Runit Dome in the Marshall Islands is a hulking legacy of years of US nuclear testing. Now locals and scientists are warning that rising sea levels caused by climate change could cause 111,000 cubic yards of debris to spill into the ocean