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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

ASEAN Regional Forum security policy meeting held in Vietnam

HANOI, May 19, 2010 (Xinhua via COMTEX) -- A meeting on security policy of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum was held in Vietnam's central city of Danang on Wednesday, the Vietnam News Agency reported.

The meeting drew delegates from 26 countries, the European Union and the ASEAN Secretariat.
At the meeting, participants focused their discussions on ways to promote further the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)'s potential in dealing with non-traditional security challenges in the region. They also exchanged views on regional and international security situations.

The ARF Security Policy Conference is an annual meeting among deputy defense ministers from ARF members.

The meeting aims to promote cooperation on measures to build trust in the military area within the ARF framework, and open new channels for dialogue and exchanges among defense officials, diplomats and other important military figures, said the report.

The ASEAN Regional Forum was officially established in 1994. The current participants in the ARF includes Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea, the Republic of Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Mongolia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Russian Federation, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Timor Leste, the United States and Vietnam.
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Magic tattoo business is slow in Cambodia

By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Phnom Sruoch, CambodiaPeace has not been kind to practitioners of the 2,000-year-old tradition, which holds that magic tattoos can make you invisible, divert bullets and boost your net worth.

In a haze of incense, clients approach Kol Sambo and humbly request his help, sometimes seeking rush jobs for an imminent crisis. He listens and asks why they require added force. If he thinks they'll abuse the power, he turns them down "in a nice way."

Kol is a practitioner of magic tattoos, a 2,000-year-old tradition some call the "soul of the nation." They can make you invisible, divert bullets and boost your net worth, he says, but only if you believe.

The 50-year-old has traveled the Cambodian countryside for the better part of two decades decorating people's bodies with gods, geometric patterns, supernatural creatures and characters in Sanskrit and Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism.

Some images appear to move as the wearer's muscles ripple; on others, rounded Khmer script, softened by age, appears to melt as the lines grow fuzzier.

Kol says most clients prefer the more efficient made-in-China tattoo machine he bought a few years back, but, if asked, he still will use the traditional method to ink the skin: two or three sewing needles tied together.

Once applied, by whatever method, a tattoo must be blessed to activate its supernatural powers.

There are "fake" magic tattooists out there, Kol says disdainfully. He was born with the talent, he says, and honed it after becoming a monk and retreating into the mountains to meditate, ponder visions and study ancient texts under a spiritual master.

Grateful clients will periodically return, having survived a war or two, and offer thanks.

Chan Ngeuy, 60, a rail worker who was a soldier during the 1970s, took off his shirt to reveal a line of lacy symbols running the width of his chest, down the outside of his arms and the length of his back bracketing his spinal cord.

"I was shot at, but the bullet missed," he says. "My tattoo made all the difference."

Peace, however, as welcome as it may be to Cambodians after decades of bloodshed, is not a friend of the magic tattoo business.

"During wartime, everyone wants one," says Kong Taing Im, 38, a store owner visiting Kol hoping to safeguard her grandchildren's future. "Without war, mostly gangsters want them."

Nowadays, a tradition that migrated from India centuries ago and endured through numerous Cambodian wars and rulers is being chipped away by technology and an education system that encourages people to be literal-minded, says Miech Ponn, advisor on mores and customs at Phnom Penh's Buddhist Institute.

"Traditional tattoo artists are very few these days," the scholar says. "It's like a living museum."

This spread of modern skepticism is rather shortsighted, argues Cambodian heavyweight kickboxing champion Eh Phuthong, a national hero who credits the supernatural imagery spreading over his muscular body and onto his right fist for his winning record.

"Magic tattoos make me feel more confident, focused, allow me to punch harder and avoid my opponent's blows," Eh says, sporting a phoenix, a symbol of rebirth; the Hanuman monkey king, a force of life, agility and learning; and Vishnu god imagery, meant to provide strength. "They really work."

But even Eh says he's getting more snickers lately from young boxers who shun a practice once considered de rigueur for up-and-coming fighters.

Cambodia's few remaining magic tattoo artists these days tend to work in rural areas, where superstition is enduring, education less common and medical care limited.

Believers say the indelible marks, favored by soldiers, boxers and businessmen, ward off evil. They've also been something of a dead giveaway. During the mid-1970s Khmer Rouge reign of terror, when 2 million people died, the brutal regime targeted anyone who had been associated with the ousted government, many of whom were posing as farmers.

"Not many men with magic tattoos survived," Miech says. "If you had one, you were probably a soldier from the old regime and promptly executed."

It's not enough to simply get a magic tattoo. You must also tend its power. "It's like a mobile phone," says Chan Trea, 46, one of the few magic tattooists still operating in bustling Phnom Penh. "Without maintenance, it won't work."

To keep a tattoo's power, one should shun adultery, alcohol, insulting opponents while fighting them or eating star fruit.

Star fruit?

"Since ancient days, it's well known that people with tattoos or talismans should not consume this fruit," he says. "If it wasn't true, the warning wouldn't last so long."

These days, Chan Trea supplements his income with fashion tattoos.

"If I was only doing magic tattoos, I'd go broke," he says, leaning on the battered dentist chair his customers settle into for their needling sessions.

Magic tattoos are traditionally applied to the part of the body in need of protection, with anti-landmine tattoos placed on the legs, anti-fever tattoos near the heart. Sometimes, however, even the tattooist doesn't understand what he's applying.

Chan Trea says that a few weeks ago a monk asked him to tattoo a particular pattern but refused to say what it meant.

"In Cambodia, there are lots of secrets. People guard things jealously," he says, unfurling a copy of the mystery pattern he furtively kept.

Tattoo artists say women rarely indulge, partly for aesthetic reasons and because they fear they may be mistaken for prostitutes, but Kol sometimes blesses women's perfume bottles, protecting their aura that way.

"These foreign women wearing big tattoos, that looks rather strange to us," said Kong, the grandmother.

(Actress Angelina Jolie recently had a magic tattoo done on her left shoulder blade meant to protect her and her Cambodian son, Maddox, from bad luck and accidents. The translated Pali incantation reportedly reads in part: "May your enemies run far away from you; if you acquire riches, may they remain yours always.")

Cambodia's few remaining magic tattoo artists recognize that they're fighting an uphill battle but say they haven't lost hope.

"Granted, more and more people believe in rationality, technology and the Internet," Kol said. "But, you watch. As soon as the next war or crisis hits and they need us, they'll come running back."
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Thailand unravelling

Red Shirts' anger has its root in deep-seated inequalities


Despite some 18 coups in its contemporary history, Thailand has long been a bastion of stability in Southeast Asia. It has avoided bouts of mass violence that have marred regional neighbours like Indonesia and Cambodia, and has become a major destination for tourists and an economic dynamo in Asia.

However, the current crisis that has parts of Bangkok looking like Beirut has the potential to unhinge Thailand from its stable moorings. Since the first clashes erupted in April, 67 people have been killed, and more than 1,700 have been injured. This degree of violence is unprecedented in Thailand.

At its core, this crisis has its roots in deep-seated inequalities between the rural sector and the ruling institutions and social groups based in Bangkok. The conflict between the Red Shirts and the Thai government stems from the September 2006 coup that ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The Red Shirts, primarily rural people from the poorer areas of Thailand in the north and northeast, are avid supporters of Thaksin.

Incensed by the coup as well as by recent court rulings and backroom deals that eliminated governments led by Thaksin allies, the Red Shirts have been pushing to force out the current government of the Democrat Party, which took charge of government in 2008 when a number of Thaksin's parliamentary allies switched sides to give the Democrats a majority. That shady deal and repeated efforts to oust Thaksin and his allies are what so enrage the Red Shirts.

At a deeper level, the Red Shirts' support for Thaksin and visceral opposition to the Democrat-led government is a result of Thaksin's pro-poor policies. These policies, often called populist, included a universal health-care program known as the 30-Baht (75-cent) policy, a debt-moratorium program for farmers, and a Village Fund scheme that would have given every village in the country 1 million baht ( $25,000) to jumpstart small-scale entrepreneurial projects.

The record of these policies in alleviating poverty has been mixed, although the health-care scheme has been the most successful. But the actual success of these policies is less important than their political effect. The policies have created a powerful social base for Thaskin's party and a devoted following for his leadership. Unlike any prime minister in Thailand's history, Thaksin has successfully created a bond with the rural poor, established a track record of policy innovation in favor of the rural sector, and mobilized them to political action. This has created a major challenge for elites in Bangkok.

The Bangkok elite - the aristocratic class, the military, and large parts of the middle class - remain deeply opposed to Thaksin and the Red Shirts, especially because they view Thaksin as a corrupt prime minister who used his public office to protect and advance his capitalist interests.

But opposition to Thaksin is also due to his attempts to challenge King Bhumipol Adulyadej's traditional role as supreme leader of the nation. Since his accession to the throne in 1946, 82-year-old Bhumipol has been one of the most successful and unifying monarchs in Thailand. But the monarchy has also shown little tolerance for politicians who could displace its position as patron and builder of the nation. This is exactly what Thaksin sought to do through the force of his charisma, as much as through his pro-poor policies.

Thailand now finds itself on the brink of civil war. In the past, when Thai politics appeared to have reached a point of no return, Bhumipol was able to step in and bring the conflict to an end. This is no longer possible because the conflict involves the monarchy's role in the polity, but also because the king has been ailing for much of the past year. A recent effort by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to negotiate was rejected by the Red Shirts, pushing the government to use military force to dislodge the protesters. But a military strategy will only inflame rural discontent in the long-run. Both sides need to submit to an impartial negotiator, whether from within Thailand or from abroad, so that negotiations can be credible and earnest.

Once the violence subsides, the larger issue that Thailand needs to confront is the deep marginalization of the rural poor. The Bangkok elite has long ruled on the assumption that the rural poor would accept their fate and would never pose a serious challenge to the state and to society's conservative norms.

This is no longer the case and puts the burden on the elite to change its thinking if it wishes to remain relevant in the midst of political and social change.

Erik Martinez Kuhonta teaches political science at McGill University.

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