Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Featured Release Title “The Life of a Diver” Indonesian-based Expat Story

Featured Release Title “The Life of a Diver” Indonesian-based Expat Story


Author Jim Rigney



Jim Rigney has been a commercial diver since the age of seventeen. Starting as a harbour diver in northern Tasmania, Jim has gone on to forge a long and extensive career within the offshore diving industry, taking him all over the world as an air diver, saturation bell diver, medical technician and diving superintendent.

Life of a Diver is a collection of Jim’s experiences and observations from a lifetime within the commercial diving industry, both in Australia and abroad. It’s the life of a diver who worked on the salvage and survey following the 1975 Tasman Bridge disaster; who made it a personal mission to establish Australia’s first saturation diving training facility in the 1990s; and who once wanted to teach an ill-behaved crew member a lesson and inadvertently created an Internet viral hit in the process.

Jim also shares his insights from over forty-five years in a tough but rewarding industry, and how he has navigated the day to day challenges that come with off-shore work — and what improvements can still be made.

The life of a diver such as Jim Rigney is one of adventure, danger and the search for stimulating work and innovation.


Author bio

Rigney was born in Burnie, Tasmania in 1953. He commenced his career as a commercial diver at the age of seventeen, following a year working in the underground mines on Tasmania’s west coast so as to finance his diver training and purchase the necessary equipment.

Jim progressed from harbor diving and commenced abalone diving in Tasmania in 1972 but became increasingly frustrated with the tedium that abalone diving had to offer, compared to the challenges of the subsea construction industry.







Non-fiction, diving
RRP $29.95


Sid Harta Publishers

Melbourne Australia



Review “Twelve Years in Care” by John Bicknell

Review “Twelve Years in Care” by John Bicknell 

Up to 150,000 children were deported from children's homes in Britain and shipped off to a 'new life' in distant parts of the British Empire, right up until as recently as 1970. John  was one of these children who came with his two bothers  to the Barnardo’s Farm Training School at Mowbray Park near Picton. In his new book he takes the reader back to where it all began in a small house in a small village in southern England, into their incarceration in English orphanages and then to Australia with several other children. The chapters describing life in Mowbray Park give the reader a glimpse into the lives of similar children raised in philanthropic institutions away from traditional family structure and make their subsequent social problems easier to understand. This is a timely story for today as we all struggle to understand why so many children were taken away from families and countries. John worked hard to overcome his early life to create acceptance into local communities and successfully run a farm and raise a family but it was only at a significant cost to himself. Many other children did not. They all have stories we should know before we can remedy past mistakes and apply better policies in future.

Sid Harta Publishers

Melbourne Australia

Monday, March 27, 2017

Indonesian girl howls through circumcision as debate heats up -A barbaric practice not sanctioned by Islam, or a necessary curb on promiscuity? Female circumcision – also known as female genital mutilation or FGM – has been practised for generations across Indonesia, which is the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, and is considered a rite of passage by many.

Indonesian girl howls through circumcision as debate heats up -A barbaric practice not sanctioned by Islam, or a necessary curb on promiscuity? Female circumcision – also known as female genital mutilation or FGM – has been practised for generations across Indonesia, which is the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, and is considered a rite of passage by many. 

Indonesian toddler Salsa Djafar was wearing a glittering golden crown decorated with ribbons and a shiny purple dress to mark a special occasion – her circumcision day.

At the celebrations attended by relatives, shrieks filled the modest, yellow-walled house in remote Gorontalo province as a traditional “cutter” covered the 18-month-old girl with a white sheet and sliced skin off her genitals.

The cutter used a knife to remove a tiny piece of skin from the hood that covers the clitoris – which she said looked like a “garlic skin” – then stuck the knife into a lemon.

It marked the end of a procedure supposed to rid the child of sin and signal she was now officially a Muslim.

“It’s hard to see her crying like this, but it is tradition,” her father Arjun Djafar, a 23-year-old labourer, said at last month’s ceremony.

Female circumcision – also known as female genital mutilation or FGM – has been practised for generations across Indonesia, which is the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, and is considered a rite of passage by many. 

The United Nations condemns the practice and the government once sought to ban it, but opposition from religious authorities and its widespread acceptance mean FGM has been impossible to stamp out.

Nowhere is it more common than Gorontalo, a deeply conservative area on the central island of Sulawesi, where the procedure is typically accompanied by elaborate rituals and celebrations.

A government survey estimated over 80 per cent of girls aged 11 and under in Gorontalo had been circumcised, compared to about 50 per cent of girls in the same category nationwide.

Uncut girls and ‘mental problems’

Despite the pain it causes and growing opposition inside and outside Indonesia, residents of Gorontalo, mostly poor rice farmers, consider female circumcision an obligation. 

The cutter, Khadijah Ibrahim, who inherited her job from her mother when she passed away several years ago, said that girls who were left uncut risked developing “mental problems and disabilities”. 

Local healers say the practice prevents girls from becoming promiscuous in later life, while there is also a widespread belief that uncircumcised Muslim women’s prayers will not be accepted by God.

But the practice is not limited to far-flung parts of the archipelago. It remains common among Muslim families even in Jakarta, although doctors there typically carry out a less extreme form of the procedure that involves pricking the clitoral hood with a needle.

In an effort to accommodate cultural and religious considerations, the government has moved away from previous attempts to ban the practice entirely and has instead sought to stamp out the more harmful methods and ensure safety.

Authorities insist the methods most commonly used in Indonesia – usually involving a pin prick – do not amount to female genital mutilation.

The methods used in Indonesia are generally less harsh than the most brutal forms of FGM found mainly in African and Middle Eastern countries, that can go as far as total removal of the clitoris.

The UN however disagrees with the Indonesian government’s stance, classifying FGM among “harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes” and has passed two resolutions aimed at stopping it worldwide in recent years.

The global body says FGM has no health benefits and can cause many problems, such as infertility and an increased risk of childbirth complications.

Not in Koran

Debate within Indonesia has been heating up in recent times, with activists and even a major Muslim organisation arguing against female circumcision, saying it violates a woman’s right to do as she wishes with her body.

“I believe there are no verses in my religion that allow female circumcision – it is not in the Koran,” explained Khorirah Ali, a member of the government-backed national commission on violence against women. The country’s second-biggest Muslim organisation, Muhammadiyah, discourages its followers from partaking in circumcision but the largest, Nahdlatul Ulama, and the country’s top Islamic authority the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) are still in favour.

The issue is a hot potato and the government has flip-flopped in recent years. 

In 2006, the health ministry banned doctors from carrying out female circumcision, saying there was no medical benefit—but the MUI hit back with a fatwa saying that women who undergo the procedure would be considered noble. 

The government backtracked several years later and said licensed medics could conduct the procedure as long as it was only “scratching the clitoral hood”, only to later void this measure in favour of asking a specially appointed council to issue safety guidelines.

Campaigners say the constant changes have created confusion about what is allowed and more harmful practices – such as those used in Gorontalo – continue to exist.

Despite the opposition, the practice is unlikely to end soon in the country of 255 million people.

Jurnalis Uddin, an expert on female circumcision from Jakarta-based Yarsi University, and a member of the government’s advisory council, said the focus should be on encouraging the less harmful methods.

“To get rid of the practice completely is like swimming against the current,” he said.

March 28, 2017 01:00
By Olivia Rondonuwu
Agence France-Presse
GORONTALO, Indonesia

Tug-of-War Between Military, Police Under Jokowi

Tug-of-War Between Military, Police Under Jokowi

National Police Chief Gen. Tito Karnavian, right, and Indonesian Military (TNI) chief Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo speaking to reporters in this July 20, 2016 file photo. (Antara Photo/Basri Marzuki)

Following the awkward debacle of suspended military cooperation with Australia, in another maverick moment, Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo told the press he might soon be replaced as chief of the Indonesian Military, or TNI, hinting that he had somehow fallen out of favor but later explaining that at any rate, he was nearing retirement.

He then made an "exposé" about how little power the TNI chief had in the procurement of military hardware under a 2015 law that grants the Ministry of Defense sole responsibility for such acquisitions. Ruing his loss of control over procurement, he said: "If this [erosion of the TNI chief's prerogatives] continues, then the commander will have no authority whatsoever."

The new law must have come as a great disappointment to the armed forces, just when they were expecting significant rises in defense spending. In the 2017 state budget, defense is one of the 10 biggest spenders at Rp 104.4 trillion ($7.85 billion), compared to the Rp 72.4 trillion allocated to the National Police. The figures are expected to increase as the president has made a promise to jack up defense spending to around Rp 250 trillion a year.

The figures must have been music to the generals' ears, since defense procurement in the past was an area in which the top brass of the military could make significant economic gains through "commission fees" from defense contractors as well as other "markups." By relocating the procurement responsibility to the Ministry of Defense, the government effectively closed off another significant "economic access" previously enjoyed by military grandees.

In airing his disappointment, Gatot was perhaps being true to his brash indiscreet self, a side Jokowi had evidently missed, or underestimated when considering him for the top job. However, the general's penchant for talking to the press and delivering incendiary lectures – in one of which he described feeding hypothetical Chinese refugees to the sharks – may also suggest that he is trying to craft a careful image of himself as an all-action patriot ready to embark on great things. Judging by former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's political success story, former army generals with popular appeal can still do well electorally.

It is also noteworthy that Gatot's unbosoming to the press came after the police scored an important political triumph in shoring up the president's authority during the populist Islamist rallies in November and December last year. The rallies, purportedly against Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahjaja Purnama – a Christian of Chinese descent who is accused of blaspheming against Islam – were on the verge of turning into protests against the government and ultimately, the president.

With a turnout of hundreds of thousands, the Islamist protests represented the first real challenge to Jokowi's presidency. To blunt the blow, the police duly arrested several "agitators" on treason charges on the morning of last year's Dec. 2 rally. National Police chief Gen. Tito Karnavian, handpicked by Jokowi in July last year, threw his weight behind the president and proved to be in his element by being seen to contain the possible excesses of the rallies through a combination of negotiations and strong-arm tactics.

In contrast, the armed forces did not seem overly eager to come to the president's aid during the turbulent months. Instead, Gatot expounded his pet theory to the press, arguing that radicalism and "pitting Indonesians against one another" as evident in the gubernatorial election campaign, was another proxy war designed by foreign powers.

More seriously, Gatot is said to have strong links to hardline Muslim groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which served as the field operators for the recent Islamist rallies against the government. Seasoned Indonesia correspondent John McBeth considers the allegation to have some merit. He quoted a retired general in an article, writing: "Playing games with Muslim groups is a result of a rotting situation… They want to show that the Army is still needed and they have no concerns about the problems it creates."

If true, then Tito, with the president's blessing, deftly turned the tables on the cabal Army group wishing to create an untenable situation, which would have necessitated military intervention. Far from humiliating the police for their inability to control the masses, it allowed them to swoop in and save the day for the president.

The triumph of the police in securing the president's gratitude took place at the expense of the military. Yet, this temporary political setback for the military does not mean the end of rivalry between the forces. The police, being the most involved with civilians, inevitably has the advantage over the TNI in post-Reformasi Indonesia.

However, in its interaction with the people also lies the police's weakness. A 2015 survey by Transparency International, for instance, placed the police as one of the most corrupt government agencies as perceived by the public. Apart from taking and demanding bribes, police officers are also known for operating strictly illegal "businesses" on the sidelines, such as "security money" demanded from businesses and individual officers commandeering lucrative urban "parking spaces" in conjunction with gangsters, or preman.

Now that the president is indebted to the police, it remains to be seen if Jokowi can push through further reform within the force to combat rampant corruption. Failure to do so might just provide the military with another avenue to power. The president certainly has his work cut out for him in balancing between the forces.

The specter of the armed forces' tentacles in Indonesian politics is real enough to warrant vigilance, although the country's democracy has fared better than its Thai counterpart in this respect. The dwifungsi may have been formally abolished, but its roots are buried deep. Corny as it may sound, a military uniform tends to inspire confidence in the country, so much so that President Sukarno, who never had military training, spent the last years of his life wearing his military honors in the most conspicuous manner.

If Gatot truly has political aspirations after he retires, and provided he can secure enough political backing, we may see him compete in the 2019 presidential election, alongside Prabowo Subianto and perhaps Yudhoyono's son Agus Harimurti. Indonesia's days of pseudo-military leaders are apparently not over yet. Not by far.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya.


Monday, March 6, 2017

The perplexing case of Wat Dhammakaya - police and military have been leading operations against the controversial Dhammakaya Buddhist temple complex in the search for a wanted monk. But the raids are a mere dash for cash by the country’s ruling junta

The perplexing case of Wat Dhammakaya - police and military have been leading operations against the controversial Dhammakaya Buddhist temple complex in the search for a wanted monk. But the raids are a mere dash for cash by the country’s ruling junta

What is going on against the Wat Thammakai/ Dhammakaya movement is puzzling and intensely concerning.

The junta is taking assets from the temple under the pretence of “reform” without having enacted any proper legal precedence or law. The junta’s action, ideology aside, is connected with the capturing of temple finances across many wealthy (Mahanikai) temples as the regime desperately tries to capture power and bolster its dwindling and misspent state coffers. Other temples which may later be targeted include Wat Saket, Wat Sothonwararam  (Chachoengsao), Wat Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat (Phitsanalok), Wat Phra Pathom Chedi  (Nakhon Pathom), Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon (Ayutthaya) and Wat Rai Khing (Nakhon Pathom).

In the process, there is an attempt to dissolve the Buddhist Association of Thailand (Samnak Phut) and amalgamate under the Religious Affairs Department in the Ministry of Culture to take responsibility for controlling all national temple finances and assets.  The regime also intends to cancel the 1962 Sangha Act, amended in 1992, dispose of the Council of Monk Elders (Mahathera Samakon), and bring back the 1941 Sangha Act. It also intends to regulate the personal financial practices of monks and monasteries, restrict monks from disrobing following South Asian precedence, and reform monastic education.

The authoritarian and forceful manner in which the junta is carrying out its purge does not hearten for popular support. In raiding Dhammakaya, the motivation is clearly about money, claimed as illicit to justify its actions.

The Dhammakaya movement may well be a mass spectacle, some people regarding it as specious in its mass production of a neoliberal, commodified (global) religiosity, though in the last decade or more it has been largely discreet and remained outside of any political alliance. However, attacks against the movement’s elderly (and seriously diabetic) spiritual leader Phra Dhammachayo (born 1944), begs for an unbiased and reasoned critique. The Dhammakaya Foundation became a United Nations-accredited non–governmental organization in 1986 and this incident will gain some international attention.

The movement has been under the public spotlight since I first wrote about it in the late 1980s, but is now relentlessly pursued by DSI, the “independent” Department of Special Investigation of the Ministry of Justice, in a case that in fact goes back to 2006 and is likely to become explosive. The events of the past few weeks have even drawn in the outspoken neighbouring ultra-nationalist Burmese monk Ashin Wirathu and monks across Asia in support of the besieged expansive temple complex at Pathum Thani, to the north of Bangkok.

The boss of DSI, appointed to pursue the case in 2016 against Dhammakaya, is Police General Paisit Wongmuang, who is acting on a letter of complaint signed by Paiboon Nititawan, ex-Chairperson of the Reform Committee on the Protection of Buddhism; Dr Mano Laohavanich (formerly Dhammakaya scholar monk, Mettanando Bhikkhu); a network of people affected by the credit union debacle (discussed later), and the conservative Women’s Network for the Protection of Buddhism.

The problem started with the ultra-nationalist junta-favourite monk Buddha-Issara, in a complex plot to destroy Dhammachayo (linking him fictitiously to Thaksin) and to fail the then Mahanikai Acting Supreme Patriarch Somdet Chuang of Wat Pak Nam, the original spiritual source of Dhammakaya. Somdet Chuang criticised Buddha Issara and PDRC (the reactionary “People’s Democratic Reform Committee”) when they illegally occupied government offices prior to the last coup.

The regime sees the annihilation of the Dhammakaya movement as a step towards dissolving the sangha’s supreme power and authority, and emplace instead a compliant civilian administration following Phutta-Issara’s suggestions. The junta in essence wants to completely eliminate any future power and opposition to its absolute totalitarianism.

The Dhammakaya temple is not without influential supporters, though mostly associated with wealthy urban middle class, and the nouveau riche. At times in the past it has been visited by members of various political parties and elites, including the current king (then Crown Prince), and Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the latter laying the foundation stone for the Ubosot (Pali: uposathagara) in December 1977.

The military, following the successful 2010 strategy of attrition and encirclement of protestors are only letting people out and not in, and now have mobile medical facilities ready for the final incursion. There are about 10,000 lay persons and monastic sangha at the Pathom Thani temple with raw food not allowed inside, only cooked food sent in which is inadequate and in any case mostly rotten by the time it gets inside.  The military (using their compliant police department), under Article 44, are of course outstanding practitioners at “cracking down” on their own protesting civilians. The whole area around the monastery is suffering socially and economically because thousands of people rely on the temple for their livelihoods, and those who work outside the area have to find alternative longer routes. It should also be remembered that there are usually more lay people residing in the temple than monks and novices. A local resident Anawat Thanacharoennat (64) recently suicided in protest of the use of Article 44 against the temple (for more see here).

What is the fascination or desperation in capturing Abbot Dhammachayo? Self-styled PM Prayuth Chan-ocha says it does not matter how long it will take the more than 3,000 police and army personnel (each paid Baht 400 per day) recently boosted again in numbers, but they will stay on until he is found. In fact, monks and laity have not seen him for some time in any case. Prayuth has also now placed a DSI official Pol Lt Col Pongporn Pramsaneh in charge of the National Office of Buddhism in his frustration in not arresting Dhammachayo.

Although long known for astute marketing, Dhammachayo is charged with “money laundering” and racketeering in a case which has many sticky fingers, and as many holes as a leaky bucket. The monastery received a large donation from the Klong Chan Credit Union Cooperative (comprising 52,000 members).  The ex-head of the credit union Supachai Srisupa-aksorn is now serving 16 years’ jail time for embezzlement after dishing out a massive 11.3 billion Baht (878 cheques issued through 10 Thai banks) of members’ money to six main organisations and numerous linked groups and individuals (see here and here).

The groups who received money (many of them obtaining sums far exceeding Dhammakaya) have not been charged; it is only Abbot Dhammachayo who is hunted. The religious movement has claimed that it has repaid the money donated from the union, after realising the problematic source of the payment. The credit union said that henceforth they have no issues with the temple. However, DSI (whose boss was not long ago replaced for not bringing the temple down) have not stopped and continue to pursue the hapless religious leader.

DSI and the Office of the Attorney General apparently recouped Baht 3.8 billion, and no one, seemingly, knows where the money is. The credit union’s new chairperson (Mr Prakit Pilangasa in interview on Satellite Channel 29, and Digital TV Channel 19, interviews 23 and 24 February 2017) plans to take legal action against DSI and the Attorney General to recover this money.

There are a number of rumours circulating in the alternative media as to why DSI and the military needs to destroy not just Dhammachayo, but likely uncomfortable incriminating evidence, which they assume may be held at the temple. It must also be remembered that Dhammakaya holds massive wealth, which the military junta, spending money copiously on itself and its schemes, would appreciate to bolster the dwindling national reserves.

There are some other factors in this complex mix: Thailand’s reactionary (pro-amaat) mainstream media were and remain quick to make a connection to Thaksin, groundlessly and mischievously alluding to Dhammakaya as a bastion of the former pro-Thaksin politicians — mainly through a couple of people who were known to have frequented the temple on more than one occasion, such as the former Minister of Public Health, Sudarat Keyuraphan (also see here).

After all these years, the amaat regime are still taking every opportunity to discredit and completely eradicate Thaksin and his former popular political interests. Neither, it should be noted, is the temple “red” — in a general sense it is far from it, if anyone knows followers of the temple. Although there may well be some “red” devotees, like all sectors of societies, it is not clear cut. The media cunningly note the “alleged links” to Thaksin – enough to further discredit the temple, but they never provide any evidence. An allusion, for a particular purpose, is taken as a statement of truth.

A number of points following the above discussion also need to be mentioned with a bearing on the establishment’s desire to get rid of the movement.

First, Dhammakaya is Mahanikai/Mahanikaya. This Thai Buddhist fraternity is not favoured by royalists consolidating attention, symbolic capital and resources through a number of Dhammayut royal temples. As noted above, we saw recently the implications of the amaat decision to dump the Mahanikaya Acting Supreme Patriarch (Somdet Chuang) in favour of a royal Dhammayut monk from the favoured Bangkok Wat Ratchabophit. The Thammakai are targeted for new purges to capture assets.

Second, the idiosyncratic temple has not been known to overtly support the palace with necessary liberal merit donations. This is not a good move, and unlike establishment temples and many famous elite patronised forest monks.

Third, as noted earlier, Dhammakaya is immensely rich. Many devotees for instance initially donated massive amounts of gold in the building of the expansive Cetiya and its Buddha images at the Pathum Thani temple.

Fourth, the movement is global in reach (with 200 branches worldwide), appealing to conservative rationalists; it is stoically politically neutral, aloof, and does not necessarily show favour to those above who it should favour for regal benefice and protection.

Fifth and finally, the movement’s commanding religious and monetary autonomy is worrying for the military royalist establishment who need to control the significant wealth of its national institutions, religious and secular, for its network personal benefits. This is part of a broader agenda of capturing monastic wealth for the benefit of the military regime and its programs.

Dr James L Taylor is Adjunct Associate Professor, Anthropology & Development Studies, University of Adelaide. He has written extensively on Thammakai since the late 1980s and 1990s including in his book Buddhism and Postmodern Imaginings in Thailand.


North Korea launch could be test of 'saturation attack' strategy


The apparent success of four simultaneous missile launchings by North Korea raised new alarms about the threat to its neighbours and its progress toward developing an ability to overcome their ballistic missile defence systems, including those that have yet to be deployed. According to the South Korean military, North Korea launched four ballistic missiles from its long-range rocket launch site Monday morning. In Japan, analysts said the launches suggested that North Korea could pose a more serious threat than indicated by previous test.

"That would mean a lot in terms of the defence of Tokyo, because North Korea might have been conducting a simulation of a 'saturation attack' in which they launch a number of missiles simultaneously in order to saturate the missile defence that Japan has," said Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

"It would be difficult for Japan to shoot down four missiles all at the same time because of our limited missile defence."

The missile tests came three weeks after North Korea tested a missile during a US visit by Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to meet with President Donald Trump.

The launch on Monday happened as the United States and South Korea were conducting their annual joint military exercise. North Korea calls such drills a rehearsal for invasion and has often responded by conducting missile tests.

Japan's coast guard sent out navigation warnings and stepped up air and sea patrols on Monday after three of the missiles landed within the country's so-called exclusive economic zone, where fishing and cargo ships are active. The fourth landed outside it, though nearby.

This was not the first time that North Korean test missiles have fallen within that zone. In both August and September last year, missiles came within 200 km and 250 kms of the Japanese coastline. Monday's missiles landed about 300 to 350 km west of Akita prefecture, on the northern coast of the main island, Honshu. The September launches involved three missiles fired simultaneously, but this time North Korea set off four missiles at once, all of which seemed to land successfully. During a parliamentary committee session on Monday morning, Abe said that the launches "clearly represent a new threat from North Korea."

The missiles took off from Tongchang-ri, in northwestern North Korea, and flew an average of 1000 km before falling into the sea between North Korea and Japan, said Noh Jae-chon, a South Korean military spokesman. The type of missile fired was not immediately clear, but Noh said it was unlikely that they were intercontinental ballistic missiles, which the North had recently threatened to test launch.

In South Korea, the launch prompted South Korean security officials to call for the early deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area defence System, or THAAD, an advanced US antimissile system. China has protested THAAD as a threat to its own nuclear deterrence because its powerful radar would be able to track Chinese missile launches.

Michishita, of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, said the missile launches could accelerate a discussion within the Japanese government about whether Japan should acquire more missile defence systems, including THAAD. In January, Japan's defence minister, Tomomi Inada, visited a US Air Force base on Guam for a briefing on THAAD.

After North Korea's missile test last month, Japan's governing Liberal Democratic Party formed a committee to discuss the country's ballistic missile defences, and it plans to debate various options, including THAAD, early warning satellites and other defence systems that could intercept incoming missiles.

North Korea's provocations could also embolden Abe in his campaign to raise military spending.

"This can be used by the government as a pretty credible reason why we have to spend more on defence at the expense of other budget items," including social welfare programs, Michishita said.

The Mainichi Shimbun, a newspaper, reported in its evening edition that residents in Akita prefecture, which sits closest to where the missiles landed in the Sea of Japan on Monday, were concerned by the increasing frequency of the tests.

Kazuhiro Asai, director of the Kitaura branch of the Fishermen's Cooperative of Akita Prefecture, told The Mainichi Shimbun that members of the group were frightened by the launches. The newspaper also quoted Kiyokazu Hatakeyama, director of the Kitaura Community Centre, as concerned about a potential decrease in tourists to the area.

New York Times


Saudi Arabian King Salman’s visit to Indonesia lavished more on hotels and security than his rich kingdom provided all last year in direct investment


During his nine-day visit to Indonesia, the first by a Saudi Arabian monarch in 47 years, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saudi and his 1,500-strong entourage have lavished far more on accommodation than the kingdom spent in direct investment to the world’s largest Muslim country for all of last year.

That was a mere US$900,000, down sharply from US$30.4 million the previous year and far less than the US$2.1 million it cost to install bulletproof glass in the presidential suite of Jakarta’s Ritz Carlton Hotel where the 81-year-old king stayed before heading to the resort island of Bali.

A fleet of six jumbo jets and a Hercules cargo plane brought the delegation from Riyadh, carrying food, two mobile lifts and other supplies weighing “459 Toyota Avanzas” – the media’s strange choice of measurement that works out to be 546.7 tons.

For all that – and the presence of 10 Saudi ministers and 25 princes – the signing of a US$1 billion deal to fund what were vaguely described as “various development projects” was a clear disappointment for the expectant Indonesians.
Joko as driver for the head of a country that funds the very terrorists who kill Joko's citizens in terror attacks. The love affair Muslim Indonesians have for Saudis is shallow

That was a drop in the bucket compared with the US$7 billion state-owned Saudi Aramaco oil company agreed to invest in a half-share of a Petronas petrochemical complex during the monarch’s state visit to neighboring Muslim majority Malaysia as part of a month-long Asian tour.

It was also a far cry from the US$25 billion in deals officials had said were to be signed during the visit, including US$6 billion for the expansion of the Cilacap oil refinery on Java’s south coast that had been the subject of a memorandum of understanding between the two sides signed in May 2016.

Indeed, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi was left to lamely explain that Aramco and Indonesia’s state-run Pertamina oil company had yet to even establish a formal joint venture to expand the refinery’s capacity from 340,000 to 370,000 barrels a day.

Parliament was disappointed, too. It had forked out US$500,000 on a lavish reception, complete with new carpets and banks of flowers. Yet the king spent only 20 minutes there, during which he delivered a brief two-minute speech in Arabic.

direct investment in favor of acquiring stakes in Jakarta’s publicly listed companies. But those figures are as opaque as the money funneled into charities for new mosques and religious schools.

Spreading Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative version of Islam, clearly has a much greater priority, with the kingdom pledging to build five mosques for the Defense Ministry and the Indonesian military – part of a program to add one million mosques around the world.

It also plans to open new campuses for the Saudi-funded Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies (LIPIA) in the South Sulawesi provincial capital of Makassar, in Medan, North Sumatra, as well as the East Java port city of Surabaya.

LIPIA established its first and only college in Jakarta in 1980. Its alumni since include jailed terrorist leader Aman Abdurrahman and Farid Okbah, the country’s leading anti-Shia ideologue, though hardliners are not the only graduates by any means.

Saudi Arabia has stepped up its proselytizing since Indonesia embarked on an Islamic revival at the birth of the democratic era in the late 1990s, with more women wearing the hijab and Islamic principles playing a greater role in education and political life.

Historically, there were several conduits for Saudi religious aid, although by the late 1970s worry about the kingdom’s impact on how Islam is practised led to the former dictator Suharto’s government directing that all external aid run through the Jakarta government.

One major charity, Al Haramain, was closed in 2004 after allegations surfaced that it had channeled money to militant groups then engaged in a bloody bombing campaign. Among the targets were the Ritz Carlton and the JW Marriott, two of the four luxury hotels booked out by the Saudi delegation.

Most Saudi funding currently comes through either LIPIA or the home-grown Indonesian Society for the Propagation of Islam (DDII), which has proved a key factor in Indonesia’s Islamic revival and its interaction with Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.

Over the years, it has grown into a strictly conservative organization with the sort of strong anti-Shiite, anti-Christian and anti-Ahmadiyah views that dovetailed with the Saudi agenda of countering Iran’s global influence after the 1979 revolution.

The DDII has built mosques, hospitals, and orphanages, distributed Qurans and other Islamic materials, aided local religious schools, trained religious leaders and awarded scholarships to Saudi Arabian and other Middle Eastern universities.

Religious scholar Ben von der Mehden says it has also sought links with other Islamic organizations at home and abroad, including the Muslim Brotherhood, international Islamic youth groups and even elements of the homegrown Jemaah Islamiyah terror network.

While LIPIA graduates tend to gravitate toward mosques in urban areas and in university cities, they have not normally been the advocates of violent Islam, who come mainly from a small radical minority of the country’s 13,000 Islamic boarding schools.

Saudi Wahhabi-Salafi tenets may be more widespread than they once were, but von der Mehden says there are impediments to their expansion, starting with the rural tradition of melding local beliefs into Islam, a syncretic mix to which the doctrinaire Saudis are strongly averse.

Many Indonesians also equate Wahhabis and Salafis with fanning hate-speech, fanaticism and violence, while local mass Muslim organizations such as Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama seek to weaken their influence in the mosques and schools under their umbrellas.

Apart from the discomfort felt over the so-called “Arabization” of Indonesia, attitudes towards the Saudis themselves have not helped revelations in news reports of sexually abusive employers ill-treating Indonesian maids and, more recently, the kingdom’s failure to compensate the families of pilgrims killed in the 2015 haj disaster.

The countries will always remain bound by their shared belief in Sunni Islam, the million Indonesians who work in Saudi Arabia and the 221,000 Indonesians who will make the pilgrimage to Mecca this year, the country’s highest quota.

The number of Saudis visiting Indonesia is only a tiny fraction of that number, most of them heading for Hindu-populated Bali, where the king’s delegation spent five days in an environment whose only similarity to their homeland ends with the sea and the sand. 

But despite all the comforting talk last week about tolerance, religious harmony and the evils of extremism, moderate Indonesian Muslims are more worried about how Saudi Arabia’s conservative teachings may be eating away at the country’s secular underpinnings.

In a society where conformity has become the norm, once those beliefs have been implanted they are nurtured by the same hardline groups that are trying to ensure the ongoing trial on blasphemy charges of ethnic-Chinese governor Basuki Purnama will lead to his conviction. 

John McBeth

Malaysia Takes a Turn for the Religious Sinister Side - Two very worrying trends in Malaysia may have come together: the rise of religious intolerance and the use of murder as a political weapon

Two very worrying trends in Malaysia may have come together: the rise of religious intolerance and the use of murder as a political weapon

The well-organized kidnap and disappearance of a Chinese Christian pastor, Raymond Koh Keng Joo on Feb. 13 in the middle of Petaling Jaya, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, was clearly driven by his promotion of Christianity. His disappearance and the lack of any news or ransom demand suggest he has likely been killed and his body disposed of. If so, whether his corpse was blown up in the manner of Altantuya Shaaribu, the pregnant Mongolian model and translator murdered by then-Defense Minister Najib Razak’s security personnel, or in a drum of concrete like 1MDB investigator from the Attorney General’s department, Kevin Anthomy Morais, or otherwise, remains to be seen.

What is clear is that the broad daylight morning kidnap operation was brazen and highly organized. Witnesses and a video posted on-line reported that three large SUVs, two following cars and two motorcycles were involved, with masked men holding up traffic, blocking Koh’s car, seizing him and bundling him into one of the vehicles. Witnesses reported that there were at least five abductors, who were driving black 4x4s, and that one of them calmly filmed the incident. The operation of less than a minute took place just 100 metres from a police complex.

Despite the evidence of witnesses and the video, the police have made no progress either in identifying the kidnappers or tracing the victim. Koh’s family has offered a RM100,000 (US$22,500) reward for his safe return but there has been no response. It is not clear how much effort an increasingly politicized police force has invested in finding Koh and his kidnappers.

Koh was viewed by some Christian groups as being too high-profile for his own good given the rise in Muslim fanaticism in what is supposed to be multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation. In 2011 Koh was accused by the Selangor Religious Affairs Department of trying to convert Malays to Christianity. However, the issue was dropped due lack of evidence.

The kidnap and possible murder coincides with the introduction into parliament by the head of Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) leader Abdul Hadi Awang of a long-delayed bill to increase the powers of sharia courts which in turn could lead to the introduction of hudud, seventh-century Islamic corporal punishments including amputating limbs of thieves and stoning to death of adulterers, more likely, in this society, adulteresses while their lovers walk free.

Although the bill is unlikely to become law, the massive 1Malaysia Development Bhd. scandal, in which as much as US$1 billion of public funds is suspected to have flowed into Prime Minister Najib Razak’s  bank account, and other scandals besetting the prime minister are making him ever more susceptible to trading religious intolerance for support at the polls, a scenario that the rural-based PAS is only too happy to take advantage of.

Although an absurdly skewed electoral system makes a nonsense of democracy in Malaysia, Najib has become increasingly ruthless in his treatment of critics and is open to all methods of keeping himself in office ranging from asking Chinese state companies to help to bail out 1MDB and Muslim extremists who claim they represent Malay interests but in practice like to impose medieval Arab forms and dress on Malays.

The fate of Koh is evidently meant as a warning to non-Muslims. In the context of Peninsular Malaysia, where Malays are deemed to be children incapable of making their own decisions about religion, it is also a racist message to the non-Malay 30 percent of the population: leave us to our intolerance or we will punish you.

In the longer run, it may also be a message to the peoples of more tolerant Sarawak (where only 33 percent are Muslims) and Sabah that they do not belong in a nation whose political leaders rely on religious bigotry for their survival.
Asia Sentinel

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Secret Wealth Of The World’s Richest Oil Billionaires

As such, you won’t be surprised to learn that the largest energy companies in the world are owned and operated by governments, and they include: Saudi Aramco, Russian Gazprom, China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC), National Iranian Oil Co., Petroleos de Venezuela, Brazil’s Petrobras and Malaysia’s Petronas. How they’re run varies wildly—as does where their wealth goes.

While we’ve all been inundated with the massive amount of press on the scandals engulfing Brazil’s Petrobras, there are a few that stand out for creating and maintaining some of the world’s most interesting and colorful political leaders, who have grown their wealth through holdings in state-run oil and gas in some cases, and through more direct means in other cases.

Five state-run oil wealth stories stand out in today’s world: Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Angola and Brunei.

Vladimir Putin, Russia

Estimates of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s wealth only comes in ranges because most of his wealth is hidden through offshore companies or under clandestine financial devices.

The lower end of the range sits at US$40 billion – a 2007 figure based on research by mid-level Kremlin advisor Stanislav Belkovsky, which he later said had grown to US$70 billion. At this level, Putin already stands among Forbes’ Top 10 rankings of the world’s richest billionaires, though the magazine commented in 2015 that it could not verify enough of his assets to put him on the list.

Earlier this week, the International Business Times said Putin’s fortune could be as much as $200 billion.

The majority of Putin’s wealth comes from his stakes in the oil sector. He is said to own 37 percent of Surgutneftegaz, 4.5 percent of Gazprom.

“At least $40 billion,” Belkovsy told the Guardian in 2007. “Maximum we cannot know. I suspect there are some businesses I know nothing about.”

Putin’s trophies of wealth are far from subtle. His $1 billion palace on the Black Sea features “a magnificent columned façade reminiscent of the country palaces Russian tsars built in the 18th century,” according to the BBC, which also procured evidence that a secret slush fund had been created by a group of oligarchs to build the estate for Putin, personally.

It’s definitely not a lifestyle one can afford on a declared annual salary of around US$140,000.

In a 2012 dossier, Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov (later murdered) claimed that the Russian president owns a total of 20 palaces, four yachts and 58 aircraft.

“In a country where 20 million people can barely make ends meet, the luxurious life of the president is a brazen and cynical challenge to society from a high-handed potentate,” he said, according to the Telegraph.

But according to Putin himself, his wealth is not measured in money. In Steven Lee Myers’ book The New Tsar, Putin is quoted as saying: “I am the wealthiest man not just in Europe but in the whole world: I collect emotions.”

“I am wealthy in that the people of Russia have twice entrusted me with the leadership of a great nation such as Russia. I believe that is my greatest wealth.”


In 2003, Ilham Aliyev became the newly elected president of Azerbaijan. Thirteen years later, his name appeared in the Panama Papers – a massive leak of financial documents from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, which revealed the shady financial dealings of some of the world’s most powerful political figures.

Months before the October 2003 presidential elections in Azerbaijan, Fazil Mammadov, Azerbaijan’s tax minister, began paperwork to form AtaHolding – a company that has become one of the nation’s largest conglomerates. It holds interests in telecommunications, construction, mining, and oil and gas for a total value of $490 million, according to the last filings in 2014.

A second entity – this time a foundation – called UF Universe holds more assets, but Panamanian laws regarding the confidentiality of foundations are strict, which makes uncovering dollar amounts difficult.

Aliyev’s two daughters and wife also have links to offshore companies managed by Mossack Fonsenca. Incidentally, Aliyev just named his wife Vice-President of Azerbaijan.

How much is the First Oil Family worth these days? No one really knows, but enough to make it onto this list.


Kazakh President-for-life Nursultan Nazarbayev was also named in the Panama Papers as a tax haven owner. He had two companies registered in the British Virgin Islands, which he used to operate a bank account with an unknown amount of funds, and a luxury yacht.

The revelations were particularly loaded with hypocrisy because of Nazarbayev’s push to encourage his country’s wealthy to repatriate funds from abroad in order to make them taxable.

“We’ve raised many rich people: billionaires, millionaires,” he said, when oil prices tanked in 2014 and the government began using sovereign wealth funds to fund operations. “They are showing off; (their) pictures in Forbes… They look good, with makeup, well-groomed, well-dressed. But it is Kazakhstan that enabled you to earn all this money… Bring the money here. We’ll forgive you.”


Things here may be about to change, because President Jose Eduardo dos Santos has said he plans to step down after decades in power, and won’t be running in August’s presidential elections, but still plans to control the ruling party. Here, wealth is all about Sonangol, which has been marred in controversy since the president last year named his daughter as the head of the state-run oil company.

Angola has massive oil wealth, yet the bulk of the country’s 22 million people live in poverty, and critics say he’s mismanaged the country’s oil wealth and created an elite that largely consists of his massively rich family. But this scheme is being hit hard by the fall in oil prices that began in mid-2014, and the people are no longer complacent in their poverty.

The president’s daughter, worth an estimated US$3.4 billion before she took over the state-run oil company, has been described by Forbes as Africa’s richest woman.


And here’s one that’s probably not even on your radar, but it will be—sooner rather than later.

Vast reserves of oil and natural gas have made Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei one of the richest leaders in the world. The Sultan is believed to be worth US$40 billion at the low end, and while ‘his’ holdings officially belong to Brunei, in reality they belong to the royal family.

Brunei is the third-largest oil producer in Southeast Asia, and pumps out, on average, 180,000 barrels per day. The royal family has controlled everything to do with oil and gas since the 1970s, and the line here between royal family assets and national assets is exceedingly blurry.

Vulnerable or Not?

The thing about these political oil leaders is that they’re not really vulnerable—yet. It would take an event such as that which brought down Gaddafi (said to secretly be worth US$200 billion) in Libya to change this.

In Brunei, things may be about to change, and the Sultan may find his wealth considerably downsized. Oil production is down 40 percent since 2006, and what’s left has lost a great deal of value due to low oil prices. Nearly 96 percent of Brunei’s exports are oil, gas and related products—that tops even Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE. Brunei could run out of oil in just over 20 years, but then again, the Sultan is said to have massive real estate holdings to tide him over.

Angola’s president is stepping down and the oil price crisis has hit him hard, but he’ll still control the ruling party and a new president will defer to him (and his daughter).

In Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev is president for life. In Azerbaijan, the family elite is as strong as ever and will continue to be so through any means necessary. In Russia, sanctions simply haven’t worked because they are designed to target those around Putin, and Putin appears to have designed it so they are always vulnerable to him first and foremost.

As Russian businessman and former Putin friend Sergei Pugachev notes to the Guardian, and as reported by U.S. News and World Report: “Everything that belongs to the territory of the Russian Federation Putin considers to be his. Everything – Gazprom, Rosneft, private companies. Any attempt to calculate it won’t succeed. … He’s the richest person in the world until he leaves power.”