The Global Note: Thailand’s Disaster…Berlusconi’s D-Day…Libya’s Final Battle…Judges Lose Wigs!

By Tom Nagorski

Oct 14, 2011 10:35am

THAILAND’S DISASTER

-BANGKOK’S RACE AGAINST TIME   The Thai government says Bangkok’s flood defenses will protect it from the worst flooding in decades, but floodwaters are surging toward the capital, its raining, and there’s a race to sandbag and fortify floodwalls. Akiko FUJITA reports that city workers and ordinary people are working around the clock – in the pouring rain – to protect the capital. Some homes near the Chao Phraya river are already inundated and people are running out of sand to complete their sandbagging efforts.

-THE TOLL   Already the flooding has inundated two-thirds of the country — an area the size of Spain. Roughly 300 people have been killed, and the cost to companies and the country is in the tens of millions of dollars. That’s of course before Bangkok gets hit…

-BLAME HUMANS, NOT MOTHER NATURE   Monsoon rains are an annual event in Thailand – and as the floodwaters creep closer to the Thai capital, many people are blaming developers and others for devastating the nation’s ability to guard against the threat of flooding. The New York Times reports deforestation, overbuilding, damming and diversion of natural waterways and urban sprawl may be to blame for turning an unusually heavy monsoon season into a disaster.

D-DAY FOR BERLUSCONI

We’ve seen embattled Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi on the ropes before, but today’s confidence vote in Parliament was considered the most serious threat to his seat yet. Phoebe NATANSON reports from Rome that he’s squeaked by – by a vote of 316 to 301. After all the raunchy tapes and bunga-bunga stories, it was the failure of a budget measure earlier this week that prompted opposition lawmakers to demand Berlusconi’s immediate resignation.

 EURO-MESS

-SPANISH DOWNGRADE   Done worrying about the Slovak Parliament? OK, please turn your attention to Spain’s long-term credit rating. Standard & Poor’s has cut Spain’s rating by one notch, from AA to AA-, because of weak growth and high levels of private-sector debt. The ratings agency added that the country’s high unemployment would remain a drag on the economy. The Fitch agency has also cut Spain’s rating, a process that can raise a country’s borrowing costs.  Standard & Poor’s move comes as G20 finance ministers are due to meet today  to discuss the eurozone crisis.

-BANKS GET DOWNGRADES, TOO   On Thursday, Fitch also downgraded the creditworthiness of UK banks Lloyds and RBS, and also Switzerland’s UBS. 

BLOW TO PEACE: BRAND NEW SETTLEMENT

A new Israeli settlement is in the pipeline in East Jerusalem. Alex MARQUARDT reports: “This is different than the recent settlement expansions that the U.S. has criticized, this would be a brand new settlement, the first in E Jerusalem since 1997 (during Netanyahu’s first stint as PM). 2610 homes to be built next to the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa, one third of the new homes would go to Palestinans, expanding the village. The rest would go to Israelis. A perfect example of Israel creating “facts on the ground” on the other side of the Green Line that complicate the borders in peace deal negotiations.

ARAB SPRING

-SYRIAN DEATH TOLL ABOVE 3,000   Alex MARQUARDT reports that the U.N.’s human rights office now estimates that more than 3,000 people have been killed since mid-March in the Syrian uprising. That’s as many as 15 people per day, including 187 children. For prospective, 1,806 American troops have been killed in a decade of fighting in Afghanistan.

-FINAL BATTLE?   Is today finally the day the Gaddafi stronghold of Sirte falls? The Guardian’s Peter Beaumont says Gaddafi’s forces in Sirte are confined to an area of 750m by 500m. Dr Salah al-Obeidi, a commander from Benghazi who was a dentist before the war, said: “There are a hundred fighters, maybe a little more, holding us up. That is all.” Others put the number at 200. Sirte’s fall would be seen as the final nail in the coffin for the old regime.

-LIBYAN ARMS SMUGGLERS ARRESTED   On the heels of yesterday’s Washington Post report on Libyan weapons being smuggled into Egypt, the New York Times reports Egypt has arrested five small groups of smugglers transporting Libyan weapons. The disclosure of the arrests, made over the last several months, underscored the potential threat to security from the disorder following the revolutions across North Africa in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Meanwhile, the Post writes the U.S. will dispatch dozens of former military personnel to Libya to help track down and destroy the missing missiles. The weapons experts are part of a rapidly expanding $30 million program to secure Libya’s conventional weapons in the wake of the most violent conflict to occur in the Arab Spring.

ARAB-LIKE SPRING COMES TO UGANDA?

As skyrocketing prices and a devaluing currency stoke urban protests, Uganda may be the next country to see Arab Spring protests. Opposition leaders staged what they called “Egypt-style” protests in April, and since then lawyers, teachers, taxi drivers and traders have held various strikes and demonstrations. Government forces have clamped down violently at times, killing at least nine demonstrators since April and arresting hundreds, including top opposition leaders.

AFGHAN WAR: U.S. COMMANDER TALKS STRATEGY

U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen tells the Wall Street Journal he is considering shifting more forces to better protect the Afghan capital of Kabul from Pakistan-based insurgents. The insurgents have showed their strength in the capital in recent weeks with their daylong assault on the U.S. Embassy and the assassination of Afghanistan’s top peace negotiator and former president. Ambassador Ryan Crocker also spoke to the  Journal, citing what he sees as improvements in the U.S.’s relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

U.S. OFFERED CUBA A PRISONER SWAP

The AP is reporting that the U.S. offered to let a convicted Cuban spy return home in exchange for the release of an imprisoned American, but Cuba rebuffed the offer, citing U.S. officials.  The U.S. also indicated it would be willing to address other Cuban grievances after Havana had released imprisoned contractor Alan Gross, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Cuba rejected the offer, noting that the Cuban, Rene Gonzalez, already had served most of his sentence. It wanted pardons for at least some of the four other Cubans convicted with Gonzalez. U.S. officials said they would not consider pardons.  The December 2009 arrest of Gross, a Maryland native, has aggravated relations between the United States and Cuba just as the Obama administration was making tentative movements to ease decades of tension. Gross was caught bringing prohibited communications equipment into Cuba while on a democracy program financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development. In March, he was sentenced to 15 years for crimes against the state. 

U.K. MINISTER DUMPS OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS IN LONDON PARK

The  Daily Mirror (a tabloid, for what it’s worth) reports a Cabinet Office minister, Oliver Letwin, was spotted dumping official documents in garbage cans in London’s St. James Park on five different occasions. The Mirror says some of the papers related to al Qaeda and extraordinary rendition, but Letwin’s office  says none of the documents contained sensitive material.

CHINESE FIGHTER JET CRASH

Strong footage aired by China Central Television shows a Chinese fighter jet sputtering and then nose-diving into a field as the pilot ejects from the cockpit and falls to the ground at an air show. The pilot was unhurt and there were no injuries on the ground. 

PAN AM GAMES START TODAY — WITH DRONES AND BLACKHAWKS OVERHEAD

The Pan American Games begin today – in Mexico for the first time since 1975 – amid a nearly five-year-old drug war that’s prompted heavy security for the games. The  Los Angeles Times reports the 6,000 athletes competing in the games will be guarded by unmanned drones, infrared-equipped Black Hawks, hundreds of surveillance cameras and more than 11,000 police officers.

CUTTING COSTS: THE WIGS WILL GO!

The AP piece begins: “M’lord, I can see your bald patch.” Hundreds of Ireland’s judges abandoned their wigs for the first time in centuries Friday after the Irish Courts Service ended the rule requiring them to wear the British-style headgear. The move is designed to save the taxpayer money in debt-struck Ireland. Until now, each new judge has received a London-made, white-dyed horsehair wig that costs the state about euro 2,200 ($3,000) each. Ireland is voting Oct. 27 on a constitutional amendment that would give the government new power to cut judges’ salaries. Irish judges have worn wigs since the mid-17th century and kept the policy after Ireland won independence from Britain in 1922.

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