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July 2014 News Archive

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Protests in Macau - chipping in

28th August 2014 The Economist

Known for its casinos and conservative society, the city-state of Macau is a magnet for the rich in search of decadent fun. It is rarely the site of political protest. But on August 25th around 1,000 of Macau’s dealers and servers took to the streets to demand pay hikes and better working conditions. They are among those who support an unofficial referendum on Macau’s political future, which began on August 24th at polling stations and online.

Jason Chao, a 29-year-old software developer and the president of the Open Macau Society, a local pro-democracy group which helped sponsor the poll, hoped it would “help people draw connections between things like inflation and high cost of housing and the political system.” The poll asked residents if they support universal suffrage by 2019; and whether they have confidence in Macau’s current chief executive, Fernando Chui, who is running unopposed for re-election later this week, on August 31st—the same day the poll results are due to be released.

Protests in the city-state began in May, when 20,000 Macanese marched against a bill that would give lavish benefits to retiring officials. The government dropped it. Activists then began pushing for better government accountability, inspired by Hong Kong’s Occupy Central, a civil disobedience movement during which 800,000 people voted in a poll in June to demand “genuine” universal suffrage in the city’s next elections.

But on the first day of unofficial voting in Macau, police dashed hopes for reform when they arrested five polling-station volunteers, including Mr Chao, for failing to comply with a government order to halt the referendum. All five were released, but Mr Chao now faces a legal battle after prosecutors charged him with “serious disobedience with police". Maya Wang, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch, says the arrests appear to be politically motivated.

The former Portuguese colony is governed by China but maintains separate legal and economic systems, as Hong Kong does. The leaders of both territories are elected by appointed committees. The Chinese government’s local liaison offices in Hong Kong and Macau have denounced both informal referendums and insisted that administrative regions have “no authority” to organise such activities.

Polling will continue online in Macau until August 30th. As of August 26th, around 6,700 people had cast their votes, according to the event's official website. But low participation so far makes the project little more than a public-relations exercise. Unlike in Hong Kong’s case, the Chinese government has not promised Macanese residents eventual universal suffrage. Activists in Macau say their best chance for democracy is if it is granted to Hong Kong first, perhaps allowing Macau to negotiate similar rights.

The Chinese government has maintained that it would honour its promise of allowing the selection of Hong Kong’s next leader, in 2017, through universal suffrage, but has ruled out public nomination for candidates and insisted that only candidates who “love China” should be eligible. The government is expected to release a decision by next week on how Hong Kong’s next leader will be elected. Occupy Central leader Benny Tai said his group is prepared to protest if the decision does not meet international standards for democracy and if it allows no room for further negotiation. A short ferry ride away, more Macanese citizens will be watching developments with anticipation.

The return of Kate Bush

26 August 2014

On stage in London tonight in her first live show for 35 years:


The GCC-U.S. Relationship: A GCC Perspective

26 August 2014 The Middle East Policy Council - Abdullah K. Al Shayji

"The drift and incoherence of U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration has not gone unnoticed in the Arab world and the Middle East, especially among America's Arab Gulf allies. Former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman could have been channeling Gulf elites when he said: "Americans no longer command the ability to shape trends in the Middle East. Almost no one expects us to do so."1 The United States and its strategic allies in the Gulf have increasingly divergent visions of how regional politics should operate. The "marriage" between Washington and the Gulf has been long and beneficial to both sides, though not without its ups and downs. Neither side really wants a divorce, but Gulf elites increasingly worry that this episode of tensions is qualitatively different from those that came before. They fear that, this time, Washington not only disagrees with their view of the region, it does not care about their opinions, because America's strategic commitment to the Gulf, and the Middle East more generally, is no longer solid. For them, the "pivot to Asia" looks increasingly like a retreat from the Middle East. The renewed talk in American policy circles about "energy independence," this time with more credible evidence to back it up, just adds to Gulf worries that Washington has downgraded the Gulf region and that the pivot is really a retreat.

Moreover, there is a growing fear among America's allies in the region that the United States is preoccupied with its domestic agenda. This has been apparent since it pulled out of Iraq and is drawing down its forces in Afghanistan. As Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues, "Foreign policy begins at home….The biggest threat to the United States comes not from abroad but from within."2

The differences between the Obama administration's view of the region and those of its Gulf allies are not just about tactics. The more important splits are over basic strategic understandings about the most important threats to regional stability. Washington is turning a new page with Iran, concentrating on resolving the nuclear issue. While Gulf leaders would be happy to see Iran pushed back from a nuclear breakout capability, they worry that the price of such a deal is American acceptance of Iran's hegemonic regional ambitions. Tensions between the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, and the United States over policy toward Syria, Iraq and even Bahrain are part of a general divergence of views over the true nature of the Iranian threat. The fact that the recent success of ISIS in Iraq seems to have pushed Washington and Tehran closer together just confirms Gulf worries about a possible American-Iranian geopolitical deal in the region as a whole.

The Gulf states and Washington also have a profound disagreement over their assessments of the so-called Arab Spring. Gulf leaders generally see it as disastrous, leading to chaos and increased Iranian meddling in Arab affairs. Washington sees it as an imperfect but important step toward greater democracy in the Arab world. This difference is reflected most seriously in the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia and a number of Gulf states, with the UAE at the forefront (Qatar has a very different position), see the Muslim Brotherhood and the prospect of elected Islamist governments in Arab states as a serious threat to their own domestic security. They also worry that Muslim Brotherhood-led governments in the Arab world will make common cause with Iran. The United States was more than willing to deal with Mohammad Morsi, the elected Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, and criticized the Egyptian army for removing him from power (while never actually calling that removal what it was, a coup). Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait committed billions of dollars in aid to the military-backed Egyptian government once Morsi was ousted.

To some extent, the tensions in the American-Gulf relationship are structural, built into the nature of an alliance between a great power and its weaker allies. The weaker always worry that the stronger will ignore their interests, either by being too bellicose and drawing them into conflicts they seek to avoid or by making deals over their heads with potential adversaries. This dynamic has characterized relations between Washington and the Gulf in the past and has been managed by the parties. The current differences do not necessarily have to lead to a complete break in the U.S.-GCC relationship, but they need to be brought into the open. The United States needs not only to understand the depth of GCC concerns about the direction of its Middle East policy; it also needs to pay them more heed."

Thailand - Asia's crackdown hub

26 August 2014

The Chiang Mai city news is reporting that the junta will to enforce harsh measures regulating the advertising and promotion of alcohol, in a move that will affect thousands of businesses throughout the country.

Initially it appears that this crackdown is focused on Chiang Mai - but the rules appear to be intended nationwide.

Chiang Mai city news, along with around 30 hoteliers and members of the media, met with the army yesterday to clarify the nuances of the law and to be given warning as to their immediate enforcement.

Second Lieutenant Taweesak Jintajiranan explained that:

All alcohol products must carry health warnings and a list of ingredients.
Sales are banned to anyone under the age of 20.
Initiatives promoting alcohol – such as happy hours, free ice and mixers, and the use of ‘beer girls’ - are banned.
No drinking is allowed after midnight in bars or restaurants.
No sales of alcoholic beverages are allowed by automated machines, non-location-specific sales are banned (ie. no mobile bars or wandering around selling),
No alcohol logos are allowed on glasses, ashtrays and other paraphernalia.
Bars will not be allowed to display posters or bottles – even old ones – featuring such logos.
Bar staff cannot wear T-shirts with alcohol logos.
It is illegal to promote events such as wine and beer tastings.
Alcohol logos - or even images accepted as representative of brands, such as a deer head for Benmore or red stars for Heineken - are not allowed to be displayed in sponsorship or any kind of advertising or promotion.
Promoting alcohol through word of mouth is also illegal, so if a waiter is asked to recommend a particular brand of beer he would be breaking the law if he responds.
All printed photographs of glasses or bottles in the media must have visible brands and logos blurred.
No images of alcoholic drinks, including photography, and logos in any language which “invite” the public to drink alcohol are allowed.
For television, movies, video, electronic formats and all advertising mediums showing images, logos must not be bigger than 5 percent of all advertising space. The time in which the logo is shown cannot be more than 5 percent of total advertising time and no longer than two seconds. Advertising can only be done between 10pm and 5am, and the logos can only be shown at the end of the advertisement.
Adverts must include one of five permissible warning messages. According to our translations, they are as follows: Alcohol can cause cancer; alcohol can lower sexual abilities; alcohol may lead to paralysis or death; alcohol is the cause of argument and crime; alcohol damages families and societies.

Officials have also vowed to strictly enforce laws on alcohol advertising.

The authorities are using an existing law, the Alcohol Control Act of 2008, to crack down.

So let me see - in promoting happiness the junta is banning happy hours.

Tourists and residents will not be allowed to drink in bars, restaurants or clubs after midnight - thereby killing off much of the hospitality industry in Bangkok and other urban centers.

And if you are in a bar or restaurant the staff cannot make any recommendations and must remove all promotional material.

What happens when Everton - with Chang as their shirt sponsors are playing football on TV? What about the other extensive sports and community sponsorship in Thailand such as the Heineken Jazz Festival?

Ill-thought through and probably being rushed through by local army functionaries trying to impress their Junta bosses. Expect this to be rolled back and clarified over the next month or so. Or it could just be the beginning of a much more extensive crackdown.

UAE's Libya airstrikes show extent of regional conflict

26 August 2014

Twice in the last seven days, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have secretly launched airstrikes against Islamist-allied militias battling for control of Tripoli, Libya, four senior American officials have told the New York Times, in a major escalation of a regional power struggle set off by Arab Spring revolts.

The United States, the officials said, was caught by surprise. Which may indicate just how disconnected the USA is to events in much of the Middle East.

Egypt and the Emirates are both close allies and military partners of the USA yet they acted without informing Washington.

Egyptian officials explicitly denied to American diplomats that their military played any role in the operation. The UAE authorities have not commented.

The Guardian in its analysis noted that "shaken by the turbulence of the Arab spring, the UAE has emerged as the most assertive of the conservative Gulf monarchies. It does not share the traditional reticence of Saudi Arabia, especially when it comes to combatting what both now see as the most dangerous challenge to the status quo – the rise of Islamists at home and abroad."

The first signs of the UAE's new role emerged in 2011 when the UAE joined NATO air operations in Libya and backed rebels fighting to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. The UAE chose its allies on a regional and tribal basis, singling out militias in Zintan in the west. Qatar, its Gulf neighbour and rival, funnelled its support to Islamist brigades, especially in Misrata.

The UAE, alongside Saudi Arabia, is a leading supporter of Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi, who ousted the democratically elected but unpopular Mohamed Morsi last summer – a grievous blow to Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood that delighted all the Gulf states except Qatar. The Emiratis have since bankrolled Egypt and advised it on economic reform – with the help of Tony Blair.

On the domestic front, the UAE has cracked down hard on dissent and the threat of Brotherhood "subversion". Emiratis also point to concerns about Libyan involvement with Isis in Iraq and Syria – these days an even bigger worry than the Brotherhood.

So far the air attacks do not appear to have not been effective: Tripoli airport and the capital as a whole are now under the control of Islamist fighters. The US, UK and France who went to war to overthrow Gaddafi in 2011 now are insisting that military support for Libya's warring factions will not help restore desperately-needed stability and that only dialogue can succeed. The Emiratis and Egyptians clearly disagree.

There is also a regional powerplay at stake with Turkey and Qatar appearing to support the Islamists. US officials said the government of Qatar has already provided weapons and support to the Islamist-aligned forces inside Libya, so the new strikes represent a shift from a battle of proxies to direct involvement. It could also set off a regional arms race, although arguably that has been going on for some years.

“In every arena — in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Libya, even what happened in Egypt — this regional polarization, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, or U.A.E., on one side and Qatar and Turkey on the other, has proved to be a gigantic impediment to international efforts to resolve any of these crisis,” said Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Middle East specialist at the State Department.

The officials said the U.A.E. — which hosts one of the most effective air forces in the Arab world, thanks to American equipment and training — provided the pilots, warplanes and aerial refueling planes necessary for the fighters to bomb Tripoli out of bases in Egypt.

Libya's government has repeatedly called for the militia groups to disband and join the national army. But so far, few have shown a willingness to disarm.

More: Libya Dawn takes upper hand in civil war, as regional powers intervene - Middle East Eye
         Libya could be just the beginning for a newly proactive Gulf - The Guardian

The 10 things a perfect city needs

25 August 2014 The Guardian

(Love this article - have wondered for some time what would be a suitable repost to the annual Monocle perfect city nonsense. Maybe we also have to get away from the idea that the perfect citys needs to be large, or a country or regional capital). Could the perfect city be a Malaga, a Folkestone, a Newcastle (too cold); a Portland or a Catania?

Anyway read on:)

For the Economist, it's Melbourne, Vienna and Toronto; for Monocle magazine, it is Melbourne, Tokyo and Copenhagen; for the global recruitment consultancy Mercer, the index of "most liveable cities" begins with Vienna, Zurich and Auckland.

When I read these lists, which are nearly always topped by cities in Australia, Canada and Scandinavia, I imagine them being compiled by a terrified, monogamous young couple dressed head to toe in Uniqlo or Gap. Their typical criteria – low crime rates, cheap private schools and access to world-class outdoor sports – always seem to match those of the stereotypical modern salaryman, not the complex real-world individual.

The Economist's 2014 Liveability Ranking, released last week, reported a five-year fall in overall quality of city life, primarily driven by political unrest. More than half the cities surveyed had seen a fall in living standards, due to "heightened unrest in the wake of the global economic crisis, which has undermined many of the developmental gains that cities may have experienced through public policy and investment".

Though you can see their point when it comes to Damascus, Tripoli or Donetsk, equating political instability with negativity is perverse. The unrest that has swept many cities in the so-called emerging market countries, from Rio to Kiev to Istanbul, is actually a measure of how the new middle classes in these countries aspire to make things better.

Speaking from experience, Istanbul during the Taksim Square protest and Athens during the indignado camp of 2011 became, momentarily, better places to live. You could argue that New York City after the Occupy movement experienced a positive change in social atmosphere, a democratisation of artistic space, and a revival of its radical mojo.

George Orwell once imagined an ideal pub – which he called the Moon Under Water – that embodied the 10 key qualities no real pub possessed, from barmaids who call you "Dear" to serving stout on draught. In that spirit, and as an antidote to league tables that judge cities against Ikea-like qualities, I will describe the city I would like to live in.

First, it is near the sea, or another body of water warm enough to swim in.

Second, it has entire neighbourhoods designed around hipster economics. Though currently maligned, hipsters are crucial signifiers of a successful city economy. Their presence shows it is possible to live on your wits even as neoliberalism stagnates. Such neighbourhoods (I am thinking of Little Five Points in Atlanta) typically contain: vintage clothes stores, a micro-brewery, a gay club, burger joints, coffee bars not owned by global chains, and a lot of small workshops for creative microbusinesses. In the ideal form, these areas are home both to hipsters and ethnically diverse poor communities, who refrain from fighting each other.

Third, the finance sector has to be big enough to mobilise global capital and local savings, but not so big that it allows the global elite to run things through their usual mixture of aristocratic men's club and organised crime.

Fourth, and this is crucial, it has to have theatres. Not just big ones, such as the Vienna State Opera, where the elite can parade their jewellery and their furs, but tiny theatres, in warehouses or open courtyards (this ideal city is somewhere sunny). The city has to have a recognisable demos: you have to be able to go somewhere and, as in the Paris of Zola's Nana, point across the stalls to celebrities and statespeople, misbehaving in public.

Fifth, bicycle lanes and trams. The most touching thing about the Chinese city of Tianjin, when I first visited in the mid-2000s, was its bike lanes separated by concrete kerbs from the traffic: on cold nights, young couples would ride home side by side holding hands. Equally important to trams and bike supremacy is a heavily regulated taxi system, as efficient as Uber but under the control of old-style London working-class cabbies, who've been persuaded to give women and ethnic minorities equal access to the trade, and who are banned from giving you their opinion.

Sixth, a massive ecosystem of gay, lesbian, transgender, BDSM and plain old sleazy heterosexual hangouts: clubs, bars, dancehalls, cabarets and all the dim-lit alleyways and grassy knolls inbetween. For it is a truth unacknowledged by those who make the official league tables that Joe Corporate, with his squash racquet and sober suit, and Joanna Corporate, with her nanny and pushchair, really want to live many other secret and parallel lives, and the ideal city is one big, analogue version of Craigslist.

Seventh – like Orwell's mythic pub – it must be happy with its Victorian and Edwardian architecture, and with anything salvagable that used to be a factory or warehouse. Harlem in New York, Fitzroy in Melbourne, Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin all derive an intangible positive atmosphere from their combination of brick, ornament, renovation and re-use.

Eighth, it must be ethnically mixed and tolerant and hospitable to women. Some of the "safest" cities on these world league tables are actually ones where women can't live an equal or modern life, because whole areas are locked down by religious conservatism, or harsh policing of minorities. The city of Gijon, in northern Spain, has a government that plasters the streets with ever more inventive propaganda against sexual harassment, domestic violence and general sexism. Stuff like that.

Ninth, any slums have to be what UN Habitat calls "slums of hope" – staging posts for upward mobility, self-policing and non-chaotic (ideally you would have no slums at all).

Tenth, indispensably, is a democratic political culture the inhabitants are proud of, that calls them regularly to the streets, to loud arguments in small squares, keeps their police demilitarised and in check, and allows them to assimilate the migrants that will inevitably flow inwards, and to self-identify as products of the city as they themselves navigate the global labour market.

As with Orwell's pub, no one city has all these qualities. Athens, Lima and Barcelona would come close if they could sort out corrupt political oligarchies, racism, sexism and, of course, poverty. Vienna lacks diversity, downtown Melbourne needs a better theatre scene and in truth the sea there is bloody freezing.

If you could cut and paste everything east of Bondi Junction on to London's Soho and Barcelona's Raval, giving the whole city a feminist government recruited in Scandinavia, you might come close. But you can't so you have to dream. And remember it was the imagination of those who built the best of the world's cities that made these global league tables possible: not the housing market or planning regulations but exalted visions of urban space transformed. So dream on.

Paul Mason is economics editor of Channel 4 News. Follow him @paulmasonnews

Etihad's control of Darwin Air questioned at last

25 August 2014

Sometimes the Swiss do appear to be a bit slow.

The Swiss federal office for civil aviation has at long last realised that Etihad's one third share of Darwin Airline may in fact give the Uae based airline defacto control of the company.

I wonder what the big clue was. Maybe the fact that the airline and the fleet of airplanes had been re-branded Etihad regional.

Darwin Airline has now been given a deadline of September 30 by FOCA to provide details of how it wants to adjust its company structure to comply with regulations that state all Swiss carriers need to be both majority owned and controlled by Swiss or EU citizens.

According to a report by Swiss business newspaper Handelszeitung, Darwin, operating as Etihad Regional, is not considered by FOCA to be meeting this requirement with its proposed shareholder and company structure.

Based on a review of the cooperation agreements between Etihad and Darwin, FOCA believes that the proposed structure of these agreements could lead to control of Darwin/Etihad Regional by Etihad which would violate Swiss law. It has notified Darwin accordingly and set a deadline for a revision of the proposed arrangements with Etihad.

FOCA will review changes proposed by the two carriers again at that time but Reymond said that the authority would consider all options including a possible revocation of Darwin's air operator certificate should it find that Darwin's ownership or control structure would violate legal requirements.

The Thai junta’s anti-majoritarian rule

Newly instituted laws show a disdain for electoral politics and will reduce power of majority voters

23 August 2014 by Puangthong Pawakapan for AlJazeera America

On Aug. 20, Thailand’s rubberstamp parliament appointed junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha as the country’s prime minister, paving the way for the formation of a new interim government. In late July, nearly two months after ousting former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s democratically elected government in a bloodless coup, the military junta running Thailand declared an interim constitution that gave Prayuth sweeping powers. The unconstitutional dispensation of power has drawn comparisons to 2006’s military takeover, which tried and failed to ban then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his political party from Thai politics. As in 2006, the 2014 coup alleged Yingluck’s rule was corrupt. The latest attempt similarly promises to end corrupt politics in all forms and drastically reform the country’s electoral democracy.

While Prayuth’s appointment by a legislature he handpicked is simply procedural, the ongoing constitutional politicking suggests a dangerous backward slide into the kind of authoritarianism not seen in the country since the 1970s. The coup leaders have in essence forced Thailand back to being a bureaucratic polity, where the military, bureaucrats and business elite maintain unchecked political power over elected representatives.

The constitution already awards Prayuth the power to issue orders and suppress protests. It also allows the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – the governing body formed after the coup – to claim that its own power is lawful while its opponents are violating law, peace and order.

There is a historical precedent for the NCPO’s totalitarian power grab. After staging a similar coup in 1959, military strongman Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat instituted martial law; section 17 of the 1959 constitution carried statutes similar to section 44 of the new constitution. Though he ruled over a dark time for Thai democracy, Sarit was popular among the people for revitalizing the Thai economy. The NCPO hopes to replicate Sarit’s model by galvanizing popular support.

However, unlike Sarit, Prayuth has yet to earn the respect and awe of the public. For example, while critics in Thailand have largely remained quiet for fear of repercussions, anti-coup activists on social media continue to poke fun at the general’s lack of charisma. The NCPO’s repressive measures against peaceful anti-coup activities — barring people from eating sandwiches, reading George Orwell’s classic novel “1984” or showing symbols of resistance such as a three-finger salute in public — have drawn public ridicule. Moreover, unlike in the 1960s, Thais today understand participatory politics and are well aware of their political and economic rights. Sooner rather than later, such stringent suppression will likely face popular challenges.

The junta’s constitution reveals its strong distaste for politicians and electoral politics. This is unsurprising: It was drafted by members of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) who were singlehandedly chosen by the junta; of 200 NLA members, 106 are military generals. It bars members of political parties from being appointed to the Cabinet until they have been party members for more than three years. It also prohibits all active politicians and voters from participating in the country’s future design, leaving political power exclusively in the hands of the military and top bureaucrats.

Such anti-democratic sentiments and distrust of politicians, particularly among the urban middle class, have long dominated Thai politics. The trend began in the late 1980s, when then-Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan’s Cabinet was ridiculed as a highly corrupt “buffet.” The military toppled his government in 1991 after two and a half years, to little public opposition. Since 1992, several elected governments have faced corruption scandals and were similarly forced out of office before serving full terms.

Military intervention has traditionally been seen as an effective step to end corruption. For example, protests led by the yellow-shirted People’s Alliance for Democracy repeatedly urged the military to intervene and end entrenched corruption in Thaksin’s government, a wish that was fulfilled by the 2006 coup. However, despite concerted efforts by the judiciary, army, Democrat Party and media to ban Thaksin and his allies, Thaksinite parties made a comeback, winning a parliamentary majority in the 2007 and 2011 elections.

“Even if it strengthens check-and-balance mechanisms on corrupt politicians as promised, the junta's reforms will likely erode Thailand’s electoral democracy by reducing the power of majority voters. ”

Popular support from rural communities played a large role in ensuring Thaksinite parties’ electoral successes. This is another familiar political grievance: Rural voters are generally viewed as unqualified to vote, prone to selling their votes in exchange for short-term personal gains. Conservative elites have long alleged the rural regions of northern and northeastern Thailand are susceptible to “vote buying.” (During last year’s protests, the anti-Thaksin movement led by Democrat leader Suthep Thuagsuban, which paved the way for the latest coup, loudly echoed these sentiments and managed to obstruct early elections planned for February.)

Most of these allegations are not true. A number of recent studies confirm (PDF) that vote buying is no longer a decisive factor in election results and that voters are increasingly motivated instead by development projects. For example, schemes such as universal healthcare coverage and rural-based funding projects have significantly enhanced the livelihood and political participation of local people. But inflammatory political rhetoric from Bangkok-based intelligentsia and media continues to paint a picture of rural voters easily bribed by populist policies, which in turn fuels the middle class’s distrust in electoral politics.

The junta has taken several steps to pre-empt future populist politicians and policies — at all levels. On July 3, shortly after the coup, it ordered its legal arm to include permanent constitutional measures preventing populist policies that it claimed could endanger the Thai economy. On July 15, the NCPO issued another order suspending local administrative elections, including provincial, sub-district and Bangkok’s district council elections. Instead, it appointed government officials to replace members of these agencies when the current officials’ terms expire.

The 1997 constitution and 1999’s Decentralization Act mandate local agencies to provide public services to their constituents. Research shows that their work has improved local services and the quality of living, as well as increased public participation. But the media, anti-democracy academics and the anti-graft agencies continue to lament widespread corruption and nepotism in community-based projects run by local administrative units.

Prayuth plans to undertake yearlong political reforms and reconciliation before holding a new election in late 2015. Even if it strengthens check-and-balance mechanism on corrupt politicians as promised, the reforms Prayuth is trying to create will certainly erode Thailand’s electoral democracy by reducing the power of majority voters. It will ensure that rural voters will not have a say in who represents them in government. Unfortunately for these voters, the military regime will remain stable as long as its suppressive machinery is intact. The prosperity the junta promises to create will serve elites and the urban middle class in Bangkok. It will also deepen the precarious social rifts in Thailand.

Puangthong Pawakapan is associate professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand.

Coup leader, army chief, prime minister

21 August 2014

As of today Thailand has a new prime minister. He is not a party politician. He was not elected. He is also the head of the army, the head of the NCPO and the leader of Thailand's most recent coup.

He was profiled by the Hindu newspaper back in 2010 when he was appointed army chief:

"Thailand’s king on Thursday officially appointed a hardliner as the country’s next army chief, deemed a politically powerful post in the coup—prone kingdom. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in his capacity as head of state, signed a royal command appointing the current deputy army chief Prayuth Chan—ocha as the new army chief, television reports said.

He will replace the current army chief, General Anupong Paochinda, on October 1. The appointment was part of the annual army and civil service reshuffle.

Gen. Prayuth is considered a hardliner within the military, and was the leading proponent of using force against the anti—government protestors who laid siege to parts of Bangkok in April and May.

Political analysts said Gen. Prayuth’s appointment might reduce the likelihood of further street violence in the near future.

“With hardliners in the military, the establishment is strong now,” said Chaturon Chaisaeng, a veteran politician with close ties to the opposition. “In the very near future, I don’t see much likelihood of violence.” General Anupong put Gen. Prayuth in charge of implementing the main offensives against the protest sites. Altogether 91 people died, including 11 soldiers and police, and more than 1,800 were injured in clashes and street battles during the demonstrations.

Gen. Prayuth is seen as a staunch royalist and opponent of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon—turned—politician who was the main financier of the protest movement. Mr. Thaksin has been a fugitive since 2008 to avoid a two—year prison sentence for abuse of power. He was prime minister for two terms between 2001 and September 2006, when he was ousted in a coup. Thailand has had 18 coups since 1932, when a group of Thai officers overthrew the absolute monarchy and installed a democracy under a constitutional monarchy. Like Gen. Anupong, Gen. Prayuth is a protege of General Prem Tinsulanonda, a former Army chief, who was prime minister between 1980 and 1988 and now heads the king’s privy council."

Thailands' Asian values - looking inward

20 August 2014 The Economist

Sam is the son of immigrants from China, who came to Thailand early in the 20th century. Sitting on a bench facing Bangkok’s Chinatown, he speaks in American-inflected English to tell of a job he worked at Paramount’s studios in Hollywood of the 1960s, back when Sean Connery was the real James Bond. The Chao Phraya flows by in the background, the “River of Kings”, artery to a nation whose wealth is built on trade with generations of foreigners. Wat Arun is a short distance upriver: a famous temple pieced together at the start of the Chakri dynasty from broken Chinese porcelain; also the Royal Palace; and then the hospital where Thailand’s king, an ailing 86-year-old, spends his days.

For the whole country a period of inward-looking inspection and great uncertainty lies ahead. The king is unwell, the crown prince unpopular and their kingdom is unquiet. An old prophecy holds that the Chakri dynasty will only last nine generations. King Bhumibol Adulyadej happens to be Rama IX. In May a coup brought to an end a series of elected governments that had been run by a clan of civilians. The army men in charge of the new dictatorship say their aim is to build a “Thai-style democracy”. Their intervention looks more interested in reviving a system of tutelary democracy, in which a bunch of royalist elites control the state, though the new regime denies it. Their alternative explanation, based on a notion of Thai uniqueness, seems to have been pulled out of a hat like a rabbit.

There is an obvious resemblance to the concept of “Asian values”, such as were espoused by Mahathir Mohamad, who ran Malaysia for 22 years. That idea tends to preclude robust democracy, and to justify itself on the back of economic development. It has proven useful to governments like Singapore’s and these days its champions tend to point approvingly to China. Internationally, Thailand’s current experiment with dictatorship, or so goes the conventional view, will benefit China, at the expense of relations with America and Japan.

The leaders of the coup have been hoping to play a “China card” in their game with the Americans. This takes the form of a threat: that they will seek closer ties with China, if America persists with its objections to the coup. And so they talk of upgrading ties with China “at all levels”. The Chinese leadership, for its part, has lent moral support to the Thai generals by using the conditions which led to their coup as an example of the chaos that comes with “Western-style” democracy.

There have also been signs of closer economic ties between China and Thailand. Weeks after the coup China Mobile, which is owned by the Chinese state, bought into True Corp, a big telecoms firm backed by Dhanin Chearavanont, a Thai billionaire who is of Chinese descent (as are nearly all of Thailand’s billionaires). The junta has sanctioned two high-speed railways worth $23 billion that are seen as vital future links to China. And it has waived visa fees for Chinese tourists.

But how real are China’s gains? The story has plenty of appealing elements for both governments, both politically and economically, but it also has the outline of a myth.

While it may take longer than usual, eventually Thai public opinion is bound to turn against the junta. The Chinese government is well aware of this and will see little benefit in taking a long position on a short-term condition. Better relations with China are likely in the near future, but the Chinese will not want to invest too much in a regime whose future is deeply uncertain. Its only source of legitimacy is its blessing by the monarchy.

Thailand’s military officials have “a deep distrust of China”, notes Paul Chambers an expert on the Thai army at the Institute of South-East Asian Affairs, which is affiliated with Chiang Mai University. After all, says Mr Chambers, “it was China which helped subsidise the Communist insurgency against Thailand’s constitutional monarchy from 1965 to 1983”. That is some time ago, but the period gave shape to today’s army and to the thinking of the ageing arch-royalists who lead it.

Thailand’s upper and middle classes may have fallen out of love with democracy. But in every other way they choose America over China. They fervently want their offspring to get into Harvard and Eton and are unlikely to replace their love for America and Britain with a similar affection for China. Even if the soldiers were to stick around for years, Thais emigrating to China are likely to remain the aberration; relatively few of the kingdom’s students will head for universities in China.

But surely with a bit of help from the generals, China’s vast economy could come to the aid of Thailand’s, to help nudge along a new ideological ally? Even here the strength of connection between the two countries disappoints. The busy lanes of Bangkok’s Chinatown are already filled with imports from China, as are indeed most markets on earth. But they represent only part of total consumption, and not what makes Thailand’s economy tick. These days it relies instead on manufactured exports, and China can take only limited amounts of them.

If Thailand’s economy could be said to belong to any foreign country, it would be Japan’s. In the mid-1990s a new Japanese factory opened in Thailand every three days. Even now roughly two-thirds of every dollar invested in Thailand comes from Japan. After floods devastated Thailand’s industrialised core in 2011, Japanese firms poured in nearly $30 billion to rebuild their favourite production base in Asia. That is more investment in three years than everything that American firms have poured in since the Vietnam war—combined with everything Chinese firms have ever invested.

The backbone of the Thai economy cannot be made much more Chinese without incurring enormous costs. It is hard to see why anyone would wish to try. Chinese labour-intensive industries have little incentive to move to Thailand, whose economy is no bigger than that of China’s Hunan province but whose workers enjoy much higher wages. For the foreseeable future, most of China’s industrial output will be produced in China and very much of it will be sold there too; the size of America’s consumer market might lure Chinese production at some point, but not Thailand’s.

America has a longer uninterrupted relationship with Thailand than with any other Asian country—181 years. At times it resembles a marriage of nostalgia, surviving on memories of a happier past. But if America were to lose its role as Thailand’s chief patron, it would not be because China displaced it. People looking for a concrete expression of America’s waning influence point to its former consular building in the southern Thai city of Songkhla, which is now home to the Chinese consulate. Others stress the waning influence of the king himself. When the army ousted Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 the embassy was still chummy with the old Thai establishment—the American ambassador used to jam with the jazz-loving king. The Americans enjoy no such rapport with his courtiers.

According to a recent survey on “Power and Order in Asia” published by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, respondents in Thailand were the least convinced of any in the region that American leadership in Asia would benefit their country. Only respondents from China were more opposed to the American “pivot” to Asia.

The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was founded in Bangkok in 1967, is going to be at the heart of any united front that might emerge against China’s claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea. But Thailand itself is not a territorial claimant. And so, unlike most of ASEAN (all but Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia), Thailand does not automatically fall in line. John Brandon, a director at the America-based Asia Foundation, says America is treading a fine line: wanting to chastise the junta for staging the coup, while not alienating Thailand by making it the “odd man out” of its strategic rebalancing in Asia.

The junta really has no China card to play. Even if it did, playing it would be grossly impractical. Nonetheless Western governments have fallen into the grip of a genuine fear that Thailand could fall into China’s orbit. The consequence is a wash: an anti-coup posture on the part of the Western countries—but no willingness to follow it up with meaningful action.

The Observer view on Obama and the limits of presidential power

16 August 2014 Observer editorial

Six years ago, when Barack Obama ran for president, he did so on the back of two audacious claims – he would be the man to end the war in Iraq and he would heal the nation's glaring social and political divisions. Last week – in two disparate places, worlds apart, Ferguson, Missouri, and Iraq's Mount Sinjar – Obama was reminded, once again, of how difficult it has been to keep his campaign trail promises.

While Obama was able to bring US troops home from Iraq, he, like so many recent US presidents, has been sucked into yet another conflict there – and has found himself prisoner to events on the ground that he can only marginally control.

The challenge of healing America's political and social division has run even deeper and been far less successful. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Centre: "Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades."

This mistrust is reshaping American politics and American governance. Politically engaged liberals and conservatives are more likely to see the other as threatening the "nation's wellbeing"; they are more likely to prefer living among fellow ideologues and are less inclined to compromise. This polarisation and the refusal to reach across the aisle (a phenomenon, it must be said, exhibited almost exclusively by Republicans) explains much of the dysfunction in Washington today.

On the issue of race, which is America's original sin, the election of an African American president has not done nearly enough to improve race relations. By some accounts, Obama's victory made it worse. And last week's events in Ferguson are a reminder that the social inequities that challenge African Americans, from geographic segregation and economic inequality to police targeting and rampant bias, both conscious and unconscious, remain a pervasive element of US society.

All this might seem like the ultimate indictment of Obama's presidency. On the surface, it is an indication of how little he has been able to accomplish and how unfulfilled his promises remain, nearly six years into his presidency. There are plenty on the right – and some on the left – who have and will make just this charge. But, if anything, it should be a more pungent reminder of precisely how little power the US president actually enjoys and the extent to which he or she is constrained by forces far outside their control.

This might seem like a surprising conclusion, particularly when one considers the extraordinary pomp and circumstance that surround American presidents. Obama's every utterance and action is analysed to the minutest detail. When tragedies such as the shooting in Ferguson occur, no one looks to the speaker of the house to calm the nation. The next presidential election is more than two years away and already newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic are filled with speculation about Hillary Clinton and her potential Republican opponents. But this omnipresent focus on the presidency offers a distorted view of American politics.

To be sure, US presidents are far from powerless. They can issue executive orders and implement federal laws, often as they see fit. They can influence debates in Congress, drive national attention toward a specific policy agenda and, perhaps most importantly, begin wars in faraway lands.

But just because a US president can wield America's awesome military might to start wars doesn't mean they can necessarily end them satisfactorily. Even while occupying Iraq with more than 100,000 troops, the US could not force Iraqi leaders to bend to their will. Obama has dealt with similar frustrations in trying to handle Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, even as more than 1,000 US troops have died to help keep him in office.

If Obama wanted to send troops to Iraq to wipe out the Islamic State (and it's unlikely he does), he would face sizable domestic opposition; he would be distracted from his oft-expressed goal of focusing on "nation-building" at home and, above all, he would have little reason to believe that such an action would bring success. It was hard enough just to get Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to surrender power, which happened last week, and only after Isis threatened more military gains.

At home, Obama can preach the message of unity over and over – he did it again, ironically, last week when commenting on the situation in Ferguson. But there is little reason to believe it would have a dramatic impact. Indeed, the more he talks about reconciliation and pushes his political priorities, the more likely he is to receive a negative response fromRepublican partisans, even if they agree with him on the specifics. The American "bully pulpit" is often described as a tool for rallying the country, but it can just as often be a tool for furthering divisions. Moreover, the US president can lay out his issue agenda, travel the country advocating for it, cajole members of Congress, and if the opposition party wants nothing to do with it, then the president has no lever to force them to do his bidding. That's one fact this president and his Democratic allies need no reminder of.

This is even truer on the issue of race, where the divides among whites and blacks are so ingrained that it would take a national exorcism to rid America of them. For all the millions who viewed Obama's election with great pride and believed that it signalled that the US was on the path to racial reconciliation, there was a significant minority that viewed Obama's win as a reason for trepidation and fear.

Obama played his part in forming the mythology that exists around America's highest office. In his inaugural bid for the White House, he fed sky-high expectations about what he could achieve as president; as things didn't work out as he and his supporters hoped, he is now trying feverishly to roll back that perception. But without raising such hopes – and if he had been more honest about the challenges that come with implementing "hope and change" – Obama would likely still be a member of the US Senate.

Obama's presidency has been anything but six years of missed opportunities. For the passage of healthcare reform alone, his legacy is clear. But if he can remind his fellow citizens of both the limits of US power and the folly of believing one man (or woman) can singlehandedly remake a nation of 300 million distinct souls, he would be doing a genuine service to both America and the world.

Dubai360 launched

13 August 2014

Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of Dubai Executive Council has revealed, through his Instagram and Twitter accounts, the soft launch of Dubai360.com that is intended to showcase full 360 degrees virtual tours of Dubai.

On his Instagram page, Sheikh Hamdan posted: "Soon, we will launch Dubai360.com, the world’s leading immersive virtual city tour. It is a groundbreaking website that will enable you to explore Dubai from anywhere in the world."

Integrating the latest technologies, the website presents fully interactive 360 degree panoramic timelapse video showcasing Dubai’s cultural and modern attractions.

Debuting on the website, Dubai360.com is a 12-minute long timelapse of the runway activities at Dubai International Airport - one of the world’s busiest international airports.

Viewers can control the direction and zoom of the camera as the time-lapse plays, virtually exploring the airport in an unprecedented manner.

In the Dubai International Airport time-lapse, viewers are offered the chance to transport themselves to the very center of one of the world’s busiest airports.

They can see planes from more than 125 different airlines flying to and from over 260 destinations across six continents.

With nearly 1,000 aircraft movements captured over the 24 hour period, there is non-stop action taking place regardless of which direction the viewer chooses to look.

Featuring groundbreaking technology, the Dubai360 project will be the world’s largest and highest quality virtual city tour that exclusively uses fully interactive and immersive 360 degree panoramic photo, timelapse and video content.

I do hope the site remembers that it is the people that build and make Dubai; the city is so much more than the buildings that people live and work in.

The perils of cricket

10 August 2014

Stuart Broad keeping his eyes on the ball in the Old Trafford test against India yesterday. Picture from Reuters.

US just not sure who to bomb in the Middle East anymore

10 August 2014 Pan Arabian Enquirer (the best satire is the closest to reality)

WASHINGTON, US – An exhausted looking Barack Obama told US citizens Friday that after weeks of meetings with senior military officials he was still “mostly clueless” about who he should bomb in the Middle East. The statement days after US forces began air strikes against Islamic State forces in Iraq, despite their opposition to Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad, who the US also consider an enemy and have considered bombing.

“People of America, up till now, choosing which bad guy from the Arab world to drop hundreds of thousands of tons of explosives on was a simple, clear cut decision,” he said in a live televised address. “But making a choice about who to unleash the full force of US military might has become fraught with difficulties.”

The US president also revealed that “bombing the shit” out of Libya in the final months of Colonel Gaddafi’s rule hadn’t “exactly resulted in the peaceful, democratic state we had been hoping for”, while America’s involvement in Iraq could result in a new US bombing campaign “every four to five years”.

“Sure, we may be bombing ISIS now, but just as they emerged from the ashes of Saddam’s dictatorship, which we bombed the crap out of, whatever comes next will inevitably have to be bombed to fuck in the future,” he said, adding that concerns regarding the effectiveness of US bombing in the Middle East were “irresponsible”.

Ending the speech on a lighter note, Obama joked that he was “just pleased to have bought shares in Raytheon”.


Etihad takes effective control of Alitalia

8 August 2014

Abu Dhabi based Etihad has concluded its 49% investment deal with AlItalia.

The agreement was finally signed this morning and exceeds the investment levels expected with a total $2.35bn injection to build what Etihad described as a “reinvigorated Alitalia as a competitive sustainably profitable business.”

Speaking at a press conference in Rome this afternoon, the Abu Dhabi airline’s president James Hogan said that Etihad would become a minority shareholder with 49% with a €560million ($750m) investment.

Etihad has also taken over AlItalia’s Heathrow landing slot rights and leased them back to the Italian national carrier as part of the investment.

Its total investment also includes €112.5 million ($151m) to acquire a 75 per cent interest in Alitalia Loyalty Spa, which operates MilleMiglia, the airline’s frequent flier programme.

The 51% core shareholders have added a further €300 million ($402m) of investment and an additional €598m ($802) of financial restructuring (basically a debt waiver) of short and medium term debt has come from the Italian financial institutions along with a further €300million of new facilities.

The transaction is due to be completed on December 31, 2014.

The Italian airline had earlier this year tried to secure more capital from Air France-KLM, a shareholder, but a disagreement over debt restructuring led to the French-Dutch group allowing its 25 per cent stake to be diluted to 7 per cent.

James Hogan had met protests when he arrived in Italy on Tuesday to conclude the negotiations and was asked at the press conference if he realized what was in store. “We have asked all the hard questions already. It is going to be tough but it will result in a win-win-win deal for Italy, for Alitalia and for Etihad,” he said.

Just worth noting here that Etihad flew 11.5 million passengers last year to Alitalia’s 24 million.

Hogan continued: “For Etihad Airways, this is a strategic, long-term commercial investment. On completion, we are committed, with the other shareholders, to build a reinvigorated Alitalia as a competitive, sustainable and profitable business that can operate successfully in the global air travel market. We believe in Alitalia. It is great brand with enormous potential. With the right level of capitalisation and a strong, strategic business plan, we have confidence the airline can be turned around and repositioned as a premium global airline once again.”

Hogan said that AlItalia would be undergoing a full rebranding in the first quarter of next year as the first stage of the three-year turnaround plan. “Ultimately it has to work as a business, and the goal is for sustainable profitability from 2017.”

What is clear is that Etihad's series of investments in loss making carriers must be a major distraction on management time. Is etihad truly able to lead change where the airlines' own management have failed? Alitalia is similar to British Airways owned Iberia in that it needs dramatic change if it is ever to become a profitable airline.

The investment in Alitalia is the biggest to date that it has ever done; far larger than the Air Berlin and Jet Airways investments. But Etihad has so far failed to turnaround Air Berlin. And Alitalia's unions and Italian labour laws are going to make change at Alitalia a long term headache.

Gabriele Del Torchio, Alitalia’s CEO said: “This is an excellent outcome for Alitalia. We have had to take some tough decisions in a very robust negotiation process but we have achieved the consensus we require to create the right shape and size for Alitalia in the future.”

Hogan's long term vision appears to be to "knit together our network with those of our existing equity partners, including airberlin, Air Serbia, Etihad Regional, Jet Airways, Virgin Australia, Air Seychelles, Darwin (Etihad Regional) and Aer Lingus, and of course our strategic codeshare." Remember that Etihad does not have a majority stake in any of these airlines.

An early step in the strategic change will be to reduce some short haul flights and expand long haul – including an increase in frequency between Abu Dhabi and Rome and the start of flight between the UAE capital and Milan which Etihad said will open up “a range of new connecting opportunities for passengers of both airlines”.

A quick look at Alitalia’s long-haul network (routes over 6,000 kilometres) shows lots of room for growth considering Italy’s ranking of 11th among global economies (Source: IMF) in 2013. Just 14 long-haul services are operated non-stop from Italian airports to 11 destinations, with only Tokyo Narita served from three airports. Only the Rome to New York service is served with at least two daily flights.

•From Milan (MXP) to New York JFK and Tokyo Narita
•From Rome (FCO) to Boston, Buenos Aires, Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles, Miami, New York JFK, Osaka Kansai, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo Guarulhos, Tokyo Narita, Toronto Pearson
•From Venice (VCE) to Tokyo Narita

Japan is currently the only country served in Asia (Osaka and Tokyo) with Alitalia not operating any services to such important economies as China or India. Out of the 54 weekly flights from Asian airports to Rome, Alitalia’s two Japanese routes account for just 12 of them.

How much red ink will be shed before that happens and how many jobs are lost in unknown. But based on evidence to date it will not be pretty.

What the investment may do is keep Emirates out of further growth in Italy - and in other markets - as European governments seek to protect their remaining investment and to show goodwill to their new investors.

Does it make sense? Well there is no doubt that Abu Dhabi can afford the investment. But Alitalia is estimated to have cost Italian taxpayers €6.5bn since 2008. Turning this around is a massive challenge, it is not a hobby.

Some of the European airlines will not be happy. Alitalia is a Skyteam partner - but the KLM/Air France shareholding in the airline is now diluted to just 7% (from 25%). International traffic that would have routed through Paris or Amsterdam will now be routed through Abu Dhabi.

Eithad is owned by the government of Abu Dhabi. EU rules do not allow a non EU investor to hold more than 49% of a European airline.

Here is the official Alitalia/Etihad press release.

CAPA Analysis: Etihad & Alitalia agree and affirm their partnership vision. Protectionist voices will become louder

To dare to dream

8 August 2014

And so the Championship starts again in English football - over nine grueling months of football. This has to be the toughest league in football. 24 teams without a whole lot to choose between them and any team in the league capable of creating a surprise. Over such a long season a strong squad is needed together with in-form strikers and no shortage of luck. 

Watford boss Beppe Sannino is starting the season in charge for the first time ad has said his side's heavy recruitment over the summer has raised the expectation of winning promotion.

The Italian has brought in 11 players to Vicarage Road over the summer.

Sannino, a former Siena and Palermo head coach, replaced Gianfranco Zola in December 2013 and went on to take the Hornets to a 13th-place finish last season. For a while it looked like they would finish higher but there was a serious drop off in form losing the last four games of the season

It has been two years since the Italian Pozzo family, who also own Granada and Udinese, took ownership of Watford and their policy of taking players from within their network of clubs, as well as the rest of Europe, has continued.

Striker Matej Vydra has returned from Udinese, along with Odion Ighalo, while Jaun Carlos Paredes has arrived from Granada, as has Essaid Belkalem, although the Algerian has gone straight out on loan to Trabzonspor.

Parma pair Daniel Toszer and Gianni Munari have also come in on loan from Parma.

New signings include Heurelho Gomes (the jury is very much out on whether he is good enough) as a goalkeeping replacement for Manuel Almunia who was released by the club. Craig Cathcart, Gabriel Tamas, Lloyd Dyer and Keith Andrews have also been signed.

The return of Vydra is a huge boost after a less than successful season at West Bromwich Albion. Vydra is re-united with Troy Deeney but for how long is uncertain.

Leicester, QPR and Burnley have all been linked with Deeney, who has scored 43 league goals in the last two seasons.

But Watford are standing firm over their asking price, thought to be £8million, and have rejected the highest offer of £7.5m from Leicester.

The other issue for Watford will be stemming the calamitous ability to concede goals in the last ten minutes of games. Nothing about the defense gives much confidence of a change.

Watford open their 2014/2015 campaign at home to Bolton.

INS: Keith Andrews (loan, Bolton), Essaid Belkalem (undisc, Granada), Juan Carlos Paredes (undisc, Granada), Craig Cathcart (free, Blackpool), Lloyd Dyer (free, Leicester), Odion Ighalo (loan, Udinese), Heurelho Gomes (free, Spurs), Gabriel Tamas (free, Doncaster), Daniel Tozser (loan, Parma), Matej Vydra (loan, Udinese).

OUTS: Javier Acuna (undisc, Club Olimpia), Manuel Almunia (released), Bobson Bawling (free, Crawley), Reece Brown (undisc, Barnsley), Marco Cassetti (rel), Ollie Cox (free, Hemel Hempstead), Fitz Hall (rel), Ross Jenkins (rel), Lucas Neill (rel), Nyron Nosworthy (rel), Albert Riera (rel), Gary Woods (free, Leyton Orient).

100 years on

4 August 2014

On August 1st, 1914, the German Empire  had declared war on Russia. At the same time, in his famous "balcony speech," Emperor William II portrayed himself and the German people as victims: "If our neighbors do not give us peace, then we hope and wish that our good German sword will come victorious out of this war." Two days later, Germany declared war on France and invaded neutral Belgium. Those shots marked the beginning of the First World War

100 years ago today Britain declared war on Germany. And so began over 4 years of appalling slaughter for reasons that no one who took part ever fully understood but which they largely accepted made war just and their duty necessary.

The war would last four years, kill more than 15 million people and leave more than 20 million injured. The First World War engulfed Europe in bloody battles, and it turned the entire world upside down.

To call it World War 1 is a little misleading; this is the European war that has defined the rest of the 20th century. One can argue that, without this war, there wouldn't have been World War II, probably no National Socialism, no Stalinism and no Bolshevik takeover in Petrograd. It would have been a completely different century. In this sense, the term "Great War" seems more appropriate.

There is nothing great about the loss of a generation.

As a young boy I used to walk with my grandmother down Folkestone's Road of Remembrance to the old harbour. A hundred years ago British and commonwealth soldiers would march down this road, whistling and singing, as they set out in boats to France, to the trenches. Most probably not even thinking that they would never return. 10 million service men marched through Folkestone and off to war.

My grandfather Henry Walter Albin, was born in 1889. He enlisted. He went to war. Gassed. He was sent home. His lungs never recovered and eventually he died in 1958. Yet after his death my grandmother went to live near her other family members in the village of Hawkinge (itself famous for the airfield's role in the battle of Britain) just outside Folkestone. Every time we walked to the harbour must have evoked memories.

Jeremy Paxman's observations are helpful here: "The First World War is the great punctuation point in modern British history, as consequential as the Fall of Rome, the French Revolution, the invention of the nuclear bomb or the Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center. The carnage that accompanied four years of bitter fighting took the lives of 750,000 British men, as well as many women and children. Throughout it all, the resolve of the British people did not weaken. They endured to victory. To understand how this was possible, we need to get beyond the trite observations and recognise why so many people at the time believed the war to be not only unavoidable but even necessary."

Some reading:

The first world war and the colour of memory

Witness to war: 1914-18 remembered in personal photographs and journals

In Europe 1914 every leading player had his hand on a smoking gun

The Great War and education

1914: An eager march into catastrophe

'1914 was a complete break with the past'

Remembering Great War's 'man-eater mountain'

50 days and counting

1 August 2014

In fifty days time the Scottish people have a date with destiny when they vote yes or no to becoming an independent nation.

I will state my bias up front. If I were Scottish (I am just one eighth) I would be voting yes to independence. I would consider myself Scottish first. Britain is not a nation; it is a compromise.

The referendum is on September 18 and 4.1 million people will address a simple set of six-words, "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

The referendum is a pivotal moment in the history of Scotland and the United Kingdom, the results of which will profoundly alter the British Isles, for better or for worse.

Historically the Kingdom of Scotland had been a sovereign state for eight centuries prior to the Act of Union in 1707, which saw the establishment of a single parliament in Westminster, which of course is in London, England.

It was not till the 19th century that the Scots found themselves desiring an administrative devolution that was given to them as a Scottish Office in Whitehall; again in London, England. Yet the idea of an independent Scotland never re-entered the political mainstream till a century later.

A referendum was held in 1979 to establish a Scottish Assembly, but the measure never passed. In 1997 a vote allowed the establishment of a Scottish Parliament but it would be dependent on grants from Westminster.

A vote on independence never seemed possible. It was only in 2011 when the Scottish National Party, which promised an independence referendum as part of its manifesto, won a majority vote in the Scottish parliamentary elections, that the idea of an independent Scotland seemed possible. The Scottish First Minister and SNP leader, Alex Salmond, has since been the main proponent of Scottish independence.

Salmond has long been disenchanted with the unionist bureaucracy, maintaining that Scotland has always been an afterthought for Westminster. His simple view is that those with Scotland's best interests at heart should be the ones managing her affairs. After all a government that the Scottish rejected, the Tories propped up by a few Lib-Dems, presently governs the United Kingdom.

Learning from those before him Salmond's bid for independence is built on pragmatism rather than sentimentality, a chance to "change Scotland for the better." In today's desperate fiscal climate the appeal of independence lies purely in its economic and social benefits. But it is more than that. It is also an emotional calling. It is a historical right. It is for many a centuries old destiny.

The more pragmatic Scots will see a break from Britain as economic suicide; but it is uncharted territory. Think of it like a smaller version of Canada and the USA. Two countries with so much in common but with different cultures, ideals and economies. Yet hugely inter-dependent. The USA is Canada's biggest trading partner. The same would be true for Scotland and England.

Last year the Scottish Government published a 670-page document outlining their case for sovereignty and the measures they would take to oversee it. North Sea oil has been central to the argument for independence, as the Scottish Government believes they would lay claim to 1.5 trillion pounds worth of oil left in the reserves.

So far the trend in polls has been roughly 60-40 in favour of a 'No' vote. But I suspect there are many who are undecided and also many who will say No to the pollsters but may say Yes at the ballot.

Chairing the unionist Better Together campaign, Alex Salmond's main opponent, Alistair Darling, asserts that being a part of the United Kingdom brings security, a strong inter-dependent economy and more importantly a currency union. The three largest British political parties, the Tories, Labour and Lib-Dems, have united in the avowal that a currency union is incompatible with an independent Scotland and that the pound would not be theirs to keep. Salmond has reduced such claims to being an attempt at scaremongering, assuring his voters that they will keep the sterling.

If Scotland wants true independence then it should already be planning an alternative to sterling. Aligning with the Eurozone - adopting the Euro and adopting the Schengen treaty would be a giant step in the right direction.

In fifty days a Yes vote annuls a 307-year old political union. A No vote would see Scotland remaining a part of Britain. But for how long. The notion of an independent Scotland will be incessantly lingering north of the border. The question of "what if?" will forever entice.

So forget the what if. Vote yes for independence, for nationhood and for Scottish pride.