With gas pumps all but dry, Sri Lankans pedal through crisis

A woman commutes by bike in Colombo, Sri Lanka, June 27, 2022. (AN photo)
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Updated 12 August 2022

With gas pumps all but dry, Sri Lankans pedal through crisis

  • Deep in economic disaster, country struggles with acute fuel shortages
  • As demand for two-wheelers soars, so does the bicycle black market

COLOMBO: Working in Colombo, Hashan Gunasekera has not gone home to see his family in Kandy since mid-April, as he has already given up on searching for gasoline to fuel his car.

A video production manager, Gunasekera, 32, used to drive three hours every week to spend Saturdays and Sundays at home, but for the past few months, he has not been able to drive, as his country — in the middle of the worst economic turmoil in memory — has run out of petrol.

Like many other middle-class Sri Lankans in the capital, he was forced to switch to a bicycle for his daily commutes.

“I have given up going home now,” Gunasekera told Arab News. “There is no use in even trying.”

The most basic bicycle he bought to reach his Colombo office cost him over 37,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($100) in June, but it had no gears and soon Gunasekera had to buy a new, slightly better one, which sold for 88,000 rupees — some three times more than before the crisis.

“A bike like this would have cost about 25,000 to 30,000 rupees last year,” he said.

Despite the soaring prices, the number of bikes on Colombo’s streets has increased manifold.

“The current market demand has greatly increased,” Sangeeth Suriyage, who runs Suriyage Bike Shop in Colombo, told Arab News, estimating that it may be even five times higher than last year.

“The market is able to meet a fair percentage of that demand," he said, adding that the supply-demand imbalance has fueled informal sales, with bicycles sold for at least double the current market price. “There is a thriving black market operating through people that buy and resell at exorbitant costs.”

Desperate Colombo residents in need of an accessible mode of transport are still willing to fork out the extra expense.

Marini, an English teacher based in Colombo, said she spent 188,000 rupees for a bike for her nephew to be able to go to school. 

“This was really expensive,” she said. “But given the current situation I considered it an investment.”

But the price is not the only problem. Bicycles are now joining the list of items the country is running out of.

At a shop in Borella, the largest suburb in Colombo, bikes sold like hot cakes last month, but now demand has outstripped supply, with import restrictions slapped on almost all commodities as the country’s foreign exchange reserves have dried.

“We are running out of bicycles,” one of the Borella shop’s sellers told Arab News. “After fuel was completely stopped for the past month and a half or so, crowds are coming to (buy) bicycles for adults. Before this, people came to buy bicycles for children, mostly.”

While the island nation of 22 million is seeking a $3 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund to put its economy and public finances back on track, it is unlikely that the situation will get back to normal soon.

Some, like Hakiem Haniff, a 28-year-old marketeer who lives on the outskirts of Colombo, are trying to see positive aspects of having no choice but to take more exercise when transport options are limited.

But if it were to be long-term, he would like to see cycling infrastructure introduced in the city, which authorities promised earlier this year would be rolled out in Sri Lanka’s capital.

“If they want to take this thing seriously, they really need to invest in infrastructure so that more people will start cycling,” he said. “There’re no cycling lanes and it can be pretty crazy.”


Police: 2 dead, 6 injured in stabbings along Las Vegas Strip

Updated 9 sec ago

Police: 2 dead, 6 injured in stabbings along Las Vegas Strip

LAS VEGAS: An attacker with a large kitchen knife killed two people and wounded six others in stabbings along the Las Vegas Strip before he was arrested Thursday, police said.
Three people were hospitalized in critical condition and another three were in stable condition, according to Las Vegas police, who said they began receiving 911 calls about the stabbings around 11:40 a.m. across the street from the Wynn casino and hotel.
The Clark County coroner’s office identified the victims who were killed as Brent Allan Hallett, 47, and Maris Mareen Digiovanni, 30, both Las Vegas residents, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.
The names of those wounded in the attack were not immediately released.
Police described the suspect as a man in his 30s and said they were working to confirm his identity. He is not a Las Vegas resident, according to Metropolitan Police Department Deputy Chief James LaRochelle.
The initial stabbing was unprovoked and on the eastern sidewalk of Las Vegas Boulevard. The suspect then headed south and stabbed others, LaRochelle said.
The man fled and was followed by 911 callers before he was taken into custody, authorities said. Police recovered the “large knife with a long blade” believed to have been used, LaRochelle said, calling the case a “hard-to-comprehend murder investigation.”
There were no other suspects in the case and “the Strip is secure,” Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo said.
Police said it was too early in their investigation to speculate on a possible motive for the stabbings.
“Locals and tourists are the victims of this crime,” Lombardo said.
Witnesses told Las Vegas TV stations that some of the victims appeared to be showgirls or street performers who take pictures with tourists on the Strip.
The suspect told a woman that he was a chef who wanted to take a picture with some of the showgirls with his knife, but he started stabbing people when the group declined the man’s offer, the woman told KTNV.
Jason Adams told KLAS that he witnessed the attack on a showgirl.
“This guy came, ran up, and started stabbing this lady in front of me and she ran around the escalators and she tried to get up under the bridge and her girlfriend was trying to help her,” Adams said, adding that the attack happened very quickly.
Pierre Fandrich, a tourist from Canada, told KTNV that he did not see the stabbing suspect as he was walking along the Strip. But he said he thought he heard “three or four showgirls laughing,” and it turned out to be screaming.
Fandrich said he saw “a lot of blood” as one woman ran across a bridge, one was on the ground, and another had a stab wound on her back as she tried to help the fallen woman.
Fandrich also told KTNV that he thought one of the victims fell from the bridge because there was so much blood on the ground.
Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak posted a message on social media saying, “Our hearts are with all those affected by this tragedy.”
“At the State level, we will continue to work with partners in law enforcement to make resources available on the ground and ensure the Las Vegas Strip remains a safe and welcoming place for all to visit,” Sisolak said.

UAE, Pakistan reject motion, UN votes down debate on China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims

Updated 13 min 49 sec ago

UAE, Pakistan reject motion, UN votes down debate on China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims

  • Defeat, 19 against, 17 for, 11 abstentions, is only second time in UN rights council’s history that motion has been rejected
  • China says motion an attempt by US and West to “use the UN human rights body to interfere in China’s internal affairs“

GENEVA: The UN rights council on Thursday voted down a Western-led motion to hold a debate about alleged human rights abuses by China against Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang in a victory for Beijing as it seeks to avoid further scrutiny.

The defeat — 19 against, 17 for, 11 abstentions — is only the second time in the council’s 16-year history that a motion has been rejected and is seen by observers as a setback to both accountability efforts, the West’s moral authority on human rights and the credibility of the United Nations itself.

The United States, Canada and Britain were among the countries that brought the motion.

“This is a disaster. This is really disappointing,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, whose mother died in a camp and whose two brothers are missing.

“We will never give up but we are really disappointed by the reaction of Muslim countries,” he added.

Qatar, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan rejected the motion, with the latter citing the risk of alienating China.

Phil Lynch, director of the International Service for Human Rights, called the voting record “shameful” on Twitter.

“Xinjiang-related issues are not human rights issues at all, but issues of counter-terrorism, de-radicalization and anti-separatism,” said China’s foreign ministry late on Thursday.

The motion was an attempt by the United States and some Western countries to “use the UN human rights body to interfere in China’s internal affairs,” said the foreign ministry in a post on its official website.

China’s envoy had warned before the vote that the motion would create a precedent for examining other countries’ human rights records.

“Today China is targeted. Tomorrow any other developing country will be targeted,” said Chen Xu, adding that a debate would lead to “new confrontations.” read more

The UN rights office on Aug. 31 released a long-delayed report that found serious human rights violations in Xinjiang that may constitute crimes against humanity, ramping up pressure on China.

Rights groups accuse Beijing of abuses against Uyghurs, a mainly Muslim ethnic minority that numbers around 10 million in the western region of Xinjiang, including the mass use of forced labor in internment camps. The United States has accused China of genocide. Beijing vigorously denies any abuses.

’ENORMOUS PRESSURE’

The motion is the first time that the rights record of China, a powerful permanent Security Council member, has been on the council’s agenda. The item has stoked divisions and a diplomat said states were under “enormous pressure” from Beijing to back China.

Countries like Britain, the United States and Germany, vowed to continue to work toward accountability despite Thursday’s outcome.

But activists said the defeat of such a limited motion, which stopped short of seeking an investigation, would make it difficult to put it back on the agenda.

Universal Rights Group’s Marc Limon said it was a “serious miscalculation,” citing the timing which coincides with a Western-led motion for action on Russia.

“It’s a serious blow for the credibility of the council and a clear victory for China,” he said. “Many developing countries will see it as an adjustment away from Western predominance in the UN human rights system.”

The event raised political dilemmas for many poor countries in the 47-member council who are loath to publicly defy China for fear of jeopardizing investment.


Thailand mourns children, others slain by ex-police officer

Updated 24 min 41 sec ago

Thailand mourns children, others slain by ex-police officer

  • Police speculated the gunman targeted the center because it was near his home

UTHAI SAWAN, Thailand: Friends hugged sobbing family members struggling with staggering loss Friday in a rural northeastern Thailand community mourning the children and other victims slain by a fired police officer in the nation’s deadliest shooting rampage.
At least 24 of the 36 people killed in the assault Thursday in the small town of Uthai Sawan were children.
On Friday morning, royal and government representatives in white, military-style coats stood in lines to lay wreaths at ceremonial tables in front of the Young Children’s Development Center’s main door. They were followed by weeping family members, who gathered their hands in prayer before laying white flowers on the wooden floor.
“I cried until I had no more tears coming out of my eyes. They are running through my heart,” said Seksan Sriraj, 28, whose pregnant wife was a teacher at the center and was due to give birth this month. “My wife and my child have gone to a peaceful place. I am alive and will have to live. If I can’t go on, my wife and my child will be worried about me, and they won’t be reborn in the next life. That’s about it.”
Many relatives were gathered in front of the child care center to start the process of claiming compensation and psychologists were also sent to the site to help them. Seven of the 10 people who were wounded were still hospitalized Friday.
Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida were expected later Friday to visit two hospitals treating the wounded, and Prime Minster Prayuth Chan-ocha was expected to visit the daycare center and the hospitals.
When asked whether he thought the child care center was secure enough, Seksan noted the attacker had been a police officer. “He came to do what he had in his mind and was determined to do it. I think everyone did the best they could.”
Police speculated the gunman targeted the center because it was near his home. They identified him as Panya Kamrap, 34, a former police sergeant fired earlier this year because of a drug charge involving methamphetamine. He had been due to appear in court Friday.
Witnesses said the attacker got out of a car and shot a man eating lunch before pausing to reload. Staff at the child care center locked the door, but the gunman shot his way through it. The children, mainly 2- and 3-year-olds, had been taking an afternoon nap, and photos taken by first responders showed their tiny bodies still lying on blankets.
Panya took his own life after killing his wife and child at home.
Nopparat Langkapin, a local official in Uthai Sawan, said the victims were “all children of our community.”
“Relatives, families and close friends are deeply saddened by this incident. And we all felt this across the community very quickly. Most of us are feeling depressed and sad because they are our children,” he said.
The attack took place in Nongbua Lamphu province, one of the country’s poorest regions.
A video taken by a first responder arriving at the scene showed rescuers rushing into the single-story building past a shattered glass front door, with drops of blood visible on the ground in the entryway. Photos showed slashes to the victims’ faces and gunshots to their heads.
In footage posted online after the attack, frantic family members wept outside the building. The floor was smeared with blood, and pictures of the alphabet and other colorful decorations adorned the walls.
Mass shootings are rare but not unheard of in Thailand, which has one of the highest civilian gun ownership rates in Asia, with 15.1 weapons per 100 population compared to only 0.3 in Singapore and 0.25 in Japan. That’s still far lower than the US rate of 120.5 per 100 people, according to a 2017 survey by Australia’s GunPolicy.org nonprofit organization.
The US and Australia expressed sympathy and solidarity. “All Australians send their love and condolences,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese tweeted. “This violence is both senseless and heartbreaking,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
Thailand’s previous worst mass shooting involved a disgruntled soldier who opened fire in and around a mall in the northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima in 2020, killing 29 people and holding off security forces for some 16 hours before eventually being killed by them.
Nearly 60 others were wounded in that attack. Its death toll surpassed that of the previously worst attack on civilians, a 2015 bombing at a shrine in Bangkok that killed 20 people. It was allegedly carried out by human traffickers in retaliation for a crackdown on their network.
Last month, a clerk shot co-workers at Thailand’s Army War College in Bangkok, killing two and wounding another before he was arrested.


Xi’s ‘final purge’ ahead of Chinese Communist Party congress

Updated 07 October 2022

Xi’s ‘final purge’ ahead of Chinese Communist Party congress

  • More than 1.5 million officials in China have been punished since Xi Jinping became leader a decade ago
  • Xi is widely expected to secure a third term as party leader, upending the succession norms in place since the 1990s

BEIJING: President Xi Jinping has embarked on a “final round of purges” ahead of a major Chinese Communist Party congress, wielding his long-running anti-corruption campaign to cement his grasp on power, analysts say.
When he became leader a decade ago, Xi vowed to root out dishonest officials, both senior “tigers” and low-ranking “flies.”
More than 1.5 million officials have been punished since then, according to data from the party disciplinary body, and China’s ranking on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index has improved.
But critics say the campaign is also a thinly veiled political tool that has helped Xi eliminate his rivals — and the build-up to this year’s congress has seen more heads roll.
About 1,100 officials have been caught in the party dragnet since the beginning of this year, according to party data.
Among them are former deputy public security minister Sun Lijun and former justice minister Fu Zhenghua, who will now spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
“This final round of purges, masquerading as an anti-corruption campaign, will ensure that Xi will have tighter if not absolute control over personnel and policy issues (at the Congress),” said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Xi is widely expected to secure a third term as party leader at the meeting, upending the succession norms in place since the 1990s.
“Despite all signs that his major goal of a third term is pretty much guaranteed, Xi is still paranoid about his control over appointments to key decision-making bodies within the party,” Lam added.

Once a trusted lieutenant of Xi, Sun oversaw security in Hong Kong during months of unrest in 2019 and was even sent to Wuhan at the start of the Covid pandemic.
But he reportedly fell from grace because of his political ambitions, and was officially accused of “seriously damaging the unity of the party.”
Sun confessed on national television in January to taking bribes worth $14 million, hidden inside boxes of what appeared to be seafood.
Others allegedly in his “political clique,” including Fu and three former police chiefs, were also rounded up and given harsh sentences.
“Sun Lijun’s case is linked to Xi’s absolute control of the security apparatus, which is indispensable for his political agenda,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.
“It also sends a stern message to anyone with dissenting views about Xi’s leadership.”
Chinese Communist Party politics — despite the facade of unity — has always been deeply factional with different groups vying for influence.
“There are some who are anti-Xi but very pro-party. They don’t like where the party is heading under him,” Alex Payette, chief executive of consultancy Cercius Group, told AFP.
The congress presents an opportunity for Xi to reduce that threat by promoting close allies to positions on the Politburo’s seven-person standing committee, the apex of power.

More than any other Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, Xi has built a strong personality cult, with children as young as 10 required to take lessons in “Xi Jinping Thought.”
And according to Wu Muluan, a Chinese politics expert at the National University of Singapore, he has used the anti-corruption campaign to turn the Communist Party “from a collective dictatorship to a personalist dictatorship.”
He has already brought under his wing the three critical power centers of the party — the military, the propaganda machine and the internal security apparatus — by rooting out dissenting voices and replacing them with his proteges.
For example, the recently appointed minister of public security Wang Xiaohong has known Xi at least since the mid-1990s, when they were both working in southeastern Fujian province.
“Xi is cherry-picking people who have shown absolute loyalty to him for decades,” Wu said.
Surrounding himself with allies going into his next term has become even more important given the significant political headwinds Xi faces, including an ailing economy, deteriorating relations with the United States and a strict zero-Covid policy that has accelerated China’s inward turn from the world.
“The anti-corruption card is a potent tool for Xi to send a message to the still-considerable number of opponents in the upper echelon of the party,” analyst Lam said.
“Any opposition could mean a jail term... or at least ugly harassment by the anti-graft agencies such as 24-hour surveillance.”
 


Latest 4-member SpaceX crew, including cosmonaut, welcomed aboard space station

Updated 07 October 2022

Latest 4-member SpaceX crew, including cosmonaut, welcomed aboard space station

  • The crew consists of two American NASA astronauts, a Japanese astronaut, and a Russian cosmonaut
  • Cosmonaut Anna Kikina joined the SpaceX Crew-5 flight under a NASA-Roscosmos ride-sharing agreement

A four-member SpaceX Crew Dragon team, including a Russian cosmonaut and the first Native American woman sent to orbit, safely docked with the International Space Station (ISS) on Thursday and moved aboard to begin a five-month science mission.
Rendezvous of the latest NASA expedition to the orbiting laboratory came just after 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) following a 29-hour flight to the ISS as the two vehicles circled the globe some 250 miles (420 km) above Earth off the west coast of Africa, according to a NASA webcast of the docking.
The autonomously flying Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Endurance, was lofted into orbit on Wednesday atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The crew consists of two American NASA astronauts — flight commander Nicole Aunapu Mann, 45, and pilot Josh Cassada, 49 — as well as Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, 59, a veteran of four previous spaceflights, and cosmonaut Anna Kikina, 38, the first Russian aboard an American spacecraft in 20 years.
The inclusion of Kikina, the lone female cosmonaut in active service with the Russian space agency Roscosmos, was a sign of continued US-Russian cooperation in space despite escalating tensions between Moscow and Washington over the war in Ukraine.
Kikina joined the SpaceX Crew-5 flight under a new ride-sharing agreement signed in July between NASA and Roscosmos allowing the two countries to keep flying on each other’s spacecraft to and from ISS.
The team was led by Mann, the first indigenous woman NASA has sent to space and the first woman to take the commander’s seat of a SpaceX Crew Dragon. Mann, a US Marine Corps colonel and combat fighter pilot, is also among the first group of 18 astronauts selected for NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions aimed at returning humans to the moon later this decade.
“We look forward to getting to work,” Mann radioed moments after the linkup was completed.
On arrival, the Endurance crew spent nearly two hours conducting a series of standard procedures, such as leak checks and pressurizing the chamber between the capsule and ISS, before opening the entry hatches.
A live NASA video feed showed the smiling new arrivals weightlessly floating headfirst through the padded passageway one by one into the station.
They were greeted with hugs and handshakes by the four-member team they are replacing — three Americans and the Italian station commander, Samantha Cristoforetti — as well as by two Russians and a fourth NASA astronaut who shared a Soyuz flight to the ISS last month.
“A lot of people are working hard to make sure our common manned space exploration will continue to exist, to develop further. We are living proof of this,” Kikina said in Russian remarks translated to English through a mission-control interpreter during a brief welcoming ceremony.
The Endurance crew marked the fifth full-fledged ISS team NASA has flown aboard a SpaceX capsule since the private rocket venture founded by Tesla CEO Elon Musk began sending US astronauts to space in May 2020.
SpaceX has flown eight crewed missions to orbit in all, including non-NASA flights.
The new arrivals are set to conduct more than 200 experiments during their 150-day mission, many focused on medical research ranging from 3-D “bio-printing” of human tissue to a study of bacteria cultured in microgravity.
ISS, spanning the length of a football field, has been continuously occupied since 2000, operated by a US-Russian-led partnership that includes Canada, Japan and 11 European countries.