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World News: Obama begins historic Myanmar visit

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Praise and pressure as Obama begins historic Myanmar visit
Reuters / Phuket Gazette
YANGON: Barack Obama became the first serving U.S. president to visit Myanmar today, trying during a whirlwind six-hour trip to strike a balance between praising the government’s progress in shaking off military rule and pressing for more reform.

Obama’s first stop was a meeting with President Thein Sein, a former junta member who has spearheaded reforms since taking office in March 2011.

“I’ve shared with him the fact that I recognise this is just the first steps on what will be a long journey,” Obama told reporters, with Thein Sein at his side.

“But we think a process of democratic and economic reform here in Myanmar that has been begun by the president is one that can lead to incredible development opportunities,” he said, using the country name preferred by the government and former junta, rather than Burma, normally used in the United States.

Thein Sein, speaking in Burmese with an interpreter translating his remarks, responded that the two sides would move forward, “based on mutual trust, respect and understanding”.

“During our discussions, we also reached agreement for the development of democracy in Myanmar and for promotion of human rights to be aligned with international standards,” he added.

Tens of thousands of well-wishers, including children waving tiny American and Burmese flags, lined Obama’s route to the old parliament in the former capital, Yangon, where he met Thein Sein.

Some held signs saying “We love Obama”. Approaching the building, crowds spilled into the street, getting close enough to touch Obama’s vehicle.

Obama moved on to meet fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate and long-time opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who led the struggle against military rule and is now a lawmaker.

On the way, Obama made a surprise stop at the landmark Shwedagon Pagoda, where the president, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and their entire entourage, secret service agents included, went barefoot up the giant stone staircase.

As two monks guided Obama around, the security team fanned out, talking quietly into their radios.

Obama’s trek to Myanmar is meant to highlight what the White House has touted as a major foreign policy achievement – its success in pushing the country’s generals to enact changes that have unfolded with surprising speed over the past year.

But some international human rights group object to the visit, saying Obama is rewarding the government of the former pariah state for a job they regard as incomplete.

Speaking in Thailand on the eve of his visit, Obama denied he was going to offer his “endorsement” or that his trip was premature.

“I don’t think anybody is under the illusion that Burma’s arrived, that they’re where they need to be,” Obama said. “On the other hand, if we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we’d be waiting an awful long time.”

Obama’s Southeast Asian trip, less than two weeks after his re-election, is aimed at showing how serious he is about shifting the U.S. strategic focus eastwards as America winds down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The so-called “Asia pivot” is also meant to counter China’s rising influence.

Freeing prisoners
Aides said Obama was determined to “lock in” democratic changes already under way in Myanmar, but would also press for further action, including freeing remaining political prisoners and stronger efforts to curb ethnic and sectarian violence.

A senior U.S. official said Obama would announce the resumption of U.S. aid programmes in Myanmar during his visit, anticipating assistance of $170 million in fiscal 2012 and 2013, but this, too, would be dependent on further reforms.

“The president will be announcing that the United States is re-establishing a USAID mission in Burma, which has been suspended for many years,” the official told reporters in Bangkok, declining to be named.

The United States has softened sanctions and removed a ban on most imports from Myanmar in response to reforms already undertaken, but it has set conditions for the full normalisation of relations, such as the release of all political detainees.

Asked if sanctions could be lifted completely at this stage, a senior administration official insisted they could not. “All these things are reversible,” he said.

In a move clearly timed to show goodwill, the authorities in Myanmar began to release dozens of political prisoners on Monday, including Myint Aye, arguably the most prominent dissident left in its gulag.

Some 66 prisoners will be freed, two-thirds of them dissidents, according to activists and prison officials.

The government will also let the International Committee of the Red Cross resume prisoner visits, according to a statement late on Sunday, and the authorities plan to “devise a transparent mechanism to review remaining prisoner cases of concern by the end of December 2012”.

In a speech to be given at Yangon University to an audience that will include several high-profile former prisoners, Obama will stress the rule of law and allude to the need to amend a constitution that still gives a great role in politics to the military, including a quarter of the seats in parliament.

“America may have the strongest military in the world, but it must submit to civilian control. As President and Commander-in-Chief, I cannot just impose my will on our Congress, even though sometimes I wish I could,” he will say.

He looks forward to a future “where national security is strengthened by a military that serves under civilians, and a constitution guarantees that only those who are elected by the people may govern”.

Ethnic strife
Violence between majority Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority in western Myanmar is a top concern, and Obama’s aides said he would address the issue directly with Myanmar’s leaders.

Myanmar considers the Rohingya Muslims to be illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh and does not recognise them as citizens. A Reuters investigation into the wave of sectarian assaults painted a picture of organised attacks against the Muslim community.

At least 167 people were killed in two periods of violence in Rakhine state in June and October this year.

Obama did not refer to this in the excerpt of his speech released to media ahead of delivery, but he will recall the sometimes violent history of the United States, its civil war and segregation, and say hatred could recede with time.

“I stand before you today as president of the most powerful nation on earth, with a heritage that would have once denied me the right to vote. So I believe deeply that this country can transcend its differences, and that every human being within these borders is a part of your nation’s story,” he will say.

Thein Sein, in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last week, promised to tackle the root causes of the problem, the United Nations said.

Despite human rights concerns, the White House sees Myanmar as a legacy-building success story of Obama’s policy of seeking engagement with U.S. enemies, a strategy that has made little progress with countries such as Iran and North Korea.

Obama’s visit to Myanmar, sandwiched between stops in Thailand and Cambodia, also fits the administratio

— Reuters

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Coronavirus (Covid-19)

Covid-19 vaccine CEOs say 3rd dose may be needed along with annual jabs

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Covid-19 vaccine CEOs say 3rd dose may be needed along with annual jabs | Thaiger
Stock photo of Pfizer vaccine via Flickr

The CEO for the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines says it is likely that people will need a 3rd dose of the vaccine and to receive it annually. Albert Bourla, told CNBC, that the booster, or 3rd dose, will be needed less than a year after being fully vaccinated.

“A likely scenario is that there will be likely a need for a 3rd dose, somewhere between 6 and 12 months and then from there, there will be an annual revaccination, but all of that needs to be confirmed. And again, the variants will play a key role. It is extremely important to suppress the pool of people that can be susceptible to the virus.”

Bourla’s comment echoes that of Johnson & Johnson’s CEO when he stated in February, that people may need to get vaccinated against Covid-19 annually, just like seasonal flu shots. Both statements reflect the fact that since the vaccine is new, and testing periods are shorter than most vaccines in the past, researchers are still unclear about how long the vaccine will protect against the virus.

Pfizer says that its Covid-19 vaccine was more than 91% effective at protecting against the coronavirus and more than 95% effective against severe diseases up to 6 months after the 2nd dose. Moderna’s vaccine, which uses technology similar to Pfizer’s, was also shown to be highly effective at 6 months.

Just yesterday, the Biden administration’s Covid response chief science officer, David Kessler, noted that new Covid variants could “challenge” the effectiveness of the shots.

“We don’t know everything at this moment. We are studying the durability of the antibody response. It seems strong but there is some waning of that and no doubt the variants challenge … they make these vaccines work harder. So I think for planning purposes, planning purposes only, I think we should expect that we may have to boost.”

Late last month, the National Institute of Health started testing a new Covid vaccine from Moderna in addition to the one it already has, designed to protect against a problematic variant first found in South Africa. The variant is similar to that of the UK one that has recently made landfall in Thailand.

Recent findings, by The Lancet, however, have stated that the UK variant, known as B117, has a higher reproductive rate than other strains, and it’s more transmissible. However, it refuted earlier reports that the strain is more severe. Meanwhile, Thailand’s health minister is confirming his commitment to making AstraZeneca the nation’s chosen vaccine.

SOURCE: CNBC

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Economy

China grows 18.3%, the only major economy to grow in 2020

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China grows 18.3%, the only major economy to grow in 2020 | Thaiger
PHOTO: China - the second largest economy, and only major economy to grow last year.

China’s economy set a record for growth in Q1, 2021, marking an 18.3% jump in year-on-year figures, the biggest quarterly growth in almost 30 years. China only started publishing growth statistics in 1992, and this drastic increase is the fastest growth recorded since then.

The figures, however impressive, are mainly due to what is called a “low base effect” where the change from a low starting point translates into big percentage statistics. Because of the devastating economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Q1 2020 figures were dismal, allowing the big gain over the last year.

Quarter to quarter, the last 3 months saw only a 0.6% growth, but in the last quarter of 2020 China recorded an economic boom of 6.5% according to the Chinese government. Still, the figures are admirable, as China was the only major economy in the world to achieve growth in 2020. Most of the planet struggled to contain global Covid-19 outbreaks, crippling economies across the globe. But China, now the second-largest economy in the world, managed a 2.3% overall expansion. Even Chinese officials called the impressive statistics “better than we had expected.”

China has been growing in terms of imports and exports as well, with exports expanding nearly 31% and imports up 38% by price over last years.

SOURCE: CNN

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Coronavirus (Covid-19)

Denmark becomes first country in Europe to ditch AstraZeneca vaccine

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Denmark becomes first country in Europe to ditch AstraZeneca vaccine | Thaiger
PHOTO: Flickr

Denmark has announced that it is abandoning the AstraZeneca vaccine, the first European country to do so, amid concerns about very rare but serious blood clots. The rollout of the vaccine has run into problems in several countries, with its use either temporarily suspended or restricted to older age groups.

When concerns first arose over the vaccine’s rare side-effects, Denmark was the first country in Europe to suspend its use. In Thailand, use of the vaccine was suspended last month, before officials judged it safe to proceed, with Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul going on to confirm it would become the Kingdom’s primary Covid-19 vaccine.

Both the European drugs regulator and the World Health Organisation are standing by the jab, saying the benefits outweigh the risks. However, health officials in Denmark have now decided to ditch it for good.

“Denmark’s vaccination campaign will go ahead without the AstraZeneca vaccine.”

Denmark has reported 2 cases of thrombosis (blood clotting) linked to administration of the AstraZeneca vaccine, one of which proved fatal. The blood clot incidents arose after 140,000 people had received the jab. The Bangkok Post reports that 8% of Denmark’s 5.8 million inhabitants have been fully vaccinated and 17% have received their first dose.

The country plans to continue its rollout using the Modern and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. Officials say they are confident that the availability of other jabs, coupled with the fact that Covid-19 is relatively under control in Denmark, means the country’s mass inoculation can continue without issue.

Meanwhile, AstraZeneca has released a statement acknowledging the decision taken by Danish health authorities.

“We recognise and respect the decision taken by the Danish Health Authority. Implementation and rollout of the vaccine programme is a matter for each country to decide, based on local conditions. We will continue to collaborate with the regulators and local authorities to provide all available data to inform their decisions.”

SOURCE: Euro News | Bangkok Post

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