Belarus Lukashenko sees plot after blast kills 11 

The site of the explosion at the metro station Oktyabrskaya in Minsk, April 11, 2011.

President Alexander Lukashenko said that a blast that tore through a crowded metro station in the Belarus capital Minsk in evening rush hour killing 11 people was an attempt to destabilize the country.

As police placed the capital on high alert, Lukashenko, who has led the ex-Soviet country since 1994, linked the explosion to a previous unsolved blast in 2008, saying: “These are perhaps links in a single chain.”

Acts of deliberate violence are unusual in Belarus, a republic of 10 million people which shares borders with EU members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania and with Russia and Ukraine.

“We must find out who gained by undermining peace and stability in the country, who stands behind this,” said the president.

One opposition figure said he feared Lukashenko would use the blast to crack down even more harshly on political rivals.

“Prosecutors qualify this as a terrorist act,” a source in Lukashenko’s administration told Reuters.

Lukashenko, who is at odds with Western governments over a police crackdown on an opposition rally against his re-election last December, said: “I do not rule out that this (the blast) was a gift from abroad.”

Monday’s blast occurred on a platform at around 6 p.m. at the Oktyabrskaya metro station — one of the city’s busiest underground rail junctions — about 100 m (yards) from the main presidential headquarters.

Lukashenko was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying 11 people had been killed and 100 injured. A presidential administration source later said 126 people had been injured.

In his remarks, Lukashenko referred back to July 2008 when a home-made bomb wounded about 50 people at an open air concert he was attending. The crime was never solved.

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Help readied for Vietnamese citizens in Ivory Coast: FM spokeswoman 

A supporter of internationally recognised Ivory Coast leader Alassane Ouatarra mans a machine gun at a check point in the Angre district of Abidjan.

Vietnamese diplomatic agencies around the Ivory Coast stand ready to help Vietnamese citizens residing in the African country racked by unrest when needed, foreign ministry’s spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said Thursday.

 

Nga said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has ordered the Vietnamese embassy in Morocco to ascertain the number of Vietnamese nationals as well as their living conditions in the country that is said to be on the brink of a civil war.

 

Thanh Nien reporters found that many Vietnamese residing in Ivory Coast mainly run restaurants and photography shops, while most laborers are former crew members of foreign fishing boats.

 

A reader in the southern province of Soc Trang said his elder sister and ten other Vietnamese citizens were hiding in a restaurant in Abidjan City, where the unrest is most intense.

 

Many other readers reported similar situations involving their loved ones.

 

Le Van Thanh, deputy chief of Overseas Labor Management under the labor ministry, said they have never granted licenses to any local laborer to work in the Ivory Coast, and so far no companies or individuals have registered for sending laborers to the country.

 

“We only know of laborers [who are sent overseas] legally, so we cannot know the number of Vietnamese laborers in the Ivory Coast,” Thanh said.

 

But, the labor ministry is responsible for securing the safety of all Vietnamese workers in all countries, he added.

 

The French embassy in Abidjan told Thanh Nien Thursday that Vietnamese people in the Iovry Coast can contact the UN force in the country as well as Opération Licorne (Operation Unicorn), a French peacekeeping force, for help.

 

Vietnam evacuated more than 10,000 workers from Libya recently after the country was hit by anti-government demonstrations and a government crackdown.

Major quakes, tsunamis unlikely in Vietnam: scientist 

A woman holding her child leaves her high-rise apartment in Hanoi as tremors from a Myanmar quake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale shook the capital city on Thursday

Vietnamese citizens fearful of earthquakes measuring 7.0 or more on the Richter scale or tsunamis hitting the country can breathe easy, a scientist says.

This is because Vietnam does not lie on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a zone where frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur in the basin of the Pacific Ocean, said Tran Van Tan, deputy head of the Vietnam Institute of Geology and Mineral Resources.

“However, aftershocks measuring below 7.0 can happen in northern Vietnam,” Tan said Friday, a day after the 6.8 magnitude quake hit Myanmar, leaving at least 74 people dead and hundreds homeless. Tremors of the quake were felt in Hanoi, sending many people into a panic.

Le Minh Huy, director of the Center of Earthquake Information and Tsunami Warning, said though the number of quakes have tended to rise in the country, they have not been not powerful.

Since late 2010, many provinces and cities across the country like Cao Bang, Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, Ba Ria – Vung Tau have experienced tremors, he said.

As for tsunamis, scientists of the Institute of Meteorology, Hydrology, and Environment under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, said the possibility of tsunami in the country’s coastal areas is very low.

They said Vietnam is protected by its neighboring island and peninsula countries like Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia; therefore, tsunamis originating in the Pacific Ocean are unlikely to reach the country.

Meanwhile, Minh said in case a strong quake strikes Manila in Philippines and causes a tsunami, it would take at least two hours for it to reach Vietnam’s central region.

“We can transmit tsunami warnings 10-20 minutes after the quake occurs [in Philippines]. So, we have more than an hour [which is enough] to evacuate residents,” he said.

In the event of tremors, Minh recommended that people cover their heads with their hands and shelter under nearest tables to avoid falling objects.

He said after the tremors end, they should immediately leave their houses and return only when the situation becomes stable, 30 minutes to one hour later.

For people outdoors, Minh said they should stay away from high-rise buildings and trees at the time of the quake.

In related news, following the recent Hanoi quake and the Japan disaster, the government has ordered the Ministry of Construction to examine buildings across the country and consider demolishing old apartment buildings that cannot withstand earthquakes, newswire VnExpress quoted Le Quang Hung, director of the ministry’s Project Quality Assessment Department as saying.

Shining country upon a hill 

 

 

Morning commuters wait in line for a bus outside an East Japan Railways Co. train station after Tokyo Electric Co. announced the power outages in Urayasu city, Japan, on Monday, March 14, 2011

As the horrific power of nature’s shock and awe operation was unleashed on Japan last week, captured graphically by amateur and professional videos, it was not just the Japanese, but humankind as a whole that was reeling at the magnitude of the disaster

’TRULY AMAZING’

Cars were moving at the rate of maybe one every green light, but everyone was letting each other go first with a warm look and a smile. At a complicated intersection, the traffic was at a complete standstill for 5 minutes, but I listened for 10 minutes and didn’t hear a single beep or honk except for an occasional one thanking someone for giving way. It was a terrifying day, but scenes like this warmed me and made me love my country even more.

***

It was cold and I was getting very weary waiting forever for the train to come. Some homeless people saw me, gave me some of their own cardboard boxes and said “you’ll be warmer if you sit on these!” I have always walked by homeless people pretending I didn’t see them, and yet here they were offering me warmth. Such warm people.

***

At a supermarket where everything was scattered everywhere over the floors, shoppers were helping pick them up and putting them back neatly on the shelves before quietly moving into line to wait to pay for them. On the totally jam-packed first train after the quake, an elderly man gave up his seat for a pregnant woman. Foreigners have told me they are amazed witnessing sights like these. I do believe they actually saw what they said they saw. Japan is truly amazing.

***

Yesterday, I was impressed and touched by the actions of my neighbor’s 13-year-old-boy. He was home alone when the earthquake hit. But instead of hiding, as soon as the earthquake quieted down, he jumped on his bicycle and rode around the block repeatedly shouting at the top of his voice, “Is everyone alright? Is everyone okay?” At the time, there were only women and children and the elderly in the homes. I cannot describe how comforting it was even just to hear a strong voice asking if I was okay. Thank you!

***

The Oedo Subway Line to Hikarigaoka is very congested. On the platform and at the gate there are just crowds and crowds of people waiting for the train. But in all the confusion, every last person is neatly lined up waiting his or her turn while keeping a passage of space open for staff and people going the other way. Everyone is listening to the instructions from the staff and everyone acts accordingly. And amazingly… there isn’t even a rope or anything in sight to keep people in queue or open space for staff to pass, they just do! I am so impressed at this almost unnatural orderliness! I have nothing but praise for these people!

***

A goth youth with white hair and body piercings walked into my store and shoved several hundred dollars into the disaster relief fund donation box. As he walked out, I and people around me heard him saying to his buddies, “I mean, we can buy those games anytime!” At that time, we all opened our wallets and put our money into the donation box. Really, you cannot judge people by their appearances.

It did not matter that Japan was the world’s most earthquake-prepared country. Ships, trains, huge tankers, whole houses and villages were swept aside like little toys flung by irate children. The death toll is likely to be in the thousands, the hundreds of thousands, maybe, and the damage, really incalculable, will run into billions of dollars

However, I have to correct myself.

It did and does matter that Japan was the world’s most earthquake-prepared country. If this disaster were to have happened in almost any other country in the world, the consequences would have been much, much, much worse.

Located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, prone to volcano eruptions and earthquakes, Japan has always prepared for such devastating events. It has the world’s strongest building standards that can withstand strong quakes. It has an expensive quake warning system, and emergency response systems are always in place. Citizens are used to participating in frequent quake-response exercises since their childhood. This showed in the calm manner in which they have responded to the disaster, winning the world’s admiration.

Thousands of twitter anecdotes (see box), translated by Jun Shiomitsu, have also showed the world that the response of the Japanese people has been more than impressive. They have been magnificent and given us a lesson all of us should take to heart. 

Now the question is, what do we, in Vietnam, have to learn from the Japanese response to such disasters. 

Every year, our central region is subject to typhoons that kill hundreds and cause property damage worth several billion dong. These disasters are getting more complicated and unexpected.

Local experts have for long complained that Vietnam’s forecasting abilities suffer from outdated technology and infrastructure as well as a shortage of experienced staff. This affects our abilities to respond quickly to natural disasters.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment last year announced a VND1.3 trillion (US$62.3 million) plan to set up advanced stations and equipment plus a hi-tech hydrometeorology system by 2012.

We have a long way to go to catch up technologically with Japan, but the human qualities of courage, calmness, discipline and caring are equally, if not more important in improving the quality of our response to disasters.

Why don’t we start from giving people preparedness lessons right now? There are certainly several valuable initiatives in place, like the community-based disaster preparedness projects implemented with the help of the International Red Cross and other INGOs. How many people actually know about them, though? What this disaster has shown is that preparedness cannot be confined to coastal or other mountainous communities, but has to be expanded to the nation as a whole.

To do this, we need more than technical training from experts. We need a willingness to sacrifice, to be disciplined. Considering the way we behave on our streets in rush hour traffic, we have a long way to go before we get close to the Japanese, not just technologically, but also in terms of developing civic responsibility.

We should start doing it now. Benjamin Franklin put it aptly: “By failing to prepare, we are preparing to fail.”

By Thanh Nguyen

 

 

 

 

 

Stretching an hour into a year 

Hanoi youth gathered at last year’s Earth Hour celebration. Millions of people are expected to switch off lights for an hour from 8:30 p.m. on March 26 to raise awareness about energy conservation during Earth Hour 2011.

La Thuy Diem Hang is sure that this year’s Earth Hour will witness record participation in Vietnam.

This week, volunteers and organizers have been busily arranging activities and preparing communities all over the country for the big event.

This Saturday, environmentally-conscious people and businesses all over the world will shut off their  electric lights from 8:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

The main event in Vietnam is set to take place in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue.

“In 2010, the campaign was held in Ho Chi Minh City mainly by WWF Vietnam,” said the 23-year-old graduate from the HCMC University of Science. “This year, many local environmental clubs and organizations have gotten involved.”

Hang said that many young first-time participants in last year’s event in HCMC have joined this year’s campaign to mobilize others. “We have distributed leaflets and encouraged locals from seven neighborhoods in HCMC to join the campaign,” she told Thanh Nien Weekly. “Also, 60 cafés in the city have committed to turning off their lights during the event.”

As Vietnam faces down its growing energy needs, energy efficiency policies and programs are being looked to as the cheapest and most immediate solution to the nation’s power shortcomings.

Making strides

Manufacturing flourished as the nation’s economy soared, driving up the country’s power demands – and not always in the most efficient way.

In the past ten years, international development agencies have implemented a host of small scale programs to help Vietnam make its grid more efficient.

In 2003, for example, researchers discovered that Vietnam consumed 39,000 British Thermal Units (BTUs) for every dollar of its gross domestic product (GDP). That same year, Japan used about 5,000 BTUs per dollar of GDP.

From 2004-2009 Electricity of Vietnam (EVN) implemented a program to promote the installation of energy-saving compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) in houses and buildings across Vietnam. 

“The program had a major impact, transforming the lighting market in Vietnam, and reducing peak demand by 300 MW,” said Peter du Pont, who worked as a consultant to EVN and the World Bank during the implementation of the program. “It also reduced emissions of carbon dioxide, by more than three million tons." 

At the moment, the Asian Development Bank is looking to fund the streamlining of seven heavy manufacturing sites, according to Felix Gooneratne, Asia Director, International Institute for Energy Conservation (IIEC).

“Investment grade audits conducted at seven sites (five cement and two steel) have identified significant potential for generating electricity from process waste heat that would supplement on-site electricity demand,” said Gooneratne. “Investment plans are currently being finalized.”

At the same time, the United Nations Development Program has targeted small and medium-sized manufacturers for efficiency projects.

Future energy needs remain a major issue in the country.

Last month, the government raised the costs of electricity roughly fifteen percent. Officials at the Ministry of Industry and Trade said they hoped that higher power prices would make the construction of large power projects more attractive to foreign investors.

In the meantime, Vietnam is looking to develop its own grassroots campaign to curb energy usage.

Beyond the hour

Earth Hour was initiated by the WWF – a non-governmental environmental advocate – to increase climate change awareness and induce mitigating responses.

The first event was held in Sydney in 2007 and has quickly spread around the globe.

Last year, hundreds of millions of people across the world, in 4,616 cities and 128 countries and territories, turned off their lights during the last weekend in March.

Tran Minh Hien, Vietnam Country Director of the WWF Greater Mekong Program, said that they plan to launch an extensive campaign that will last the whole year.

“The main event night is just a beginning,” she said. “Several activities have been launched for individuals, companies and organizations nationwide.”

WWF Vietnam has held talks with students from 16 universities and schools about climate change and Earth Hour.

Hien said that the first success of the campaign is that it has attracted more support from governmental agencies, organization and individuals.

In 2010, 20 cities and provinces as well as more than 300 companies and organizations participated in the event.

“This year, up to 30 cities and provinces and more than 4,800 companies and organizations have committed to participating,” Hien said.

Facing down energy demands

This January, the Law on Economical and Effective Use of Energy took effect. The law resolution sought to establish limits on the use of energy in homes and businesses-though actual regulations have yet to be established.

In the meantime, Vietnam is facing some very immediate problems in its energy needs.

According to the HCMC Energy Conservation Center (ECC) the city will face a shortfall of two million kWh of electricity every day during the remainder of the dry season—which ends in May.

Center Director Huynh Kim Tuoc said that the energy shortfall would not be a problem if local consumers became more conscious about their energy usage.

“If 1.8 million households in HCMC turned off their air conditioners for an extra 30 minutes, the city would save 900,000 kWh of electricity a day,” he told Tuoi Tre newspaper in an interview last week. “More efficient use of electricity in factories and offices would also solve the energy shortage.”

But local campaigners and public awareness campaigns are already taking hold.

Last March, the ECC and the HCMC Women’s Association launched a campaign to make 100,000 households energy efficient. As a result, many households have reduced their electricity bills between 10-50 percent during the previous year.

”We built a network of some 1,200 propagandists in all the city’s 24 districts,” Tuoc said. “Each was assigned to be in charge of around 100 families to offer energy saving consultations and encourage them to use electricity efficiently.”

Tuoc added that the ultimate goal is to change the community’s awareness in purchasing and using electricity.

“The result was great,” he said. “The participants later encouraged others to participate in the program.”

Lawmakers ask for careful study of nuclear risks 

 

Vietnamese lawmakers urged the government to carefully consider the risks involved in the country’s plan to build eight nuclear power plants.

 

The request came during a National Assembly meeting held Saturday in Hanoi.

 

Assemblywoman Dang Thi My Huong from the central province of Ninh Thuan said that news about a partial meldown at a Japanese nuclear plant and a recent tremor off the province’s coast have given rise to public concern about the plan.

 

Ninh Thuan is slated to be the site of the nation’s first nuclear power plant and Huong has asked the government to provide public updates on the project’s progress to calm those concerned.

 

Nguyen Minh Thuyet, a representative from the northern province of Lang Son, agreed.

 

He said he had recently heard that the Russian-owned Rosatom Corp., Vietnam’s partner in the project of the first plant, has pointed out disadvantages in the plants’ proposed locations.

 

Thuyet said there were concerns that the plants would be located too close to offshore fault lines, making them suceptible to possible tsunamis, or on crusts where earthquakes start.

 

“I suggest that the government’s agencies study [the risks] very carefully,” he said.

 

Last Wednesday, following explosions and fires at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, Vietnam’s Ministry of Science and Technology held a press conference to announce that the country’s nuclear plans wouldn’t be affected.

 

Local officials and scientists pledged that any facilities built inside the country would include the latest safety features informed by the catastrophe in Japan.

 

Last October, Vietnam signed a multi-billion-dollar deal with Russia to build its first nuclear power plant, which is expected to go into operation in 2020.

 

Vietham also plans to cooperate with Japan on two other nuclear reactors.

 

Eight nuclear plants are slated to go into operation by 2031.

Wanted: Better products, and an even better attitude 

An Audi waiting its turn at a gas station in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.

My father once told me: “You lose not because your rivals are too strong to be defeated, but because you’re not strong enough to win. So, make yourself strong first.”

I think this lesson should be applied to the current problem facing the Vietnamese economy: the crazy import of luxury goods.

The General Statistics Office recently announced that Vietnam imported luxury goods worth a total of US$10 billion last year.

It’s not a shocking figure these days, considering how frequently we see cars costing millions of dollars, mobile phones costing hundreds of millions of dong, or foreign liquor bottles that cost the annual income of a civil servant.

What’s shocking is that even though high taxes have been imposed on luxury goods for years, the imports continue to increase.

There is a 300 percent import tax on cars on average, but Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Aston Martins were still shipped to Vietnam last year. It is said that most “super luxury cars” are already present in Vietnam.

Some people argue that those who have money have the right to buy what they want, including branded and luxury goods.

However, with the country facing serious problems like the rising gap between the rich and the poor, and the scarcity of foreign reserves, not to mention an annual per capita income of just over $1,000, overspending on luxurious goods by rich people is no longer their own affair.

Certainly not when their behavior is worsening the country’s trade deficit.

To deal with this problem, administrative measures like taxing and placing restrictions on foreign currency loans aren’t enough.

What matters here is people’s attitude. Once a matter of shame, people actually think ostentatious consumption, especially of foreign goods adds to their prestige!

I feel that to change this belief, we need to improve the quality of domestic goods and services, while organizing a long-term campaign to promote their consumption.

If we have good products and services that satisfy consumers, foreign products will have no way to dominate local markets anymore.

In South Korea, for example, local consumers’ support of domestic goods has helped the car, electronics and cosmetics industries develop strongly not only within the country but in export markets as well.

If experts are alarmed by the import of luxury goods in Vietnam, it means that the Vietnamese people’s undue preference for foreign goods is also cause for alarm.

If we don’t act now to instill a sense of national pride, the country’s trade deficit problem will only gorw.