Welcome back, Digital Travellers!
Firstly, Merry Christmas to you all! While most of us have been munching on cake and turkey leftovers, the Asian continent’s usual madness continued unabated.
Tragedy once against manifested itself in Indonesia in yet another earthquake-tsunami combo, killing hundreds. The Philippines was also struck by a tsunami after a quake, as yet however, no reports of casualties or damages have been reported. In the political sphere, violence and controversy surround the imminent Bangladeshi elections, while the Chinese continue to both detain Canadians as well as millions of Muslim Uighurs. The spectre of conflict remains in the Middle East, and in Far East, the information of nearly a 1,000 North Korean defectors living in the South was hacked into.
Despite these downers, there has been a fair amount of positive news, too. Istanbul has a new airport up and running (though it won’t be fully operational until March), the Green Zone in Baghdad reopened to the public for the first time in 15 years, and Thailand is becoming even more liberal with medical marijuana now approved and same-sex marriages going in the same direction.
As we said in last week’s Merry Update, we’ve rebranded and re-conceptualised our weekly Staying Safe (in Asia) blog hereby transforming it into Having Fun and Staying Safe (in Asia). This, we feel, better represents our duel emphasis both on security abroad as well as finding new places, and indeed, the best places to explore and experience in those foreign lands. Our intention with our original Staying Safe iteration, after all, was never to make readers fearful of a particular place, but rather to feel informed about the contemporary risks of destination X; risks often missed or omitted by many travel-centric sites, books, and articles.
Since our launch back in March 2018, we always intended on publishing a companion blog that promotes the best—and newest—of Asia but couldn’t quite do it with a small team. This fusion blog therefore works much better on a variety of levels. Our new look Friday offering further always us to broaden our horizon to include ethical discussions and present debates about places that may inspire greater desire on the one hand or a reconsideration on the other based on your personal views.
Secondly, we’ve also rejigged the layout. Gone is the list of the entire continent’s nations arranged alphabetically, rather they’ve been subdivided by region and then arranged as before. This, we hope, will help to better navigate of the weekly update in a speedier fashion. The other bonus should be apparent for those Digital Travellers aspiring or preparing for multi-country trips, particularly in regions that suffer from bouts of insecurity.
Elsewhere, the hyperlinks remain in place and will continue to deliver readers to Wikipedia for very quick information about those countries until such time as we have fully developed our own summary of each country. The hyperlinks have also been retained in text that, when pressed, takes you to the source of the information be it news on politics and security or the hippest new restaurant in town or latest attraction that is months from appearing in the next guidebook.
We hope our changes improve your user experience.
Disclaimer: The Digital Traveller Team endeavours to not proffer or impose our personal opinions on politically sensitive topics. If, however, you feel that we have gone beyond our usual mandate to highlight political and security developments in Asia, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can correct it. Thank you.
Turkey and The Middle East
Iraq: This week saw some progress in Iraq: the important, though vulnerable ‘Green Zone’ in Baghdad reopened to the public after 15 years. This move has not only been a cause for celebration, but has further helped to relieve the city’s traffic problems. Some security remains in place near foreign embassies and critical (Iraqi) state ministries.
Lebanon: Last Sunday, several hundred protesters marched against the state of the country’s economy and politics; some demonstrators briefly blocked several main roads into the capital, Beirut.
Syria: While the US President’s decision to withdrawal his nation’s troops from Syria continues to attract criticism, Syria’s capital’s air defences intercepted missiles fired by Israeli fighter jets entering its airspace. The region shows little sign of becoming less complicated anytime soon.
Turkey: With the US withdrawal declared in Syria, Turkey prepares to get more deeply involved, particularly concerning its long issue with the Kurds in the far east of Turkish territory. Troops and tanks have been moved towards the Syrian border with Ankara poised to hit the Kurds—US allies— when the Americans finally pullout; a decision that lead to Mattis’ resignation. In contrast, there is some good news, at least for Digital Travellers: Istanbul’s new airport—Milliyet—will soon be fully operational. Currently, only a handful of flights are running, but officials predict the airport will emerge to become one of the world’s busiest: “The airport will be able to handle 90 million passengers a year, and can be expanded to accommodate as many as 200 million, Erdogan said at the opening ceremony.”
United Arab Emirates: In yet further singling that the civil war in Syria has turned a corner, the UAE has announced that it is reopening its embassy in Damascus. The conflict in Syria has hitherto claimed an estimated 500,000 lives.
China and East Asia
North Korea/South Korea: On Friday, news emerged that a mystery hacker stole data on some 1,000 North Korean defectors currently living in the South. The Unification Ministry has offered its apologies and resolved to prevent similar incidents in the future. For anyone wishing to garner an insight into North Koreans defecting in the South, this week’s article in The Guardian may provide a window into that otherworld.
Japan: In Japan, an end of an era is approaching. On the 24th, it was reported that Emperor Akihito was attended by some 82,850 attendees for his 85th birthday—his last prior to his abdication this coming year. Akihito’s voluntary departure will be the first time an emperor has left his post for nearly two hundred years. Elsewhere, Tokyo’s stocks plunged on Christmas Day, impacting upon the economy. This, however, may be a boon for foreign tourists visiting the notoriously expensive country.
Indonesia: Natural disasters continue in the many-island nation: a tsunami hit the coast of the Sunda Strait, initially killing 43 people and injuring some 600 people. This figure, however, was proved to be grossly inaccurate as time progressed: by Monday, some 220 were confirmed dead with over 800 injured. This additional al Jazeera piece shows the dramatic moment when the tsunami hit a rock concert, resulting in several casualties. As the week went on, it became clear—according to experts—that the tsunami was caused by a partial volcano collapse: Anak Krakatau. In mid-week, Indonesia ordered flights to stay clear of the erupting volcano. By Saturday, the death toll reached 420 people. 2018 has been a terrible year for natural disasters in Indonesia.
The Philippines: Indonesia was not the only ASEAN Member State to be hit by a geological disaster this week: the Philippines was stricken by a 6.9 magnitude earthquake. Despite the strength of the seismic activity, as yet, no casualties or damage has been reported.
Myanmar/Burma: On the off-chance you are planning a very dangerous land crossing either from or into Myanmar/China, Digital Travellers should know that the Myanmar army has closed the Kyin San Kyawt border crossing in Shan state causing a fair amount of local disruption. Elsewhere, and despite controversial, though hopeful ceasefires in the north of the country, conflict between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar army continue; reports of human shields have emerged.
Last week, we wrote about Jack Dorsey’s Myanmar Tweets and how they played up the country but failed to highlight the wide-range of human rights abuses happening in Myanmar. In the Independent this week, Cathy Adams made the case for why more people should travel to ‘unethical’ destinations like Myanmar. The Digital Traveller leaves the moral judgements to your own discretion, but encourages some thought on the subject nonetheless. If you go along with Adams’ argument, you may wish to check out ASEAN’s drive to promote the quite wonderful Inle Lake. If, however, you are only in Yangon for a whistle-stop tour, have a read of ‘Ten Things to Do in Yangon This Week,’ and the ‘Best Places in Yangon to Ring in the New Year.’
Thailand: Old Siam is in danger of becoming a rather liberal country following years of military authoritarianism. Thailand has just passed “a civil partnership bill [that] could soon pave the way for the legal recognition of same-sex civil unions, representing the first country in Asia to move in such a progressive direction,” so writes Caleb Quinley. There’s still a way to go, and the bill may have to go through a new government if it doesn’t become law soon. Critics also decry the lack of recognised equal rights for the LGBTI community. While this might still be in the air, Thailand has approved medical marijuana. '“This is a New Year’s gift from the National Legislative Assembly to the government and the Thai people,” said Somchai Sawangkarn.’
India and the Sub-continent Area
Bangladesh: The big focus for Bangladesh has been the elections, scheduled for December 30th. Currently, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is seeking her fourth term. Yet, controversy has accompanied this last week: Bangladesh slowed down the mobile internet speed ahead of the election, while the opposition has been subjected to a range of abuses as well as mass arrests ahead of the polls: al Jazeera reports some 7,000. Elsewhere, the Rohingya refugee camps have been sealed off during those days surrounding the election. This includes NGO workers. Roadblocks have been set up, and additional security forces deployed around the camps. More generally, some 30,000 troops have joined more than 20,000 paramilitary forces deployed throughout the country for the election period. And it looks like they might be needed: “At least six people have been killed in the election violence while the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) says at least 152 of its candidates have been attacked.” For more on the Bangladeshi elections, click here.
India: Violence continues in the disputed territory of Kashmir; kill six were killed by Indian security forces at the weekend, bringing the total casualty list to some 232 rebels this year - the highest figure in nine years. India has also opened its longest road-rail bridge, located in Assam. On the face of things, the rationale is to improve security in the troubled region by increasing the speed at which forces can arrive. However, it might also become a faster route into China when things (hopefully) become more cordial between the two emerging superpowers. Oh, and Digital Travellers, if you are heading this way soon, bring your face masks: ‘“[p]ollution levels in New Delhi have hit their worst this year in the past two days - earning a “severe” to “emergency” rating and indicating conditions that can spark a public health crisis.”’
Asia, in General
With the spirit of Christmas still in the air, National Geographic re-worked a classic Santa map from 1955, which is charming, quaint, and well worth a read. And if you wish to be a little more eco-friendly when travelling around the globe, have a think about these 10 tips from the UN Development Programme or take a longer look at another National Geographic piece on overtourism.
That’s all from us this time. As always, if you hear of anything we’ve missed, or have a juicy tip, let us know by emailing the team at email@example.com, or through our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/thedigitaltravellerteam/?ref=bookmarks.
*This update was compiled by Thomas David Dowling
Have fun and stay safe
The Digital Traveller Team