Monday, May 31, 2010

Blacks in Memphis Lose Decades of Economic Gains

MEMPHIS — For two decades, Tyrone Banks was one of many African-Americans who saw his economic prospects brightening in this Mississippi River city.
A single father, he worked for FedEx and also as a custodian, built a handsome brick home, had a retirement account and put his eldest daughter through college.
Then the Great Recession rolled in like a fog bank. He refinanced his mortgage at a rate that adjusted sharply upward, and afterward he lost one of his jobs. Now Mr. Banks faces bankruptcy and foreclosure.
“I’m going to tell you the deal, plain-spoken: I’m a black man from the projects and I clean toilets and mop up for a living,” said Mr. Banks, a trim man who looks at least a decade younger than his 50 years. “I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. But my whole life is backfiring.”
Not so long ago, Memphis, a city where a majority of the residents are black, was a symbol of a South where racial history no longer tightly constrained the choices of a rising black working and middle class. Now this city epitomizes something more grim: How rising unemployment and growing foreclosures in the recession have combined to destroy black wealth and income and erase two decades of slow progress.
The median income of black homeowners in Memphis rose steadily until five or six years ago. Now it has receded to a level below that of 1990 — and roughly half that of white Memphis homeowners, according to an analysis conducted by Queens College Sociology Department for The New York Times.
Black middle-class neighborhoods are hollowed out, with prices plummeting and homes standing vacant in places like Orange Mound, White Haven and Cordova. As job losses mount — black unemployment here, mirroring national trends, has risen to 16.9 percent from 9 percent two years ago; it stands at 5.3 percent for whites — many blacks speak of draining savings and retirement accounts in an effort to hold onto their homes. The overall local foreclosure rate is roughly twice the national average.
The repercussions will be long-lasting, in Memphis and nationwide. The most acute economic divide in America remains the steadily widening gap between the wealth of black and white families, according to a recent study by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University. For every dollar of wealth owned by a white family, a black or Latino family owns just 16 cents, according to a recent Federal Reserve study.
The Economic Policy Institute’s forthcoming “The State of Working America” analyzed the recession-driven drop in wealth. As of December 2009, median white wealth dipped 34 percent, to $94,600; median black wealth dropped 77 percent, to $2,100. So the chasm widens, and Memphis is left to deal with the consequences.
“This cancer is metastasizing into an economic crisis for the city,” said Mayor A. C. Wharton Jr. in his riverfront office. “It’s done more to set us back than anything since the beginning of the civil rights movement.”
The mayor and former bank loan officers point a finger of blame at large national banks — in particular, Wells Fargo. During the last decade, they say, these banks singled out blacks in Memphis to sell them risky high-cost mortgages and consumer loans.
The City of Memphis and Shelby County sued Wells Fargo late last year, asserting that the bank’s foreclosure rate in predominantly black neighborhoods was nearly seven times that of the foreclosure rate in predominantly white neighborhoods. Other banks, including Citibank and Countrywide, foreclosed in more equal measure.
In a recent regulatory filing, Wells Fargo hinted that its legal troubles could multiply. “Certain government entities are conducting investigations into the mortgage lending practices of various Wells Fargo affiliated entities, including whether borrowers were steered to more costly mortgage products,” the bank stated.
Wells Fargo officials are not backing down in the face of the legal attacks. They say the bank made more prime loans and has foreclosed on fewer homes than most banks, and that the worst offenders — those banks that handed out bushels of no-money-down, negative-amortization loans — have gone out of business.
“The mistake Memphis officials made is that they picked the lender who was doing the most lending as opposed to the lender who was doing the worst lending,” said Brad Blackwell, executive vice president for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage.
Not every recessionary ill can be heaped upon banks. Some black homeowners contracted the buy-a-big-home fever that infected many Americans and took out ill-advised loans. And unemployment has pitched even homeowners who hold conventional mortgages into foreclosure.
Federal and state officials say that high-cost mortgages leave hard-pressed homeowners especially vulnerable and that statistical patterns are inescapable.
“The more segregated a community of color is, the more likely it is that homeowners will face foreclosure because the lenders who peddled the most toxic loans targeted those communities,” Thomas E. Perez, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, told a Congressional committee.
The reversal of economic fortune in Memphis is particularly grievous for a black professional class that has taken root here, a group that includes Mr. Wharton, a lawyer who became mayor in 2009. Demographers forecast that Memphis will soon become the nation’s first majority black metropolitan region.
That prospect, noted William Mitchell, a black real estate agent, once augured for a fine future.
“Our home values were up, income up,” he said. He pauses, his frustration palpable. “What we see today, it’s a new world. And not a good one.”
Porch View
“You don’t want to walk up there! That’s the wild, wild west,” a neighbor shouts. “Nothing on that block but foreclosed homes and squatters.”
To roam Soulsville, a neighborhood south of downtown Memphis, is to find a place where bungalows and brick homes stand vacant amid azaleas and dogwoods, where roofs are swaybacked and thieves punch holes through walls to strip the copper piping. The weekly newspaper is swollen with foreclosure notices.
Here and there, homes are burned by arsonists.
Yet just a few years back, Howard Smith felt like a rich man. A 56-year-old African-American engineer with a gray-flecked beard, butter-brown corduroys and red sneakers, he sits with two neighbors on a porch on Richmond Avenue and talks of his miniature real estate empire: He owned a home on this block, another in nearby White Haven and another farther out. His job paid well; a pleasant retirement beckoned.
Then he was laid off. He has sent out 60 applications, obtained a dozen interviews and received no calls back. A bank foreclosed on his biggest house. He will be lucky to get $30,000 for his house here, which was assessed at $80,000 two years ago.
“It all disappeared overnight,” he says.
“Mmm-mm, yes sir, overnight,” says his neighbor, Gwen Ward. In her 50s, she, too, was laid off, from her supervisory job of 15 years, and she moved in with her elderly mother. “It seemed we were headed up and then” — she snaps her fingers — “it all went away.”
Mr. Smith nods. “The banks and Wall Street have taken the middle class and shredded us,” he says.
For the greater part of the last century, racial discrimination crippled black efforts to buy homes and accumulate wealth. During the post-World War II boom years, banks and real estate agents steered blacks to segregated neighborhoods, where home appreciation lagged far behind that of white neighborhoods.
Blacks only recently began to close the home ownership gap with whites, and thus accumulate wealth — progress that now is being erased. In practical terms, this means black families have less money to pay for college tuition, invest in businesses or sustain them through hard times.
“We’re wiping out whatever wealth blacks have accumulated — it assures racial economic inequality for the next generation,” said Thomas M. Shapiro, director of the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University.
The African-American renaissance in Memphis was halting. Residential housing patterns remain deeply segregated. While big employers — FedEx and AutoZone — have headquarters here, wage growth is not robust. African-American employment is often serial rather than continuous, and many people lack retirement and health plans.
But the recession presents a crisis of a different magnitude.
Mayor Wharton walks across his office to a picture window and stares at a shimmering Mississippi River. He describes a recent drive through ailing neighborhoods. It is akin, he says, to being a doctor “looking for pulse rates in his patients and finding them near death.”
He adds: “I remember riding my bike as a kid through thriving neighborhoods. Now it’s like someone bombed my city.”
Banking on Nothing
Camille Thomas, a 40-year-old African-American, loved working for Wells Fargo. “I felt like I could help people,” she recalled over coffee.
As the subprime market heated up, she said, the bank pressure to move more loans — for autos, for furniture, for houses — edged into mania. “It was all about selling your units and getting your bonus,” she said.
Ms. Thomas and three other Wells Fargo employees have given affidavits for the city’s lawsuit against the bank, and their statements about bank practices reinforce one another.
“Your manager would say, ‘Let me see your cold-call list. I want you to concentrate on these ZIP codes,’ and you knew those were African-American neighborhoods,” she recalled. “We were told, ‘Oh, they aren’t so savvy.’ ”
She described tricks of the trade, several of dubious legality. She said supervisors had told employees to white out incomes on loan applications and substitute higher numbers. Agents went “fishing” for customers, mailing live checks to leads. When a homeowner deposited the check, it became a high-interest loan, with a rate of 20 to 29 percent. Then bank agents tried to talk the customer into refinancing, using the house as collateral.
Several state and city regulators have placed Wells Fargo Bank in their cross hairs, and their lawsuits include similar accusations. In Illinois, the state attorney general has accused the bank of marketing high-cost loans to blacks and Latinos while selling lower-cost loans to white borrowers. John P. Relman, the Washington, D.C., lawyer handling the Memphis case, has sued Wells Fargo on behalf of the City of Baltimore, asserting that the bank systematically exploited black borrowers.
A federal judge in Baltimore dismissed that lawsuit, saying it had made overly broad claims about the damage done by Wells Fargo. City lawyers have refiled papers.
“I don’t think it’s going too far to say that banks are at the core of the disaster here,” said Phyllis G. Betts, director of the Center for Community Building and Neighborhood Action at the University of Memphis, which has closely examined bank lending records.
Former employees say Wells Fargo loan officers marketed the most expensive loans to black applicants, even when they should have qualified for prime loans. This practice is known as reverse redlining.
Webb A. Brewer, a Memphis lawyer, recalls poring through piles of loan papers and coming across name after name of blacks with subprime mortgages. “This is money out of their pockets lining the purses of the banks,” he said.
For a $150,000 mortgage, a difference of three percentage points — the typical spread between a conventional and subprime loan — tacks on $90,000 in interest payments over its 30-year life.
Wells Fargo officials say they rejected the worst subprime products, and they portray their former employees as disgruntled rogues who subverted bank policies.
“They acknowledged that they knowingly worked to defeat our fair lending policies and controls,” said Mr. Blackwell, the bank executive.
Bank officials attribute the surge in black foreclosures in Memphis to the recession. They say that the average credit score in black Census tracts is 108 points lower than in white tracts.
“People who have less are more vulnerable during downturns,” said Andrew L. Sandler of Buckley Sandler, a law firm representing Wells Fargo.
Mr. Relman, the lawyer representing Memphis, is unconvinced. “If a bad economy and poor credit explains it, you’d expect to see other banks with the same ratio of foreclosures in the black community,” he said. “But you don’t. Wells is the outlier.”
Whatever the responsibility, individual or corporate, the detritus is plain to see. Within a two-block radius of that porch in Soulsville, Wells Fargo holds mortgages on nearly a dozen foreclosures. That trail of pain extends right out to the suburbs.
Begging to Stay
To turn into Tyrone Banks’s subdivision in Hickory Ridge is to find his dream in seeming bloom. Stone lions guard his door, the bushes are trimmed and a freshly waxed sport utility vehicle sits in his driveway.
For years, Mr. Banks was assiduous about paying down his debt: he stayed two months ahead on his mortgage, and he helped pay off his mother’s mortgage.
Two years ago, his doorbell rang, and two men from Wells Fargo offered to consolidate his consumer loans into a low-cost mortgage.
“I thought, ‘This is great! ’ ” Mr. Banks says. “When you have four kids, college expenses, you look for any savings.”
What those men did not tell Mr. Banks, he says (and Ms. Thomas, who studied his case, confirms), is that his new mortgage had an adjustable rate. When it reset last year, his payment jumped to $1,700 from $1,200.
Months later, he ruptured his Achilles tendon playing basketball, hindering his work as a janitor. And he lost his job at FedEx. Now foreclosure looms.
He is by nature an optimistic man; his smile is rueful.
“Man, I should I have stayed ‘old school’ with my finances,” he said. “I sat down my youngest son on the couch and I told him, ‘These are rough times.’ ”
Many neighbors are in similar straits. Foreclosure notices flutter like flags on the doors of two nearby homes, and the lawns there are overgrown and mud fills the gutters.
Wells Fargo says it has modified three mortgages for every foreclosure nationwide — although bank officials declined to provide the data for Memphis. A study by the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project and six nonprofit groups found that the nation’s four largest banks, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase, had cut their prime mortgage refinancing 33 percent in predominantly minority communities, even as prime refinancing in white neighborhoods rose 32 percent from 2006 to 2008.
For Mr. Banks, it is as if he found the door wide open on his way into debt but closed as he tries to get out.
“Some days it feels like everyone I know in Memphis is in trouble,” Mr. Banks says. “We’re all just begging to stay in our homes, basically.”

Storm Kills 142 in Central America

May 31, 2010

Storm Kills 142 in Central America

Filed at 5:04 p.m. ET
GUATEMALA CITY (AP) -- Flooding and landslides from the season's first tropical storm have killed at least 142 people and left thousands homeless in Central America, officials said Monday.
Dozens of people are still missing and emergency crews are struggling to reach isolated communities cut off by washed-out roads and collapsed bridges caused by Tropical Storm Agatha.
The sun emerged Monday in hardest-hit Guatemala, where officials reported 118 dead and 53 missing. In the department of Chimaltenango -- a province west of Guatemala City -- landslides buried dozens of rural Indian communities and killed at least 60 people, Gov. Erick de Leon said.
''The department has collapsed,'' de Leon said. ''There are a lot of dead people. The roads are blocked. The shelters are overflowing. We need water, food, clothes, blankets -- but above all, money.''
In the tiny village of Parajbei, a slide smothered three homes and killed 11 people.
''It was raining really hard and there was a huge noise,'' said Vicente Azcaj, 56, who ran outside and saw that a hill had crumbled. ''Now everyone is afraid that the same will happen to their homes.''
Volunteers from nearby villages worked nonstop since Sunday to recover the bodies in Parajbei, and on Monday they found the last two: brothers, 4 and 8 years old, who were buried under tons of dirt, rocks and trees.
As a thank-you, rescuers got a plate of rice and beans from the mayor of nearby Santa Apolonia.
''It's a small thing, but it comes from the heart,'' Tulio Nunez told them through a translator.
Nunez said he worried about the well-being of survivors in the area because the landslides blocked roads and burst water pipes.
''They don't have anything to drink,'' he said.
In all some 110,000 people were evacuated in Guatemala.
Thousands more have fled their homes in neighboring Honduras, where the death toll rose to 15 even as meteorologists predicted three more days of rain.
Two dams near the capital of Tegucigalpa overflowed into a nearby river, and officials warned people to stay away from swollen waterways.
''The risk is enormous,'' Mayor Ricardo Alvarez said.
In El Salvador, at least 179 landslides have been reported and 11,000 people were evacuated. The death toll was nine, President Mauricio Funes said.
About 95 percent of the country's roads were affected by landslides, but most remain open, Transportation Minister Gerson Martinez said.
The Lempa River, which flows to the Pacific, topped its banks and flooded at least 20 villages, affecting some 6,000 people, said Jorge Melendez, director of the Civil Protection Agency.
Officials warned that the Acelhuate River, which cuts through San Salvador, was running at dangerously high levels and threatened to spill over into the capital's streets.
Agatha made landfall near the Guatemala-Mexico border Saturday as a tropical storm with winds up to 45 mph (75 kph). It dissipated the following day over the mountains of western Guatemala.
The rising death toll is reminding nervous residents of Hurricane Mitch, which hovered over Central America for days in 1998, causing flooding and mudslides that killed nearly 11,000 people and left more than 8,000 missing and unaccounted for.
Rescue efforts in Guatemala have been complicated by a volcanic eruption Thursday near the capital that blanketed parts of the area with ash and closed the country's main airport. Officials are now allowing helicopters and propeller planes to take off, but commercial flights remain grounded.
Associated Press writers Freddy Cuevas in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Diego Mendez in San Salvador, El Salvador, contributed to this report.

Update, 2pm PT: HOW TO HELP, after the jump. Above, this photo just posted to the Guatemalan Government's Flickr feed shows a massive, spontaneous sinkhole ("hundimiento") that appeared today in Zone 2 of Guatemala City, after overwhelming saturation of rains from tropical storm Agatha. Not Photoshop, sadly: these happen from time to time during major storms in part because of unstable geology (and bad urban engineering—read more about it in the comments). There are rumors of similar sinkholes now forming nearby. See it on Google Maps. (News reports: Prensa Libre, and blogs)

ninoth.jpg Guatemala is in a state of crisis today after twin natural calamities struck: First, on May 27 the Pacaya volcano (just 19 miles from the capital) woke up in a bad mood. Lava flowed, black sand and rock and ash spewed everywhere. A newscaster covering the news near the volcano was killed by flying rocks.
Two days later on May 29, tropical storm "Agatha" struck, destroying homes, causing floods, and creating tens of thousands of internally displaced. Infrastructure in this country—where the majority live in poverty—is very poor, and ill-equipped to handle such a double blow. As of last night, official numbers on storm: about 30,000 "refugees," close to 120,000 evacuated, 93 dead and rising. Guatemala's one international airport has been has been closed for days, and just as it prepares to reopen today, there's word of new volcanic activity.
The poor always suffer the most when events like this happen, and the two events together caused surreal conditions: knee-deep black sand mud, and "instant concrete" that forms when rain meets ash, clogging up drains and fragile sewage systems. Said a friend on Twitter, "Water and sand everywhere... it's like the beach, only a lot less fun."
Today I learned that in the rural K'iche Maya pueblo where I volunteer with a non-profit, a local committee of community leaders is organizing to walk to other villages in the region, and check on damage, injuries, casualties. In rural areas, phones still aren't working, and many communities are only accessible by foot.
Guatemala isn't the only Central American nation affected: at least 10 are dead in El Salvador, and Honduras has declared a state of emergency.
Inset above, an image from the Guatemalan government's Flickr feed, of a child evacuated from a village near the volcano.
Here are documents related to the disaster (in Spanish). Reading and photos, and a guide to Twitter accounts and hashtags: Antigua Daily News, "Stop, Agatha, Stop!" And here's an item by Juliana Rincón Parra in Global Voices.
Renata Avila of Global Voices in Guatemala says,
I think that the best way to help now is to save the energy to help later: after the storm I am pretty sure we will face a nutrition crisis again because of lost crops and also a titanic task to rebuild communities. But if someone wants to donate in kind stuff here are the list of centers collecting items, and people can donate to These kids are amazing and are NOT corrupt.
I second the understanding that food crisis is imminent, and the best place to focus a desire to help. I traded texts with the K'iche village yesterday, and word is that most of the corn crops were devastated throughout that part of the highlands. I'd expect similar throughout the land. We're talking about a nation in which a large number of indigenous communities are still subsistence maize farmers, and Guatemala was already in the middle of an economic crisis and a hunger crisis—the success or failure of a corn crop can be a matter of life or death.

Rain Storm Cancels Obama's Memorial Day Observance

Rain Storm Cancels Obama's Memorial Day Observance

Biden made the more traditional appearance at Arlington National Cemetery on Obama's behalf.

President Barack Obama addresses the crowd at the Abraham Lincoln 
National Cemetery in Illinois amid a storm, which ultimately canceled 
the Memorial Day observance.
President Barack Obama addresses the crowd at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Illinois amid a storm, which ultimately canceled the Memorial Day observance. (Image from video / May 31, 2010)
ELWOOD, Ill. -- Vice President Joe Biden hailed America's fighting men and women Monday as the "spine of this nation," while President Barack Obama's Land of Lincoln tribute got washed out by a severe thunderstorm and high winds.

Biden made the more traditional appearance at Arlington National Cemetery on Obama's behalf, saying the country has "a sacred obligation" to make sure its servicemen and women are the best equipped and best-supported troops in the world.

"As a nation, we pause to remember them," Biden said. "They gave their lives fulfilling their oath to this nation and to us."

Obama had readied a similar message of gratitude for his appearance at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Illinois, and actually had taken the podium to give the address when the skies opened up with a quintessentially midwestern late-spring downpour - thunder, lightning and high winds.

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Under the cover of a large umbrella, he told thousands gathered before him that while "a little rain never hurt anybody," nobody wanted "anybody struck by lightning." He asked people to return to their cars for their safety, and he retreated briefly to an administration building on the cemetery's grounds. Obama a few minutes later boarded a pair of buses to greet military families that came for the event.

Within the hour, reporters who accompanied Obama to the cemetery in Elwood, Ill., were told the speech had been called off. The White House had released copies of Obama's prepared remarks in advance of his talk, but they were pulled back when the event had to be canceled.

Before the storm hit, and in advance of his appearance at the podium, Obama had visited a section of headstones where two Marines awaited him. After laying a wreath, he bowed his head in a moment of silence, his hands tightly clasped. Then a lone bugler played Taps.

At Arlington, Biden carried out the traditional wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns under a brilliant sunshine.

The vice president, accompanied by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the country's service members are "the heart and soul and, I would, say spine of this nation." He said taking part in the annual ceremony was "the greatest honor of my public life."

Obama's decision to appear in Illinois, rather than at the national burial grounds at Arlington, had been controversial, and some veterans groups criticized him for it, although he was not the first president to bypass the annual outing.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said Arlington is the focal point of the nation's and military's attention on Memorial Day. "When he's not here, it doesn't look like he's on the same page," Rieckhoff said.

Rieckhoff said U.S. service men and women need Obama to use the bully pulpit to remind people that the holiday is not about going to the beach or barbecuing. "We think that he has an obligation to really bridge the divide between the military and the rest of the population."

"We appreciate that the vice president is going to be here, but it's not the same," Rieckhoff said.

Jay Agg, a spokesman for the veterans group AMVETS, said the annual ceremony at Arlington is "the ideal place for the president to observe Memorial Day. However, his choice to honor our fallen at another national cemetery as other presidents have done is entirely appropriate."

In an e-mail, Agg accused some people of using the day "as an opportunity to score cheap political points on the backs of our veterans and in doing so dishonor them and distract from the true meaning and purpose of Memorial Day."

Honduras declares emergency after 14 die in rain storms

Honduras has declared a state of emergency after the remnants of Tropical Storm Agatha left 14 dead, emergency officials said Monday.
The storm drenched large parts of Central America over the weekend, causing the deaths of 83 people in Guatemala and nine in El Salvador, officials in those countries reported.
Agatha was the first named storm for the Pacific hurricane season. The Atlantic hurricane season starts Tuesday.

9 dead as Israeli forces storm Gaza aid convoy

9 dead as Israeli forces storm Gaza aid convoy

By the CNN Wire Staff
May 31, 2010 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)

(CNN) -- The international community on Monday condemned an Israeli naval commando raid on a flotilla carrying aid for Palestinians in Gaza, leaving 9 people dead.
Israel claimed it was defending itself, with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) saying the soldiers' lives were in danger after they were attacked with "severe physical violence, including live fire, weapons, knives and clubs."
The Free Gaza Movement, one of the organizers of the aid, said that Israeli commandos dropped from a helicopter onto the deck of one of the ships early Monday and "immediately opened fire on unarmed civilians."
A senior Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity in an independent account cleared by military censors, said Israeli troops were planning to deal with peace activists on a Gaza-bound flotilla, "not to fight."
The military official said most of the nine deaths were Turks. Twenty people were wounded. Seven Israeli soldiers were also wounded, one seriously.
All six boats in the flotilla were boarded according to the IDF but only one, the Mavi Mamara, offered resistance; the other five surrendered peacefully, the military said.
A host of nations condemned the military action and called for an investigation.
Map: Gaza flotilla intercepted
Video: Turkish protests denounce IDF raid
Video: Spokeswoman: We were bringing aid
Video: 'Israel regrets loss of life'
  • Gaza
  • Israel
White House spokesman Bill Burton said the United States "deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained and is currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy."
On Monday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled Tuesday's scheduled meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, according to Israeli government officials.
World reaction
The United Nations Security Council will hold talks at 1 p.m. ET Monday on the incident.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday he was "shocked by reports of killing of people in boats carrying supplies to Gaza. I condemn the violence and Israel must explain."
The Spanish and French governments called the action "disproportionate." The Italian foreign minister asked the European Union to investigate, and several nations, including Greece and Sweden, were summoning their Israeli ambassadors.
An indignant Turkey recalled its ambassador from Israel, canceled three planned military exercises with the Israeli military and called home its youth national football team, which had two games scheduled in Israel, said Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Chile, but will return after meeting with the Chilean president, Arinc said. The chief of the Turkish military was cutting short a trip to Egypt. The Turkish foreign minister, in Venezuela, was calling the United Nations Security Council to an emergency meeting, Arinc said.
"This operation will leave a bloody stain on the history of humanity," Arinc said. A Turkish group, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation or IHH, was one of the organizers of the flotilla, but people from various nations were aboard.
In a statement, Bahrain called it a "barbaric attack" on the part of Israel.
Israeli military gives version of flotilla incident
The British Foreign Minister William Hague said: "We have consistently advised against attempting to access Gaza in this way, because of the risks involved. But at the same time, there is a clear need for Israel to act with restraint and in line with international obligations."
The flotilla was being taken to the Israeli port of Ashdod, according to IDF.
Fifteen of the people captured were transferred to an Israeli prison in Beer Sheva, a spokesman for the Israeli Prison authority said Monday.
The Free Gaza Movement, one of the groups sponsoring the flotilla, disputed Israel's claim of violence by people aboard the ships.
"At about 4:30 am, Israeli commandos dropped from a helicopter onto deck of Turkish ship, immediately opened fire on unarmed civilians," said a post on the group's Twitter page.
Video aired on CNN sister network CNN Turk showed soldiers abseiling onto the deck of a ship from a helicopter above. The boarding of the ships took place more than 70 nautical miles outside Israeli territorial waters, according to IHH.
The Turkish foreign ministry said the incident "might cause irreversible consequences" in the nation's relationship with Israel.
"Israel has once again clearly demonstrated that it does not value human lives and peaceful initiatives through targeting innocent civilians," the statement said. "We strongly condemn these inhuman acts of Israel."
Meanwhile, a protest that began outside the Israeli embassy in Istanbul on Sunday continued into Monday. Although largely peaceful, police did use water cannons at one point to keep demonstrators at bay. Israel issued a "serious travel warning" for Israelis visiting Turkey. Those planning to travel to Turkey were asked to postpone their trip, while those in Turkey were advised to stay indoors.
The Israeli PM office has issues a serious travel warning for Israeli travelers visiting Turkey. The warning calls Israelis who are about to travel into Turkey to postpone their trip and for Israelis in Turkey to remain indoors and avoid presence in the city centers.
In Gaza, where the flotilla was headed, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called for global support of the Palestinian cause.
"The Israeli attack on the Freedom Flotilla is an ugly crime and against international law and this reflects the nature of the criminal Israeli occupation," Zuhri said. "We call upon the free world Arab and Muslim world to stand in support and help and support the international activists who have been subjected to killing in the middle of the sea."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for three days of mourning in the Palestinian territories to honor the lives lost.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev accused the leaders of the flotilla of looking for a fight.
"They wanted to make a political statement. They wanted violence," according to Regev, who said Israel wanted a peaceful interception of the ships trying to break Israel's blockade of Gaza. "They are directly responsible for the violence and the deaths that occurred."
The convoy of boats approached Gaza in defiance of an Israeli blockade and had been shadowed by three Israeli warships. Free Gaza had reported Sunday that they had been contacted by the Israeli navy.
The boats left European ports in a consolidated protest organized by two pro-Palestinian groups to deliver tons of food and other aid to Gaza to break a blockade imposed by Israel in 2007.
The maritime convoys were organized by both the Free Gaza Movement and the IHH, a humanitarian relief foundation affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood religious group.
Israel said Sunday that Western and Turkish authorities have accused IHH of having "working relations" with different terrorist organizations.

German President Quits Over Remarks on Military

May 31, 2010

German President Quits Over Remarks on Military

Filed at 11:46 a.m. ET
BERLIN (Reuters) - German President Horst Koehler unexpectedly resigned on Monday after a wave of criticism over his comments about military action abroad, in a move that compounds conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel's problems.
Already battling a euro zone debt crisis, sinking poll ratings and policy scraps with an increasingly awkward coalition partner, Merkel must now quickly find a successful candidate for president, whose role is largely ceremonial.
A failure to get her candidate installed would be widely seen as a blow to her authority.
Merkel's conservatives had backed Koehler for re-election last year but her waning popularity means Merkel may find it difficult to push through her -- as yet unknown -- candidate if the opposition center-left camp puts up a strong rival.
Though responsible for signing bills into law, the German President has traditionally had little influence on the business of politics in Berlin, even if Koehler himself did offer criticism of the government that was unusually direct at times.
"I regret that my comments could lead to a misunderstanding about an important and difficult question for our nation," an ashen-faced Koehler told reporters in Berlin.
His resignation takes immediate effect. The President of the Bundesrat upper house, currently Social Democrat Bremen mayor, Jens Boehrnsen, assumes the president's role for now.
Koehler, 67, has already signed off a law allowing Europe's biggest economy to contribute to a 750 billion euro emergency debt package, and his resignation had little market impact.
As a former head of the International Monetary Fund, Koehler has spoken out on the debt crisis enveloping the euro zone but his departure will have little impact on German policy.
"It has nothing to do with government policy," said Gerd Langguth, political scientist at the University of Bonn. "The President is a man of little political experience who saw himself as overstrained."
A special Federal Assembly, made up of all 622 members of parliament and an equal number of delegates sent by the 16 state assemblies, must elect the next German president within 30 days.
Koehler, in office since 2004, said in a radio interview on his return from a trip to Afghanistan this month that German military action abroad also served economic interests.
A country like Germany with a heavy reliance on foreign trade, Koehler said, must know that "in emergencies military intervention is necessary to uphold our interests, like for example free trade routes, for example to prevent regional instabilities which could have a negative impact on our chances in terms of trade, jobs and income."
Opposition politicians seized on the comments and accused Koehler of "gunboat diplomacy." The row underscores the sensitivity of military issues in Germany even 65 years after the end of World War Two and Nazi rule.
Koehler was unhappy about the reaction to his remarks.
"The criticism has gone so far as to suggest I supported deployments by the army which are not covered by the constitution. This criticism is completely unjustified," he said. "It shows a lack a respect for my office.
Merkel paid tribute to Koehler as a president who "won over peoples' hearts" and said she regretted his decision to resign. But analysts suggested he had been naive.
"It is not the president's duty to intervene in day-to-day politics," said Wichard Woyke, a political scientist from Muenster University. "But with his comments made on the flight back from Afghanistan, he did get mixed up in it. So he shouldn't be so surprised at such the harsh criticism."
(Additional reporting by Brian Rohan and Dave Graham; Writing by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Maria Golovnina)

When Online Grievances Are Met With a Lawsuit

May 31, 2010

When Online Grievances Are Met With a Lawsuit

After a towing company hauled Justin Kurtz’s car from his apartment complex parking lot, despite his permit to park there, Mr. Kurtz, 21, a college student in Kalamazoo, Mich., went to the Internet for revenge.
Outraged at having to pay $118 to get his car back, Mr. Kurtz created a Facebook page called “Kalamazoo Residents against T&J Towing.” Within two days, 800 people had joined the group, some posting comments about their own maddening experiences with the towing company.
T&J filed a defamation suit against Mr. Kurtz, claiming the site was hurting business and seeking $750,000 in damages.
Web sites like Facebook, Twitter and Yelp have given individuals a global platform on which to air their grievances with companies. But legal experts say the soaring popularity of such sites has also given rise to more cases like Mr. Kurtz’s, in which a business sues an individual for posting critical comments online.
The towing company’s lawyer said it was justified in towing Mr. Kurtz’s car because the permit was not visible, and that the Facebook page is costing them business and had unfairly damaged the company’s reputation.
Some first amendment lawyers see the case differently. They consider the lawsuit an example of the latest incarnation of a decades-old legal maneuver known as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or Slapp.
The label has traditionally referred to meritless defamation suits filed by businesses or government officials against citizens who speak out against them. The plaintiffs are not necessarily expecting to succeed — most do not — but rather to intimidate critics who are inclined to back down when confronted with the prospect of a long, expensive court battle.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” said Mr. Kurtz, who recently finished his junior year at Western Michigan University. “The only thing I posted is what happened to me.”
Many states have anti-Slapp laws, and Congress is considering legislation to make it harder to file a Slapp. The bill, sponsored by Representatives Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee, and Charles Gonzalez, Democrat of Texas, would create a federal anti-Slapp law, modeled largely on California’s statute.
Because state laws vary in scope, many suits are still filed every year, according to legal experts. Now, with people musing publicly online and businesses feeling defenseless against these critics, the debate over Slapps is shifting to the Web.
“We are beyond the low-tech era of people getting Slapped because of letters they wrote to politicians or testimony they gave at a city council meeting,” said George W. Pring, a University of Denver law professor who co-wrote the 1996 book, “Slapps: Getting Sued For Speaking Out.”
Marc Randazza, a first amendment lawyer who has defended clients against Slapps stemming from online comments, said he helped one client avoid a lawsuit last year after the client, Thomas Alascio, posted negative remarks about a Florida car dealership on his Twitter account.
“There is not a worse dealership on the planet,” read one tweet, which also named the dealership.
The dealership threatened to sue Mr. Alascio if he did not remove the tweets. Mr. Randazza responded in a letter that while Mr. Alascio admitted the dealership might not be the worst in the world, his comments constituted protected speech because they were his opinion.
While the dealership did not sue, that outcome is unusual, said Mr. Randazza, who conceded that sometimes the most pragmatic approach for a Slapp defendant is to take back the offending comments in lieu of a lawsuit.
In the past, Mr. Randazza said, if you criticized a business while standing around in a bar, it went “no further than the sound of your voice.”
Do that now, however, and “there’s a potentially permanent record of it as soon as you hit ‘publish’ on the computer,” he said. “It goes global within minutes.”
Laurence Wilson, general counsel for the user review site Yelp, said a handful of lawsuits in recent years had been filed against people who posted critical reviews on the site, including a San Francisco chiropractor who sued a former patient in 2008 over a negative review about a billing dispute. The suit was settled before going to court.
“Businesses, unfortunately, have a greater incentive to remove a negative review than the reviewer has in writing the review in the first place,” Mr. Wilson said.
Recognizing that lawsuits can bring more unwanted attention, one organization has taken a different tack. The group Medical Justice, which helps protect doctors from meritless malpractice suits, advises its members to have patients sign an agreement that gives the doctor copyright over a Web posting if the patient mentions the doctor or practice.
Dr. Jeffrey Segal, chief executive of Medical Justice, said about half of the group’s 2,500 members use the agreement.
“I, like everyone else, like to hear two sides of the story,” he said. “The problem is that physicians are foreclosed from ever responding because of state and federal privacy laws. In the rare circumstance that a posting is false, fictional or fraudulent, the doctor now has the tool to get that post taken down.”
The federal bill, in the House Subcommittee on Courts and Competition Policy, would enable a defendant who believes he is being sued for speaking out or petitioning on a public matter to seek to have the lawsuit dismissed.
“Just as petition and free speech rights are so important that they require specific constitutional protections, they are also important enough to justify uniform national protections against Slapps,” said Mark Goldowitz, director of the California Anti-Slapp Project, which helped draft the bill.
Under the proposed federal law, if a case is dismissed for being a Slapp, the plaintiff would have to pay the defendant’s legal fees. Mr. Randazza would not disclose specifics on the legal fees he has charged his clients, but he said the cost of defending a single Slapp suit “could easily wipe out the average person’s savings before the case is half done.”
Currently, 27 states have anti-Slapp laws, and in two — Colorado and West Virginia — the judiciary has adopted a system to protect against such suits. But the federal legislation would both create a law in states that do not have one and offer additional protections in those that already do, Mr. Goldowitz said.
In Michigan, which does not have an anti-Slapp measure, Mr. Kurtz’s legal battle has made him a local celebrity. His Facebook page has now grown to more than 12,000 members.
“This case raises interesting questions,” the towing company’s lawyer, Richard Burnham, said. “What are the rights to free speech? And even if what he said is false, which I am convinced, is his conduct the proximate cause of our loss?”
On April 30, Mr. Kurtz and his lawyers asked a judge in Kalamazoo to dismiss the suit by T&J, which has received a failing grade from the local better business bureau for complaints over towing legally parked cars. Mr. Kurtz is also countersuing, claiming that T&J is abusing the legal process.
“There’s no reason I should have to shut up because some guy doesn’t want his dirty laundry out,” Mr. Kurtz said. “It’s the power of the Internet, man.”

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Duke Pulls the Plug on Usenet - Chris Pirillo

Duke Pulls the Plug on Usenet


Today, May 20th 2010, marks a sad day for all of us who remember – and grew up with – Usenet. Duke University will be forever pulling the plug on the once-popular means of communication, laying it to rest at long last. More than thirty years ago, Usenet was started by two then-students as a means to communicate between computer modems. Many say that it was the beginning of the Internet as we know it today.
Once it began, Usenet quickly grew to become an international electronic discussion forum consisting of more than 120,000 newsgroups. However, not everyone could just jump “online” using the service because connections were expensive and required a research contract with the federal Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). Dietolf Ramm, professor emeritus of computer science at Duke, said that “Usenet was a pioneering effort because it allowed anybody to connect and participate communications.”

While the RIAA and MPAA may be celebrating this news due to the large amount of piracy going around Usenet, this is a sad day for the rest of us. Duke has decided to shut the service down due to rising costs of maintenance and lower volumes of people using the service. I well remember my days back on the computer before the Internet as you know it was born. I was so excited back then when I sent my first message from my computer to another. It’s a day that changed my life.

Kiss & Kill poster, France

Pakistan Blocks YouTube

May 20, 2010

Pakistan Blocks YouTube

Filed at 7:39 a.m. ET
ISLAMABAD (AP) -- The Pakistani government blocked access to YouTube on Thursday because of ''sacrilegious'' content in a growing Internet crackdown against sites deemed offensive to the country's majority Muslim population.
The move against the video-sharing website came a day after the government blocked access to Facebook amid anger over a page on the social networking site that encourages users to post images of Islam's Prophet Muhammad. Islam prohibits any images of the prophet.
The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority did not point to specific material on YouTube that prompted it to block the site, only citing ''growing sacrilegious contents.'' The government acted against both Facebook and YouTube after it failed to persuade the websites to remove the ''derogatory material,'' the regulatory body said in a statement.
It welcomed representatives from the two websites to contact the Pakistani government to resolve the dispute in a way that ''ensures religious harmony and respect.''
The regulatory body said it has blocked more than 450 Internet links containing offensive material, but it is unclear how many of the links were blocked in the last two days.
Access to the online encyclopedia site Wikipedia also was restricted Thursday, but it was not clear if the government had intended to do so. The head of the Pakistani telecommunications company Nayatel, Wahajus Siraj, said the restriction resulted from a technical glitch.
The government blocked Facebook on Wednesday after a group of Islamic lawyers won a court order requiring officials to restrict access to the site until May 31. It was unclear if the ban against YouTube also would be temporary.
The Facebook page ''Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!'' encourages users to post images of the prophet on May 20 to protest threats made by a radical Muslim group against the creators of the animated American television series ''South Park'' for depicting Muhammad in a bear suit during an episode earlier this year.
The page sparked protests from radical students in Pakistan, with some holding signs urging Islamic holy war against those who blaspheme the prophet.
''Public sentiment has been growing,'' said Siraj, the Nayatel CEO. ''The government was monitoring it and there seemed to be public unrest, so it had to take a decision.''
A series of cartoons of the prophet published in a Danish newspaper in 2005 sparked violent protests by Muslims around the world, including in Pakistan, and death threats against the cartoonists.
In an attempt to respond to public anger over the Facebook dispute, the Pakistani government ordered Internet service providers in the country to block the controversial page Tuesday.
But members of the Islamic Lawyers Forum asked the Lahore High Court on Wednesday to order the government to fully block Facebook because it allowed the page to be posted in the first place.
''Such malicious and insulting attacks hurt the sentiments of Muslims around the world and cannot be accepted under the garb of freedom of expression,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit said Thursday, referring to the images of the prophet on Facebook.
Facebook said Wednesday it was investigating.
''While the content does not violate our terms, we do understand it may not be legal in some countries,'' the company said in a statement. ''In cases like this, the approach is sometimes to restrict certain content from being shown in specific countries.''
Online reaction to the Facebook ban was supportive in the initial hours after it was implemented. But comments on Twitter -- which was still unblocked Thursday and drawing new users thanks to bans on other sites -- showed many Internet users were angry about the wide-ranging restrictions.
''Sad and embarrassing day in the history of Pakistan. Tough times to be a Pakistani. Questionable decisions in a so called 'democracy,''' one user tweeted.
Pakistan blocked access to YouTube for two days in 2008 because of what it said was unIslamic content. Turkey, Thailand, Indonesia and Morocco have all blocked access to YouTube in the past for various reasons.
It remains to be seen how successful the government will be at keeping Pakistan's nearly 20 million Internet users from accessing the blocked sites. Other countries, such as China, permanently ban Facebook and YouTube. But citizens often have little trouble working their way around the ban using proxy servers and other means.
''What's common to Facebook and Lashkar-e-Taiba?'' one user on Twitter wrote, referring to a Pakistani militant group that is banned but has an alleged front group that operates openly. ''They are both banned in Pakistan, but Pakistanis can still find them if they want to.''

Lindsay Lohan to Skip Mandatory Court Appearance

Lindsay Lohan to Skip Mandatory Court Appearance

Lohan, who is in France for the Cannes Film Festival, claims she lost her passport.

Lindsay Lohan
Lindsay Lohan (KTLA-TV / October 16, 2009)
BEVERLY HILLS -- Actress Lindsay Lohan is expected to miss a mandatory court appearance Thursday because she claims she lost her passport and can not leave the Cannes Film Festival. She could face possible jail time for the no-show.

The hearing, scheduled for 8:30 a.m. in Beverly Hills, is related to Lohan's 2007 no contest plea to driving under the influence.

Lohan's probation was extended for a year in October after she missed some alcohol education classes while making a movie in Texas.

There are also reports she has missed more classes, prompting Beverly Hills Superior Court Judge Marsha N. Revel to order a "mandatory personal appearance," according to the court's Public Information Office.

Revel is expected to issue a bench warrant for Lohan's arrest if she misses the hearing. That's standard practice when a person misses a court date, but they are usually put on hold for a few days to give the person another opportunity to come to court, according to Jane Robison of the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.

Lohan's attorney, Shawn Chapman Holley, said his client tried to board a plane Tuesday but was turned back at the airport because she lacked a passport, and that she has an appointment on Thursday to get another passport at the American embassy.

Lohan was spotted partying on a yacht in Cannes Wednesday night.

The 23-year-old actress could be jailed for failing to complete her alcohol education classes by Thursday.

She's apparently three classes short.

In August 2007, Lohan pleaded no contest plea to two counts each of driving under the influence and being under the influence of cocaine, along with a reckless driving charge.

At the Oct. 16 progress hearing, Revel scolded Lohan, saying she must notify the court and get permission before leaving the jurisdiction again.

"I don't want to get any notices again -- and I don't want you thumbing your nose at the court," Revel told Lohan, adding that "the most important thing" is that the actress "continue to recover."

"I don't want any more notices from the program that you may be in violation because you are absent for 21 days," Revel said.

"I am rooting for you to successfully complete probation," Revel said. "I want there to be no more misunderstanding. This has to be a top priority."

Revel also warned Lohan that because she is followed closely by the media, she won't be able to tell the court one thing and do another.

"Your life is followed -- it's not as if you can just hide out," Revel said. "Too many people know what you're doing."

About 5:15 a.m. on May 26, 2007, Lohan crashed a Mercedes-Benz SL65 into a hedge along Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills and was charged with drunken driving.

In July of that year she was arrested in Santa Monica in connection with a dispute with an assistant. She subsequently underwent rehab for alcohol and substance abuse.

Under the terms of her plea deal, she was placed on 36 months probation, required to serve a 24-hour jail sentence, complete an 18-month alcohol education program and perform 10 days of community service.

Lohan served 84 minutes in the Lynwood jail as part of her plea deal and was ordered to undergo alcohol and drug rehab as a condition of her probation.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bangkok burns after Thai protest leaders arrested

Bangkok burns after Thai protest leaders arrested

Associated Press Writer

Published Tuesday, May. 18, 2010

Downtown Bangkok turned into a flaming battleground Wednesday as an army assault toppled an anti-government group's leadership, enraging followers who fired grenades and set numerous fires that cloaked the skyline in black smoke.
Using live ammunition, troops dispersed thousands of Red Shirt protesters who had been camped in the capital's premier shopping and residential district for weeks. Four protesters and an Italian news photographer were killed in the ensuing gunbattles and about 60 wounded.
After Red Shirt leaders gave themselves up to police, rioters set fires at the Stock Exchange, several banks, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Electricity Authority, the Central World, one of Asia's biggest shopping malls, and a cinema that burned to ground. There were reports of looting.
Thick smoke drifted across the sky of this city of 10 million people. Firefighters retreated after protesters shot guns at them.
The chaos in Bangkok in the wake of the two-month protest will deepen the severe impact dealt to the economy and tourism industry of Thailand, a key U.S. ally and long considered one of the more stable countries in Southeast Asia. The Red Shirts had demanded the ouster of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government, the dissolution of Parliament and new elections.
The government declared an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew in Bangkok, and said army operations would continue through the night.
"Tonight is going to be another worrisome night," government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said.
It also imposed a partial media blackout on local TV stations, saying all of them will have to air government-prepared bulletins.
"They might be able to show their regular news programs. But we are concerned about their live broadcasts from the scenes," Panitan said. "There will be more (government) programs ... to be shown simultaneously by all stations," he said.
Protesters turned their rage on the local media, which they have accused of pro-government coverage. They attacked the offices of state-run Channel 3, setting fire to cars outside and puncturing water pipes that flooded the building.
"At Channel 3 need urgent help from police, soldiers!!!" tweeted news anchor Patcharasri Benjamasa. "News cars were smashed and they are about to invade the building."
Hours later its building was on fire. Its executives were evacuated by helicopter and police rescued other staff. The English-language Bangkok Post newspaper evacuated its staff after threats from the Red Shirts. A large office building down the street from the Post was set afire.
Unrest also spread to the rural northeast of the country, where Red Shirts, who claim Abhisit's government is elitist and oblivious to their plight, retain strong support.
Local media reported protesters set fire to government offices in the city of Udon Thani and vandalized a city hall in Khon Kaen. Udon Thani's governor asked the military to intervene. TV images also showed troops retreating after being attacked by mobs in Ubon Ratchathani.
Cabinet minister Satit Vongnongteay described the chaos as anticipated "aftershocks."
"There are violent-prone protesters who remain angry," Satit told a news conference.
At least 44 people have been killed, most of them civilians, in a week of violence in Bangkok as a military attempt to blockade the protesters - who had camped in the 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) Rajprasong district for six weeks - instead touched off street fighting, with soldiers firing on protesters who fought back mostly with homemade weapons.
The final crackdown began soon after dawn Wednesday, as hundreds of troops armed with M-16s converged on the Red Shirt base in Rajprasong, where high-end malls and hotels have been shuttered by the prolonged protest.
Armored vehicles crashed through barricades of piled tires and bamboo stakes, then soldiers gradually moved toward the protesters' hub, opening fire and drawing return fire from militant Red Shirts, Associated Press journalists saw.
Bullets flew overhead and several grenades exploded near the soldiers, forcing them to pull back and take cover briefly before pushing forward. A Canadian freelance reporter was injured by grenade shrapnel. Two other journalists were wounded earlier, one Dutch man and an American documentary filmmaker. An Italian photographer was killed.
With no hope of resisting the military's advance, seven top Red Shirt leaders turned themselves in on Wednesday afternoon, saying they cannot see their supporters - women and children among them - being killed anymore.
"Brothers and sisters, I'm sorry I cannot see you off the way I welcomed you all when you arrived here. But please be assured that our hearts will always be with you," Nattawut Saikua, a key leader, said as he was being arrested.
"Please return home," he said.
By mid-afternoon, the army announced it had gained control of the protest zone and the operations had ended - nine hours after troops launched the pre-dawn assault.
"Police officers and soldiers have now stopped their operation," army spokesman Col. Sansern Kawekamnerd said.