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World bids a relieved adieu to a rocky year

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[December 31, 2008]  SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- Amid the jubilation and celebration of New Year's Eve, another feeling is present for many as a decidedly rocky 2008 comes to a close: relief.

Randolph King, 63, of York, England, tried to forget his retirement fund losses as he sat on a hill overlooking Sydney Harbor, awaiting the city's annual New Year's fireworks display. "I'm looking forward to 2009 -- because it can't get much worse," he said.

InsuranceFacing the end of a year that saw global markets come crashing down -- taking the world's morale with them -- partygoers everywhere struggled to forget their troubles on what is typically a joyous night.

In the Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo spoke of hope for better days to come, while in Hong Kong, some admitted they were too depressed over their monetary woes to join in the revelry.

And in Malaysia, the government -- mindful of the shaky economy -- opted against sponsoring any celebration at all.

"The best way to welcome the new year is to offer prayers according to one's faith and belief," said Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Shafie Apdal.

In Sydney -- the first major city to ring in the new year -- organizers were hoping the $4 million (6 million Australian dollar) New Year's festival would offer revelers a brief respite from the global gloom.

"There's so much misery around," fireworks director Fortunato Foti said. "If we can get people to forget all that and think just about the fireworks for 15 to 20 minutes, we will have done our job."


Armed with blankets, snacks and umbrellas to protect against the searing Australian summer sun, thousands poured onto the shores of the city's glittering harbor at daybreak Wednesday to secure a spot for the midnight fireworks display, expected to draw more than a million spectators.

The evening's theme, "Creation," was chosen in part because 2008 was such a dreary year, said the celebration's creative director, Rhoda Roberts.

"It is about reflecting and looking at what's happened in the past and moving forward," Roberts said. "It's a time for the community to gather, to reflect, and also to move on and to simply have a little bit of joy and celebration in their lives."

But in Hong Kong, where thousands were expected at popular Victoria Harbor for a midnight fireworks display, those who had investments linked to collapsed U.S. bank Lehman Brothers said there was little joy to be found.

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"I don't think there's any reason for me to celebrate after knowing that my investment is worth nothing now," said electrical repairman Chan Hon-ming, who had purchased a $30,000 Lehman-backed investment. "I just hope I can recoup part of the losses, but who knows? I just know I'll never invest again."

In Thailand, after a year of near-daily protests -- and six months in which demonstrations all but paralyzed the government -- the country was finally calm on the last day of 2008 as loyalists of ousted ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra took off for a five-day national holiday. Many of the protesters come from Thailand's rural northeast and have few opportunities to get home except for longer holidays like New Year's.

"We'll have a small party tonight and disperse after midnight (Tuesday) so that we can take time to celebrate the New Year festival," said a protest leader, Veera Musigapong.

In the Philippines, President Arroyo acknowledged the struggles of 2008.

"I pray for greater peace and stability," Arroyo said. "I hope that we can all work together as a global community to weather these storms."

[Associated Press; By KRISTEN GELINEAU]

Associated Press writers Denis Gray in Bangkok, Thailand, Dikky Sinn in Hong Kong, Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, contributed to this story.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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