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VOA Interview: Sam Nunn says 'Carrots and Sticks' Needed with N. Korea

Sun, 02/25/2018 - 23:02
Concerned about a “war by blunder,” Sam Nunn, the former U.S. senator from Georgia who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee, says he favors “tightening the screws in sanctions” on North Korea, but the U.S. needs to communicate with the country at the same time. clear weapons. VOA Contributor Greta Van Susteren interviewed Nunn, who is co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, on February 20, 2018.

VOA Interview: Sam Nunn says 'Carrots and Sticks' Needed with N. Korea

Sun, 02/25/2018 - 22:23
Concerned about a “war by blunder,” Sam Nunn, the former U.S. senator from Georgia who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee, says he favors “tightening the screws in sanctions” on North Korea, but the U.S. needs to communicate with the country at the same time. In an interview with VOA Contributor Greta Van Susteren, Nunn favors modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, as set forth by the Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review. But Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, questions the need for developing more low-yield nuclear weapons. Interview was conducted February 20, 2018. Van Susteren: Senator nice to see you, sir. Nunn: Good to see you, Greta. Van Susteren: Senator I want to go back to the Nuclear Threat Initiative and how you began, got involved in this, but I want to go back to 1991 what happened with the fall of the Soviet Union, when the Soviet Union was falling, tell me what you did? Nunn: Well I was chair of the Armed Services Committee, and Senator Luger was a big player on the [Senate] Foreign Relations Committee and I’m in Budapest, Hungary at a conference with Soviet Union representatives, European representatives. Gorbachev gets taken captive. For three days we wait to see what happens. He gets released, one of our Russian friends who had been at the conference calls me, says: “Come to Moscow, big things are happening.” I went to Moscow, I stayed about four days. I visited with Gorbechev. I watched the debate about the break-up of the Soviet Union. I visited with the “new military leaders” who were loyal to [Boris] Yeltsin and I said to myself on the way back: “This place is coming apart and it’s coming apart with thousands of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons materials and we’ve got to do something about it.” That led to the introduction of what became the Nunn-Luger bill. It passed in late 1991 after a very rough start but three or four months later the House and the Senate went along with it and it became known as Cooperative Threat Reduction, helping the former Soviet Union, not just Russia but the other countries that had nuclear weapons and there were four of them — not just Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan and they were very big arsenals and we helped all of them over the next ten, fifteen years to try to secure their nuclear weapons and materials. Try to prevent catastrophic terrorism and also to try to give some meaningful role in life to people who weren’t being paid very well — the scientists — that knew how to make a nuclear weapon — that did not know how to support their families. Van Susteren: Since that point when the Soviet Union fell and the legislature was passed to help contain or help secure nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, has the threat increased or receded? Nunn: I think the threat of a deliberate all-out war with a major party like Russia — deliberate, I’ll put the emphasis on that  — has receded. I think the chances of a war by blunder, or a war because of cyber interference with command and control; a war because the United States and Russia escalate in some region like the Middle East or Ukraine; I think that kind of danger has gone up. And certainly the danger of catastrophic terrorism because the know how — the ability to make a crude nuclear weapon, not necessarily one that could be put up on a missile and fly through space but a crude nuclear weapon that could be put in the back of a truck or in a ship in a port, I think those dangers have gone up. So — deliberate war in my view, has receded, but war by blunder has increased in terms of risk and danger. Van Susteren: After 9-11 the 9-11 commission said that al-Qaida wanted to get their hands on a nuclear weapon. Obviously the know-how is, as you said, out there. The materials are out there, materials that are insecure in many nations and you’ve got the added part that terrorists  often times suicide bombers don’t have that survival instinct. Does that increase your worry, does that make you feel that there is more of a danger or am I being an alarmist? Nunn: I think there is more of a danger. The basic fundamental thing we have to all understand, in Russia and the United States is Russia and the United States — we have together 90 percent of the nuclear materials. When we’re at each other’s throats, so to speak — when we’re in the Middle East or Ukraine or over the elections, where there is cyber interference here, all of those things make the world inherently more dangerous. The United States and Russia have the huge nuclear arsenals and have a huge responsibility. Unless we’re working together the world gets more dangerous. And then you overlay cyber, you overlay terrorism, you overlay the fact that we’ve got four new countries with nuclear weapons and nine nuclear weapons states now. All of those things in my view have driven up the risk and the danger. Van Susteren: Do we need as many nuclear weapons as we have? Does the United States have a huge arsenal — far more than we need? Nunn: The key of survivability — the key is reliability and the key is safe and secure. So as long as we have nuclear weapons we have to have them safe, secure, reliable and in my view — as many as possible for survival, meaning they can take a first attack and still be able to retaliate. That’s what deterrence is. That’s what stability means. So the answer is we can reduce nuclear weapons but we have to do it in concert with what’s going on in Russia and what’s going on in China, so we need to work together. And I’ve said a number of times that if you look at all those dangers, particularly catastrophic terrorism and cyber and so forth, the world is in a race between cooperation and catastrophe and right now, cooperation is not running very fast. Van Susteren: Modernization. I hear that used all the time. Do we need to modernize our nuclear weapon arsenal or is what we have sufficient? Nunn: No, I think we need to modernize the arsenal and we need to modernize the infrastructure because you’ve got to have safe, secure and reliable weapons as long as they exist. Schultz, George Schultz, Henry Kissinger and Bill Perry and I all believe we need to reduce the amounts* of nuclear weapons, also make a contribution to having them not proliferate — not spread to other nations and ultimately — we would all like to see a world without nuclear weapons but as long as there are nuclear weapons, America has to have a modern, safe and secure infrastructure and delivery system as well as the weapons themselves. Van Susteren: Trump administration released in early February the Nuclear Posture Review and this is the first one since the Obama Administration released one in early 2010. Do you know how it’s changed at all or what the difference is between the two? Nunn: Well, the good news is, as you remember, President Trump during the campaign said two or three times that it would probably be ok for Japan and South Korea and Saudi Arabia to have nuclear weapons — well — those of us in this business — so to speak — were horrified at that because the policy of the United States under every president since World War II has been not to have nuclear weapons proliferate to new countries. It just makes all the dangers greater. But the good news is that in this Nuclear Posture Review it is very clear that United States policy has not changed in that regard. We’re still against proliferation and we still are signed up for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is enormously important. It’s sort of the pillar of stability in arms control. The other good news is the Administration has said they are not going to test. The bad news is that they are not in favor of ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty but at least we’re not going to test. So there are some good developments in here, in the Nuclear Posture Review and there are some things that I think raise very big questions and concerns. Van Susteren: One of the things that I was reading about was low yield nuclear weapons. And, do we need those? Doesn’t that start sort of an arms race of other nations wanting low-yield nuclear weapons? Nunn: Well, you don’t want to make nuclear weapons usable. The head of our strategic air command — I’ll call it strategic strike command — that’s old school — Striker Command now — General Hayden — said within the last year in testimony that all nuclear weapons are strategic. There is no such thing as a tactical nuclear weapon. If someone uses a nuclear weapon, the world has changed and the response will probably be strategic. So — I subscribe to that theory and I think a lot of conversation about usability of nuclear weapons — whether it comes from the Russian side, where they have a sort of a worse vocabulary and “escalate to deescalate” I don’t think there’s any such thing as escalating nuclear weapons to deescalate. General Hayden made it clear that he didn’t think that either, so, this is something that really ought to be debated. We’ve always had lower yield nuclear weapons but the terminology in this nuclear posture review seems to indicate that the United States believes to counter Russia’s “escalate to deescalate” we need to have more usable nuclear weapons and new nuclear weapons. So I think that raises serious questions and I think the burden [of proof] is on those who think we need new weapons for that purpose. Nunn: And particularly, the concern I have is reference to having a small nuclear weapon on a missile on a submarine. These submarines are our most survivable part of the Triad. If we shoot a small nuclear weapon off a submarine, how in the world is Russia or any other country going to know that it’s not the real biggest nuclear weapon we have. And what would we do if everybody goes to that concept? Do we start having small weapons being shot off submarines with that capacity? I think this is a really dangerous move and I think there are serious questions about to be raised on it. Now, on the other hand, there’s also discussion about a cruise missile, a sea launched cruise missile, to counter the Russian violation of INF, which is of grave concern. And I think that one has room for real discussion. But to take one of our, we call them ‘boomers,’ Trident submarines and put a small warhead on it, and act like the other countries would know it’s a small warhead when it’s being fired, to me raises serious questions. The other factor here would be, do we reveal the location of the submarine? Van Susteren: When we shoot one off, don’t they know where the location… Nunn: The trajectory would show where it is Van Susteren: Would show where it is at that point. Nunn: I would be shocked if they didn’t lay down as many nuclear warheads as they could in that region, even though the sub would move out because they would fire on the sea. But I think this raises some very big stability concerns and I’m hoping Congress will ask these hard questions because this is serious stuff. Van Susteren: The way, as a non sophisticated person in nuclear technology, the way I see these low yield nuclear weapons is sort of mini nukes, and I don’t quite understand why we need mini-nukes. I guess it’s because if the Russians lob a mini-nuke, low-yield someplace, we want to respond likewise and not use one of the big nukes and take out, something catastrophic. On the other hand, it creates a whole new arms race maybe to me because other countries would want them as well. Secondly, why don’t conventional weapons, why wouldn’t they serve the purpose, can’t conventional weapons answer a low-yield? Nunn: Yes, I think all of those are relevant questions and good questions. We also already have low-yield. We’ve had low-yield for a long time. We’ve had a weapon you could carry that is this big that we had, ADMs that you put in holes in the ground and fill the gap. So we’ve had them a long time. He real danger is the psychology and when we start advertising as the United States as a country that’s the strongest military in the world that we need a whole new weapons system and we are thinking about having a weapons that is more usable, now those who are for it will argue that they don’t believe you’ll use a big one. Well, I don’t know whether that’s accurate or not. My view, the US and Russia, if we both start talking about usability and you project that on the other seven nuclear powers in the world or nuclear weapons states, I think the world becomes very very dangerous. Van Susteren: What’s the situation between the United States and Russia, how much notice do we have of each other using these weapons, because I know you’ve been outspoken about that. Nunn: Well, the United States and Russia have never had much decision time for the leaders. If there was some kind of warning, the President of the United States and the president of Russia don’t have much decision time. You can debate whether its two minutes or five minutes or seven minutes, but the point is we should both be working to increase decision time. Van Susteren: And especially since there have been mistakes? Nunn: Absolutely. False warning and as I mentioned before, cyber-attacks, someone simulates and attack, you’ve got a false warning or it interferes with cyber, non-nation states might interfere with cyber command and control. And so I think the lack of decision time is fundamental and it would be my view the worlds would be a lot safer if we, the United States president and the Russian president and hopefully the other nuclear weapons states will say to their military commanders ‘go off and get in a room with each other and come back and give us more decision time. If we have five minutes now, give us 10 minutes before we have to either use them or lose them and when we get to 10 minutes, go to 20 and then 20 to an hour, to a day to a week and then nuclear weapons become less relevant and guess what? If they become less relevant, then we can begin and decrease the numbers of nuclear weapons. But if we make nuclear weapons more and more relevant, and that’s the big question in this posture review, are we making them more relevant or are we making them, for instance, there’s an implication in the nuclear posture review that’s just come out, that we might respond to a non-nuclear attack with nuclear weapons if it’s a cyberattack, a major cyberattack. Well, this raises questions about attribution. Do we really know where it came from and then we have to ask the question: if the other eight countries do the same thing, now we’ve got nuclear weapons around the world responding to a major cyberattack, how do we know it’s not third parties, how do we know who it is? So we don’t want to go down that route unless we ask some very serious questions and in my view, have discussions with the other nuclear weapons states. Communications in this era is very important because all nuclear weapons states have grave dangers facing them and if we don’t have some rules of the road in the cyber world, if we don’t have rules of the road on decision time, then I really fear for the future of our children and grandchildren. Van Susteren: It seems more perilous to me listening to you than back in 1991 when you were securing the military weapons the Soviet Union had, when you interject the dangers of cyberterrorism, I mean the world’s gotten profoundly dangerous that way. Nunn: I think it has, but that was a period of, maximum danger because you had an empire coming apart with thousands of nuclear weapons, tons of chemical weapons and they had scientists and technicians that didn’t know how to feed their families, but they had this knowledge and possession of the weapons, so that was a danger of terrorism, of the weapons leaking. The long pole in the tent for any terrorist who wants to blow up a crude weapon, a nuclear weapon, is getting the nuclear materials. And at that stage, nuclear material was much looser and less protected than they are now. The good news is that we are the world is doing a much better job of protecting nuclear materials. We’ve got a long way to go but progress has been made on that front under both Republican and Democratic presidents. Van Susteren: Alright, we’ve had situations like AQ Khan in Pakistan essentially being the Walmart of nuclear technology and peddling that to different places, but North Korea is getting it from someplace. Where is North Korea getting its nuclear material? Nunn: Well, I would assume that would come from multiple sources. Perhaps back in the old days, China, perhaps Russia, perhaps Pakistan, you know the arms bazaar that came out of Khan in Pakistan, so various sources I’m sure/ But North Korea is a ticking time bomb. And the danger in North Korea is not only North Korea itself, but what happens in terms of the temptation of South Korea or Japan or other countries in the region having their own nuclear weapons and that’s the nightmare. The more nuclear countries you have, the greater the danger. Van Susteren: It seems that we’ve had 70 years with the Russia and US having nuclear weapons, give or take, and we’ve had no nuclear incidents, with some near misses in that there’s been a false alarm but nothing happened. North Korea, we don’t have that track record and we have a threatening president of North Korea who’s tested nuclear weapon, he’s tested an ICBM, and we don’t have that relationship that we had, that you had back then with the Soviet Union. Nunn: We did talk to the Soviet Union during the days of great tension, we always had communications with them. Van Susteren: So what about this with North Korea? Nunn: I think we need carrots and sticks with North Korea. I’m in favor of tightening the screws on sanctions but also think we need to communicate with North Korea. We don’t want nor should any country want a war by blunder. We can’t have that. It’s a mistake because the atmosphere is so poisoned, and the rhetoric on both sides, which has calmed down recently, because perhaps of the Olympics, makes everything more dangerous it makes mistakes more likely by people out there manning the radar systems that are basically controlling the weapons. So there, the rhetoric is important. Even if you don’t agree, I think talking is essential, if for nothing else, to make sure we don’t misinterpret each other and get into a war nobody wants. Van Susteren: It sure feels dangerous. Nunn: It is. Van Susteren: Senator, nice to see you. We miss you in the US Senate. Nunn: Good to be with you. Thanks.

Olympic 'Games of New Horizons' Close in Pyeongchang

Sun, 02/25/2018 - 21:19
Hailing the Pyeongchang Olympics as "the games of new horizons", the International Olympics Committee declared the 2018 winter games closed Sunday. In his speech at the Games' closing ceremony, IOC president Thomas Bach praised North and South Korea for marching together during the opening ceremony, saying, "You have shown how sport brings people together in our fragile world; you have shown how sport builds bridges," Bach told the Korean athletes. Bach handed the Olympic flag to the mayor of Beijing, which will host the next winter Olympics in 2022.  The Chinese capital will be the first city to host both the summer and winter Olympic games, after it hosted the summer edition in 2008.     Following his closing speech, Bach posed for photos with a few standout athletes, including Tongan cross-country skier Pita Taufatofua, who attended both ceremonies bare-chested, despite the cold. South Korean-Chinese boy band EXO performed for the closing ceremony, which included a drone show, fireworks, and the extinguishing of the Olympic torch. In Photos: Closing Ceremony of 2018 Winter Olympics President Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump lead the U.S. delegation to the closing ceremonies, sitting in the same box as President Moon Jae-In of South Korea and Kim Yong Chol — vice chairman of North Korea's ruling Worker's Party Central Committee. Yonhap New Agency reported the North Korea delegation said Pyongyang was willing to hold talks with the United States, but the White House denied that anyone in the U.S. delegation spoke with North Korean officials at the ceremony. "Ivanka Trump and General Brooks watched in President Moon's box and Ivanka sat next to the first lady of the Republic of Korea ... There was no interaction with the North Korean delegation," a senior administration official said. Steve Herman contributed to this report.    

Ousted Afghan Governor Postpones Much-Touted Anti-Government Rally

Sun, 02/25/2018 - 18:59
U.S.-led diplomatic efforts appear to have persuaded ousted Afghanistan provincial governor Atta Mohammad Noor to postpone this week's planned anti-government demonstration. Noor governed the northern Afghan province of Balkh for 13 years until he was removed from office in December by President Ashraf Ghani. But he refused to quit and dismissed the presidential order as illegal. In his bid to press the central government to meet his demands, Noor planned to lead a massive rally of thousands of vehicles packed with supporters for a three-day sit-in protest in Kabul starting Tuesday. But the ousted governor told reporters Sunday in the provincial capital, Mazar-i-Sharif, that he is postponing the protest. "We have been asked by the influential figures, civil activists, our international partners and people from different walks of society to postpone our upcoming rally in Kabul," said the ousted governor. He did not elaborate but pledged to announce a new date for the protest very soon. The planned anti-government rally was to coincide with an international conference in Kabul Wednesday where President Ghani will present his government's comprehensive plan for promoting peace with the Taliban-led armed opposition. Noor said the protest has been postponed to ensure it does not hamper the "Kabul Process" meeting which is being held to help Afghanistan. His remarks came a day after visiting U.S. permanent representative to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, stressed the importance of peacefully resolving political differences. She told reporters in Kabul on Saturday that during her four-day visit to Afghanistan she and several colleagues from NATO traveled to Balkh province. "What we are doing is saying to our Afghan leaders, settle this, let's go forward. We are not taking a role in it but we are certainly saying this is part of reconciliation and moving forward," Hutchison told reporters. General John Nicholson, who commands U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, also spoke at Saturday's news conference and strongly urged Afghan political leaders not to allow political differences to hamper security efforts. "We respect your political process and your political evolution, we respect your politicians. As a military commander, my only request would be that politics not undermine security and we keep in mind our primary goal of helping this country get to a peaceful reconciliation," Nicholson noted. The political dispute threatens to undermine Afghan parliamentary elections later this year. Noor in his speech Sunday again accused Ghani's administration of not resolving any of the issues facing the country, including Taliban and ISIS insurgencies, rising ethnic tensions, and economic challenges facing poverty-stricken Afghans. "The wave of resistance in the wake of my dismissal is not about Balkh. It's about resisting the rule of a small clique and to find solutions for challenges facing our people," asserted the fired governor. Noor reiterated that his Jamiat-e-Islami party, which shares power in Ghani's central government, has made a set of demands and will not back down from it. The powerful non-Pashtun politician wants among other things powers to appoint his successor and the provincial police chief. Last week the governor of Samangan province, which borders Balkh, also refused to accept removal orders from the president but reversed his decision days later after Ghani reportedly promised him another governmental position. Under President Donald Trump's Afghan war strategy, U.S.-led troops are increasing battlefield pressure on the Taliban-led insurgency to contain its influence and force it to come to the negotiating table for peace talks with the Kabul government. The U.S. strategy has witnessed increasing intensity in airstrikes against the insurgents and the Taliban has also retaliated with increased attacks, including suicide bombings. The insurgent group, which controls or contests about 44 percent of Afghanistan's territory, has refused to engage in any peace talks with the government and insists on holding such a dialogue with the U.S. only. The Taliban maintains that only Washington, and not what it calls the "puppet" Afghan leadership, can determine the fate of the war in Afghanistan. U.S. officials, however, have called on the Taliban to directly engage in a peace and reconciliation process with what they say is the legitimate Afghan government.

China Proposes Dropping Term Limits for President Xi

Sun, 02/25/2018 - 17:02
China’s ruling Communist Party on Sunday set the stage for President Xi Jinping to stay in office indefinitely, with a proposal to remove a constitutional clause limiting presidential service to just two terms in office. Xi, 64, is currently required by the country’s constitution to step down as president after two five-year terms. Nearing the end of his first term, he will be formally elected to a second at the annual meeting of China’s largely rubber-stamp parliament opening on March 5. There is no limit on his tenure as the party and military chief, though a maximum 10-year term is the norm. He began his second term as head of the party and military in October at the end of a once-every-five-years party congress. The announcement, carried by state news agency Xinhua, gave few details. It said the proposal had been made by the party’s Central Committee, the largest of its elite ruling bodies. The proposal also covers the vice president position. “The Communist Party of China Central Committee proposed to remove the expression that the President and Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China ‘shall serve no more than two consecutive terms’ from the country’s Constitution,” Xinhua said. The Central Committee also proposed inserting “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” into the constitution, Xinhua said in a separate report, referring to Xi’s guiding political thought that is already in the arguably more important Communist Party constitution. Constitutional reform needs to be approved by parliament. That is stacked with members chosen for their loyalty to the party, meaning the reform will not be blocked. There has been persistent speculation that Xi wants to stay on in office past the customary two five-year terms. One of his closest political allies, former top graft buster Wang Qishan, stepped down from the party’s Standing Committee — the seven-man body that runs China — in October. Wang, 69, had reached the age at which top officials tend to retire. But he has been chosen as a parliament delegate this year and is likely to become vice president, sources with ties to the leadership and diplomats say. The move is significant because if Wang does not retire, that could set a precedent for Xi to stay on in power after he completes the traditional two terms in office. However, the role of party chief is more senior than that of president. At some point Xi could be given a party position that also enables him to stay on as long as he likes.

North Korea Calls Latest US Sanctions an ‘Act of War’

Sun, 02/25/2018 - 16:44
North Korea says the latest U.S. sanctions against it constitute an “act of war.” The statement carried by the official KCNA news agency, accuses the United States of raising tensions on the Korean Peninsula and notes that it possesses nuclear weapons to cope with Washington’s threats. “The two Koreas have cooperated together and the Olympics was held successfully,” the North’s KCNA news agency said, citing North Korea’s foreign ministry. “But the U.S. brought the threat of war to the Korean peninsula with large-scale new sanctions on the DPRK ahead of the Olympics closing ceremony,” the state news agency said, using the initials of the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. US sanctions U.S. President Donald Trump announced on Friday what he called the “largest ever” set of sanctions against North Korea and threatened a “phase two” if the measures aren’t effective. The sanctions target one person, 27 companies and 28 ships registered in China and seven other countries with the intent of eliminating North Korea’s illicit shipping and trade. They block assets held by the companies in the U.S. and prohibit U.S. citizens from interacting with them. Since August of last year, the U.S. has helped oversee three rounds of United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea. The pressure has not stopped Pyongyang from conducting more nuclear and missile tests. The new sanctions’ effectiveness depends on whether they can successfully be implemented. And the U.S. has limited leverage over many of the shipping companies involved in helping North Korea evade sanctions, warns Gary Samore, former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction. “A lot of the companies working with North Korea are very small,” Samore said. “And they don’t care whether they work with the United States.” China protests China responded angrily Saturday to the new sanctions, maintaining they are counterproductive to efforts to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear and long-range missile development programs. China’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying Beijing “resolutely opposes” the U.S. for “enacting unilateral sanctions” and vowed to “seriously handle” the issue in accordance with the law. The ministry also demanded that the U.S. immediately lift the sanctions “to avoid harming bilateral cooperation in the relevant area.”

For Rohingya, Little Progress but ‘Nobody is Coming to Kill Us’

Sun, 02/25/2018 - 13:30
Their houses are often made of plastic sheets. Much of their food comes from aid agencies. Jobs are few, and there is painfully little to do. The nightmares are relentless. But six months after their horrors began, the Rohingya Muslims who fled army attacks in Myanmar for refuge in Bangladesh feel one immense consolation. “Nobody is coming to kill us, that’s for sure,” said Mohammed Amanullah, whose village was destroyed last year just before he left for Bangladesh with his wife and three children. They now live in the Kutupalong refugee camp outside the coastal city of Cox’s Bazar. “We have peace here.” On Aug. 25, Rohingya insurgents attacked several security posts in Myanmar, killing at least 14 people. Within hours, waves of revenge attacks broke out, with the military and Buddhist mobs marauding through Rohingya villages in bloody pogroms, killing thousands, raping women and girls, and burning houses and whole villages. The aid group Doctors Without Borders has estimated at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in Myanmar in the first month of the violence, including at least 730 children younger than 5. The survivors flooded into Bangladesh. Six months later, there are few signs Rohingya are going home anytime soon. ​Citizenship Myanmar and Bangladesh have signed an agreement to gradually repatriate Rohingya in “safety, security and dignity,” but the process has been opaque and the dangers remain. New satellite images have shown empty villages and hamlets leveled, erasing evidence of the Rohingyas’ former lives. And with 700,000 having fled Myanmar since August, more Rohingya continue to flee. So for now, the refugees wait. “If they agree to send us back that’s fine, but is it that easy?” asked Amanullah. “Myanmar must give us citizenship. That is our home. Without citizenship they will torture us again. They will kill us again.” He said he would only return under the protection of U.N. peacekeepers: “They must take care of us there. Otherwise it will not work. “ Buddhist-majority Myanmar doesn’t recognize the Rohingya as an official ethnic group and they face intense discrimination and persecution. Array of terrors The children in the camps face a particularly difficult time. The U.N. estimates children are the heads of 5,600 refugee families. A survey of children’s lives inside the camps showed they faced an array of terrors, from girls reporting concerns of harassments near the camp toilets to fears that elephants and snakes could attack them as they collect firewood. “We cannot expect Rohingya children to overcome the traumatic experiences they’ve suffered when exposed to further insecurity and fears of violence in the camps,” Mark Pierce, country director for Save the Children in Bangladesh, said in a statement. The study was prepared jointly by Save the Children, World Vision and Plan International. “The overwhelming message from these children is that they are afraid,” Pierce said. “This is no way for a child to live.” The situation will worsen soon. Seasonal monsoon rains will begin pounding the refugees’ plastic-and-bamboo city in April.

North Korean Ice Hockey Player Who Defected Lauds Effort of Joint Women’s Team

Sun, 02/25/2018 - 12:12
A North Korean women’s ice hockey player who defected in 1997 was flooded with memories of her tough sports training as she watched a team from North and South Korea skate through their Olympic matches earlier this month. Speaking with VOA Korea after the team’s fifth and final loss earlier this week, Hwangbo Young lauded the effort it took the blended team to come together to play as a single force, given that they began practicing together less than a month before the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. “I sensed that the team wasn’t able to fully demonstrate what the players prepared,” Hwangbo said. “I heard that during practice, the North Korean players were visibly very zealous and wanted to learn from the South Korean players.”  Neither the North Korean nor the South Korean team was a serious medal contender, but Hwangbo said the combined team did better than expected in matches, which ended Tuesday. “I thought they would lose all games by double digits,” Hwangbo told VOA during an interview in Seoul after the team’s final loss on Tuesday. “But they did better than I first expected, although they lost all matches.” Overcoming differences For the first time in Olympic history, the two divided Koreas fielded a joint women’s ice hockey team with 23 players from the South and 12 from the North. The move was seen as a peace initiative led by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. North Korea and South Korea split after Japan, which occupied Korea, surrendered to end World War II.  Although Hwangbo hopes to see her relatives and friends who remain in North Korea, she doubts if unification will occur in her lifetime and doesn’t expect that to change because of the united hockey team. She pointed out that despite a similar, earlier effort — the united table tennis team of South Korean Hyun Jung-hwa and North Korean Li Pun Hui that played in the 1991 World Championship in Chiba, Japan — there are still two Koreas. At the rink, melding the teams meant overcoming differences in training and approaches to diet, and building team spirit. Off the rink, there was criticism that sports was being used as a political tool. “With everything that happened to them, prior to the Olympics, for them to come together like this and compete like this in the Olympics, it’s remarkable,” Sarah Murray, the Canadian who coached the South Koreans, and then the joint team.  Now coaching in South Korea, Hwangbo watched the games, which evoked memories of her training in North Korea. After her family’s defection two decades ago, she also competed against the North Korean team in the 2003 Aomori Asian Winter Games as a South Korean player.  Her training in North Korea was tough, Hwangho recalled, very tough. There were long runs with weights, there were runs in the mountains — but there were no ice rinks. “Unless water was poured over frozen ground to freeze into ice in the wintertime, we had to do all our tactical training on bare ground with soccer balls, volleyballs and basketballs,” she said. ​Start in hockey Hwangbo, the daughter of two government workers, started playing hockey as a 12-year-old and was recruited by a coach from the North Korean national team.  “At the time, I didn’t know what ice hockey was,” she said. “I just began because I liked sports. During gym class in school, a coach asked if I wanted to play in an ice hockey team. I said ‘yes’ without knowing what it was, because I liked playing sports. Later, I found out I said yes to ice hockey.”  In 1997, Hwangbo and her family boarded a small boat and crossed the Tuman River, North Korea’s northern border, into China before settling in South Korea.  Three years after her defection, she began playing for South Korea’s national ice hockey team and became a member of the team that played against the North Korean team in the 2003 Aomori Asian Winter Games in Japan. North Korea finished fourth and South Korea fifth. Hwangbo has said that facing the North Korean team in Aomori was one of the most painful experiences of her life. The initial excitement of seeing some of her former teammates after seven years dissipated as they taunted her as a traitor throughout the game, even hurling insults when she approached them for a handshake after the game. But she said she understood their antagonism, because any signs of warmth toward her could have resulted in severe punishment when the team returned to North Korea. 

Pakistan’s Court Summons TV Team for ‘Disrespecting’ Valentine’s Day Ban

Sun, 02/25/2018 - 06:43
A Pakistani court has summoned several TV reporters from the country’s largest private TV station over accusations of “ridiculing” last year’s ruling that barred Valentine’s Day celebrations and its media coverage across the country. On February 14, Geo TV’s popular Report Card show dedicated a 15-minute segment to discussing the justification of the court’s ban on Valentine’s Day coverage and celebrations. Two of the panelists in the show questioned the rationale of the ban. Hasan Nisar, a prominent Lahore-based political analyst, declared the restrictions “illogical” and “ridiculous” for society. “I do not even have anything to say on it, it’s funny,” Nisar said. Echoing Nisar, Imtiaz Alam, a leading reporter and panelist of the show, said the restrictions were “useless.” “How can the court interfere as it is against the fundamental rights of the people? Do we have Taliban regime in Pakistan?” Alam asked. “This is a cultural martial law and curfew to enforce the extreme ideologies. This is a sick mindset, and the moral policing through PEMRA [Pakistan Electronic Media Authority] is shameless,” Alam said. Court order Last year, on February 13, Islamabad’s High Court declared Valentine’s Day celebration un-Islamic and imposed a ban on any public or official celebrations. The government reinstated the ban for a second consecutive year earlier this month to comply with the court’s ruling. PEMRA also issued a fresh directive to remind its TV and radio licensees to refrain from promoting the day on their stations. “Respondents are directed to ensure that nothing about the celebrations of Valentine’s Day and its promotion is spread on the electronic and print media,” PEMRA’s notification reads. On charges of failing to adhere to the court’s order and PEMRA’s instruction, Islamabad court summoned the Geo TV host, two guests and the chief executive officer of the station to appear before the court next week and defend themselves in a contempt-of-court case. “This act of the host and the participants apparently is tainted with malafide, ulterior motives, aims to undermine the authority of the court and to disrespect the order passed by the court, which clearly comes within the definition of the contempt of court,” the court said, according to local media. The ban on Valentine’s Day celebrations and sensitivity toward it are not new in Pakistan. Some political and religious groups, such as Jamaat-i-Islami, have carried out rallies and protests against the celebration of the day, declaring it “unethical and un-Islamic.” There have been instances in the past where local authorities prohibited the February 14 festivities in different cities across the nation. In 2016, President Mamnoon Hussain also warned Pakistanis to stay away from celebrating Valentine’s Day, declaring it was “not a part of Muslim tradition, but of the West.” ​General debate Valentine’s celebrations have increased in Pakistan over the last decade, particularly among the country’s youth. The enforcement of the ban on its celebration and media coverage for a second consecutive year has sparked a larger debate among some of the country’s liberal and conservative circles. A section of the society defends the celebrations and considers them harmless, though for others the day does not have any place in their religious practices or their traditions. Pakistan, for the most part, is a conservative Muslim society. Public displays of affection are not the norm and often are viewed as unacceptable. But some Pakistanis, like Saleema Hashmi, a Lahore-based artist and renowned educator, believe the system is focusing on “irrelevant issues” at the expense of more important and pressing issues the country faces. “Don’t our courts have better things to do instead of passing rulings on celebrating a mere romantic day?” she asked. “I do not understand how celebrating or denouncing Valentine’s Day can impact our religion, traditions, social or cultural norms.”

China Reacts Angrily to New US Sanctions Against North Korea

Sun, 02/25/2018 - 02:59
China responded angrily Saturday to new sanctions the United States imposed on North Korea, maintaining they were counterproductive to efforts to halt Pyongyang's nuclear and long-range missile development programs. U.S. President Donald Trump announced on Friday what he called the "largest ever" set of sanctions against North Korea and threatened a "phase two" if the measures weren't effective. The sanctions target one person, 27 companies and 28 ships registered in China and seven other countries with the intent of eliminating North Korea's illicit shipping and trade. They block assets held by the companies in the U.S. and prohibit U.S. citizens from interacting with them. China's Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying Beijing "resolutely opposes" the U.S. for "enacting unilateral sanctions" and vowed to "seriously handle" the issue in accordance with the law. The ministry also demanded that the U.S. immediately lift the sanctions "to avoid harming bilateral cooperation in the relevant area." Saturday's statement was China's latest in a series of denunciations of any sanctions against North Korea not imposed within the framework of the United Nations. China, traditionally North Korea's closest ally, insists it has fully enforced existing sanctions against Pyongyang. China's trade with North Korea in January fell to its lowest level in nearly four years, the latest indication China has maintained pressure on the isolated country. Previous sanctions Since last August, the U.S. has helped oversee three rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea. The pressure has not stopped Pyongyang from conducting more nuclear and missile tests. The new sanctions' effectiveness depends on whether they can successfully be implemented. And the U.S. has limited leverage over many of the shipping companies involved in helping North Korea evade sanctions, warned Gary Samore, former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction. "A lot of the companies working with North Korea are very small," Samore said. "And they don't care whether they work with the United States." Jonathan Schanzer, a former Treasury Department official, praised the new sanctions for addressing North Korean shipping, which he said "has long been a gaping hole in the U.S. sanctions regime." "The only thing missing ... is action against complicit Chinese banks," said Schanzer, now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "We know they continue to undermine our efforts to isolate North Korea." Until that step is taken, he said, North Korea "will be able to operate rather freely in the formal financial sector."

US Military Rejects Russian Claims About Number of IS Fighters in Afghanistan

Sat, 02/24/2018 - 23:10
The United States military has rejected Moscow’s claim the number of Islamic State militants in Afghanistan runs into the thousands, while at the same time urging Russia and Iran to support the Kabul government, not the Taliban, to help defeat IS in the country. Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan General John Nicholson made the remark Saturday while responding to recent Russian accusations Washington is intentionally downplaying the spread of IS militants in the country. “The numbers that are spread about the number of Daesh fighters by Russia is grossly exaggerated. It is around 1,500,” Nicholson told a news conference in the Afghan capital. He used the Arabic acronym for IS. The general said that IS militants are operating in parts of the eastern Afghan provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar and maintain a “pocket” in the northern Jowzjan province. Nicholson said that Afghan forces, backed by U.S. counterterrorism troops and airpower, are attacking all three of the locations “We have cut their numbers in half over the last two years. We have killed their ‘amirs' (chiefs), we have reduced their territory, again, we have driven their fighters out of parts of the country,” explained the general, who also commands NATO’s Afghan military mission. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, while speaking in Moscow, asserted that thousands of IS terrorists are present in northern and eastern Afghan regions and are being joined by militants fleeing Syria and Iraq. Questions about IS ‘proliferation’ Officials in neighboring Pakistan and Iran have also raised concerns and questions about what they allege is the rapid “proliferation of Daesh” in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials say rising terrorist attacks against the country are being plotted in IS sanctuaries on the Afghan side of the border. Nicholson acknowledged the presence of foreign fighters in IS ranks but said their number is “very small” and added, “we have not seen a migration of foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan.” The American general said the Afghan branch of Islamic State was “for a period of time” receiving financial support and “leadership guidance" from Syria and Iraq. But that assistance has dwindled since coalition forces have reduced Daesh in those countries, Nicholson added. In his remarks earlier this week in Moscow, Lavrov again alleged that “unidentified helicopters, most likely helicopters to which NATO in one way or another is related, fly to the areas where the insurgents are based, and no one has been able to explain the reasons for these flights yet.” Iranian leaders and military officials have in recent days also consistently accused the U.S. of covertly supporting IS’s rise in Afghanistan. American and Afghan officials, however, accuse Moscow, Tehran and Islamabad of helping the Taliban insurgency militarily. Pakistani officials deny any links to the insurgent while Russia and Iran maintain their ties with the Taliban are meant only to encourage them to engage in peace talks with the Afghan government. U.S. officials are skeptical of those claims and see Russian involvement as part of efforts to undermine international mission to secure and stabilize Afghanistan. It is widely perceived that Russia and Iran see the Taliban as blocking the growing IS Afghan threat because of a weakening government control in the country. General Nicholson dismissed those assertions as a “false narrative”, saying Afghan forces with U.S. support have effectively degraded IS in their mission to defeat the terrorist group and regional stakeholders need to help in those efforts. Visiting U.S. General Curtis Scaparrotti, Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO, speaking alongside Nicholson, also called on Russia and Iran and other countries in the region to work together with the international mission to ensure stability in Afghanistan. “We would ask them to work with us to not support the Taliban or any of the other insurgent forces that are here but to work with us to ensure stability and that is in everyone’s interest here in the region,” said Scaparrotti.  

Australia Failing to Curb Corruption, Global Survey Finds

Sat, 02/24/2018 - 22:36
Australia appears to be failing in its efforts to crack down on bribery, according to the latest survey conducted by Transparency International, a non-governmental organization based in Germany. The group said developed countries - including Australia - appeared to be lagging in their efforts to combat corruption in the public sector.  It pointed to an inadequate regulation of foreign political donations in Australia, conflicts of interest in planning approvals, revolving doors and improper industry lobbying in large-scale mining projects.   While Australia's ranking is unchanged - it remains ranked 13th out of 180 countries - its corruption score has slipped eight points since the index started in its current form in 2012. Concern about Australia's ranking comes as debate continues about the need for a nationwide anti-corruption body similar to the Independent Commission Against Corruption in the state of New South Wales.  It was set up in 1989 and has scored many notable victories, including the jailing of corrupt state politicians. Professor A.J. Brown, who leads a project called “Strengthening Australia's National Integrity System” for Transparency International, says much more work needs to be done. “We do not have a federal anti-corruption body amongst other things, so it is also about the fact that our track record in terms of government commitment to controlling foreign bribery or money laundering and some of the things that the private sector is also involved in internationally is not that strong.  We are moving but we have been moving very slow and very late, and not very comprehensively,” Brown said. This year, New Zealand and Denmark were ranked highest in the Transparency International survey, the U.S. is ranked 16th, while South Sudan and Somalia were the lowest-ranked nations. The best performing region was Western Europe, while the most corrupt regions were Sub-Saharan Africa, followed by Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The survey found that more than 6 billion people live in countries that are corrupt. Transparency International said most countries failed to protect the independence of the media, which plays a crucial role in preventing corruption.  

3 Explosions Rock Capital of Myanmar’s Troubled Rakhine State

Sat, 02/24/2018 - 20:00
Three bombs exploded Saturday morning in Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state, authorities said. One of the explosions injured a police officer, but no other casualties have been reported. Authorities are working to determine who was behind the bombings, police said. Three unexploded devices targeting government offices and other places were seized at other locations in Sittwe. The blasts come three days after a bomb explosion killed two bank employees and injured about two dozen people in the northeastern city of Lashio, where several ethnic insurgent groups are fighting the Myanmar military. Last month, at least seven Rakhine Buddhists were killed and a dozen injured when local police fired at protesters in the ancient city of Mrauk-U. A massive military intervention in Myanmar's violence-torn Rakhine state against Rohingya Muslim insurgents since August of last year forced about 700,000 Rohingya to seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar has said that government forces have undertaken a legitimate campaign against what it calls Muslim "terrorists." The United States and the United Nations have called the military crackdown on the Rohingya “ethnic cleansing,” but the government of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has blocked U.N. investigators and other independent monitors from entering the conflict zone.  

Philippines Students Gather for Art — and a Shot at a Guinness Record

Sat, 02/24/2018 - 17:24
Nearly 17,000 students in the Philippines gathered in a park in the capital, Manila, on Saturday in a bid to set a record for the world’s biggest art class. Middle school pupils from about 200 schools listened for about an hour as a teacher taught them how to draw a mask. “I learned a lot,” said one of the students, Kathleen Pareno. Organizers said 16,692 students joined the lesson and the figure would be sent to Guinness World Records for an evaluation. India holds the record for the largest art lesson with 14,135 people taking part in one in 2014, Guinness World Records said on its website.  

Suicide Bombings in Afghanistan Leave at Least 4 Dead

Sat, 02/24/2018 - 13:27
Afghan officials say at least four people have been killed in separate suicide bombing attacks in Afghanistan.  Omar Zwak, spokesman for the provincial governor in Helmand province, said a car bomber early Saturday was shot by Afghan army soldiers, but his vehicle managed to reach the entrance of the army base in Nad Aali district, killing two soldiers and wounding another.    In a second suicide bomb attack near another military base in Helmand's capital city Lashkar Gah, one security person was killed and seven civilians wounded, Zwak said.    Qari Yusouf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility for both suicide attacks in Helmand province.   Also, in the diplomatic area of Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, a suicide bomber killed at least one person, an Afghan official said. Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danish said six people were wounded in the attack in the Shash Darak area of Kabul, near NATO headquarters and not far from the U.S. Embassy.    Danish said the initial casualty count could rise.   No one immediately claimed responsibility but the Taliban and Islamic State militant group both have carried out past attacks in Kabul.

AP Fact Check: Toughest Sanctions on North Korea Ever? Not likely

Sat, 02/24/2018 - 09:00
The heaviest, the largest, the most impactful —  those were the superlatives the Trump administration used to describe its latest sanctions against North Korea. But were the Treasury Department designations of more than 50 companies and ships accused of illicit trading with the pariah nation really the toughest action yet by the U.S. and the wider world? Probably not. Here's a look at how President Donald Trump and a top lieutenant described Friday's sanctions to punish the North for its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles — and how they stack up against past economic restrictions that have been piled on Kim Jong Un's government in response to its illegal weapons tests. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin: "The Treasury Department is announcing the largest set of sanctions ever imposed in connection with North Korea.'' Trump: "I do want to say, because people have asked, North Korea — we imposed today the heaviest sanctions ever imposed on a country before.'' As for Trump's blanket assertion, in sheer dollar terms, the U.S. has actually imposed much costlier restrictions on countries such as Iran, a far richer economy than North Korea's. Washington and its allies cut off tens of billions of dollars' worth of Iranian oil exports and shut the country's central bank out of the international financial system, among other steps, before eliminating those restrictions under a 2015 nuclear deal. Correct on number In terms of the number of entities targeted Friday, Mnuchin is probably correct about the history of sanctions on North Korea. The department blacklisted "one individual, 27 entities and 28 vessels'' located, registered or flagged in North Korea, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Marshall Islands, Tanzania, Panama and Comoros. That appeared to be the most companies or individuals designated by the U.S. at a single time. According to Mnuchin, there are now more than 450 U.S. sanctions against North Korea, about half of them levied in the last year. But in purely economic terms, both Mnuchin and Trump are well wide of the mark. The latest designations are primarily intended to crack down on North Korea's evasion of wider-ranging sanctions adopted by the U.N. Security Council and the United States that are more economically significant. Over the past year, the council has adopted three sets of sanctions banning North Korean exports of coal, iron ore, textiles, seafood products and other goods. If those measures are properly implemented, that would reduce the North's export revenues by 90 percent from 2016 levels, or by $2.3 billion annually. Those sanctions are also heavily restricting North Korean fuel supplies. They capped refined oil imports at 500,000 barrels a year. That's a reduction from the 4.5 million barrels North Korea imported in 2016. It's because of those draconian restrictions that North Korea wants to conduct trade on the quiet with "ship-to-ship'' transfers that the U.S. is determined to stop. With Friday's measures, Mnuchin said, the U.S. has gone after "virtually all their ships that they're using at this moment.'' That's certainly a significant increase in pressure on North Korea as its foreign trade diminishes. But the Treasury Department did not give an overall figure for how much revenue the North would be deprived of because of the latest actions, other than to say that nine of the newly blacklisted foreign vessels "are capable of carrying over $5.5 million worth of coal at a time.'' 'Underwhelming' in scope The conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation did not think much of the new steps. "As impressive as the list is in length, it is underwhelming in its scope and fails to live up to the hype,'' it said. "Like his predecessors, President Trump remains reluctant to go after Chinese financial entities aiding North Korea's prohibited nuclear and missile programs.'' China is said to account for about 90 percent of North Korea's external trade and be its main access point to the international financial system. Past U.S. sanctions that have targeted Chinese companies have probably had a much bigger impact on North Korea's revenue streams. In November, the Treasury Department blacklisted three Chinese companies that it said had "cumulatively exported approximately $650 million worth of goods to North Korea and cumulatively imported more than $100 million worth of goods from North Korea.'' An even bigger Chinese trading partner of the North was blacklisted in September 2016: Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Co. According to a report by the U.S.-based research group C4AD and South Korea's Asan Institute for Policy Studies, Hongxiang carried out imports and exports worth a total of $532 million in 2011-15. It had also supplied aluminum oxide and other materials that can be used in processing nuclear bomb fuel.

US Navy Hospital Ship Embarks on Aid Mission to Pacific

Sat, 02/24/2018 - 03:05
A U.S. Navy hospital ship is heading across the Pacific on a humanitarian mission with stops planned in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Vietnam. The USNS Mercy left its home port of San Diego, California, on Friday, along with the expeditionary fast transport ship USNS Fall River. The ships are carrying some 800 military and civilian personnel from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Peru and Japan. The Navy said the international team will partner with host nations to provide medical and dental exchanges, along with disaster-response training. Navy official Lt. Marycate Walsh told VOA on Friday that USNS Mercy's humanitarian mission in the Pacific, dubbed Pacific Partnership, is the largest annual disaster-response mission in the region. The first Pacific Partnership began in response to the December 2004 tsunami, which devastated several areas in South and Southeast Asia. After the mission concludes, the USNS Mercy is expected to travel to Japan before returning to California. The mission comes as a U.S. aircraft carrier is set to make a port call in Vietnam for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War, a signal of strengthening military ties between the former wartime enemies. A U.S. Navy official told VOA on Friday that the USS Carl Vinson was set to visit Danang in March. The idea of a potential carrier stop surfaced when U.S. President Donald Trump met Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the White House in May 2017. Talks continued in August when Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich met Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Washington, and Mattis again mentioned expectations for a U.S. aircraft carrier stop in Vietnam during his visit to the country in January. The United States has sought closer ties with Vietnam as the nation has increasingly stood up to China's disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Trump Junior Address on Indo-Pacific Ties Renamed Following Criticism

Sat, 02/24/2018 - 01:29
A business conference in India has renamed an address by Donald Trump Jr. after criticism that the original title of the talk suggested he was speaking on foreign policy issues that should be left to diplomats and government officials. The talk was initially titled "Reshaping Indo-Pacific Ties: The New Era of Cooperation," before it was rebranded as a "Fireside Chat." The conference, which Trump, Jr., executive vice president of the Trump Organization, attended Friday was organized by the prestigious The Economic Times newspaper in New Delhi and attended by the Indian business and political elite. In speaking with an Indian journalist, the younger Trump steered clear of all policy issues and tried to rest criticism that has dogged his trip. "I am here as a businessman. I am not representing anyone. I have been coming to India for over a decade," he said at one point. Deputy director of the Wilson Center's Asia program Michael Kugelman told VOA the "damage control" done by changing the speech to something innocuous" was a wise move, though given the backlash and outcry that had already ensued, that change may have come too late." In a letter sent to the American ambassador in India earlier this week, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, expressed concern that the speech could "send the mistaken message" that Trump Jr. is speaking on behalf of the U.S. government. Trump Jr., who spoke about his experiences as the son of the U.S. president, told the audience that he rarely talked politics with his father any more. "We see him so little that when we are together, it's really about being a family." He accused American journalists of unfair criticism and praised the Indian media, saying they "are so mild and nice." Conflicts on interest Controversy about Trump Jr.'s visit erupted before he landed in India on Monday after newspaper advertisements offered buyers properties licensed by the Trump Organization "dinner and conversation" with the president's son, sparking concerns of ethics and conflict of interest. The Trump Organization has licensed its name to five projects being built by local developers in India, the company's largest market outside the United States. One luxury apartment complex is complete in Pune, while four others, are in varying stages of construction in Mumbai, Kolkata and Gurugram. In Delhi and Kolkata, customers who paid the booking fee of $ 38,000 were invited to dine with Trump Jr. Kugelman said there certainly is "something questionable about the president's son inviting buyers of his father's properties to meet with him." The head of one of the companies building the Trump Towers in India, Kalpesh Mehta, told reporters $15 million was put down by buyers on Monday. He said over $100 million worth of real estate has been sold in the towers coming up in Gurugram, near New Delhi. Trump Jr. has dismissed claims that his family business is benefiting from his father's presidency and told an Indian television channel that his family had gotten no credit for business it has lost because of self-imposed restrictions President Trump has applied to stay away from any new foreign business deals during his term in office.

Construction Begins on Afghanistan Section of International Gas Pipeline

Sat, 02/24/2018 - 00:29
Leaders of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan and its arch rival India jointly inaugurated construction work Friday on the Afghan section of a long-delayed multibillion-dollar gas pipeline connecting the four nations, raising hopes for regional cooperation and peace. A ceremony took place in the ancient Afghan city of Herat, attended by President Ashraf Ghani, his Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Indian External Affairs Minister M.J. Akbar. The long-awaited 1,814 kilometer pipeline, known as TAPI, will transport natural gas from the world's fourth-largest reserves in Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to growing economies of Pakistan and India, which are facing energy shortages. TAPI was originally conceived in the 1990s, but differences over terms and conditions, unending Afghan hostilities and regional rivalries are blamed for delays. Turkmenistan took the initiative in December 2015 and has since constructed its portion of the pipeline up to the Afghan border. President Ghani, while addressing Friday's ceremony, vowed Afghanistan believes in connectivity and will "not spare any efforts" to implement the project to connect South Asia with Central Asia after a century of separation. "This is the beginning of confidence in Afghanistan, confidence on national unity and harmony of the state and the people of Afghanistan," noted Ghani. Pakistani Prime Minister Abbasi reiterated his country's commitment to peace and stability in Afghanistan. "We are turning, by the grace of God, TAPI into a reality. It will provide shared regional prosperity … and it will provide peace dividends," said Abbasi, whose country is accused of covertly supporting the Afghan Taliban, charges Islamabad denies as baseless. "I want to tell my Afghan brothers and sisters that your success is our success, your development is our development and peace in Afghanistan means peace in Pakistan," Abbasi emphasized. He termed TAPI critical for Pakistan's energy needs, saying it will provide about 10 percent of his country's total energy consumption. Expected cost Officials say the project, estimated to cost up to $10 billion, will carry 33 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually for 30 years and is extendable. The final cost, however, is anticipated to be much higher because of an accompanying power transmission pipeline and the fiber optic cable to be laid from Turkmenistan to Pakistan. Afghanistan will buy about five billion cubic meters of gas once the project is completed. Kabul also will earn up to $500 million in transit fees from the project, which Afghans expect will create about 25,000 jobs in their war-shattered nation. The Afghan section of the pipeline will run through five provinces in the south and southwest, including Herat, Farah, NImruz, and Helmand, before entering the southern Pakistan city of Quetta. Security concerns Taliban insurgents control or contest much of the Afghan territory along the TAPI route, raising security concerns for the pipeline. In a statement issued Friday, though, the insurgent group dismissed those concerns and pledged to protect the pipeline, reminding skeptics the TAPI was initially negotiated and brought to Afghanistan when the Taliban was ruling the country. The insurgency, which currently controls or influences about 44 percent of Afghan territory, blamed the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of the country for the delay in TAPI's implementation. Groundbreaking for the Afghan section took place at a time when Pakistan's relations with India have deteriorated and both countries are locked in daily border skirmishes in Kashmir. TAPI is dubbed by some as a "peace pipeline," citing the potential the project has to promote regional economic and security cooperation. But analysts remain skeptical about future progress in the wake of Islamabad's prevailing tensions with Kabul and New Delhi.

Amnesty Says Politics of Fear, Hate Being Normalized by Some Leaders

Sat, 02/24/2018 - 00:22
Rights group Amnesty International's annual report documents human rights violations in nearly 160 countries and claims 2017 saw the politics of hate and fear normalized by some of the most powerful leaders in the world. VOA Correspondent Mariama Diallo has this report.