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IOC Marketing Chair From Japan Investigated for Alleged Corruption 

Sat, 01/12/2019 - 07:10
In the latest blow to the International Olympic Committee's efforts to rid itself of scandal, marketing head Tsunekazu Takeda is being investigated for alleged corruption related to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.    Takeda, who is also the president of the Japanese Olympic Committee, was placed under formal investigation for "active corruption'' on Dec. 10, France's financial crimes office said Friday.    French investigators are in the midst of a years-long and wide-ranging probe into sports corruption that is looking, among other things, at the bidding contests for the 2020 Olympics and other major sports events.    Takeda's career in Olympic circles has ticked almost every box, starting with representing Japan in equestrian competition at the 1972 Munich Games and 1976 Montreal Games.    As the head of the IOC's marketing commission since 2014, Takeda has overseen the signing of sponsorship deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars, including new partnerships with Alibaba, Intel and Allianz.    In a statement issued Friday by the Japanese Olympic Committee, Takeda denied any wrongdoing. The JOC said he was in Tokyo but gave no further details.    "The case is causing tremendous concern among the people who are supporting the Tokyo Games, but I will continue to cooperate in the investigation in order to clear any suspicion of me,'' Takeda said.    The IOC ethics commission was scheduled to meet later Friday in Lausanne, Switzerland. Takeda could be provisionally suspended from Olympic duty, or offer to step aside during the investigation.    "The IOC ethics commission has opened a file and will continue to monitor the situation,'' the IOC said in a statement. "Mr. Takeda continues to enjoy the full presumption of innocence.''    The preliminary charge of active corruption against Takeda announced by the National Financial Prosecutors office was first reported on Friday by French newspaper Le Monde. The preliminary charge means the investigating magistrate has determined there are serious grounds for suspicion but has not yet ruled on whether to pursue a prosecution.  Secret deals suspected   Le Monde said the magistrate overseeing the probe, Renaud Van Ruymbeke, suspects the IOC vote for Tokyo in 2013 was swayed by secret deals that secured the backing of IOC members from Africa for the Japanese capital over Istanbul and Madrid.    Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike told Japan's NHK television she was "very surprised and puzzled'' but declined to speculate how it might affect the Tokyo Olympics.    "I just got the initial report on this, so I don't have sufficient information,'' she said.    Le Monde reported French investigators suspect Takeda of authorizing the payment of bribes. French financial prosecutors are looking at two payments, totaling 1.8 million euros ($2 million), made on either side of the IOC vote in September 2013 to a Singapore company, Black Tidings, Le Monde said.   French prosecutors have linked Black Tidings to Papa Massata Diack, one of the sons of Lamine Diack, who presided over the IAAF from 1999 to 2015.    Lamine Diack, who had huge influence on African voters in Olympic contests, is also under investigation in France on corruption-related charges and allegations that he, his son and others were involved in blackmailing athletes and covering up failed drug tests. The 85-year-old Diack has had to turn in his passport and is not allowed to leave the country.    His son is believed to be in Senegal. France has issued a wanted notice for him via Interpol.   'No such illegal activity' Takeda, who is a distant relative of the Japanese imperial family but does not have royal status, said he was cooperating with French investigators. He said the money paid by the bid committee is a legitimate cost for the service provided by the Black Tidings under the consultancy contract between the two sides. He also said he did not know Lamine Diack.    "I have explained [to the French authorities] that there was no such illegal activity tantamount to bribery,'' Takeda said.    Takeda was leading Tokyo's second straight bid for the Summer Games, after losing in the 2016 Olympics race to Rio de Janeiro. French prosecutors are also investigating Rio officials and IOC members for alleged financial wrongdoing in 2009 linked to Papa Massata Diack.      The Japanese Olympic Committee said it has conducted its own internal investigation and found no illegality involved in all payments made by the Japanese bid committee at the time.    The organizers of the 2020 Olympics referred questions to the JOC.    In Takeda's Olympic career, he has led a national Olympic committee, been a vice president of an Olympic sport's governing body (equestrian), a chef de mission for Olympic teams, a sports director for a Winter Olympics (Nagano in 1998), a Summer Games bid leader, an IOC member since 2012, and now chair of one of the most financially significant IOC panels.    Takeda also works closely with Sheikh Ahmad of Kuwait, the influential IOC member who has stepped aside from the IOC while awaiting trial in Geneva this year in a fraud case unrelated to Olympic business. Takeda is a board member of the global group of Olympic committees, known as ANOC, and the Olympic Council of Asia, both led by the Kuwaiti sheikh. 

Uganda Not Worried China Will Seize Assets Over Rising Debt

Sat, 01/12/2019 - 00:27
Uganda's growing debt is sustainable, and the country is not at risk of losing state assets to China, the country's finance minister, Matia Kasaija, said this week. Uganda's auditor-general warned in a report released this month that public debt from June 2017 to 2018 had increased from $9.1 billion to $11.1 billion. The report — without naming China — warned that conditions placed on major loans were a threat to Uganda's sovereign assets.  It said that in some loans, Uganda had agreed to waive sovereignty over properties if it defaults on the debt — a possibility that Kasaija rejected. "China taking over assets? … in Uganda, I have told you, as long as some of us are still in charge, unless there is really a catastrophe, and which I don't see at all, that will make this economy going behind. So, ... I'm not worried about China taking assets. They can do it elsewhere, I don't know. But here, I don't think it will come," he said. China is one of Uganda's biggest country-lenders, with about $3 billion in development projects through state-owned banks. China's Exim Bank has funded about 85 percent of two major Ugandan power projects — Karuma and Isimba dams. It also financed and built Kampala's $476 million Entebbe Express Highway to the airport, which cuts driving time by more than half. China's National Offshore Oil Corporation, France's Total, and Britain's Tullow Oil co-own Uganda's western oil fields, set to be tapped by 2021. Economist Fred Muhumuza says China's foot in Uganda's oil could be one way it decides to take back what is owed.  "They might determine the price, as part of recovering their loan," he said. "By having a foot in there they will say fine, we are going to pay you for oil. But instead of giving you $60 a barrel, you owe us. We'll give you $55. The $5 you are paying the old debt. But we are reaching a level where you don't see this oil being an answer to the current debt problem." China's reach Uganda's worries about China seizing national assets are not the first in Africa. A leaked December report in Kenya showed China was promised parts of Mombasa Port as collateral for financing a $3 billion railway it built from the port to Nairobi. Both Chinese and Kenyan officials have denied that the port's ownership is at risk. Reports in September that China was taking over Zambia's state power company over unpaid debt rippled across Africa, despite government denials. But the fear of a Chinese takeover of a sovereign state's assets over debt is not completely without merit. Struggling to pay back loans to state-owned Chinese firms, Sri Lanka in 2017 handed over a strategic port.

Thai Police: Canada, Australia Willing to Accept Saudi Woman

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 21:57
Several countries including Canada and Australia are in talks with the U.N. refugee agency on accepting a Saudi asylum seeker who fled alleged abuse by her family, Thai police said Friday. Thailand’s immigration police chief, Surachate Hakparn, told reporters the U.N. was accelerating the case, though he gave no indication of when the process would be complete. Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun was stopped at a Bangkok airport last Saturday by Thai immigration police who denied her entry and seized her passport. While barricading herself in an airport hotel room, the 18-year-old launched a social media campaign via her Twitter account that drew global attention to her case. It garnered enough public and diplomatic support to convince Thai officials to admit her temporarily under the protection of U.N. officials. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees granted her refugee status on Wednesday. Alqunun’s case has highlighted the cause of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Several female Saudis fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home. Human rights activists say many similar cases have gone unreported. By Friday, Alqunun had closed down her Twitter account. Sophie McNeill, a reporter with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation who got in contact with Alqunun while she was stuck in the airport hotel room and has kept in touch with her, said Friday in a Twitter posting that Alqunun “is safe and fine.” “She’s just been receiving a lot of death threats,” McNeill wrote, adding that Alqunun would be back on Twitter after a “short break.” Alqunun had previously said on Twitter that she wishes to seek refuge in Australia. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne met with senior Thai officials in Bangkok on Thursday. She later told reporters that Australia is assessing Alqunun’s request for resettlement but there was no specific timeframe. Payne said she also raised Australia’s concerns with Thai officials about Hakeem al-Araibi, a 25-year-old former member of Bahrain’s national soccer team who was granted refugee status in Australia in 2017 after fleeing his homeland, where he said he was persecuted and tortured. He was arrested while on holiday in Thailand last November due to an Interpol notice in which Bahrain sought his custody after he was sentenced in absentia in 2014 to 10 years in prison for allegedly vandalizing a police station — a charge he denies. Bahrain is seeking his extradition. Al-Araibi’s case is being considered by Thailand’s justice system, she said.  

China Broadcasts Spacecraft Pictures From Moon's Far Side

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 21:26
China on Friday broadcast pictures taken by its rover and lander on the moon's far side, in what its space program hailed as another triumph for the groundbreaking mission to the less-understood sector of the lunar surface. The pictures on state broadcaster CCTV showed the Jade Rabbit 2 rover and the Chang'e 4 spacecraft that transported it on the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the moon, which always faces away from Earth. The pictures were transmitted by a relay satellite to a control center in Beijing, although it wasn't immediately clear when they were taken. "The lander, its rover, and the relay satellite are all in a stable condition. They have reached the predetermined engineering goals, right now they are getting into the stage of scientific searches," Zhang Kejian, director of the China National Space Administration, said before engineers at the Beijing center. "Now I declare that the Chang'e 4 mission, as a part of the Chang'e Lunar Exploration Program, has been a success," Zhang said. Pictures transmitted back show a rocky surface with the jagged edge of craters in the background, posing a challenge for controllers in plotting the rover's future travels, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Among the images is a 360-degree panorama stitched together from 80 photos taken by a camera on the lander after it released the rover onto the lunar surface, Xinhua said, citing Li Chunlai, deputy director of the National Astronomical Observatories of China and commander-in-chief of the ground application system of Chang'e 4. "From the panorama, we can see the probe is surrounded by lots of small craters, which was really thrilling," Li was quoted as saying. The space administration also released a 12-minute video of Chang'e 4's landing utilizing more than 4,700 images taken by an on-board camera. The probe is shown adjusting its altitude, speed and pitch as it seeks to avoid obstacles on the ground. Researchers hope that low-frequency observations of the cosmos from the far side of the moon, where radio signals from Earth are blocked, will help scientists learn more about the early days of the solar system and birth of the universe's first stars. The far side has been observed many times from lunar orbits, but never explored on the surface. It is popularly called the "dark side" because it can't be seen from Earth and is relatively unknown, not because it lacks sunlight. The pioneering landing highlights China's ambitions to rival the U.S., Russia and Europe in space through manned flights and the planned construction of a permanent space station.

Former Nissan Chief Indicted on New Charges, Seeks Bail

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 17:54
Nissan’s former Chairman Carlos Ghosn has requested his release on bail after being indicted in Tokyo Friday on two new charges, his lawyers said, as the once-feted auto executive awaits a lengthy criminal trial that could be as long as six months away. Ghosn was the overlord of an alliance that included Nissan Motor, Mitsubishi Motors and France’s Renault, until his surprise November arrest and removal as chairman of both Japanese automakers sent shockwaves through the industry. The former executive, lauded for rescuing Nissan from the financial brink two decades ago, was charged with aggravated breach of trust for temporarily transferring personal investment losses to Nissan in 2008. Ghosn, former Representative Director Greg Kelly and Nissan itself were also charged for understating Ghosn’s income for three years through March 2018. The three parties have been indicted for the same charge covering the years 2010-2015. Ghosn and Kelly have denied all charges. Nissan said it regretted any concern caused to its stakeholders. Bail is rare It is rare in Japan for defendants who deny their charges to be granted bail ahead of trial. Kelly posted bail on Christmas Day and is unable to leave Japan without special permission. Ghosn’s lawyer, Motonari Otsuru, expects his client to be held until trial, which he said could begin in about six months. If bail is granted, Ghosn, who is suffering from fever, according to his lawyer, would not likely be released until Tuesday given that Monday is public holiday. Kelly, a Ghosn ally, was hospitalized for treatment of a pre-existing neck problem after his release and has since been discharged, said his lawyer Yoichi Kitamura. “This second indictment for Kelly comes as no surprise as it merely makes what was a five year period for the first into eight years,” Kitamura said. Kitamura said he expects Ghosn and Kelly to be tried together on the two charges of understating income, and that he will work closely with Ghosn’s legal team. Nissan complaint  Also Friday, Nissan said it had filed a criminal complaint against its former leader. The automaker, in a statement, said it filed the complaint “on the basis of Ghosn’s misuse of a significant amount of the company’s funds. Nissan does not in any way tolerate such misconduct and calls for strict penalties.” Ghosn, 64, appeared in court Tuesday for the first time since his arrest, looking thinner and grayer. He denied the allegations, calling them “meritless” and “unsubstantiated.” He said he had asked Nissan to temporarily take on his foreign exchange contracts after the 2008-2009 financial crisis prompted his bank to call for more collateral. He said he did so to avoid having to resign and use his retirement allowance for collateral. Ghosn’s lawyer Otsuru on Tuesday said Nissan had agreed to the arrangement on condition that any losses or gains would be Ghosn’s. Ghosn said the contracts were transferred back to him and that Nissan did not incur a loss.  On Thursday, the boards of Nissan and controlling shareholder Renault, where Ghosn remains chairman, met for an update on the matter. Nissan later said it remained committed to the alliance.

F-35s Unlikely, Taiwan Upgrades F-16s Fighters to Counter China

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 16:07
Taiwan is upgrading a fleet of American-made fighter jets, but may scrap ambitions to acquire the more advanced F-35 models, showing the limits of U.S.-Taiwan military cooperation despite a common interest of resisting China. The Air Force should get its first four upgraded F-16 A/B fighter jets in early 2019. The upgrades are part of a broader overhaul that began a year ago to convert the planes into the equivalent of higher-end F-16Vs, the government-funded Central News Agency said. But the Taiwanese armed forces, ranked as the world’s 24th strongest, probably won’t get F-35 planes from the American developer Lockheed Martin despite expressions of interest in the past, defense analysts say. Taiwan would then rely in any war with China, a military rival of some 70 years, on tactical advantages rather than trying to match its firepower. “One main thing I think that Taiwan has sort of come to the realization that the talk of F-35s is more likely to be a long-ranging solution, more so than being able to get them on an immediate basis, so they have been toying around with various other options,” said Collin Koh, a maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. China claims self-ruled Taiwan as part of its own territory. Last week Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated in a speech that his government could use force against the island 160 kilometers away if needed to force unification of the two sides. China maintains the third strongest military after the United States and Russia. ​F-35 advantage Taiwan needs better aircraft to replace the French-designed Mirage 2000 jets that it has used for about 25 years, said Andrew Yang, former defense minister and secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank. Taiwan’s defense ministry technically has not ruled out F-35s, ministry spokesman Chen Chung-chi said Thursday. But he said the ministry was also weighing purchases or upgrades of other F-series aircraft that would “be in accord” with air defense goals. “Those are all choices,” Chen said. “We have a lot of general considerations to factor in. We will do some appraisals and research.” F-35s would help Taiwan with “peacetime interdiction” against China, said David An, senior research fellow with the policy incubator Global Taiwan Institute in Washington. The planes could “go out and identify and escort (Chinese) aircraft to make sure they don’t veer into Taiwan’s airspace,” he said. China has flown military aircraft just outside Taiwan’s air defense zone 10 or 15 times since 2015. Leaders in Beijing now resent Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen for rejecting a dialogue condition that each side sees itself as part of a single China. F-35s would “play a unique role” in improving Taiwan’s overall military capabilities, An added. The aircraft, used now by Asian neighbors Japan and South Korea, would form a sky-based command and control hub to coordinate the operations of other military platforms, he said. Informal rejection of F-35 sales Taiwan has expressed “informal” interest in buying F-35s, An said. The U.S. government would need to approve the request before Lockheed Martin could make a sale. The U.S. government has informally rejected the idea, scholars believe. “I think that was a political decision, and commercially it would be too late to meet with the timetable for replacement (of Mirage 2000s),” Yang said. ​U.S. officials may worry that Chinese spies would steal F-35 technology from any aircraft sold to Taiwan, Koh said. They might also wonder whether Taiwan can afford the aircraft given its approximately $10 billion defense budget, compared to $500 billion for military spending in the United States, An said. Officials in Washington may also fear F-35s could not fight off Chinese missiles, he said. “The U.S. government recommendations for Taiwan are in favor of asymmetric capabilities such as cheap short-range coastal defense missiles to counter amphibious invasion, rather than symmetric capabilities such as expensive advanced fighter aircraft,” he said. Upgrades in the short term For now, Taiwan is spending $3.64 billion on upgrades of its existing 144 F-16 A/B jets. Central News Agency calls the overhaul “the largest and most important upgrade ever undertaken by the Air Force.” Lockheed Martin has sent engineers to Taiwan for the project. Among their new hardware, the jets will receive advanced radar systems equivalent to those used by F-35 fighters. The upgrades line up with the Taiwan president’s broader modernization of defense systems, including stronger preparations for cyber-warfare and more reliance on domestically developed weaponry.

North Korea Human Rights Remain Dire After Year of Work

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 15:12
Despite more than a year of international engagement and promises of economic reform by North Korea’s leaders, the human rights situation in the isolated country remains dire, a top U.N. rights official said Friday. Blocked by the government from visiting North Korea, U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea Tomas Quintana visited South Korea this week as part of an investigation that will be provided to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March. Noting that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has embarked on an effort to improve living conditions by focusing on economic development, Quintana said his preliminary findings showed those efforts had not translated into improvements in the lives of most people. “The fact is, that with all the positive developments the world has witnessed in the last year, it is all the more regrettable that the reality for human rights on the ground remains unchanged, and continues to be extremely serious,” he told reporters at a briefing in Seoul. “In all areas related to the enjoyment of economic and social rights, including health, housing, education, social security, employment, food, water and sanitation, much of the country’s population is being left behind,” Quintana added. ​Left out of talks North Korea denies human rights abuses and says the issue is used by the international community as a political ploy to isolate it. Human rights were noticeably absent from talks between Kim and the leaders of South Korea and the United States last year, over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. But in December, the United States imposed sanctions on an additional three North Korean officials, including a top aide to Kim, for serious rights abuses and censorship. North Korea’s foreign ministry warned in a statement after the December sanctions were announced, that the measures could lead to a return to “exchanges of fire” and North Korea’s disarming could be blocked forever. Kim acknowledgement While noting he had “no specific information” on whether international sanctions were hurting ordinary North Koreans, Quintana said the sanctions targeted the economy as a whole and “raised questions” about the possible impact on the public. He cited a reference by Kim in his new year message to the need to improve living standards, saying it was a rare acknowledgement of the economic and social hardships faced by many North Koreans. Still, the United Nations has confirmed the continued use of political prison camps housing “thousands” of inmates, Quintana said, quoting one source as saying “the whole country is a prison.” He said witnesses who recently left North Korea reported facing widespread discrimination, labor exploitation and corruption in daily life. There is also a “continuing pattern of ill-treatment and torture” of defectors who escaped to China only to be returned to North Korea by Chinese authorities, Quintana said.

Myanmar Court Rejects Appeal by Jailed Reuters Reporters

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 14:34
A Myanmar court on Friday rejected the appeal of two Reuters reporters sentenced to seven years in jail on charges of breaking the Official Secrets Act, saying the defense had not provided sufficient evidence to show they were innocent. Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were convicted by a lower court in September in a landmark case that has raised questions about Myanmar’s progress toward democracy and sparked an outcry from diplomats and human rights advocates. “It was a suitable punishment,” said High Court Judge Aung Naing, referring to the seven-year prison term meted out by the lower court. Ruling may be appealed The defense has the option of making a further appeal to the country’s supreme court, based in the capital Naypyitaw. “Today’s ruling is yet another injustice among many inflicted upon Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. They remain behind bars for one reason: those in power sought to silence the truth,” said Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler in a statement. “Reporting is not a crime, and until Myanmar rights this terrible wrong, the press in Myanmar is not free, and Myanmar’s commitment to rule of law and democracy remains in doubt,” Adler wrote. ​Appeal arguments In their appeal arguments made last month, defense lawyers had cited evidence of a police set-up and lack of proof of a crime. They told the appeal court the lower court that tried the case had wrongly placed the burden of proof on the defendants. The defense also said prosecutors had failed to prove the reporters gathered and collected secret information, sent information to an enemy of Myanmar or that they had an intention to harm national security. The judge said the defendants did not follow journalistic ethics and that the court could not determine whether the arrest of the reporters was a trap. Khine Khine Soe, a legal officer representing the government, told the appeal hearing that the evidence showed the reporters had collected and kept confidential documents. He said they intended to harm national security and the national interest. Before their arrest, the reporters had been working on a Reuters investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys by security forces and Buddhist civilians in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State during an army crackdown that began in August 2017. The operation sent more than 730,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh, according to United Nations’ estimates.

New Taiwan Premier Appointed to Boost Popularity

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 12:24
Taiwan has appointed Su Tseng-chang as premier, President Tsai Ing-wen said Friday, as she moved to shore up support after the defeat of her pro-independence party in local elections last year. November’s election trouncing presents a major challenge to Tsai, who faced mounting domestic criticism over her reform agenda while facing renewed threats from China, which considers the self-ruled island its own. Su is a former premier appointed in 2006 by then President Chen Shui-bian, and was a chairman of Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party for two terms. His appointment follows the widely expected resignation of William Lai, the second premier to quit since Tsai took office in 2016. With the next presidential election just a year away, analysts say Tsai and Su must build support for the government’s cross-strait policy and further boost the export-reliant economy in a challenging year, amid the Sino-U.S. trade spat.

US: China’s Top Trade Negotiator to Visit Soon

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 10:02
U.S. officials expect a visit from China’s top trade negotiator this month in Washington, signaling that higher-level discussions are likely to follow this week’s talks with midlevel officials in Beijing as the world’s two largest economies try to reach a deal to end a tit-for-tat tariff war. “The current intent is that the Vice Premier Liu He will most likely come and visit us later in the month and I would expect the government shutdown would have no impact,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters Thursday in Washington. “We will continue with those meetings just as we sent a delegation to China.” The U.S. government is in the 20th day of a partial shutdown with President Donald Trump, a Republican, and congressional Democrats feuding over funding and Trump’s desire for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. People familiar with the talks in Beijing said Thursday that hopes were mounting that Liu would continue talks with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Mnuchin. Higher level, key decisions Talks at that level are viewed as important for making the key decisions to ease a festering trade war, which has disrupted trade flows for hundreds of billions of dollars worth of goods and roiled global markets. Trump has demanded better terms of trade with China, with the United States pressing Beijing to address issues that would require structural change such as intellectual property theft, forced technology transfers and other non-tariff barriers. On Thursday Trump said the United States was having “tremendous success” in its trade negotiations with China. A spokeswoman for Lighthizer’s office declined to comment. ​Few details on progress More than halfway through a 90-day truce in the U.S.-China trade war agreed on Dec. 1 when Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping met at the G20 summit in Argentina, there have been few details provided of any progress made. Trump has vowed to increase tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports March 2 if China fails to take steps to protect U.S. intellectual property, end policies that force American companies to turn over technology to a Chinese partner, allow more market access for U.S. businesses and reduce other non-tariff barriers to American products. Ambitious timeline and hope The timeline is seen as ambitious, but the resumption of face-to-face negotiations has bolstered hopes of a deal. “We have the two sides back at the table. That’s encouraging,” said Myron Brilliant, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s head of international affairs, while speaking to reporters at an event Thursday. China’s commerce ministry said Thursday that additional consultations with the United States were being arranged after the Beijing talks addressed structural issues and helped establish a foundation to resolve U.S. and Chinese concerns. Commerce ministry spokesman Gao Feng told reporters the two sides were “serious” and “honest.” Asked about China’s stance on issues such as forced technology transfers, intellectual property rights, non-tariff barriers and cyber attacks, and whether China was confident it could reach agreement with the United States, Gao said these issues were “an important part” of the Beijing talks. “There has been progress in these areas,” he said without elaborating. China has repeatedly played down complaints about intellectual property abuses, and has rejected accusations that foreign companies face forced technology transfers. ‘Cordial standoff’ Discussions on those issues were an extensive part of the talks, said people in Washington familiar with the discussions. Chinese officials listened “politely” to U.S. grievances, they said, but responded by saying that the Americans had some issues wrong and misunderstood others, but that some other issues could be addressed. “It was a cordial standoff,” said one person familiar with the discussions. China has said it will not give ground on issues that it perceives as core. On Wednesday, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office said officials from the two sides discussed “ways to achieve fairness, reciprocity and balance in trade relations,” and focused on China’s pledge to buy a substantial amount of agricultural, energy, manufactured, and other products and services from the United States.” The U.S. trade agency said the talks also focused on ways to ensure enforcement and verification of Chinese follow-through on any commitments it makes to the United States. Steps taken U.S. and Chinese officials made more progress on straightforward issues such as working out the details of Chinese pledges to buy a “substantial amount” of U.S. agricultural, energy and manufactured goods and services, sources said. Since the Trump-Xi meeting, China has resumed purchases of U.S. soybeans. Buying had slumped after China imposed a 25 percent import duty on U.S. shipments of the oilseed on July 6 in response to U.S. tariffs. China has also cut tariffs on U.S. cars, dialed back on an industrial development plan known as “Made in China 2025” and told its state refiners to buy more U.S. oil. Earlier this week, China approved five genetically modified crops for import, the first in about 18 months, which could boost its overseas grains purchases and ease U.S. pressure to open its markets to more farm goods.

Gunmen Kill 4 Volunteers Guarding Southern Thailand School

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 09:49
Gunmen disguised as state security personnel fatally shot four paramilitary volunteers guarding a school in insurgency-wracked southern Thailand, police said. The attackers approached the armed territorial defense volunteers at the school in Pattani province and shot them dead shortly before noon Thursday, police Lt. Col. Wicha Nupannoi said. They seized four HK33 assault rifles from their victims before fleeing, scattering nails and other material on the road to delay pursuers, he said. Predominantly Buddhist Thailand's three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat have been plagued by a Muslim separatist insurgency that has claimed the lives of about 7,000 people since 2004, according to the research group Deep South Watch, which monitors the region. On Tuesday, a bomb outside a school and a car bomb elsewhere exploded in nearby Songkhla province, wounding a 12-year-old student, a security guard for teachers, and a police medic. A flurry of similar attacks took place in the last week of December. Several targeted Songkhla, which previously had been largely spared the violence. "The insurgents consider school officials to be symbolic of the Thai Buddhist state's occupation of Malay Muslim territory," Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "They have frequently targeted security personnel assigned to provide students and teachers safe passage to and from school, or protecting the school grounds." Barisan Revolusi Nasional The attacks have occurred during an effort to revitalize peace talks between the Thai government and some insurgent groups. Analysts say the most militant group, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, is not taking part. Thai Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan blamed the BRN for Tuesday's bombings. He said the authorities would have to step up efforts to prevent the attacks. Human Rights Watch also pinned the blame for the region's ongoing violence on the BRN. The insurgents "attack schools and medical clinics to maim and terrify Buddhist civilians, control the Muslim population, and discredit Thai authorities," Brad Adams, the group's Asia director, said in the statement. "Whatever the rationale, targeting civilians is morally indefensible and a war crime."  

Coke-funded Group Swayed China's Obesity Efforts, Papers Say

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 22:53
A group funded by the food industry undermined China’s efforts to keep obesity rates in check by overemphasizing the importance of physical activity rather than dietary habits, according to new research. The International Life Sciences Institute, created in 1978 by a former Coke executive, is funded by companies including McDonald’s, PepsiCo and Red Bull. It sponsors scientific research and conferences on food through its 17 international branches. Its small, but influential, China branch organized obesity conferences focusing on physical activity, with speakers including Coke-funded researchers and a Coke executive. The group enjoyed close ties to government health agencies because of the stature of its long-time leader, according to papers published in The BMJ and The Journal of Public Health Policy . A national exercise program for school children called “Happy 10 Minutes” was modeled after a pet project of the former Coke executive who founded ILSI. Susan Greenhalgh, the papers’ author and a researcher of Chinese society at Harvard, noted the difficultly in trying to untangle how much of China’s emphasis on exercise in recent years can be attributed to ILSI’s influence. But she said ILSI’s activities highlight the difficulty in assessing how food makers may be skewing public policy around the world. “There’s virtually no research on the incredibly complicated network by which ILSI Global and all its branches have been influencing obesity science,” she said. Chinese health officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a statement, ILSI did not directly address the research findings but said it “does not profess to have been perfect in our 40-year history.” It said it has instituted guidelines in recent years to ensure scientific integrity. “The journey to best-in-class nutrition and food safety science research has been a circuitous one. Not surprisingly, there have been bumps along the way,” the statement said. The food industry has long faced criticism that it plays up the importance of physical activity to deflect attention away from its products. Mike Donahue, former chief spokesman at McDonald’s, said such efforts may be seen as nefarious, but are intended to put foods in the context of overall lifestyles. In 2004, for instance, McDonald’s launched a campaign featuring ”Adult Happy Meals ” with pedometers and events where Ronald McDonald promoted exercise. Donahue said the campaign was partly in anticipation of the documentary “Super Size Me” that detailed how a diet of McDonald’s led to poor health. “It’s playing offense rather than defense,” he said. In the U.S., prominent politicians and groups often collaborate with food makers on high-profile campaigns to improve public health. Industry efforts aren’t always transparent, however, and there has been growing interest in uncovering businesses’ hidden influence. In 2015, The New York Times reported Coca-Cola was funding a nonprofit led by obesity researchers. The Associated Press subsequently obtained emails showing Coke’s role in shaping the nonprofit, which the company envisioned would run a political-style campaign to counter the “shrill rhetoric” of “public health extremists.” Amid backlash over the revelations, the Atlanta-based company pledged to be more transparent about its health efforts. In a statement responding to the new paper, the company said it recognizes that “too much sugar isn’t good for anyone” and that it is rethinking how to reduce the sugar in its drinks around the world. While the food industry’s influence in the U.S. is well-established, Greenhalgh said conflicts of interest and collaboration with industry are not seen as problems in China. “The whole political discourse around it is totally different,” she said. Greenhalgh said ILSI’s influence in China stemmed from its former leader, who remained a senior adviser until her death last year. The group still shares an office with a government health agency, but its influence may be waning without its former director, Greenhalgh said. Meanwhile, obesity has become an increasing concern in China. In 2016, China’s updated dietary guidelines said sugary drinks should be discouraged. The following year, obesity and was one of the health issues targeted in a government nutrition plan.

China Says Trade Talks are Making Progress

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 20:09
China’s Commerce Ministry says that the United States and Beijing made progress in discussions about structural issues such as forced technology transfers and intellectual property rights during trade talks this week. But the lack of details from both sides following the meetings highlights the uncertainty that remains, analysts say. The talks, which were originally scheduled to wrap up on Tuesday stretched to the evening and into Wednesday.   U.S. officials have said the talks are going well, a point Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng echoed on Thursday at a regular briefing.   “The length of the meetings shows that both sides were serious and sincere about the talks,” he said. “Structural issues were an important part of this round of talks and there has been progress in these areas.”   Gao did not comment, however, on whether he was confident that the talks could be wrapped up in the 90-day period laid out by President Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping.   Also, he did not say when the next round of talks might be held or who might attend, only that discussions between the two sides continue.   In early December, Washington and Beijing agreed to hold off on raising tariffs and to try and reach a deal before the beginning of March. Structural issues and concerns about barriers to investment in China are seen as some of the biggest obstacles to the deal.   On Wednesday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told the U.S cable news Fox Business Network that the administration is expecting something to come out of the talks. "We are moving towards a more balanced and reciprocal trade agreement with China," she said, adding that no one knows yet what that agreement will look like or when it will be ready. The U.S. Trade Representative's office gave only a few details about the talks in Beijing, noting in a statement that the discussions "focused on China's pledge to purchase a substantial amount of agricultural, energy, manufactured goods, and other products and services from the United States." At the briefing, Gao did not provide any details about what further purchases China might make. Darson Chiu, an economist and research fellow at the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research, said the pledges China made looked similar to those it had offered earlier last year. He said it was hard to be optimistic about this first round of talks. “It looks like short-term compromises have been made, but it remains to be seen if both superpowers are able to resolve their [structural] conflicts,” Chiu said.   He said that if more compromises are made when Chinese Vice Premier Liu He meets U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, an official who is viewed as being more hawkish on trade with China, the crisis will only be halfway averted.   “I don’t think the U.S. will easily remove tariffs that have been imposed on Chinese goods. This is what China has wished for, but I think the U.S. will wait and see,” Chiu said.   Issues such as intellectual property enforcement are very difficult and complex, notes Xu Chenggang, a professor of economics at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. China can say it will do more, but it already has laws for intellectual property protection.   “Really here the key is the reality,” Xu said. “It’s the enforcement of the law and the enforcement of the law is an institutional issue,” which depends on the independence of China’s judiciary system.   Washington has given Beijing a long list of changes that it would like to see from intellectual property rights protection enforcement to industrial subsidies and other non-tariff barriers. The United States has said that any deal with China must be followed up with ongoing verification and enforcement. If the two sides are unable to reach a deal by March, President Trump has threatened to raise tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods to 25 percent and to possibly levy additional tariffs that would extend to all imports from China. Joyce Huang contributed to this report.

No Solution Quite Yet for Terrified Saudi Refugee in Thailand

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 19:19
The ordeal of Saudi Arabian refugee Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun continues for now, with Australia’s foreign minister telling reporters in Bangkok Thursday no asylum deal had been reached yet. Al-Qunun, who barricaded herself in a hotel at Bangkok airport to prevent officials from deporting her after fleeing her family in Kuwait, has been granted refugee status by the United Nations refugee office and is hoping to receive asylum in Australia. The 18-year-old Saudi refugee has said her family would kill her if she were forced back and there had been hopes Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s visit to Thailand might signal a breakthrough on her asylum case. “There is no possibility that Ms. al-Qunun will be going back with me, as you put it, today,” she told reporters at the Australian Embassy in Bangkok. “That is because there are steps which are required in the process which Australia and any other country considering such a matter would have to go through. We will go through those according to our own system and our own process,” she said. She commended Thailand for referring al-Qunun’s case to the UNHCR and reiterated that Australia was now engaged in the assessment process of her asylum claim as required. When pressed if Australia had cancelled al-Qunun’s visa after she was arrested, Payne declined to comment. After learning of the UNHCR’s decision to grant her refugee status on Wednesday al-Qunun’s twitter account tweeted: “Don’t let anyone break your wings, you’re free. fight and get your RIGHTS!” Al-Qunun has told AFP her family subjected her to psychological and physical abuse and would kill her if she returned. Thailand's chief of immigration police, Surachate Hakparn, has said his country will not deport her to possible death. During her trip, Payne met with her Thai counterpart, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai. She said she had also raised the case with him of Australian permanent resident Hakeem al-Araibi, who was arrested in Bangkok more than a month ago over an Interpol Red Notice warrant issued by Bahrain — the country he fled as a refugee. “The Thai government is most certainly aware of the importance of this matter to Australia. I do note that there are legal proceedings underway in relation to Mr. al-Araibi and Australia will continue to be in very close contact with Thai authorities in relation to this,” she said. “We are, as I’ve said, very concerned about his detention, very concerned about any potential for return of Mr. al-Araibi to Bahrain.” Al-Araibi, a professional footballer, was arrested while on holiday in Thailand with his wife. In 2014 Bahrain sentenced him in absentia to 10 years for allegedly vandalizing a police station. He denies the charge and was granted refugee status in Australia in November 2017. Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson commended Thailand in their decision not to send al-Qunun back to Saudi Arabia. He said her father, who has flown to Thailand with her brother to try and lobby for her return, was the equivalent of a municipal mayor in the highly conservative Saudi Arabian province Ha’il. “And actually his tribe is one of the largest tribes in Saudi Arabia, so it’s quite influential and she certainly would have faced grievous physical harm and perhaps death if she had been sent back based on what I’ve been told by our researcher and others,” he said. But he wondered why the same treatment had not been afforded to al-Araibi. “Because this guy is a refugee, he’s been recognized by the Australian government and was pretty much on the cusp of actually getting his citizenship,” he said. “So it’s surprising that on one hand you have the very quick and welcome action on this case of Rahaf, but on the case of Hakeem it’s still stuck based on a Bahrain request to Thailand to send him back to a situation where he would certainly face imprisonment, torture and worse.”  

Indonesia to Put Muslim Issues Forward at UN Security Council

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 17:54
Indonesia says it will use its new position on the U.N. Security Council to focus attention on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. But observers say Jakarta should use its seat to put forward a broader range of issues affecting Muslims and the agenda of developing countries. Indonesia officially became a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council Jan. 1, along with four other countries: South Africa, Belgium, Dominican Republic and Germany. Four areas and Palestine During their candidacy, Indonesia pledged to focus on four issues. The Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi reiterated that they will focus on strengthening the peace ecosystem and global stability, enhancing synergy between regional organizations with the Security Council in keeping the peace, facing the international challenge of terrorism, and establishing a global partnership. “Other than that, the issue in Palestine will also become Indonesia’s focus as non-permanent member in the U.N. Security Council,” the minister said. “Indonesia is very concerned with the countries that changed their stance and it is against some of the U.N. resolutions that should be the basis of solving the Israel-Palestine conflict,” she added. Fitri Bintang Timur, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta said it is an opportunity to put forward issues that are important not only for Indonesia, but for countries with similar political interests. “For example middle-power countries and Islamic countries. Indonesia can encourage interventions that are important. Issues such as Palestine, Syria or Myanmar can be handled through an agreement,” she told VOA. Rohingya and ASEAN Indonesian can play a part, not only with the Palestine-Israel conflict, in solving the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, said Hikmahanto Juwana, a professor of International Law at the University of Indonesia. “But that also depends on the U.N.’s intensity in their involvement in the Rohingya issue. We hoped that we could’ve solved it within a regional organization. But ASEAN has already tried and failed, so I think it’s necessary to discuss it in an international forum,” he said. Juwana mentioned that discussion on the Rohingya has started in the U.N. and it has sent a special rapporteur to Myanmar. But he said that bringing up the issue involving a fellow ASEAN member state will also be difficult. “The problem in ASEAN is because the member states must have a consensus in an issue and that they have non-interference principle,” Juwana told VOA. Nevertheless, Marsudi said in a press statement Wednesday that Indonesia will continue to contribute so that the Rohingya issue in Rakhine State will make progress. Timur, of CSIS, said that in this case Indonesia could serve as a buffer for Myanmar when the U.N. decides to intervene in the Rohingya crisis.  “In that case, Indonesia can say that intervention must be done through a regional organization within ASEAN. Then Indonesia can create a regional approach through lobbying, to solve the humanitarian conflict the ASEAN way,” she said. And that will put Indonesia in a leadership position in ASEAN. Timur explained that without any Southeast Asian representative in the Security Council, it would be easier for them to make an agreement that might undermine ASEAN. “But now Indonesia is a non-permanent member, they can lobby the UNSC,” she added. ​Moderate voice of the Muslim world Timur further explained that as a Muslim majority country, Indonesia could portray and voice a more moderate view of Islam. And its position would play out well in the lobbying on conflicts in other Muslim countries.  “Such as the situation in the Middle East or conflict in Yemen,” Timur said. But Indonesia’s role as a non-permanent member largely depends on the capacity of the diplomats posted at the U.N. Juwana said the current foreign policy under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s leadership focuses more on bilateral relations rather than multilateral. “Our foreign policy must be increased in capacity and deploy skillful diplomats,” he said. But Marsudi said the Indonesian team at the U.N. has been strengthened since October 2018.  “Moreover, Indonesia will hold the presidency of security council on May 2019 and in the middle of 2020,” she added. Other than contributions in discussions and lobbying, Indonesia will also send 4,000 peacekeepers by 2019. Indonesia currently has 3,500 peacekeepers on different missions with the U.N. Marsudi also said Jakarta will send more women peacekeepers from Indonesia, especially in conflict areas where many of the victims are women and children.  “As of now only 3 percent of the total number U.N. peacekeepers from Indonesia are women,” she said. Change of leadership in Indonesia The foreign minister said she had to lobby all members of the U.N. for three years before Indonesia finally won the post against Maldives with 144 votes out of 198. She added the landslide victory showed that Indonesia has gained credibility in international diplomacy. But Timur warned the current presidential election campaign should not undermine the work of Indonesia in the U.N. Security Council. “I’m afraid that things can change depending on the next presidency. We may have a different president, or if not a different minister who might not be as active in the international forum so we’ll see,” she said.

Next Steps Unclear in US-China Trade Talks

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 16:18
The United States says talks in Beijing on ending a bruising trade war focused on Chinese promises to buy more American goods. But it gave no indication of progress on resolving disputes over Beijing’s technology ambitions and other thorny issues. China’s Ministry of Commerce said Thursday the two sides would “maintain close contact.” But neither side gave any indication of the next step during their 90-day cease-fire in a tariff fight that threatens to chill global economic growth. That uncertainty left Asian stock markets mixed Thursday. Share prices had risen Wednesday after President Donald Trump fueled optimism on Twitter about possible progress. The U.S. Trade Representative, which leads the American side of the talks, said negotiators focused on China’s pledge to buy a “substantial amount” of agricultural, energy, manufactured goods and other products and services. No signs of progress However, the USTR statement emphasized American insistence on “structural changes” in Chinese technology policy, market access, protection of foreign patents and copyrights and cybertheft of trade secrets. It gave no sign of progress in those areas.  Trump hiked tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese goods over complaints Beijing steals or pressures companies to hand over technology.  Washington also wants changes in an array of areas including the ruling Communist Party’s initiatives for government-led creation of global competitors in robotics, artificial intelligence and other industries. American leaders worry those plans might erode U.S. industrial leadership, but Chinese leaders see them as a path to prosperity and global influence and are reluctant to abandon them. The two sides might be moving toward a “narrow agreement,” but “U.S. trade hawks” want to “limit the scope of that agreement and keep the pressure up on Beijing,” said Eurasia Group analysts of Michael Hirson, Jeffrey Wright and Paul Triolo in a report. “The risk of talks breaking down remains significant,” they wrote. ​White House optimism On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders expressed optimism to Fox Business Network. She said the timing was unclear but the two sides “are moving towards a more balanced and reciprocal trade agreement with China.” The U.S. statement said negotiations dealt with the need for “ongoing verification and effective enforcement.” That reflects American frustration that the Chinese have failed to live up to past commitments. Beijing has tried to defuse pressure from Washington and other trading partners over industrial policy promising to buy more imports and open its industries wider to foreign competitors. Trump has complained repeatedly about the U.S. trade deficit with China, which last year likely exceeded the 2017 gap of $336 billion. ​Enthusiasm wears thin U.S. stocks surged Wednesday on optimism higher-level U.S. and Chinese officials might meet. That enthusiasm was wearing thin Thursday. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index fell 0.5 percent while Tokyo’s Nikkei 225 dropped 1.4 percent. Economists say the 90-day window is too short to resolve all the conflicts between the biggest and second-biggest global economies. “We can confidently say that enough progress was made that the discussions will continue at a higher level,” said Craig Allen, president of the U.S.-China Business Council. “That is very positive.” Chinese exports to the U.S. have held up despite tariff increases, partly because of exporters rushing to fill orders before more increases hit. Forecasters expect American orders to slump this year. China has imposed penalties on $110 billion of American goods, slowing customs clearance for U.S. companies and suspending issuing licenses in finance and other businesses. U.S. companies also want action on Chinese policies they complain improperly favor local companies. Those include subsidies and other favors for high-tech and state-owned industry, rules on technology licensing and preferential treatment of domestic suppliers in government procurement. For its part, Beijing is unhappy with U.S. export and investment curbs, such as controls on “dual use” technology with possible military applications. They say China’s companies are treated unfairly in national security reviews of proposed corporate acquisitions, though almost all deals are approved unchanged. This week’s talks went ahead despite tension over the arrest of a Chinese tech executive in Canada on U.S. charges related to possible violations of trade sanctions against Iran. 

In China, Kim Jong Un Tries to Expand His Leverage

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 13:07
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has headed home after visiting China this week. Neither Pyongyang nor Beijing has provided details about the Kim visit, which comes amid preparations for a possible second summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump. As VOA's Bill Gallo reports, the North Korean leader may be hoping to use the visit to increase his leverage with Washington. VOA's Korean Service also contributed to this report.

Reports: Kim Jong Un Tells Xi Jinping He’s Committed to 2nd US Summit

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 12:10
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has concerns about deadlocked denuclearization talks with the United States, but told Chinese President Xi Jinping he is committed to improving Pyongyang’s relationship with Washington, Chinese state media reported Thursday. Discussions between Kim, who spent two days in Beijing, and Xi were reported just hours after Kim’s train left for the northeast border, where it entered North Korea early Thursday. The visit was Kim’s fourth to North Korea’s primary diplomatic and economic ally since last year, and raises speculation that Kim was coordinating with China ahead of a possible second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, who told reporters in early December that a second summit with Kim will likely take place in January or February 2019. Xi is reported to have assured Kim of China’s support and said he hopes the two sides “will meet each other halfway.”   WATCH: In China, Kim Jong Un Tries to Expand His Leverage South Korean President Moon Jae-in was also hopeful following Kim’s visit. “I think Chairman Kim Jong Un’s visit to China will have a very positive effect on the success of the second U.S.-North Korea summit,” Moon told reporters Thursday. Kim and Xi held talks Tuesday — believed to be Kim’s birthday — shortly after the North Korean leader arrived in Beijing. He later attended a dinner with Xi and his wife at the Great Hall of the People. Kim was accompanied by his wife, Ri Sol Ju. Kim and President Trump signed a vague agreement during their historic summit in Singapore last June that calls on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. But further negotiations have stalled over the North’s demand for front-loaded sanctions relief tied to small progress, and its opposition to the Trump administration’s call for complete denuclearization before granting any concessions. During his annual New Year’s Day address last week, Kim said it was his “firm will” that North Korea will no longer produce or test nuclear weapons. He also said he would be willing to hold another face-to-face meeting with Trump, but warned his country may have to take another path unless Washington takes “corresponding measures.” North Korea is also demanding that the United States and South Korea first issue a peace declaration to formally end hostilities and replace the armistice that has been in effect since the Korean War ended in 1953. Critics worry a peace declaration could undermine the justification for the U.S. military presence in South Korea.

Vietnam's 'Incense Village' Blazes Pink Ahead of Lunar New Year

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 10:10
In Vietnam's "incense village," dozens are hard at work dying, drying and whittling down bamboo bark to make the fragrant sticks ahead of the busy lunar new year holiday. It is the most frantic time of year for workers in the cottage industry in Quang Phu Cau village on the outskirts of Hanoi, where families have been making incense for more than a century — a great source of pride for many. "It is a traditional and spiritual job making these sticks," Dang Thi Hoa told AFP, sitting amid bundles of bright pink incense sticks drying under the afternoon sun. Her village is among several dotted across Vietnam making the sticks, the scent of each batch tailored to the tastes of regions they will be sold in. Sales tick up every year ahead of and during the Tet lunar new year in February, when throngs of people crowd into temples to light incense during worship, or burn the sticks on the ancestral altar at home. Hoa's family started making the sticks more than 100 years ago and her mother still pitches in along with her teenage daughter who helps out after school. Selling her sticks to central Vietnam, Hoa can earn up to $430 a month leading up to Tet, a tidy sum in the country where the average monthly income is $195. Most households in the alleys of Quang Phu Cau are involved in the ancient trade. Some hack bamboo planks down to be fed into a whittling machine; others dip the thin strips into buckets of pink dye, leaving hundreds of brightly colored bushels fanned out like bouquets on the streets to air out. After, women donning cloth face masks coat the dried sticks with aromatic incense paste before redrying them and shipping them off for packaging. The work offers more than just pride for many in Quang Phu Cau: like Hoa, many earn good money making incense compared to factory work nearby. "This job is hard work, but I am earning enough to raise two of my children to become doctors," said Le Thi Lieu as she laid her incense out to dry. That said, she's happy her two other kids have decided to work with her. "We need at least one to work in the business so they can take over in the future."

No Rest for the Dead: Singapore Digs Up Graves for Highways

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 09:30
When Singapore's government said it would exhume about 4,000 graves in the defunct Bukit Brown cemetery for an eight-lane highway, an unusually vocal campaign grew quickly to save one of the last remaining artifacts of the past in the modern city. The cemetery, a rare patch of jungle surrounded by manicured gardens and high rises, has about 100,000 graves, including hundreds of early Chinese immigrants. It is also considered an important relic of the Japanese occupation and World War II. Although the cemetery closed for burials nearly 50 years ago, descendants still visit their ancestors' graves. But that ritual will soon end, as Bukit Brown is scheduled to be cleared for housing by 2030. "This is a living museum," said Darren Koh, a volunteer with advocacy group All Things Bukit Brown, which has offered guided walks in the cemetery since 2011, when the exhumations were announced. "We lost a lot of history and heritage in the other cemeteries that were cleared, so we were galvanized into action to save Bukit Brown," he said, fighting to be heard above the roar of traffic and construction on the new highway. With some 5.6 million people in an area three-fifths the size of New York City - and with the population estimated to grow to 6.9 million by 2030 - Singapore is running out of space.  The island nation has long reclaimed land from the sea, and plans to move more of its transport, utilities and storage underground to free up space for housing, offices and greenery. It has also cleared dozens of cemeteries for homes and highways. "Planning for long-term land use in land-scarce Singapore often requires us to make difficult decisions," the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) said in a statement. Bukit Brown has been earmarked for residential use since 1991, and while the government is committed to "retaining and protecting our natural and built heritage, we need to also balance it against other needs such as housing," officials said. Tomb Sweeping The Chinese have traditionally believed that the dead must be buried, and that without a proper burial the soul will not rest, but will wander about as a "hungry ghost." But the burial practice has changed in increasingly crowded cities from Hong Kong to Taiwan to China. Traditional grave burials gave way to cremation, and the use of columbaria to store urns with ashes. As even columbaria became crowded, city authorities encouraged people to disperse the ashes in the sea, woodlands or parklands. "The conception of cemeteries as space-wasting activity takes precedence over the idea of cemeteries as sites of leisurely activity," said Lily Kong, a geographer previously at the National University of Singapore. "To depart from the practice of grave burial requires a significant cultural shift. In many ways, it may be said that this shift has been made," she wrote in a 2012 paper on burial rituals. Singapore in 1998 announced a 15-year burial period, after which bodies are dug up and cremated or interred in smaller plots. Hong Kong - where even the columbaria are running out of space - has a six-year limit. Taiwan has similar limits, and has long encouraged cremations and eco-burials. In China, authorities said in 2014 they were targeting a cremation rate of close to 100 percent by the end of 2020. They also encourage online memorialization, where family members can set up a website for the deceased, and make virtual offerings of flowers, incense and wine, including during the annual Qing Ming "tomb sweeping" festival. That is when families clean the tombs, bring offerings of food and drink, and burn joss sticks and paper money to give their ancestors a comfortable afterlife. Following the announcement of the exhumations of 4,153 graves in Bukit Brown, Singaporeans rallied on social media, and showed up in the hundreds for walks in the cemetery. The cemetery, dotted with headstones bearing fading Chinese inscriptions among the raintrees and thick undergrowth, was added to World Monuments Watch, which lists heritage sites under threat - a first for a Singapore landmark. The United Nations Special Rapporteur for cultural rights wrote to the government, asking it to preserve Bukit Brown's "remarkable natural, cultural and historical value." But to no avail. The graves were exhumed, and the first section of the new Lornie Highway opened in late-October. "We shouldn't always have to choose between heritage and development," said Claire Leow, who also volunteers at All Things Bukit Brown, citing old hawker centers and other landmarks that have disappeared. "More people are choosing to be cremated; it's all the more reason to preserve Bukit Brown as a public space for all," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Unmarked Much of Singapore is built on old graveyards, including Orchard Road, the city's main shopping belt. The Bidadari cemetery was cleared of more than 100,000 Christian and Muslim graves for a new housing estate, while Choa Chu Kang - Singapore's biggest and only active cemetery - will be cleared of more than 80,000 graves for an expanded air base. At Bukit Brown, the graves were exhumed individually and the remains cremated. The ashes were put in urns that were placed in a columbarium. But authorities first consulted with clan members and historians to agree on a way to document the graves. "Without such documentation and research, it is difficult to assess the heritage value that is at stake, and make informed decisions," said Hui Yew-Foong, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, who led the effort. "And if the government does make the decision to clear the cemeteries, at least a good record is made for posterity." More than two-thirds of the exhumed graves were not claimed because relatives had died or forgotten, Leow said. But others are still claimed. One such grave "stood unmarked and forgotten" for six decades before being identified. "Finally, I can place a name to the grave that is my grandfather's and be a dutiful grandson," Norman Cho, a 40-year-old Singaporean, wrote in a blog on All Things Bukit Brown. It is these moments that give Leow hope. "Cemeteries should not be seen as a waste of space, but as a part of our history and culture," she said. "In losing them, we lose little bits of ourselves."