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Indonesia to Resume Search for Crashed Lion Air Jet's Voice Recorder

Tue, 01/08/2019 - 11:55
Indonesia will launch a renewed search effort as early as Tuesday to find the cockpit voice recorder from a Lion Air jet that crashed into the Java Sea in October, the head of its accident investigation agency said. "If the weather is good, the ship will start to depart today," National Transportation Safety Commission (KNKT) Chief Soerjanto Tjahjono told Reuters on Tuesday. The crash, the world's first of a Boeing Co 737 MAX jet and the deadliest of 2018, killed all 189 people on board. Investigators last week said they planned to use a navy ship for a fresh search for the crashed jet's second "black box" after a 10-day effort funded by Lion Air failed to find the cockpit voice recorder (CVR). A KNKT source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the team will have seven days using the ship KRI Spica to find the CVR, which could hold vital clues giving investigators insight into the actions of the doomed jet's pilots. Tjahjono declined to comment on whether there was a time limit on the search. Contact with flight JT610 was lost 13 minutes after it took off on Oct. 29 from the capital Jakarta heading north to the tin-mining town of Pangkal Pinang. The other black box, the flight data recorder, was recovered three days after the crash. A preliminary report by KNKT focused on airline maintenance and training and the response of a Boeing anti-stall system to a recently replaced sensor but did not give a cause for the crash.

Chinese Scientist Criticized for Risking 'Gene-edited' Babies' Lives

Tue, 01/08/2019 - 11:50
A leading geneticist who ran the conference where a Chinese scientist said he had made the world's first "gene-edited" babies condemned him on Monday for potentially jeopardizing lives and having no biology training. Robin Lovell-Badge, organizer of the November 2018 event where China's He Jiankui made his controversial presentation, described him as a rich man with a "huge ego" who "wanted to do something he thinks will change the world." He Jiankui, associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, sparked an international scientific and ethical row when he said he had used a technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the embryonic genes of twin girls born in November. He could not be immediately reached to respond to Lovell-Badge's comments. Chinese authorities are investigating him and have meanwhile halted this kind of research. In videos posted online and at the conference, He said he believed his gene editing would help protect the girls from infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Lovell-Badge, a professor and gene expert at Britain's Francis Crick Institute who led the organizing committee for the November Human Genome Editing Summit at Hong Kong University, said it was impossible to know what He had actually done. "If it's true (that he edited the genomes in the way he says) then it is certainly possible that he has put the children's lives at risk," he told journalists in London. "No-one knows what these mutations will do." Lovell-Badge said he originally invited He to the conference after hearing in scientific circles that he was "up to something." Lovell-Badge hoped that asking He to interact with specialists would encourage him to "control his urges." "Pretty much everyone he talked to had said to him: 'Don't do it,'" he said. "But clearly it was all too late." Lovell-Badge said he learned of He's claims on the eve of the conference, and had an emergency meeting with him. "He thought that he was doing good, and that what he was doing was the next big thing," Lovell-Badge said. But he had "no basic training in biology" and the experiments he said he had carried out "ignored all the norms of how you conduct any clinical trial or clinical experiment." "He should certainly be stopped from doing anything like this again," he said. Lovell-Badge said he had not heard from He since early December, but understood he was in Shenzhen in a guarded apartment during the probe. Chinese authorities and institutions, as well as hundreds of international scientists, have condemned He and said any application of gene editing on human embryos for reproductive purposes was against the law and medical ethics of China.

N. Korea Leader Visits China Amid Talks of 2nd Summit with Trump

Tue, 01/08/2019 - 06:44
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is visiting China at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Chinese and North Korean state media reported on Tuesday, as preparations for a second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump continue. Kim left for China on a private train on Monday afternoon accompanied by his wife, Ri Sol Ju, and other senior North Korean officials, including Kim Yong Chol and Ri Yong Ho, North Korea's state-run KCNA news agency said. China's official Xinhua news agency also confirmed the visit and said Kim is visiting China from Monday to Thursday. The report did not state the purpose of the visit. The visit, first reported by South Korean media, comes amid reports of advanced negotiations for a second summit between Washington and Pyongyang. Kim traveled to China, his most important ally, three times to meet with Xi last year before and after summits with U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Neither KCNA nor Xinhua provided further information on Kim's itinerary, though South Korea's Hankyoreh newspaper said on Monday that he will meet with China's Xi for a fourth summit. Kim said last week in a New Year address he is ready to meet Trump again anytime to achieve their common goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, but warned he may have to take an alternative path if U.S. sanctions and pressure against the country continued. China is North Korea's most important economic and diplomatic backer, despite anger over its neighbor's nuclear and missile programs. Ties have warmed in the last year as Pyongyang's relations with both Seoul and Washington have also improved.

US Commerce Secretary: US, China Can Reach Trade Deal 'We Can Live With'

Tue, 01/08/2019 - 05:14
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross predicted on Monday that Beijing and Washington could reach a trade deal that "we can live with" as officials from the world's two largest economies resumed talks in a bid to end their trade dispute. Ross told CNBC the immediate trade issues would be easiest to tackle while enforcement issues and structural reforms, such as intellectual property rights and market access, would be more challenging to resolve. "I think there's a very good chance that we will get a reasonable settlement that China can live with, that we can live with and that addresses all of the key issues," Ross said in an interview with CNBC. China's Foreign Ministry said Beijing had the "good faith" to work with the United States to resolve trade frictions as Chinese officials met their U.S. counterparts in Beijing for the first face-to-face talks since U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed in December to a 90-day truce in a trade war that has roiled global markets. Trump said on Sunday that trade talks with China were going very well and that weakness in the Chinese economy gave Beijing a reason to work toward a deal. Ross told CNBC the talks were being held with appropriate-level staff and would help determine how the administration moves forward. The two sides agreed to hold "positive and constructive" dialogue to resolve economic and trade disputes in accordance with the consensus reached by their respective leaders, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular news briefing. "From the beginning we have believed that China-U.S. trade friction is not a positive situation for either country or the world economy. China has the good faith, on the basis of mutual respect and equality, to resolve the bilateral trade frictions." Trump imposed import tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese goods last year and has threatened more to pressure Beijing to change its practices on issues ranging from industrial subsidies to intellectual property to hacking. China has retaliated with tariffs of its own. "As for whether the Chinese economy is good or not, I have already explained this. China's development has ample tenacity and huge potential," Lu said. "We have firm confidence in the strong long-term fundamentals of the Chinese economy." Lu also said Vice President Wang Qishan would attend the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in late January, but added that he had not yet heard of any arrangements for a meeting with Trump there. By Monday evening, few details had emerged of the trade talks, which were scheduled to run through Tuesday. Although the talks were held at a vice-ministerial level, Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, who has led trade negotiations with the United States and is a top economic adviser to Xi, made an unexpected appearance at the meetings Monday, according to a person familiar with the discussions. The U.S. delegation, led by Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Jeffrey Gerrish, includes under secretaries from the U.S. departments of agriculture, commerce, energy and treasury, as well as senior officials from the White House. No 'white flag' Tu Xinquan, a Chinese trade expert at Beijing's University of International Business and Economics, told Reuters before talks began that the meetings would likely focus on technical issues and leave major disagreements to more senior officials. "China's economy is significantly slowing down, and the U.S. stock market is declining quickly. I think the two sides need some kind of agreement for now," Tu said. Data last week showed manufacturing has slowed in both China and the United States, though the U.S. Labor Department on Friday reported a surge in new jobs in December along with higher wages. Officials have given scant details on concessions that China might be willing to make to meet U.S. demands, some of which would require structural reforms unpalatable for Chinese leaders. Even if a trade agreement is reached soon, analysts say it would be no panacea for China's economy, which is expected to continue decelerating in coming months. China's stridently nationalist Global Times tabloid said in an editorial late Sunday that statements from both sides that they hoped to reach a deal were cause for optimism, but that Beijing would not cave in to U.S. demands. "If China was going to raise the white flag, it would have done it already," the paper said.

In China, Rights Lawyer Likely to Be Disbarred for Defending Client

Mon, 01/07/2019 - 23:38
Authorities in China’s southern Guangdong province are expected to soon revoke the license of a prominent rights lawyer, apparently for defending his client. Authorities held a public hearing Saturday to decide if such an administrative punishment would be imposed on lawyer Liu Zhengqing, according to other rights lawyers.   A final decision is expected a week from the hearing.   The ruling against Liu for allegedly “endangering state security” and “malicious defamation” while defending his clients will be the first of its kind.   The department of justice in Guangdong didn’t specify which comments in Liu’s earlier defense statements were at issue when he defended an ethnic Uighur minority in late 2016 and a Falun Gong practitioner in 2017.   Media reports, however, said what riled authorities the most was an earlier defense, in which he said: “the Chinese Communist Party was having a dictator’s doomsday panic, so much so that its lackeys were enforcing a political suppression through judicial means.”   Once disbarred, Liu will be the 26th rights lawyers in China who has suffered such administrative suppression in the past year or so, rights groups say.     Fight against state apparatus   Liu did not show up at Saturday’s hearing to defend himself. He told VOA that he was unwilling to play along with what he called a “show trial” the provincial justice department has put on to disbar him.   “[Such an administrative punishment on me] is neither legal nor reasonable. But what can I say? Will they listen to me? It’s just another black-box operation of theirs. I have no way of [defending for myself] or telling what will come my way next,” Liu said.   Liu added that an individual can’t win the fight against the state apparatus. He thus won’t waste time and energy to appeal his case if he is disbarred.   Liu has been a well-known rights lawyer, who specializes in criminal defense. He has taken up many “politically sensitive” cases including the cases of other rights lawyers and activists such as Xie Yang, Qing Yongmin and Huang Qi.   In Liu’s absence, Sui Muqing, another rights lawyer who had been previously disbarred, appeared at Saturday’s hearing to plead for Liu’s case.   Sui and 24 other rights lawyers have previously issued an open letter in support of Liu.   Public hearing?   Sui said that the so-called public hearing was secret in its nature as many of Liu’s supporters weren’t allowed in while the justice department didn’t provide necessary materials for him to defend for Liu.   Sui argued that Liu had done nothing illegal but to make statements of non-guilty defense for his clients and state security charges are vaguely defined and arbitrarily applied offenses.   Sui said any punishment on Liu will set a bad precedent that will negatively impact lawyers’ autonomy to defend their clients.   “The consequences will be terrible once such a bad example is set. That means that, in future human rights cases, no lawyers will dare to plead innocence for clients. That way, we will be faced with a failing system of legal defense,” Sui said.   Sui added that, in his experience, a final decision to disbar Liu may be reached later this week.   The justice department on Monday refused to comment.   And Sui agreed that Liu’s punishment may signal a warning for his role in representing dissident Huang Qi. Huang was scheduled to stand for a pre-trial hearing in early December, which got canceled for reasons unknown. And Huang’s mother appeared to have disappeared after having disclosed the hearing notice to media two days before the hearing.   “Over the years, lawyer Liu has taken on so many [influential] human rights cases. If the case of Huang Qi is a factor, I’d say that Huang’s case is the final straw that has broken the camel’s back,” he said.   Political persecution   Albert Ho, chairman of China Human Rights Concern Group in Hong Kong, noted that Liu’s punishment is yet another example of China’s ongoing political persecution to intimidate rights defenders and dissidents, following its crackdown on rights lawyers in 2015.   “I think the overall target is to silence the whole legal community particularly with regard to those who are outspoken, who wish to uphold legal justice and pursuing the legal objectives independent of the direction of the government,” Ho said.   Rights groups have strongly condemned China’s arbitrary administrative punishments on large numbers of rights lawyers.   Ho said that his organization demands China immediately withdraw all illegal administrative penalties against Liu and his peers in the past.   In accordance with its constitution and the Lawyers Law, China should ensure its lawyers are able to perform their professional duties without intimidation or hindrance, nor shall they suffer prosecution or penalties for any speech or action while practicing law, the group said in a press statement.      

Myanmar's Civilian, Military Leaders Meet, Vow to 'Crush' Rakhine Rebels

Mon, 01/07/2019 - 22:35
Myanmar government leader Aung San Suu Kyi discussed insurgent attacks on Myanmar police on Monday in a rare meeting with the military chief, and her administration called for the armed forces to "crush" the rebels, a government spokesman said. Fighting between government forces and the rebel Arakan Army in the western state of Rakhine has displaced thousands of people since early December, according to the United Nations. The Arakan Army wants greater autonomy for Rakhine, where the mainly Buddhist Rakhine ethnic group makes up the majority of the population. Rakhine State saw a military-led crackdown in 2017, following attacks by Rohingya Muslim insurgents that prompted hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee westwards into neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay said Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other cabinet members met military leaders, including army chief Min Aung Hlaing, his deputy and the military intelligence chief, to discuss "foreign affairs and national security". "The president's office has instructed the military to launch an operation to crush the terrorists," Zaw Htay told a news conference in the capital, Naypyitaw. While Suu Kyi is barred from being president by a military-drafted constitution, Win Myint is a loyalist and she is seen as de facto leader of the civilian government, while the military remains in charge of security. The insurgents killed 13 policemen and wounded nine in attacks on four police posts on Friday, as Myanmar celebrated Independence Day, state media reported. An Arakan Army spokesman outside Myanmar told Reuters last week the group attacked the security forces in response to a broad military offensive in northern Rakhine State that also targeted civilians. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Monday that 4,500 people were sheltering in monasteries and communal spaces after being displaced by the fighting in the past month. 'Cycle of violence' Zaw Htay described the Arakan Army as a "terrorist organization" and said it had surprised security forces on guard against Rohingya insurgents. He said the Arakan Army could destabilize Rakhine State for years to come and warned people not to give it support. "Do they want to see a cycle of violence lasting decades?" he said. "I want to tell Rakhine people who are supporting (the Arakan Army): Don't think about yourself, but think about your next generation." Myanmar governments have battled various ethnic minority insurgent groups since shortly after independence from Britain in 1948, though some have struck ceasefire agreements. Zaw Htay also accused the Arakan Army of meeting the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a group of Rohingya insurgents that Myanmar also considers terrorists but added that Myanmar was unable to eliminate the groups as they had bases across the border in Bangladesh. A Bangladeshi foreign ministry official and two Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) officers denied the accusation. One BGB officer asked Myanmar to provide evidence of militant camps in Bangladesh. "All the terrorism is taking place on the other side of the border," said Lieutenant Colonel Manzural Hasan Khan, a BGB commander in Cox's Bazar, the district where more than 900,000 Rohingya Muslims are sheltering having fled bouts of violence that have drawn international condemnation against Myanmar. "The world knows what happened on the other side," he said. The Myanmar government and military leaders also discussed a temporary ceasefire the military announced last month in other parts of the country, where other insurgent groups operate, Zaw Htay said. The meeting was held at the request of the president's office, he said.

Thailand Pledges Not to Expel Saudi Woman Fleeing Family

Mon, 01/07/2019 - 20:09
The head of Thailand's Immigration Police says a young Saudi woman who was stopped in Thailand as she tried to flee to Australia to seek asylum will not be forcibly sent back to Saudi Arabia. Maj. Gen. Surachate Hakparn told reporters Monday that Rahaf Mohammed Aqunun will be allowed to meet with United Nations officials. The 18-year-old fled from Kuwait during a family vacation and arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport Saturday night. She has barricaded herself inside her airport hotel room and on Monday made several Twitter posts demanding she be allowed to meet with someone from the U.N. She said she will stay in the room until the U.N. helps her. In an earlier video post, Aqunun can be seen pacing inside the hotel room and saying, "I just want to survive." "My family is strict and locked me in a room for six months just for cutting my hair. I am 100 percent certain they will kill me as soon as I get out of the Saudi jail." Thai authorities refused to let her into the country, saying she had no travel documents or money. But Aqunun says Saudi and Kuwait officials took away her passport when she arrived — a claim backed up by Human Rights Watch. "Thai authorities should immediately halt any deportation and either allow her to continue her travel to Australia or permit her to remain in Thailand to seek protection as a refugee," Human Rights Watch deputy Middle East director Michael Page said. He appealed to Saudi and Thai officials not to follow through with their initial plan to send Aqunun back to Kuwait on Monday. "Saudi women fleeing their families can face severe violence from relatives, deprivation of liberty, and other serious harm if returned against their will," he said. Women have few civil rights in the ultra-conservative Saudi kingdom. They need permission from a male relative to obtain a passport and travel overseas. Women who commit so-called crimes against morality can sometimes meet the death penalty. Another Saudi woman, Dina Lasloom, flew to the Philippines in 2017 while trying to escape Saudi Arabia. An airline security official reported seeing her dragged out of the airport with her mouth, hands, and feet bound with duct tape. Human rights activists have seen no trace of her since.

Tesla Breaks Ground on Shanghai Factory

Mon, 01/07/2019 - 17:49
Tesla broke ground Monday on a new factory for its electric cars in China, the first of its factories to be located outside the United States. Chief Executive Elon Musk appeared at a ceremony alongside local officials on the outskirts of Shanghai to mark the start of the project. He said the goal is to finish initial construction by summer and start production by the end of the year. Tesla will build its Model 3 vehicles at the site and says it hopes to eventually have a production capacity of 500,000 vehicles per year. The factory is wholly owned by Tesla, a departure from usual Chinese policy for foreign businesses. The new factory comes as the United States and China negotiate trade issues that have led each side to impose higher tariffs on the other's goods, including the automotive sector. By having a factory in China, Tesla will not have to worry about consumers there facing higher prices on cars imported from the United States.

How a Dead Pig Is Further Soiling China-Taiwan Relations

Mon, 01/07/2019 - 12:47
A hog evidently tossed into the ocean from China washed up on New Year’s Eve along Kinmen, an outlying Taiwanese-held islet. Local agricultural inspectors later tested the carcass positive for African swine flu, an infectious disease that has led to the slaughter of some 600,000 pigs in China. Dispose the animal and move on? Not so fast. The mid-sized, brownish hog quickly became not just a household media image in Taiwan but also a new issue showing the depths of an icy impasse between the leaders of Taiwan and China. Taiwan wants China to turn over more information about the hog so authorities in Taipei can help stop the deadly swine flu from reaching its own giant pork industry. China hasn’t answered a letter from Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture about the pig or said much else. Communist leaders see self-ruled Taiwan as part of their turf, not a separate country, and won’t talk about anything at all unless the government in Taipei agrees that the two sides belong to a single China. “I can only speculate, but when relations are better, Beijing would definitely first give Taiwan a heads up and say ‘here's how things are,’” said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei. China and Taiwan have been ruled separately and seldom gotten along since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost to Mao Zedong’s Communists. The fleeing Nationalists rebased their government in Taiwan. More militarily powerful China still insists that the two sides eventually unite. Swine flu risk Taiwan went on guard against a spillover of African swine flu after China confirmed its first case in August. The disease had caused 81 cases in 21 Chinese provinces as of early December, Beijing’s official Xinhua News Agency says.  Taiwan braced because its main island lies just 160 kilometers southeast of China and the carcass reached an islet that’s just 10 kilometers away. An outbreak of African swine flu would “devastate” Taiwan’s $2.59 billion pig farming industry, the government-funded Central News Agency reported. China’s Xinhua calls the outbreaks “generally under control.” Airport authorities in Taiwan were already stepping up penalties against passengers who bring in meat before the pig carcass washed up – followed by another carcass on a different outlying islet that turned out not to be infected. In Taipei on Jan. 1, President Tsai Ing-wen used her annual New Year speech to demand information from China. Her government’s spokeswoman Kolas Yotaka asked in a Friday Facebook post whether the second pig was a “biochemical bomb” from China. ​Tsai visited Kinmen herself Friday as her government began a 14-day ban on pork products from being shipped to Taiwan proper. Health politics “The other side’s government has never, according to agreements, given honest and timely reports on the outbreak to Taiwan,” Tsai said in her speech.  “Once African swine flu gets into Taiwan, it would not only give a bit hit to related industries and impact the people’s economy, but more importantly it would cause Taiwan people to have a negative view of the other side,” she added. “We don’t look favorably on that situation happening.” Tsai’s party advocates long-term autonomy for Taiwan, not Beijing’s goal of unification. China has hit back since Tsai took office in 2016 with military flybys, a heisting of diplomatic allies and cuts in Taiwan-bound group tourism. The Beijing government’s Taiwan Affairs Office said in late December it does not need to provide outbreak info under a 2010 two-way agricultural inspection deal because Taiwan does not allow Chinese pork imports. Taiwan officials are “politicizing” the hog carcass, said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Washington D.C.-based Stimson Center think tank. But China should not put politics before health, she said. “I think that’s something that’s very wrong,” Sun said. “You cannot use this issue as a political bargaining chip and force the other side or punish the other side for not accepting a political condition.” Hog or no hog, China and Taiwan went after each other much of last week over politics. Chinese President Xi Jinping said Taiwan and China must unify and didn’t rule out use of force to make that happen. Tsai responded in some of her toughest language yet toward China that she rejects China’s idea that both sides belong under one flag as well as Xi’s suggestion that China govern Taiwan as it rules Hong Kong, with a degree of local autonomy.

US, China Holding Fresh Trade Talks

Mon, 01/07/2019 - 11:36
U.S. and Chinese negotiators are holding trade talks Monday in Beijing as the world's two largest economies seek a resolution to an ongoing tariff fight. The meetings are due to last for two days, and both sides are expressing optimism. U.S. President Donald Trump said last week, "I think we'll have a deal with China," while Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the negotiators would have "positive and constructive discussions." Last year, Trump imposed tariff hikes of up to 25 percent on $250 billion of Chinese goods. That move prompted China to respond with its own tariff increases on $110 billion of U.S. goods. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to halt any further tariff increases for 90 days beginning January 1.

Saudi Woman Who Fled to Thailand Fears Death if Sent Home

Mon, 01/07/2019 - 06:56
A young Saudi woman who fled to Thailand is pleading not to be forced back to Saudi Arabia. "I just want to survive," 18 year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun said in a social media video where she can be seen pacing inside a Bangkok airport hotel room. "My family is strict and locked me in a room for six months just for cutting my hair. I am 100% certain they will kill me as soon as I get out of the Saudi jail." Rahaf fled from Kuwait during a family vacation and arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport Saturday night, intending to seek asylum in Australia. Thai authorities refused to let her into the country, saying she had no travel documents or money. But Rahaf says Saudi and Kuwait officials took away her passport when she arrived, a claim backed up by Human Rights Watch. "Thai authorities should immediately halt any deportation and either allow her to continue her travel to Australia or permit her to remain in Thailand to seek protection as a refugee," Human Rights Watch deputy Middle East director Michael Page said. He appealed to Saudi and Thai officials not to follow through with their plans to send Rahaf back to Kuwait Monday. "Saudi women fleeing their families can face severe violence from relatives, deprivation of liberty, and other serious harm if returned against their will," he said. Women have few civil rights in the ultra-conservative Saudi kingdom. They need permission from a male relative to obtain a passport and travel overseas. Females who commit so-called crimes against morality can sometimes meet the death penalty. Another Saudi woman, Dina Lasloom, flew to the Philippines in 2017 while trying to escape Saudi Arabia. An airline security official reported seeing her dragged out of the airport with her mouth, hands, and feet bound with duct tape. Human rights activists have seen no trace of her since.  

Malaysia's King Abdicates in Unexpected and Rare Move

Sun, 01/06/2019 - 22:42
Malaysian King Sultan Muhammad V abdicated on Sunday in an unexpected move, after just two years on the throne. The palace said in a statement that the 49-year-old ruler had resigned as Malaysia's 15th king with immediate effect, cutting short his five-year term. No reason was given in the statement. It marked the first abdication in the nation's history. Sultan Muhammad V, ruler of northeast Kelantan state, took his oath of office in December 2016, becoming one of Malaysia's youngest constitutional monarchs. He is said to have married a 25-year-old former Russian beauty queen in November while on a two-month medical leave. Reports in Russian and British media and on social media featured pictures of the wedding, which reportedly took place in Moscow. Neither the sultan, the palace nor the government had officially confirmed the wedding. Speculation that Sultan Muhammad V would step down emerged this past week, shortly after he returned from his leave, but Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Friday that he was unaware of any abdication plans. Under a unique system maintained since Malaysia's independence from Britain in 1957, nine hereditary state rulers take turns as the country's king for five-year terms. The Council of Rulers is expected to meet soon to pick the next king. The monarch's role is largely ceremonial, since administrative power is vested in the prime minister and parliament. But the monarch is highly regarded, particularly among the ethnic Malay Muslim majority, as the supreme upholder of Malay tradition.

US Delegation Arrives in Beijing for Trade Talks

Sun, 01/06/2019 - 18:53
A U.S. trade delegation has arrived in Beijing. The group is in China to hold two days of talks, beginning Monday, focusing on how best to carry out an agreement reached by U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to postpone new tariff hikes. On December 1, the two leaders agreed to complete talks about technology, intellectual property and cyber theft issues within 90 days, and hold off on new tariffs in the meantime. U.S. officials have said that if the talks fail to produce a satisfactory agreement Washington will increase tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods from 10 percent to 25 percent.      

Persistent Drought in Queensland a Concern for Australia

Sun, 01/06/2019 - 17:02
As 2019 begins, communities in Queensland state in Australia are facing their seventh year of drought. Farmers are suffering. Regional towns are struggling. And local officials say more government relief is needed, including additional spending on roads and rail. Record-breaking rainfall may have soaked parts of northern Queensland in December, but nearly 60 percent of Australia’s second-largest state, which is 2½ times the size of the U.S. state of Texas, is bone dry. Some regions are entering their seventh year of drought. For many farmers on the frontline of the so-called “Big Dry,” the lack of rain is causing financial distress. Agricultural profits in Queensland are expected to fall in 2019 by more than $13,000. Grain producers and dairy farms are predicted to be the hardest hit. Promise of funds In August, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison toured some of Queensland’s worst drought-hit areas and later promised a $3.5 billion fund to help communities become more resilient against droughts. But some communities want more money to be devoted to improving road and rail links in isolated parts of the country. In the outback farming town of Boulia, 1,700 kilometers northwest of Brisbane, Mayor Rick Britton is warning the drought could ruin many farmers. “If we go into another dry season, you know, a lot of those properties are going to close down, and I do not know what the long-term outcome is going to be after that,” Britton said. “It is not going to be pretty. If we do not get a season between now and April, I can just see a lot of those places, particularly the family-operated places, will be totally destocked. There will be just nothing left.” The Queensland government has announced that 2019 will be the Year of Outback Tourism in a bid to aid drought-ridden communities. Land of extremes Australia is a land of extremes. A recent heat wave saw temperatures reach almost 49 degrees Celsius (120 Fahrenheit) in Western Australia, while a cyclone has menaced coastal areas in the Northern Territory. Bushfires have also blanketed the Tasmanian state capital, Hobart, with a threatening haze. In August, a drought was officially declared in the entire Australian state of New South Wales. Australia is the world’s second-driest continent. There is an average annual rainfall of less than 600 millimeters (24 inches) for more than 80 percent of the country.

Philippines Storm Toll Rises to 126

Sun, 01/06/2019 - 12:14
The death toll from a storm that devastated the Philippines shortly after Christmas rose to 126, authorities said Sunday, adding landslides caused by torrential rain were the top cause. The storm hit central and eastern Philippine islands Dec. 29 and caused massive flooding and landslides. More than 100 people died in the mountainous Bicol region southeast of Manila, regional disaster officials said.  While the Bicol region is often hit by deadly typhoons, many people failed to take necessary precautions because the storm was not strong enough to be rated as a typhoon under the government’s storm alert system, according to civil defense officials. Officials also said that many residents were reluctant to leave their homes during the Christmas holidays.  “In two days alone, Usman poured more than a month’s worth of rainfall in the Bicol region,” national disaster agency spokesman Edgar Posadas told AFP, using the local name for the storm which had weakened into a low pressure area. “Our search and retrieval operations are ongoing but the sticky mud and the unstable soil are a challenge.”  The death toll was likely to climb further with 26 people still missing, Posadas added.  More than 152,000 people were displaced by the storm and 75 were injured, according to the national disaster agency.  President Rodrigo Duterte visited the storm-hit areas Friday and urged officials to build evacuation centers instead of using schools as shelters for the displaced.  About 20 typhoons and storms batter the Philippines each year, killing hundreds of people. The deadliest in recent years was Super Typhoon Haiyan, which left more than 7,360 people dead or missing across the central Philippines in 2013.

Green Technology Provides Safe Drinking Water for Thousands of Rohingya Refugees

Sat, 01/05/2019 - 23:27
Thousands of Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, now have safe drinking water thanks to a combination of green technology and sunlight. Cox's Bazar has plenty of refugees. More than 900,000. Most have arrived in Bangladesh since August 2017, when violence and persecution by the Myanmar military triggered a mass exodus of Rohingya refugees.   The refugees are living in squalid conditions across 36 different locations in Cox's Bazar. Water is scarce in most locations. But sunshine is plentiful. Over the past six months, the U.N. refugee agency and partners have been putting into operation solar-powered safe water systems. The UNHCR reports the first five systems are now running at full capacity. It says the new safe water systems run entirely on electricity generated through solar panels. UNHCR spokesman, Andrej Mahecic, says this new network is providing safe water to more than 40,000 refugees.  "Using the solar energy has allowed the humanitarian community to reduce the energy costs and emissions," said Mahecic. "So, there is a clear environmental impact of this. Chlorination is also a life-saver in refugee sites of this scale. The recent tests revealed that most contamination of drinking water occurs during collection, transport and storage at the household level." Mahecic notes chlorinated water is safe for drinking and also eliminates the risk of the spread of disease.   The UNHCR along with its partner agencies are hoping to install nine more solar-powered water networks across the refugee camp in the coming year. The project, which is funded by the agency, will cost $10 million. It will benefit an additional 55,000 Rohingya refugees. The UNHCR says its ultimate aim is to provide 20 liters of safe water to every single refugee on a daily basis. It says this will be done by piping in the solar powered water to collective taps strategically installed throughout the Kutupalog-Balukhali refugee site.

Australia Closes Two High-Security Immigration Detention Centers

Sat, 01/05/2019 - 17:54
Two of Australia’s nine high-security immigration detention centers are being closed in what the government says is a vindication of its tough border protection policies.  Ministers say the facilities are no longer needed because they have stopped asylum-seekers, who often risk their lives on unseaworthy vessels, from trying to reach Australia by sea. But the network of detention centers also has a troubled history, including escapes and hunger strikes. September riots In September last year, riots broke out at an immigration facility 95 kilometers east of Perth after a suicide attempt by a detainee. However, the Perth center isn’t being closed. The government is closing a high-security center in Melbourne, and another in Sydney will shut later this year. Milestone or deception? The center-right government says the closures are a “milestone” in its efforts to protect Australia’s borders, unlike the opposition Labor Party when it was last in power. “These immigration detention centers have been closed and are able to be closed because this government has got Australia’s borders under control,” said Immigration Minister David Coleman. “Labor opened 17 detention centers. We have closed 19.” But Noosheen Mogadam from the Asylum Seeker Resource Center insists the government is being deceptive by simply transferring detainees and increasing capacity at other facilities. “It seems as though people will be shuffled along to other detention centers. It is not solving any problems,” Mogadam said. Since 2013, the Australian navy has been ordered to turn back migrant boats, a policy that critics say is illegal under international law. Asylum-seekers arriving by sea have also been warned that they will never be allowed to settle in Australia. Hundreds still held About 1,250 detainees are currently held in Australia’s mainland immigration camps. Most are from Iran, New Zealand and Vietnam. In 2013, there were 10,000 detainees. Several hundred migrants remain in an offshore camp funded by Canberra on the Pacific island of Nauru. The mandatory detention of asylum-seekers without valid visas was introduced in Australia in 1992 in response to a wave of boat arrivals from Southeast Asia.

Flights, Ferries Running in Thailand in Wake of Tropical Storm

Sat, 01/05/2019 - 14:48
Thailand resumed flights Saturday to its southern provinces, as the first tropical storm in 30 years slowed and headed into the Andaman Sea, leaving behind a trail of homes damaged by fallen trees or blown-off roofs, and disrupted power networks. Before tropical storm Pabuk hit land in Nakhon Si Thammarat on Friday, arriving from the Gulf of Thailand, airports had shut in the province and nearby Surat Thani and the holiday island of Koh Samui, with all flights canceled. But on Saturday, the storm lost speed and was downgraded to a depression as it moved off land, weather officials said, although they maintained warnings of torrential rain and possible flash floods in nine provinces. “The strong winds are forecast with waves up to 3 to 5 meters (10-16 feet) high in both the Gulf and in the Andaman Sea,” the Thai Meteorological Department said in a statement, urging ships to keep to shore and highlighting the risk of sudden water surges. Bangkok Airways, which has a monopoly at the Koh Samui airport, resumed normal operations early Saturday and added extra flights to assist stranded passengers. The airports at Nakhon Si Thammarat and Surat Thani will resume operations at noon. Most ferry services to Thailand’s southern holiday islands have resumed following suspension for the storm. Over the past few days, more than 28,000 people have been evacuated into shelters across seven provinces, the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation said in a daily tally Saturday. Authorities have recorded one death, after a fishing boat capsized in strong winds near the coast of Pattani province, leaving another of the crew missing, though four more were safe. PTT Exploration and Production, a unit of state-owned PTT, said it expected to resume operations of oil rigs at Bongkot and Erawan, two of Thailand’s biggest gas fields in the Gulf of Thailand, Sunday. It had suspended operations there since Monday and brought staff inland.

Ex-N. Korea Diplomat to Colleague: Defect to Seoul, Not US

Sat, 01/05/2019 - 14:35
A former North Korean diplomat who staged a high-profile defection to the South on Saturday urged an old colleague who has gone missing in Italy to defect to Seoul, following a report that he was seeking asylum in the United States. Jo Song Gil, the 44-year-old who was until recently North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, disappeared with his wife after leaving the embassy without notice in early November, South Korean lawmakers said Thursday. Jo has applied for asylum in the United States and is under the protection of Italian intelligence, Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper said Friday, citing an unidentified diplomatic source. The State Department and the U.S. embassy in Seoul did not immediately respond to a query from Reuters regarding the report. In an open letter, Thae Yong Ho, Pyongyang’s former deputy ambassador to Britain, who said he went to the same university and worked with Jo before defecting to South Korea in 2016, urged Jo to follow in his footsteps. To defect to the South is an “obligation, not a choice” for North Korean diplomats committed to unification, Thae said, calling Seoul “the outpost” for that task. “If you come to South Korea, the day when our suffering colleagues and North Korean citizens are liberated from the fetters would be moved forward,” Thae said in the letter released on his website. “If you come to Seoul, even more of our colleagues would follow suit, and the unification would be accomplished by itself.” Thae said his family visited Jo in Rome in 2008, where the latter was studying from 2006 to 2009. He guided them to sites such as St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. South Korea could not be “heaven on earth” but a place where Jo can realize his wishes, Thae said, highlighting the ardent desire for unification among many of the roughly 32,000 defectors there. “The defectors may not be as wealthy as South Koreans,” Thae added. “But isn’t it the only thing you and I, as North Korean diplomats, should do the rest of our lives — to bring about unification and hand over a unified nation to our children?”

Bluefin Tuna Sells for $3 million at Tokyo Market

Sat, 01/05/2019 - 11:58
A 612-pound (278-kilogram) bluefin tuna sold for a record 333.6 million yen ($3 million) in the first auction of 2019, after Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji market was moved to a new site on the city’s waterfront. The winning bid for the prized but threatened species at the predawn auction Saturday was more than double the 2013 annual New Year auction. It was paid by Kiyomura Corp., whose owner Kiyoshi Kimura runs the Sushi Zanmai chain. Kimura has often won the annual auction in the past. Japanese broadcaster NHK showed a beaming Kimura saying that he was surprised by the high price of tuna this year. But he added: “The quality of the tuna I bought is the best.” Prices above normal The auction prices are way above usual for bluefin tuna. The fish normally sells for up to $40 a pound ($88 a kilogram) but the price rises to more than $200 a pound near the year’s end, especially for prized catches from Oma in northern Japan. Last year’s auction was the last at Tsukiji before the market shifted to a new facility on a former gas plant site on Tokyo Bay. The move was delayed repeatedly because of concerns over soil contamination. Fish face extinction Japanese are the biggest consumers of the torpedo-shaped bluefin tuna, and surging consumption here and overseas has led to overfishing of the species. Experts warn it faces extinction, with stocks of Pacific bluefin depleted by 96 percent from their pre-industrial levels. “The celebration surrounding the annual Pacific bluefin auction hides how deeply in trouble this species really is,” said Jamie Gibbon, associate manager for global tuna conservation at The Pew Charitable Trusts. There are signs of progress toward protecting the bluefin, and Japan and other governments have backed plans to rebuild Pacific bluefin stocks, with a target of 20 percent of historic levels by 2034. Decades-old Tsukiji was one of Japan’s most popular tourist destinations as well as the world’s biggest fish market. The new market opened in October. A few businesses stayed in Tsukiji but nearly all of the 500-plus wholesalers and other businesses shifted to Toyosu. Tsukiji is scheduled to be redeveloped, though for now it’s being turned into a parking lot for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

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