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The Koreas and United Nations Command Work Toward Disarming the DMZ

Mon, 10/22/2018 - 14:52
North Korea, South Korea, and the United Nations Command (UNC) met Monday to further discuss plans to disarm the Joint Security Area (JSA) in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). It follows a meeting last week where the three parties discussed ways of implementing a comprehensive military agreement signed during the third inter-Korean summit to achieve that goal. United Nations Command deputy commander Lt. General Wayne Eyre said the UNC will adapt its mission to support current diplomatic efforts, and experts called for the organization to play an active role as the Koreas move toward reshaping the heavily fortified border into a peace zone. Pyeongtaek University Professor Yun Jiwon tells VOA demilitarization has been an ongoing topic since the early 1990s between the Koreas, but until now, the right conditions to do so haven’t been present. The meeting Monday was “aimed at checking and evaluating the status of demining operations at the JSA and consulting over schedules for withdrawing firearms and guard posts and adjusting guard personnel, as well as future plans for mutual verifications," Seoul’s defense ministry said in a statement. As with the October 16 meeting, it was facilitated by North and South Korean colonel-level military officials and a member from the United Nations Command. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, Commander of United Nations Command said in a statement the talks last week “joined the existing Armistice mechanisms used by the Korean People's Army and the United Nations Command, with the more recent Korean People's Army and Republic of Korea military dialogue to further advance implementation of the CMA (Comprehensive Military Agreement)." A pathway to peace During the September Pyongyang summit, the two Koreas agreed to remove 11 guard posts within a 1 kilometer radius of the Military Demarcation Line by the end of this year. Following last week’s meeting, Seoul's defense ministry said both sides will scale down personnel stationed there to 35 on each side in line with the armistice agreement, and share information related to their surveillance equipment. Furthermore, tourists from both sides and overseas will be allowed to freely come and go within the JSA. South Korean officials said they hope to begin rolling out the measure in about a month. Yang Uk, Senior Fellow at the Korea Defense Forum urged caution. “A genuine detente is needed and [the government] should not make any decisions in a hurry,” he said.  “In the end, the plan should be guided by the UNC. They should be managing it… [the process] should be under the UNC’s order,” said Yang. Joseph Yun, former U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy, said it is the little steps along the way that lead toward the final goal of denuclearization. His concern about the current, rapid pace of North-South dialogue is that the leaders are “out in front” and may not be giving sufficient time for working-level talks to set the necessary foundation for meaningful progress. Demilitarization of the border region is an agreement between North and South Korea, and necessary to foster increased cooperation in the future said Yun, but it’s “not possible without consulting with the UNC.” “The DMZ is under the UNC’s management; therefore, it’s necessary to have the UNC in this process,” said Yun. At the October 16 meeting, it was also agreed to withdraw all firearms from the JSA. Yang said that’s important, recalling an incident in February when North Korean troops fired machine guns at a defecting soldier. Lt. General Wayne Eyre said the UNC is “committed to enabling the current diplomatic efforts” and these included, “The successful implementation of the comprehensive military agreement.” Eyre added, that despite the challenges ahead, “The UNC will continue to fulfill his responsibilities in the ongoing, potentially decisively events that are playing out.” “Current events give hope that the process of moving towards a lasting peace, along with denuclearization, is really making progress,” said Eyre. Through a written statement, the UNC said it “is the home for international commitments with a mandate to restore peace and security in defense of the Republic of Korea. UNC coordinates multilateral engagement and provides a standing multinational framework for the integration of UN Forces into the command.” More talks scheduled Both Koreas will hold an additional round of talks Friday, October 26. Participants will hold the rank of general and are expected to further discuss the implementation of a military agreement reached when the two sides met at Tongilgak, a building on the North Korean side of Panmunjom. The defense ministry said discussions will focus on how to form and run a joint military committee, whose responsibility it will be to enforce the agreement, and how best to form a joint research team for an area of the Han River that’s been closed off to civilians due to escalating tensions. Lee Ju-Hyun contributed to this report.

Taiwan Investigates Train Derailment That Killed 18

Mon, 10/22/2018 - 10:02
Officials in Taiwan have launched an investigation into what caused a train derailment Sunday that killed at least 18 people and injured around 175 others. President Tsai Ing-wen visited the accident site in the northeastern Yilan county on Monday where she met with family members of the victims. The train carrying more than 360 passengers derailed on a popular coastal route on its way from a suburb of Taipei to the southeastern city of Taitung. Some passengers interviewed by news agencies said they felt the Puyuma Express train was going too fast. ​All of the train's eight carriages derailed, and five of them were flipped over, according to a statement from the Taiwan Railways Administration. Photos of the scene showed the train cars lying zig-zagged across the track. Rescue efforts went into the night Sunday with workers using flashlights and cranes to move around and lift up the derailed cars. The area was cleared enough Monday to allow rail service to resume.  

17 Killed in Taiwan Train Derailment

Sun, 10/21/2018 - 20:29
At least seventeen people were killed in a train derailment on a popular coastal route in Taiwan Sunday. Another 132 were injured, the Taiwan Railways Administration said in a statement. All of the train's eight carriages derailed, and five of them were flipped over, according to the statement. Local news reports say that as many as 30 people remain alive and trapped inside the carriages in the northeastern Yilan county. Photos of the scene show the Pyuma Express lying zig-zagged across the track.

Meghan's Schedule in Australia Cut Back after Hectic Start

Sun, 10/21/2018 - 18:25
The pregnant Duchess of Sussex has had her schedule cut back during her first royal tour, after a hectic start to her visit to Australia and the South Pacific with husband Prince Harry. The tour is an extremely busy one, with the royal couple scheduled to attend more than 70 engagements during a 16-day trip across four countries. Meghan, who is due to give birth in the spring, skipped an event in Sydney on Sunday morning, leaving Harry to attend a cycling competition at the Invictus Games alone. She later joined the prince to watch sailing events, and at a lunchtime reception hosted by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Kensington Palace said the royal couple had moved to reduce Meghan's schedule ahead of their visit to Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand in the second phase of their tour. "After a busy program, the duke and duchess have decided to cut back the duchess's schedule slightly for the next couple of days, ahead of the final week-and-a-half of the tour," the palace said in a statement. Meghan's envisaged role on a scheduled Monday trip to Fraser Island, off Queensland state in Australia's north, was unclear, with the palace statement saying only that "the Duke will continue with the engagements on Fraser Island." The couple are due to leave Australia for Fiji and Tonga on Tuesday. They will return to Sydney on Friday night for the final days of the Invictus Games, Harry's brainchild and the focus of their tour, before finishing off with a visit to New Zealand. Harry spent considerable time at the lunchtime reception chatting with competitors assembled for the Invictus Games, which gives sick and injured military personnel and veterans the opportunity to compete in sports such as wheelchair basketball, and to find inspiration to recover.

Public Trust in Vaccines Plummets After Philippines Dengue Crisis

Sun, 10/21/2018 - 16:13
The ability to fight future pandemics could be at risk following a plunge in public confidence in vaccines in the Philippines, according to a report from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. The plummeting trust can be traced to 2015, when the government of the Philippines began a large-scale dengue fever vaccination program after an increase in cases of the mosquito-borne disease. An election in 2016 saw a change in government, as President Rodrigo Duterte came to power. Then, in November 2017, the French company Sanofi, which makes the vaccine, called Dengvaxia, said it posed a risk to people who had not previously been exposed to dengue fever. If they later became infected, they could have a more severe case of dengue, according to the company.   WATCH: Public Trust in Vaccines Plummets After Philippines Dengue Crisis Philippines concern to outrage Most countries adapted to Sanofi’s announcement by updating guidelines and labeling. In the Philippines, public concern turned to outrage, which was fueled by a highly politicized response from the government, according to lead researcher Professor Heidi Larson. “This was an opportunity to jump on the previous government for all their wrongdoings ‘Why did you get this vaccine?’ And it became an uproar and created not only quite a crisis around this vaccine, but it bled into other areas of public confidence in vaccines more broadly,” Larson told VOA in a recent interview. The researchers measured the loss in public trust through their ongoing Global Vaccine Confidence Index. In 2015, 93 percent of Philippine respondents strongly agreed that vaccines were important. This year, that figure has fallen to just 32 percent, while only 1 in 5 people now believes vaccines are safe. ​Risk of pandemic “This dramatic drop in confidence is a real concern about risks to other diseases such as measles, on the one hand. On the other hand, too, Asia is ripe for a pandemic in influenza viruses to take hold, and in the case of a pandemic or an emergency outbreak, that’s not a time when you can build trust,” said Larson, who also cautioned that misinformation played a big part in undermining confidence in vaccines. “The role of social media in amplifying those concerns, in amplifying the perception of risk and fears and their public health consequences, is dramatic,” Larson said. Large-scale immunization programs are in the trial stage to tackle some of the world’s deadliest diseases, like malaria. Meanwhile, containing the outbreak of any future pandemic, like influenza, would likely rely on emergency vaccinations. The report authors say it is vital that governments and global institutions do more to build public trust in vaccines.

Public Trust in Vaccines Plummets After Philippines Dengue Crisis

Sun, 10/21/2018 - 16:11
The ability to fight any future outbreaks of disease could be at risk, following a huge loss of public confidence in vaccines in the Philippines. That's according to a new report from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The drop in trust could also affect the rollout of future vaccination programs, and researchers say the case of the Philippines holds lessons for other countries trying to tackle deadly diseases, as Henry Ridgwell reports.

China Top Official in Macau Dies in Fall From Building

Sun, 10/21/2018 - 14:55
China’s top representative to Macau died late Saturday after falling from the building where he lived, the Chinese government said Sunday.  Zheng Xiaosong, the head of China’s liaison office to Macau, had been suffering from depression, the Hong Kong and Macau Office of the Chinese government’s State Council said in a statement. The statement did not elaborate further on the circumstances of his death. Zheng, 59, was appointed to the Macau post in September 2017 and is a member of the ruling Communist Party’s Central Committee, the largest of China’s elite ruling bodies. Like neighboring Hong Kong, Macau operates under China’s “one country, two systems” policy and is ruled by a chief executive, who is chosen via an election but must get approval from Beijing to formally take office. The liaison office in Macau serves as a bridge between the local government and Beijing and has become increasingly influential in local affairs.

Australia Government Loses Parliamentary Majority

Sat, 10/20/2018 - 18:54
Australia’s center-right government has lost its one-seat majority in parliament following a defeat in a by-election in Sydney.  The ballot was prompted by the removal of Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister in a party room coup.   The defeat of the governing Liberal party candidate is seen by analysts as an act of retribution by Sydney voters furious at the way their former member of parliament, Malcolm Turnbull, was ousted as prime minister.  He was forced out by government colleagues in August, and he then resigned as lawmaker.   For the first time ever the seat of the Wentworth electoral district is not in conservative hands.  It will be represented by Kerryn Phelps, a local doctor and prominent gay rights campaigner.  She accused the government of ignoring voters and of doing too little to address the impact of climate change. She was given little of chance of winning when the campaign began, but she is savoring her famous achievement. “People have been concerned about the direction of the government for a very long time and we have seen a lack of decency, a lack of integrity, and we really need to go back to looking at what the House of Representatives is all about.  It is about representing the people and the people have spoken loud and clear,” Phelps said. The Wentworth vote represents the biggest by-election swing against a federal government ever recorded in Australia. It strips the center-right Prime Minister Scott Morrison of his narrow one-seat parliamentary majority in the lower house of parliament. He accepted blame for the defeat but says he will fight on. “The result today is on us, the Liberals.  But leadership requires you to turn up on the tough days and the good days, and that is what you will always get from me as the leader as the leader of the Liberal Party,” Morrison said. The Morrison government will probably survive for now with the support of independent MPs but with a federal election due next May its longer-term prospects appear grim. There is speculation that the government’s grip on power is so tenuous that an early poll is considered in certain quarters to be inevitable.  

Thousands in Taiwan Rally in Support of Independence

Sat, 10/20/2018 - 18:16
Thousands of pro-independence demonstrators gathered in Taiwan's capital on Saturday to express their disapproval with China's stance toward their island. China cut off contact with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen's government shortly after her inauguration in 2016 and has been ratcheting up diplomatic, economic and military pressure on Taiwan in a bid to compel her to agree to Beijing's insistence that the self-governing island democracy is a part of China. “I want to loudly say no to China,” said 43-year-old demonstrator Ping Cheng-wen, who is self-employed. “I just don't agree with China's rhetoric. We have our own sovereignty, and Taiwan is a country.” Another demonstrator at the rally in Taipei, Kuo Jung-min, an 85-year-old Presbyterian church pastor and Hebrew language professor at Taiwan Theological College and Seminary, said pro-unification advocates should move to China if they think it is a better place to live. “We have to be real Taiwanese, not fake Chinese,” Kuo said. “There is no use being Chinese. Those who advocate pro-unification still live in Taiwan. If China is that good, why don't they just move to China?” In an October 10 National Day address, Tsai called on China not to be a “source of conflict” and pledged to boost Taiwan's defenses against Beijing's military threats. Tsai said the best way to defend Taiwan was to “make it indispensable and irreplaceable to the world,” while remaining nonconfrontational in its attitude toward China. China and Taiwan separated amid civil war in 1949 and China considers the island part of its territory to be taken control of by force if necessary.  

Bali Beauty Pageant Signals Renewed Anti-LGBT Crackdown

Sat, 10/20/2018 - 12:02
Majority-Hindu Bali has long been considered more tolerant of different sexual identities compared with other parts of Indonesia, especially amid recent anti-LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) crackdowns in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.  But a beauty pageant promoting HIV education and equality was this month shutdown by Islamic hardliners, sparking concern among some in the LGBT community that Bali is no longer a safe place. Organized by the Bali-based Gaya Dewata Foundation, which provides testing, counseling and support on HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, the pageant has been held annually for the past three years. But this year, anti-LGBT Muslim groups reportedly harassed the owners of the Bhumiku Convention Hall in Denpasar, Bali’s capital.  “We had to call off our event, due to the owners of the venue canceling it,” Christian Supriyadinata, the director of Gaya Dewata, told VOA. “I thought Bali will have that space for us to be ourselves,” said Agung a Balinese native who recently moved back to the island from Muslim-majority Java. He chose to be identified by one name to protect his identity. Agung told VOA it, “actually turns out to be Bali doesn’t have that immunity anymore, doesn’t have that bubble anymore to protect ourselves.” LGBT events canceled Lini Zurlia, an Indonesian queer activist who works for the regional LGBT organization ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, said this was not first LGBT event to be canceled in Bali. Many public events for the Straits Games, a sports event for the gay community from across Asia, were canceled last year after pressure from certain quarters, she said.  “It was not only from hard-line groups but also from the police,” she said. “Since then, we think Bali isn’t all that friendly [to LGBT people] after all. Maybe it’s just friendly because it’s a center for tourism in Indonesia.” The local chapter of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI) was among the groups that opposed the event and reported it to the police.  “This is clearly very alarming, because the [pageant] is clearly contrary to moral and religious values in Indonesia,” the Bali MUI chairman, Muhammad Taufik Asadi, told the conservative-leaning newspaper Republika. Sexuality and health Many local cultures in Indonesia have traditionally had fluid understandings of sexuality beyond a binary of heterosexuality and homosexuality. This has, however, eroded in recent years with the rise of more conservative strains of Islam. Intensified anti-LGBT sentiment has also been accompanied by rising infection rates of HIV/AIDS. According to UNAIDS, Indonesia had 48,000 new HIV infections and 38,000 AIDS-related deaths in 2016, an increase in AIDS-related deaths of 68 percent from 2010.  “We want the community in Bali, especially our friends in the LGBT community, to understand the problem of HIV/AIDS and help with HIV/AIDS prevention,” Supriyadinata said. Members of the LGBT community are disproportionately affected, with HIV prevalence rates of 25.8 percent for men who have sex with men and 24.8 percent of transgender people.  “Cases of HIV/AIDS across the whole community [in Indonesia] have indeed increased, so information about HIV/AIDS is much needed,” Supriyadinata said. ​Moral panic The Gaya Dewata pageant’s cancellation is just the latest in a string of anti-LGBT actions by the police and civil society groups across Indonesia. While gay sex is not a crime, the LGBT community is often targeted under the country’s strict anti-pornography laws. Earlier this month, Jakarta police raided a so-called “gay party” and arrested four men on drug charges. Law enforcement publicly paraded the suspects and their faces were televised. Several social media accounts later further spread the men’s images to shame them. Social media again exploded with the hashtag #UninstallGojek, with many netizens calling for a boycott of the local ride-sharing application Gojek after one of the company’s executives expressed support for diversity and tolerance of LGBT people on Facebook. Indonesia’s minister for religion, Lukman Saifuddin, subsequently released a video on social media declaring that “all religions reject LGBT, that’s why I reject LGBT actions and behavior.” “Although LGBT behavior is wrong, they should be treated with empathy so that they change their deviant ways,” he added. Survey results released by Saiful Mujani Research & Consulting in January showed that 81.5 percent of Indonesians believe gay and lesbian “behavior” is prohibited by religion, and a majority said they would object to having LGBT neighbors or in government. But only 58.3 percent of the respondents reported to know what LGBT meant. ​Election season Some worry that anti-LGBT activity will further ramp up ahead of the country’s presidential elections in April 2019. The incumbent Joko Widodo’s running mate, the influential conservative cleric Ma’ruf Amin, has helped issue fatwas against LGBT people as a member of Indonesia’s Ulama Council.  “We want a stern prohibition of LGBT activities and other deviant sexual activities and legislation that categorizes them as crime[s],” he was quoted as saying by the national news agency Antara in 2016. Anti-LGBT themes also feature heavily in the rhetoric of supporters of opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto. According to Zurlia of ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, many of the Islamic groups who support Prabowo and opposition figure Fadli Zon claim that the LGBT movement is the product of Western influence and an import from countries like the United States. “They’re good friends with the American president and praise Donald Trump and yet say that the LGBT movement comes from America,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

US, South Korea Again Call Off Major Drill   

Sat, 10/20/2018 - 01:52
The United States and South Korea have suspended another major military exercise in a continued push for diplomacy, the Pentagon said Friday. Chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said the two militaries would suspend their joint air exercise, dubbed Vigilant Ace, in order to “give the diplomatic process every opportunity to continue.” The decision was announced following trilateral talks among U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and his South Korean and Japanese counterparts. The defense ministers are in Singapore for an Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) defense ministers’ meeting. The suspension of the air exercise follows a number of U.S. military decisions in the past year aimed at persuading North Korea to negotiate a verifiable path to giving up its nuclear weapons. Earlier exercises delayed, canceled The United States and South Korea delayed their first large-scale exercise of the year, Foal Eagle, so it would not clash with the Winter Olympics. Later they canceled Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, their second large-scale joint exercise that had been scheduled for August. That cancellation came after an unprecedented June summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, where Trump announced the U.S. would stop what he called “provocative” and “expensive” “war games” with South Korea. The U.S. military characterizes its joint exercises on the Korean Peninsula as “defensive” in nature rather than “provocative,” a term frequently used by China and North Korea to describe the drills. James Schoff, with the Washington-based research group the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said on Twitter Friday that the latest suspension will make it “difficult to ramp back up” military exercises on the peninsula without provocations from North Korea. He said the move would give Pyongyang an incentive to “stay calm,” but cautioned that the militaries could not suspend exercises indefinitely. Training, skills are lost Retired Lt. Gen. Tom Spoehr, a former deputy commander of U.S. forces in Iraq who now works at the conservative Heritage Foundation, criticized the air drill suspension Friday. He said the U.S. should “not accede to North Korean demands to cancel them unless the north shows more tangible signs of seriousness in seeking peace and stability.” Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at RAND Corp., told VOA’s Korean service why the loss of training is important. “So if we can’t do the air defense drills in Korea, could the U.S. do them back in the U.S.? Yes, we could,” he said. “But we wouldn’t have the terrain. We wouldn’t have our allies there. We wouldn’t have the air defense environment we would be operating in. So it’s a fairly significant loss in terms of the real environment that we would have to operate in a conflict.” Vigilant Ace is an annual exercise that is usually held in December. Is readiness eroded? Many smaller-scale military exercises have continued on the peninsula and across the region, but the U.S. general nominated to be the next commander of American forces in South Korea pointed out during his confirmation hearing last month that the major military exercise suspension has caused “slight degradation” to military readiness on the peninsula. When asked how many large-scale exercises could be skipped before a “significant decline in readiness,” Army Gen. Robert Abrams told Senate members it was “hard to judge.” Bruce Bechtol, a retired Marine and former intelligence officer, told VOA Korean that it’s too early to tell the effect of the cancellation on troop readiness. “If you only cancel one or two exercises and then you get back to a regular training schedule, all can be well. But we need to understand a couple of things,” he said. “First of all, many of those troops that are over there are on a short tour so they’re only there for a year or two at the most. “The other thing is you know troops rotate there for these exercises often is not out of the United States, so it gets them used to using the logistical system to help units that will have to go over there in case there’s a contingency or an actual conflict so all those kinds of things come into play when you’re talking about doing exercises.” David Maxwell, a former special forces colonel who is now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the cancellation does impact readiness. “However, the air forces, particularly the U.S. Military Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps can train in other locations and maintain their technical proficiency. So I expect that both the ROK Air Force and the U.S. military will continue to train and maintain technical proficiency. What is lost is the ability to conduct large-scale air operations, and the complex coordination that takes place in these kinds of exercises,” Maxwell told VOA’s Korean Service. Christy Lee of VOA’s Korean Service contributed to this report.

Water Experts Question World Bank's Role in Laos Dam

Sat, 10/20/2018 - 00:00
A panel of water experts have warned that the World Bank's promotion of a major dam in Laos, which they say failed to deliver on basic promises, has fueled the country's development of shoddy hydropower projects with catastrophic consequences. In July, an auxiliary dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower complex in southern Laos burst, displacing thousands and officially killing at least 40 people, though many believe the real toll to be much higher. The Laos government has conceded shoddy construction played a role in the collapse — a failing, a panelist at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on Thursday said, stemmed from corruption and mismanagement across the entire hydro-power sector in Laos. Bruce Shoemaker, who began surveys to assess impacts of the Nam Theun 2 (NT2) dam before construction began some 13 years ago, said the World Bank had created a sustainable hydro-power myth through its promotion and financing of the project. "And that fueled this whole kind of industry revival and really fueled the private sector rush in Laos for hydropower," he said. The $1.3-billion dam, which also received funding from the Asian Development Bank and commenced operation in 2010, exports 90 percent of its power to Thailand. Though an international panel of experts employed to monitor NT2 had consistently reported serious flaws in measures designed to funnel those profits back into poverty alleviation and conservation, the bank had continued to promote it as a hydro-power project that was done properly, Shoemaker said. For instance, he said, in a conservation zone financed by the dam and endorsed by the Wildlife Conservation Fund, a massive trade in the illegal logging of luxury rosewood emerged that saw paths cut for patrol teams expanded into roads for extraction. "The leading member of the panel of experts actually by 2014 after having been a big supporter of it called Nam Theun 2 his final disappointment' and said it had all been a bad mistake," said Shoemaker. Some 6,000 indigenous villages were forced into resettlement while more than 100,000 people downstream suffered dramatic decreases in wild fish catches and other problems such as increased flooding, he added. Laos government officials have not responded to VOA inquires for this story while World Bank staff overseeing the Nam Theun 2 project said they could not reply on short notice. In July, a panel of experts called for the closure of NT2's resettlement period. They concluded that necessary conditions for closure had been met though in their previous report they had found "that it cannot be confidently said that the conditions for overall sustainability of livelihoods have been achieved" — findings their stakeholders had not been pleased with. "The POE [Panel of Experts] has confidence that the project is on the road to overall sustainability. It is not there yet. The solemn additional undertakings by all stakeholders to maintain their support in the years ahead provide evidence of a renewed commitment to the ultimate goal of sustainability by all parties,” the final report noted. Shoemaker is co-editor of the recently published book Dead in the Water: Global Lessons from the World Bank's Model Hydropower Project in Laos. He questioned why, after going cold on hydro-power in the 1990's amid a flurry of criticism and opposition to projects, the World Bank began promoting the technology as sustainable in the 2000s with the 2005 Nam Theun 2 as something of a centerpiece. Shoemaker was joined by community advocacy groups and water resource watchdogs. Niwat Roykaew, head of northern Thai people's network Rak Chian Khong Group and a plaintiff in two lawsuits against upstream dams, said he has watched the Mekong undergo drastic changes that have seriously damaged food security. "I think if it continue like this without stopping these activities there will be no more river soon, it's not sustainable," he said. About 140 dams are planned to be built in the Lower Mekong basin, including two on the mainstream of the river in Laos that are under construction and two in advanced preparation or planning. After the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy collapse made headlines around the world, Laos announced all new proposed dams would be halted pending a review of all existing hydropower facilities. Yet the day after this announcement, it initiated the prior consultation process on a new, highly controversial Mekong mainstream project — the Pak Lay dam. This came despite the fact that major question marks had been raised over the viability of its large hydro-power ambitions when Thailand delayed signing a power purchase agreement on another Mekong mainstream dam — the Pak Beng — earlier this year. Premrudee Daorung, coordinator of the Lao Dam Investment Monitor, which was established in the wake of the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy collapse, said if Laos continued with its dam business as usual, people should be prepared for disastrous impacts. "The question is if the Laos government is not ... learning from Xe Pian Xe Namnoy what to do with their direction to develop large scale hydro power dams, when will they learn?" she asked.

Former Interpol Leader's Wife: 'Everybody in China Is at Risk'

Fri, 10/19/2018 - 22:58
The wife of the former Interpol president who is being detained in China on bribery charges says she's been contacted by Chinese diplomats, who have told her they're holding a letter from him for her. Grace Meng says, however, that she'll only agree to meet Chinese officials if a lawyer and reporters are present. She says Chinese officials haven't responded since she told them that condition. She says she also asked that the letter from her husband, Meng Hongwei, be given to French police, so they can give it to her. She has been living under French police protection in the French city of Lyon, where Interpol is headquartered, since she reported that her husband went missing while on a trip to China in late September. "They said my husband wrote a letter to me," she said in an interview Friday with The Associated Press in Lyon. "They said they can only give it to me alone." Grace Meng said the disappearance and suspected slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, wasn't a factor in her refusal to meet unaccompanied with Chinese officials. However, she made clear that she finds them impossible to trust, calling them "cruel." China says Meng Hongwei, 64, is under investigation for graft and possibly other crimes. Meng was China's vice minister of public security while also leading Interpol, and a longtime Communist Party insider with decades of experience in China's sprawling security apparatus. He appears to be the latest high-ranking official to fall victim to a sweeping purge under authoritarian Chinese President Xi Jinping. During the AP interview, one of the very few occasions when she has agreed to be filmed, Grace Meng wept as she recounted a dream she had about her husband the previous night. "I'm sad, I feel hopeless but angry, too, even hate," she said. "You can imagine when your children, when your sons ask: `Where's Daddy?' How can I answer? Who wants their children to grow up [when] they have no daddy?" Grace Meng has refused in repeated interviews and phone calls with the AP to provide her real name, saying she is concerned for the safety of relatives in China. It is not customary for Chinese wives to adopt their husbands' names. Grace Meng says she has done so now to show her solidarity with her husband. Her English name, Grace, is one she has long used, she says. Grace Meng says she cannot believe the bribery accusation against her husband and claims he's the target of "political persecution." "The term anti-corruption in China has become a synonym for crimes that are unjustifiable," she said. China's move to secretly detain the Interpol president, an official with international standing, was an unusually audacious action even for an administration that under Xi's leadership has sought to assert its interests aggressively on the global stage. Grace Meng says she is speaking out about her husband's case, at risk to herself, not just to defend him but also to highlight the fate of others who have disappeared into China's opaque police system. "Everybody in China is at risk," she said. "Everyone should be concerned that something like this could happen to them."

Massive Aid Effort Underway for Survivors of Indonesia Quake-Tsunami

Fri, 10/19/2018 - 21:49
International aid is pouring into the Indonesian island of Sulawesi for tens of thousands of earthquake and tsunami survivors.  Three weeks after a 7.5 magnitude earthquake and tsunami struck, the government estimates more than 87,000 people remain homeless and thousands more are living in poor, makeshift settlements. Aid agencies are racing against time to get relief to survivors before the monsoon season sets in next month.  The Sulawesi disaster is estimated to have killed more than 2,000 people, with at least 680 still missing. The government says around 68,000 houses are damaged. The U.N. refugee agency delivered 435 emergency tents Friday for distribution to families made homeless by the earthquake and tsunami. The agency says that will provide shelter to around 6,500 of the most vulnerable. It says more emergency tents, sleeping mats, mosquito nets and solar lamps will be delivered in the coming weeks. UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley says aid workers went to Palu, the epicenter of the quake in central Sulawesi, this past week to coordinate relief activities with local government officials. “Our staff described the effects of the earthquake and tsunami as beyond imagination and devastating. Communities have seen their houses, schools and hospitals reduced to rubble. Entire villages have been decimated…. Many people have not only lost their homes, but the land on which [they] once stood,” said he.   Yaxley says many survivors are too traumatized to face returning to what is left of their homes.   The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is providing 215 tons of relief items, including tents, tarpaulins, blankets and safe drinking water to the survivors. The Indonesian Red Cross will distribute the aid to 160,000 people affected by the disaster. World Food Program staff is helping the Indonesian government expedite, manage, store and distribute to the survivors on Sulawesi the massive quantities of aid arriving at the airport of Balikpapan on the neighboring island of Borneo.

European, Asian Leaders Want Free Trade, Push Back at Trump

Fri, 10/19/2018 - 21:23
European and Asian leaders pledged their support for free trade at a meeting Friday that underscored global trade tensions with U.S. President Donald Trump. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the Asia-Europe Meeting in Brussels would send a signal that “countries are coming together here from Europe and Asia that all want rules-based global trade and are committed to multilateralism.” The meeting brought together 30 European leaders with their counterparts from 21 Asian nations as well as top officials from the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Together, the group accounts for some two-thirds of the world's economic output, 55 percent of global trade and 60 percent of the world's population. A written statement said the leaders “highlighted the vital need of maintaining an open world economy and upholding the rules-based multilateral trading system, with the World Trade Organization at its core.” Trump slapped 25 percent tariffs on steel imports and 10 percent on imported aluminum from the EU on June 1. He said the move was to protect U.S. national security interests, but the Europeans claim it is simply protectionism and breaks global trade rules. The EU hit back with tariffs on about 2.8 billion euros worth ($3.4 billion) of U.S. steel, agricultural and other products. The stakes are even higher in Trump's trade war with China. Trump has imposed tariffs on about $250 billion worth of Chinese products amid U.S. accusations that China engages in cyber-theft and coerces foreign companies into handing over technology in return for access to the Chinese market, as well as by Trump's anger over China's trade surplus with the U.S. The wide-ranging agenda in Brussels also included discussions on climate change. In their closing statement, the leaders expressed “profound concern that current global efforts are insufficient” to meet goals set out in the 2015 Paris climate accord. Trump has removed the U.S. from that deal. On the sidelines of the meeting, the EU signed a pact with Vietnam that aims to tackle illegal logging. Later the EU was signing a free trade deal with Singapore. In another conclusion that ran counter to U.S. policy, European and Asian leaders praised the Iran nuclear deal — another multilateral initiative rejected by Trump. “Preserving the nuclear deal with Iran is a matter of respecting international agreements, and promoting international security, peace and stability,” they said. One region where the leaders in Brussels were more closely aligned with Trump was the Korean peninsula, where the U.S. president has been involved with efforts to end North Korea's nuclear program. The statement in Brussels hailed efforts by South Korea and “other partners” to “achieve lasting peace and stability on a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons.” Rights groups and lawmakers had called on the European leaders to push their Asian counterparts on human rights, citing abuses in many Asian nations, including the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Buddhist-majority Myanmar's military is accused of widespread rights violations against the Muslim Rohingya — including rape, murder, torture and burning villages — which has forced about 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh since August 2017. Without mentioning the Rohingya by name, the leaders underscored the need to pave the way for the “safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of displaced persons to Rakhine State” in Myanmar. A U.N. fact-finding mission reported last month that at least 10,000 Rohingya are believed to have died in the violence. The U.N. has called for Myanmar's top military generals to be prosecuted for genocide and crimes against humanity for their treatment of the Rohingya.  

Rohingya Hindus Celebrate Durga Puja for First Time

Fri, 10/19/2018 - 21:19
Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina says that there are more than 1 million Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh. Among the Muslim-majority ethnic group, there are approximately 450 Hindus living in the city of Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. VOA's Muazzem Hossain Shakil visited these Hindus as they were observing their first-ever Hindu festival called Durga Puja and filed this report, narrated by Bezhan Hamdard.

Inter-Korean Military Pact Leaves Washington Uneasy

Fri, 10/19/2018 - 19:58
A gap is growing between Washington and Seoul over an inter-Korean military pact that Washington worries might weaken South Korea's defenses against a North Korea attack. South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed discontent when she spoke to him after Seoul outlined plans to sign a military agreement with Pyongyang at the third inter-Korean summit in September. Pompeo's concern over Seoul's military agreement with Pyongyang comes as relations cool between South Korea and the United States. The growing distance is the result of inter-Korean ties that seem to be getting warmer and faster than the North is making progress in denuclearization. According to Bruce Bechtol, a retired Marine and former intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency, who researches North Korea's military at Angelo State University in Texas, Seoul made concessions in the military deal, while Pyongyang gave up very little. "(South Korean) President Moon (Jae-in) is rushing into a lot of moves before the North Koreans actually make their own reciprocal moves," Bechtol said. "And I think that that's dangerous." The agreement includes setting up a no-fly zone, as well as maritime and ground buffer zones around the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the area that divides the two Koreas. The two also agreed to stop military drills targeting each other near the military demarcation line that runs within the DMZ. In an effort to create "a peace zone" along the heavily fortified border near the DMZ, Seoul and Pyongyang agreed to clear landmines near the area. The process began Oct. 1. The United Nations Command (UNC), led by the U.S., oversees the 2.4-kilometer-wide DMZ. The commander of the U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK) serves as the commander in chief of the UNC and the Combined Forces Command (CFC). South Korea and U.S. forces operate jointly under the CFC to defend the southern half of the Korean Peninsula. The UNC said in a statement that it had "reviewed and verified the mine clearance work" and added that it "will continue to work closely" with the two Koreas "to synchronize implementation efforts on the way ahead." Experts worry the agreement could make it harder for South Korean and U.S. forces to fend off a North Korean attack. Frank Aum, who served as the senior adviser of North Korea in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and is currently a senior expert on North Korea at the U.S. Institute of Peace, is concerned a no-fly zone will blindfold the U.S. and South Korean forces that monitor North Korean activities in the DMZ. "The scope of the no-fly zone could weaken the alliance's ability to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations, as well as access U.S. bases within the zones," Aum said. Suspending military drills near the military demarcation line will curtail the ability of South Korean and U.S. forces to guard against potential North Korean aggression, according to David Maxwell, a former Special Forces colonel who served on the UNC, CFC and USFK, and is now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "The inability to train, to include live fire training in the vicinity of the DMZ will reduce (the CFC's) readiness to defeat North Korean artillery that (could) initiate hostilities," Maxwell said. Bechtol said South Korea will become vulnerable to a potential North Korean attack when landmines and guard posts are removed in the DMZ area, which were set up to stall North Korean forces from advancing to the South. "These are all things that can give the South Korean army early warning and stop an attack if it actually occurs," Bechtol said. Demining the DMZ, according to Maxwell, gives North Korea a strategic advantage for mounting an offensive. "The removal of mines in the three major attack corridors, Kaesong-Munsan, Chorwon and the East Coast, provides an advantage to the North, should it choose to attack," he said. Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corp., said creating a 10-kilometer-wide ground buffer zone and removing guard posts in the DMZ will open a route for the North to undermine Seoul's defenses, as well as its domestic activities. "If the Demilitarized Zone becomes an open port of access into South Korea, they could be funneling all kinds of agents into the South who would do anything from collection of information to sabotage activities," Bennett said. "The North has always made the invasion of the South a priority and also subversion of the South a priority. And so a failure to control the border area makes major risks in terms of kinds of actions that the North Koreans could do," Bennett added. Despite the concerns, General B.B. Bell, commander of the CFC from 2006 to 2008, thinks the alliance bound by the Mutual Defense Treaty, signed between the U.S. and South Korea at the end of the Korean War in 1953, secures Seoul's defense. "So, that serves (sends) a significant message to any aggressor, including North Korea," Bell said. "And no matter how many steps are taken to reduce tensions by ratcheting down military activities, no matter what happens, that alliance guarantees that should the North attempt some type of military adventurism to either provoke or seriously threaten (South Korea), the United States will go to war with the North with our ally South Korea. Period." Bell thinks the U.S. and South Korea should maintain readiness, while demanding North Korea remove its conventional offensive capabilities, including its artillery and forward deployed forces directed against the South. On Tuesday, officers from the UNC and the two Koreas met for the first time since the two Koreas signed the Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA) and discussed disarming the border village of Panmunjom, also known as the Joint Security Area within the DMZ, as the two Koreas agreed in the inter-Korean pact. U.S. General Vincent Brooks, who leads the UNC and commands the USFK, said, "I am encouraged by this productive, trilateral dialogue." The UNC and the two Koreas agreed to continue trilateral military meetings, according to a press release from the USFK, which said "Topics for future meetings will likely include implementing details of such matters as removing guard posts, reducing security personnel, and adjusting surveillance equipment." U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo, interviewed Friday in Mexico City by VOA contributor Greta Van Susteren, said a second meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is being planned. "I'm not prepared to tell you when it's going to be, as the date has not yet been set, but the president's committed to doing that," Pompeo said. "We're working on finding dates and times and places that will work for each of the two leaders. I'm very hopeful we'll have senior leader meetings here in the next week and a half or so between myself and my counterpart to continue this discussion." Pompeo said Kim told him, during their meeting two weeks ago, that "he stands by the commitment he made to President Trump in Singapore on June 12th" for denuclearization. Trump and Kim met in Singapore in June, and officials have been working on a second summit since then, the official said. Later Friday, however, Reuters news agency quoted a senior administration official as saying the next summit between the two leaders would not occur until "sometime after the first of the year." Fern Robinson contributed to this report.

Taiwanese to Take to Streets Saturday, Protest China ‘Bullying’

Fri, 10/19/2018 - 16:30
Mass street demonstrations are expected Saturday in Taiwan over growing anger against perceived bullying by its militarily and economically more powerful rival, China. The advocacy group Formosa Alliance predicts tens of thousands of people will gather for its demonstration in central Taipei. Some protesters are expected to push the Taiwan government for more action on China. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party is organizing its own demonstration in southern Taiwan, a party spokesman said. China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and insists the island will someday fall under its flag. They have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s. But Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen rejects Beijing’s precondition for any dialogue, specifically the acknowledgement that both sides belong to a single China, thus freezing talks since Tsai took office in 2016. China has followed up over the past two years with military exercises near Taiwan, a cut in tourism to the island and, officials in Taiwan believe, payments for five countries to recognize Beijing diplomatically instead of Taipei. “These situations make Taiwanese people feel they need to stand up and say ‘no’ to China,” alliance spokesman Kenny Chung said. Saturday demonstrations Formosa Alliance advocates an eventual voter referendum on Taiwan’s constitutional independence from China, which would be more than today’s de facto autonomy as well as a red line for Beijing. The action group calls the current referendum law restrictive. The alliance also wants the government in Taipei to use “Taiwan” rather than terms more agreeable to Beijing on its masthead in international organizations. Taiwan’s ruling party, which also leans toward greater Taiwan autonomy, will hold its demonstration with the slogan “oppose annexation, protect Taiwan.” Some of the first group’s protesters will probably vent at China over “bullying,” while others will ask that Tsai’s government ensure that relations at least do not worsen, said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “As the days slowly pass and after more information comes out, there is no shortage of people who slowly awaken and realize that this matter isn’t so simple,” Huang said. Most Taiwan protests are peaceful, but some turned violent in 2008 when Chinese officials visited the island for talks. ​Burning issues Taiwanese are particularly angry about the loss of diplomatic allies to China since 2016, said George Hou, mass communications lecturer at I-Shou University in Taiwan. In recent years, Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Panama and Sao Tome and Principe have switched sides to China. Taiwan’s foreign ministry says China offered those countries money to switch sides. China has further rattled Taiwan by passing its aircraft carrier through the 160 kilometer-wide strait that separates them and flying military planes just outside Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. Since 2016, China has also cut back on tourism to Taiwan that reached a peak of 3.4 million trips in 2015. That change shows that China can “feed an appetite” and then “strangle your neck” when unhappy, Hou said. “I think people over around age 30 are actually clear about today’s relations between Taiwan and China,” Hou said. “I think they’re unwilling to sell out their own country’s sovereignty to fill their stomachs. There’s no meaning in that.” The two sides signed more than 20 deals under Taiwan’s previous president, Ma Ying-jeou, from 2008 to 2016 as Ma’s government agreed to the one-China dialogue condition. But many Taiwanese felt he edged dangerously close to China. China reaction China will bristle at the Saturday demonstrations, analysts expect, and they might accuse protesters of stirring up anti-Beijing sentiment ahead of Taiwan’s midterm local elections. Voters on Nov. 24 will pick mayors and county magistrates, some backed by a party that takes a more conciliatory view toward Beijing. But Beijing might stand back to avoid perceptions that it is trying to influence the elections. It will probably say little unless the demonstrations take an unexpected turn, said Gratiana Jung, senior political researcher with the Yuanta-Polaris Research Institute think tank in Taipei. Demonstration organizers might not see as many people as they hope, Jung added. Even though younger Taiwanese don’t like China’s actions, she said, a lot are more focused on quality of life than politics. “If Taiwan’s economy doesn’t change too soon, a lot of young people will leave, but they won’t necessarily go to mainland China, they might go to countries in Southeast Asia,” Jung said. “Their priority is survival. When you talk policy that’s what it’s about.”

Helicopter Crashes on US Aircraft Carrier in Asia; Sailors Hurt

Fri, 10/19/2018 - 14:31
An U.S. Navy helicopter has crashed on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, causing nonfatal injuries to sailors.   The Navy’s 7th Fleet said in a statement the MH-60 Seahawk crashed shortly after takeoff Friday while the carrier was off the Philippine coast.    The Navy said all affected sailors were in stable condition and their injuries were not life threatening. It didn't say how many sailors were hurt.   The Navy did not give details on any damage to the helicopter or the aircraft carrier, but said the ship was fully capable to conduct its mission for security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.   The Navy said the crash occurred while Ronald Reagan Strike Group was conducting routine operations in the Philippine Sea. The cause was under investigation. 

Vietnamese Blogger 'Mother Mushroom' Arrives in US After Two Years in Prison

Fri, 10/19/2018 - 12:18
A dissident Vietnamese blogger imprisoned for defaming the country's Communist government is celebrating her first day of freedom on U.S. soil. Marcus Harton reports.

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