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Ex-Malaysia Prime Minister on Charm Offensive Before Graft Trial

Sun, 02/10/2019 - 12:30
Disgraced former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been out campaigning in recent weeks as if for an election, trying to shed the image of a wealthy, elite politician and elicit public sympathy before his corruption trial begins Tuesday. Najib has pleaded not guilty to charges of criminal breach of trust, abuse of power and money laundering, in what is set to be the first of many trials over suspected multibillion-dollar fraud at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). The trial starts nine months after Malaysians voted Najib out of office in a general election dominated by public disgust over allegations about $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB, and about a quarter of it went into his personal bank accounts. Police found nearly $300 million worth of goods and cash at properties linked to Najib soon after the May 2018 election. ​Change of image But as the trial date nears, Najib, who maintains his innocence, has sought a radical change of image, painting himself as a victim of a vindictive government led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The 65-year-old son of Malaysia’s second prime minister is also trying to build an image as a folksy voice of working people, especially members of the ethnic Malay majority. Najib, in a viral video last month, crooned a Malay-language version of the 1970s hit “Kiss and Say Goodbye,” surrounded by a chorus of somber young singers, criticizing Mahathir’s coalition for failing to live up to election promises. “On May 9, 2018, I was ousted. All this time, I have been fighting with my life for the people I love. But what can I do?” an earnest Najib says of his “saddest day” in the introduction to the song. Najib has also been hitting out online. His jibes against ruling party politicians on Facebook and Twitter have some social media users referring to him as “King of Trolls.” ​Court to decide A relaxed, casually dressed Najib also paid a visit this month to Langkawi, Mahathir’s island constituency, where he went around town, visiting markets, eating at hawker stalls and rubbing elbows and posing for selfies with passers-by. Mahathir was not impressed. He told a news conference last week Najib seemed to be getting popular on social media because “he provides a lot of stories.” Harvinderjit Singh, one of Najib’s lawyers, declined to comment on the former premier’s public appearances but said the 1MDB trials were unlikely to be affected by the hoopla. “The case is going to be determined by what happens in court, not out of it,” he said. 1MDB trial While Najib has been trying to build public support, the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) has been building a formidable team to prosecute Najib, his wife and a host of other former top officials charged for corruption. All of them have pleaded not guilty. The prosecution has been recruiting top notch criminal attorneys including former federal court judge Gopal Sri Ram and Sulaiman Abdullah, a lawyer with a background in cases of white-collar crime. The AGC has also recalled several prosecutors from state offices to join the team, two lawyers with knowledge of the matter said. The AGC did not respond to a request for comment. Najib has a defense team of eight lawyers, led by Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, who once represented the government in a sodomy case against former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. Najib could face years in prison. He faces 39 criminal charges over losses at 1MDB and other state entities. Seven of those charges will be the subject of Tuesday’s trial, relating to transfers totaling 42 million ringgit ($10.30 million) into Najib’s personal bank account from SRC International, a former 1MDB unit. Prosecutors have handed nearly 3,000 pages of documents to the defense ahead of the trial, said Najib’s lawyer Singh. The documents include statements from 26 witnesses, some of whom were SRC officials, who will likely be called to testify. Najib, who has not been asked to testify in his own defense, hopes only for a fair trial, Singh said. “Our client is of the view that if he gets a fair trial, then the truth will show itself to the public,” he said.

US, China Face Off Over Legacy in Cambodia

Sun, 02/10/2019 - 10:40
Almost half a century ago, the U.S.-backed Gen. Lon Nol led a coup in March 1970, overthrowing Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk while the monarch visited Moscow. Sihanouk took refuge in Beijing until 1975, when brutal Khmer Rouge guerrillas leading a resistance movement against Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic captured Phnom Penh on April 17 and took over the country. Sihanouk initially supported the Khmer Rouge regime and was installed as head of state by the communists but resigned in 1976. He spent the rest of the regime as a de facto prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, which wreaked havoc on the country, killing or starving to death an estimated 1.7 million people from 1975 to 1979. ​Echoes of the Cold War Today, that sequence of events reverberates in a diplomatic face-off in Phnom Penh that echoes the Cold War even as it has gone viral in Cambodia. The online skirmish began when the U.S. Embassy posted a statement on its Facebook page, Jan. 30, saying the Khmer Rouge “ignorantly depended on a superpower,” an apparent reference to China. The embassy later issued comments claiming Washington was not involved in the coup led by Lon Nol that ousted Sihanouk. “Instead, there is a lot of evidence showing that [the] Chinese government actively supported [the] Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 and after that,” read a post by the U.S. Embassy. In response, the Chinese Embassy posted a statement on its Facebook page, Feb. 1, mocking the idea that the coup “was not related to the U.S., but the CIA.” Elizabeth Becker, author of When the War was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution, said the current tit-for-tat was “a distorted argument started by the Hun Sen government.” “The subject is too serious for these propaganda potshots,” she wrote VOA Khmer in an email. “Both China and the U.S. have blood on their hands.” ​War of words Chheang Vannarith, president of the Asian Vision Institute (AVI), an independent think tank based in Phnom Penh, said the current war of words is another indication that the U.S.-China competition in Cambodia will continue to intensify. “I think Cambodia has become the proxy of U.S.-China geopolitical rivalry,” he said in an email. “The winner writes history. It is … real politics.” Meas Nee, a political analyst who holds a doctorate in sociology and international social work from La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, said Cambodia should be cautious of falling into a trap if a new Cold War emerges. “Those two superpowers can take advantage” of a vulnerable country like Cambodia, he said, adding that Phnom Penh’s closeness with Beijing makes it unlikely to take a stand. China is Cambodia’s largest aid donor. Although many consider the U.S. involvement to be a matter of historical record, Emily Zeeberg, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, told VOA Khmer that there was “no evidence that the United States was involved in the coup that brought Lon Nol to power.” “The United States has addressed its war legacy by long-standing and substantial efforts for humanitarian demining and removing unexploded ordnance (UXO), including the removal of hundreds of thousands of Chinese-made mines, which have injured and killed people for decades,” she said in an email. “We hope the Chinese government will acknowledge its legacy in Cambodia and make amends to all the Cambodians its policies affected,” Zeeberg added. Repeated efforts to reach the Chinese Embassy in Cambodia were unsuccessful. Phay Siphan, a Cambodian government spokesman, could not be reached for comment. Cambodia’s Ministry of National Defense said in a statement issued last week that Cambodia had suffered from a civil war that arose from “a coup supported by United States in 1970.” “Cambodia doesn’t want to see the same history, as Cambodia has full peace,” it read. ‘Supporting the Khmer Rouge’ Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles, said: “It looks like the U.S. Embassy simply reminded Cambodia of who was supporting the Khmer Rouge at their height of power-1975-1979.” “Indeed, with the withdrawal of the U.S., the Khmer Republic collapsed,” he added. “China and the Khmer Rouge were brothers in arms,” he said. “Cambodia has always been a sideshow to the great powers. Just because some Facebook posts and statements have been made does not amount to a hill of beans. Let’s not get delusional here.” ​Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is a close ally of Beijing, has said several times that the United States backed Lon Nol to topple Sihanouk from power, leading to a bitter civil war. A staunch anti-communist, Lon Nol ruled over what was declared the Khmer Republic, presiding over the buildup of the Cambodian army from a force of 37,000 to more than 150,000. U.S. aid funded the expansion as American aircraft resumed bombing Cambodia, and ground troops entered the country in a covert war, assisted by South Vietnamese forces. On April 1, 1975, two weeks before the Khmer Rouge overran Phnom Penh, Lon Nol boarded a helicopter, escaping with his family to Thailand before settling in the U.S. He lived quietly in Hawaii, before moving to Fullerton, Calif., where he died in 1985. Sihanouk called on Cambodians to fight against the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime to bring him back to power, but the regime that sprang up from this conflict was more brutal than Cambodian soldiers could have imagined. In an interview with VOA Khmer, Lon Rith, Nol’s son and the president of the Khmer Republic party, defended his father, saying, “It was a collective decision to remove the king and it was not really a coup.” “I don’t take sides with Lon Nol because he is my father. But I wanted to say it is the truth for our history,” he said. He said the ouster was to protect Cambodia by getting the North Vietnamese out of Cambodia.  “They asked the king to return and negotiated to ask the Vietcong to leave the country, but he didn’t come,” he said. Superpowers involved Diep Sophal, a history lecturer who wrote The Causes of the Cambodian War in 2018, said the superpower countries were trying to “not to take any responsibility, both legally and ethically. … I think [American support] was a kind of psychological approach and encouragement.” Becker, whose reporting from Cambodia led to her being called to testify for the prosecution at the international criminal tribunal of the Khmer Rouge for genocide, cut through the factions. “Here is the truth: The U.S. did not engineer the 1970 overthrow of Prince Norodom Sihanouk. However, the U.S. did favor his overthrow and then did underwrite the government of Lon Nol throughout the 1970-1975 war. With U.S. money and military support, including the saturation bombing, the Lon Nol government fought the North Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge. “China supported the Khmer Rouge during the 1970-1975 war and was the sole critical supporter throughout the 1975-1979 Democratic Kampuchea period of genocide. With Chinese money and support, Pol Pot carried out the period of murder, starvation and brutality.”

US Ambassador: Arrests of Canadians in China Unacceptable

Sun, 02/10/2019 - 08:31
The U.S. ambassador to Canada said Saturday that her country was "deeply concerned" about China's "unlawful" detention of two Canadians.    Ambassador Kelly Craft said in a statement to The Associated Press the arrests of ex-diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor were "unacceptable" and urged China to end the arbitrary detentions. They were her first public comments on the cases.     China detained the two Canadians on Dec. 10 in an apparent attempt to pressure Canada to release Chinese executive Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested Dec. 1 at the request of U.S. authorities.    Meng is the chief financial officer of the Chinese tech giant Huawei and the daughter of its founder. The U.S. wants her extradited to face charges that she committed fraud by misleading banks about Huawei's business dealings in Iran.   Craft said the U.S. Department of Justice's criminal case against Meng was based solely on the evidence and the law.     "The United States appreciates Canada's steadfast commitment to the rule of law," she said.   Awating execution   Craft made no mention of China's planned execution of a third Canadian. China resentenced a convicted Canadian drug smuggler to death after the Meng arrest as part of an apparent campaign of intimidation and retribution against Canada.     Some analysts have said the U.S. response to China's arrests of the two Canadians has been muted. President Donald Trump himself has not commented on the Canadians. But U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has, saying China ought to release them.    White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders and the State Department have also issued statements of support.     "We urge China to end all forms of arbitrary and unlawful detentions and to respect the protections and freedoms of all individuals in accordance with China's international commitments," Craft said.     Robert Bothwell, a professor at the University of Toronto, called Craft's statement "tepid."    "It doesn't bespeak ringing support," Bothwell said.     Threat of consequences Beijing threatened grave consequences for America's neighbor and ally after Meng was arrested at Vancouver's airport.     Canada has embarked on a campaign with allies to win the release of Kovrig and Spavor and many countries have issued statements in support.    The two were detained on vague allegations of "engaging in activities that endanger the national security" of China. They remain locked up without access to lawyers.     Meng is out on bail in Canada and living in one of her two Vancouver mansions awaiting extradition proceedings.     Despite the escalating frictions resulting from the detentions, trade talks between Beijing and the Trump administration remain ongoing.    The U.S. has taken pains to emphasize that their trade talks are entirely separate from the U.S. case against Meng. They have been doing so since Trump said in an interview that he might be willing to drop the charges against Meng as part of a trade deal with China.     Trump's comment frustrated Canadian officials who have been adamant Canada is following the rule of law and that Canada has an extradition treaty it must respect. A Canadian judge could deny the extradition request if the charges were deemed political.     "The next time the U.S. asks, Canada will be hard of hearing," Bothwell said. "Trouble with Trump and company is that they are entirely transactional. They don't think ahead. And in this case, Trump's own words will probably be enough to get the U.S. extradition request denied."  

Turkey Decries China's Treatment of Uighurs

Sun, 02/10/2019 - 06:44
Turkey on Saturday condemned China's treatment of its Muslim ethnic Uighur people as "a great embarrassment for humanity," adding to rights groups' recent criticism of mass detentions of the Turkic-speaking minority.    "The systematic assimilation policy of Chinese authorities toward Uighur Turks is a great embarrassment for humanity," Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said in a statement.    The northwest Xinjiang region of China, where most Uighurs live, has been under heavy police surveillance in recent years, after violent inter-ethnic tensions.    Nearly 1 million Uighurs and other Turkic language-speaking minorities in China have reportedly been held in re-education camps, according to a U.N. panel of experts.    Beijing says the "vocational education centers" help people steer clear of terrorism and allow them to be reintegrated into society.   But critics say China is seeking to assimilate Xinjiang's minority population and suppress religious and cultural practices that conflict with communist ideology and the dominant Han culture.    "It is no longer a secret that more than 1 million Uighur Turks — who are exposed to arbitrary arrests — are subjected to torture and political brainwashing in concentration centers and prisons," Aksoy said in the Turkish Foreign Ministry statement.     "Uighurs who are not detained in the camps are also under great pressure," he added.     Turkey called on the international community and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres "to take effective steps to end the human tragedy in the Xinjiang region."    Most mainly Muslim countries have not been vocal on the issue, not criticizing the government in China, which is an important trading partner. 

Thai King Dashes Sister's Political Dreams

Sun, 02/10/2019 - 01:47
Thailand's king has crushed the plans of his older sister to become a candidate for the country's prime minister. The Thai Raksa Chart party had announced Friday that Princess Ubolratana, who is 67, would be the party's prime minister nominee for the March 24 election. The political hopes of the princess were dashed almost immediately when her younger brother, the king, issued a terse statement saying his sister's candidacy was "highly inappropriate" and went against tradition and national culture. On Saturday, the Thai Raksa Chart party swore loyalty to the king, saying in a statement that it "complies with the royal command." Puangthong Pawakapan, professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, told the French news agency AFP that the king's disapproval invalidated his sister's candidacy. In an Instagram post Saturday, the princess, without mentioning her brother or her dashed political plans, thanked her supporters for their "love and kindness" and expressed a desire to see the country expand rights and opportunities for citizens. Thailand will hold elections on March 24, the first since a 2014 military coup. The takeover resulted in the installation of a junta intent on eradicating the influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose allies have won every national election since 2001. Since Thaksin was ousted by a military coup in 2006, Thailand's establishment has had little success in trying to weaken his political machine with constitutional amendments, court rulings and changes to the electoral system.   Thaksin, who has been in exile to avoid a jail sentence on a conflict of interest conviction, is believed by many to have played a role in establishing Ubolratana's candidacy. His alleged involvement rattled royalists who see their campaign against Thaksin as a way to protect the monarchy. As a candidate, Ubolratana would have attempted to oust junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the preferred choice of the military. Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932.

Top US University Suspends New Research Projects with Chinese Telecom Giant Huawei

Sat, 02/09/2019 - 23:57
One of the world's top research universities, the U.S.-based University of California, Berkeley, has stopped new research projects with Huawei Technologies, a Chinese telecommunications giant. The university's suspension, which took effect on January 30, came after the U.S. Department of Justice filed criminal charges against the corporation and some of its affiliates two days earlier. The department announced a 13-count indictment against Huawei, accusing it of stealing trade secrets, obstruction of justice, violations of economic sanctions and wire fraud. Vice Chancellor for Research Randy Katz said in a letter addressed to the Chancellor's cabinet members the campus would continue to honor existing commitments with Huawei that provide funding for current research projects. Huawei's chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, has been under house arrest in Canada since December 1 for allegedly deceiving U.S. banks into clearing funds for a subsidiary that interacted with Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions. Her extradition to the U.S. is pending. Meng's arrest has prompted some observers to question whether her detention was an attempt to pressure China in its ongoing trade war with the U.S.  She is the daughter of the corporation's founder, a relationship that places her among the most influential corporate executives in China. UC Berkeley and other leading U.S. universities, meanwhile, are getting rid of telecom equipment made by Huawei and other Chinese companies to prevent losing federal funds under a new national security law. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump alleges Chinese telecom companies are manufacturing equipment that allows the Chinese government to spy on users in other countries, including Western researchers working on innovative technologies. UC Berkeley has removed a Huawei video-conferencing system, a university official said. The University of California, Irvine is also replacing Chinese-made audio-video equipment. Other schools, such as the University of Wisconsin, are reviewing their telecom suppliers. The action is in response to a law Trump signed in August. A provision of the National Defense Authorization Act prohibits recipients of federal funding from using telecom and networking equipment made by Hauwei or ZTE. Universities that fail to comply with the law by August 2020 could lose federal government research grants and other funding.

Tragic Report Into Aboriginal Suicides Released in Australia

Sat, 02/09/2019 - 18:22
Inter-generational trauma and poverty are being blamed for a series of suicides by young Aboriginal people in Western Australia.  The Kimberley region has one of the highest suicide rates in the world and a coroner has published her report into more than a dozen deaths, including that of a 10 year old girl who took her own life in 2016. The coroner blamed a cluster of suicides in the Kimberley region of Western Australia on "the crushing effects of intergenerational trauma". It is the catastrophic and lasting impact of European colonization, as well as the loss of tribal land and culture.  Five of the victims investigated by the inquest were Indigenous children aged between 10 and 13.  They often lived in dysfunctional homes, and were exposed to alcohol abuse and violence. Western Australian police sergeant Neville Ripp hopes the coroner's report will help authorities recognize the danger signs. "It is a wake-up call for everyone to protect your children for us as police officers to pick up on these warning signs," said Ripp. The coroner has made 42 recommendations, including restrictions on alcohol sales and screening babies for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.  Drinking during pregnancy can cause lifelong mental and physical problems, and is thought to have been a factor in the Kimberley suicides.   There have been several official reports into Indigenous self-harm in Western Australia in the past two decades, but little has changed.   Rob McPhee from the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Service hopes that communities will have a greater say in how these tragedies can be prevented. "I think the coroner this time has taken a much broader approach in terms of looking at things like self-determination and empowerment.  They are things that are hard to do and they are things that governments struggle with because it is about shifting control and power back to community and governments really have a lot of trouble doing that," McPhee said. Community leaders, however, doubt that this new report will save lives. Benedicta Pindan is an elder in the township of Looma, where a ten-year old girl took her own life. "It is just someone coming out to tick the boxes to say I have been to Looma to speak to them about suicide, mental issues," Pindan said. "I am telling you that is what we call them tick the box people'." The Western Australian government said these are "complex issues that would not be solved overnight." It insists alcohol is devastating Aboriginal communities and that tougher regulations are urgently needed. Indigenous Australians make up about 3 per cent of the population.  They suffer high rates of poverty, ill-health and imprisonment.

Thai Princess Tells Fans #ILoveYou; Candidacy Looks Short-Lived

Sat, 02/09/2019 - 16:01
The Thai princess whose stunning announcement she was running for prime minister was quickly opposed by her brother, the king, thanked her supporters Saturday, saying she wants Thailand to be “moving forward,” but she did not comment on her candidacy. Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, 67, shocked the country Friday when she announced she would be the prime ministerial candidate for a populist party loyal to ousted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, in a March 24 election. But her foray into politics, breaking with royal tradition, looked to be short-lived after her younger brother, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, quickly signaled he opposed it, which is likely to lead to her disqualification. The Election Commission, which is overseeing the first polls since a 2014 military coup that overthrew a pro-Thaksin government, said it would issue a ruling on the issue Monday. ​Audacious move The nomination of a royal family member by pro-Thaksin forces was an audacious gambit, potentially undercutting Thaksin’s ardently royalist foes, and setting up an election showdown with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup and heads the military government. But King Vajiralongkorn’s swift rebuke of his sister’s bid could backfire on pro-Thaksin forces, who could face retribution if judged by election authorities to have tried to illegitimately use a royal connection. “Friday’s events were astounding and have people completely rethinking their assessments and perspectives and the country’s future political trajectory,” said Jay Harriman, senior director at BowerGroupAsia, a government affairs consultancy. “The monarchy has semi-divine status in Thailand. Public appearances and statements often pertain to royal duty or events,” he added. “A disagreement like this has almost never happened in recent memory.” The Thai Raksa Chart party, which nominated Ubolratana as its candidate for prime minister, said it “graciously accepts” the king’s statement and would abide by election regulations and royal tradition. ​Election Commission final word King Vajiralongkorn, 66, issued his message late Friday, saying his elder sister’s candidacy was “inappropriate” and it was against the spirit of the constitution for royalty to be involved in politics. While the Election Commission has the final say on approval of candidates, it seems unlikely its members would ignore the powerful influence of the king in making its decision. ‘Moving forward’ In an Instagram post Saturday, the princess did not directly mention her brother or her political hopes, but thanked supporters for their “love and kindness toward each other over the past day” and expressed gratitude for their support for her. “I would like to say once again that I want to see Thailand moving forward, being admirable and acceptable by international countries, want to see all Thais have rights, a chance, good living, happiness to all,” she said, concluding with “#ILoveYou.” Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932, but the royal family has wielded great influence. Political backstory Friday was the last day for parties to declare candidates. The general election had been broadly viewed as a straightforward battle between Thaksin’s populists and their allies, on the one hand, and the royalist-military establishment on the other. The main opponent of the princess, if her nomination were to stand, would be Prayuth, who also announced his candidacy Friday, as the candidate for a new pro-military party, set up by his loyalists. The princess’s nominating party is an offshoot of the larger pro-Thaksin party that was ousted from power in the 2014 coup, and is seen as a back-up party in case the main party is disqualified. It canceled a planned event Saturday. The princess had not been scheduled to appear. Ubolratana relinquished her royal titles in 1972 when she married an American, a fellow student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Peter Jensen. She lived in the United States for more than 26 years before they divorced in 1998.

East Meets West as Gamelan Ensembles Join Western Orchestra

Sat, 02/09/2019 - 14:32
Cultural Fusion, a blend of international styles and tastes, seems to be everywhere, from trendy restaurant menus to fashion runways to hit movies. Rendy Wicaksana of VOA's Indonesia Service reports on an unusual fusion of classical Western orchestral music with the traditional sounds of Indonesian gamelan.

China Reports Outbreak of African Swine Fever in Hunan

Sat, 02/09/2019 - 13:42
China has reported a new outbreak of African swine fever that is threatening the country’s vital pork industry. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs reported Friday that the disease had been detected on a farm in Yongzhou in the central province of Hunan, where 4,600 pigs were being raised. Although 171 of the pigs had died and 270 were found sick, ministry regulations require all pigs on an affected farm be culled and disposed of and the area quarantined and decontaminated. 1 million pigs killed First detected in August, the disease has killed more than 1 million pigs in China, prompting restrictions on shipments of most of China’s 700 million swine, even healthy ones. That has disrupted supplies of pork, China’s staple meat, to big cities while prices collapsed in areas with an oversupply of pigs that farmers are barred from shipping to other provinces. It also resulted in additional stress on pig farmers beset by rising feed costs from Beijing’s tariff fight with President Donald Trump. African swine fever doesn’t affect humans but is highly contagious in pigs. Dozens of cases have been detected over recent months in at least 20 provinces. Virus similar to European version It wasn’t clear how the virus reached China, but it was found to be genetically similar to versions in Russia, Poland and Georgia. The outbreak could cause longer term disruption if farmers respond to lower prices and higher costs by raising fewer pigs, leading to shortages and higher prices. The government maintains stocks of frozen pork in case of shortages but has yet to say whether any will be released this year.

Chinese Businessman Denies Australia’s Reason to Cancel Visa

Sat, 02/09/2019 - 10:53
A prominent Chinese businessman and political donor, linked in the past to a row about the promotion of Chinese interests, said Friday Australia’s decision to rescind his visa was based on nothing more than speculation. Huang Xiangmo is unable to return to Australia after the government rejected his application for citizenship and revoked his visa while he was overseas, newspaper reports said this week. Australian media, citing unidentified sources, said Huang was denied residency after intelligence agencies concluded he could undertake “acts of foreign interference” and that he was unfit for residency. Huang rejected that assessment and criticized Australia in his first public comments since the visa cancellation was revealed. “It is profoundly disappointing to be treated in such a grotesquely unfair manner. The decision to cancel my visa was based on unfounded speculations that are prejudiced and groundless,” Huang told the Australian Financial Review. “There are many Australian companies in China, aren’t they more likely to be susceptible to potential manipulation by the Chinese government?” he said.  Australia-China ties strained Representatives for Australia’s Department of Home Affairs and a spokeswoman for Minister for Immigration David Coleman did not respond immediately to requests for comment. China’s foreign ministry, in a short statement read over the telephone to Reuters, said it did not know anything about the issue, but that China never interferes in the internal affairs of other countries. Huang’s expulsion comes as Australia and China seek to repair ties that have been strained since 2017, when Canberra accused Beijing of meddling in its domestic affairs. China denies the accusation. Huang emerged as one of Australia’s biggest political donors soon after he began living in Australia. He rose to prominence after an influential opposition lawmaker was forced to resign in 2017, when allegations emerged that he was linked to Chinese-aligned interests. The lawmaker, Sam Dastyari, sought to encourage a senior politician not to meet a Chinese pro-democracy activist opposed to Beijing’s rule in Hong Kong in 2015. Dastyari was also recorded warning Huang that his phone may be tapped.  Huang stopped political donations after that incident but later expanded his business interests in Australia. He paid nearly A$1 billion ($715 million) in 2018 for two Australian projects owned by Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group.

No Sign of Progress in 3 Days of Talks to Prepare 2nd US-North Korea Summit

Sat, 02/09/2019 - 06:14
 The U.S. special representative for North Korea held three days of talks in Pyongyang to prepare a second summit to be held this month between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the State Department said on Friday, while giving no indication of any progress in the meetings. The State Department said Stephen Biegun had agreed with his counterpart Kim Hyok Chol to meet again ahead of the summit, which Washington has said will take place from Feb. 27-28 in Vietnam. In their talks in Pyongyang from Wednesday until Friday Biegun and Kim Hyok Chol "discussed advancing President Trump and Chairman Kim's Singapore summit commitments of complete denuclearization, transforming U.S.-DPRK relations, and building a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula." the State Department said. Its statement, which referred to North Korea by the acronym for its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, gave no indication of any progress in the talks. Just weeks ahead of the planned summit to follow on from an unprecedented first meeting between the leaders in Singapore last June, the two sides have appeared far from narrowing differences over U.S. demands for North Korea to give up a nuclear weapons program that threatens the United States. Biegun said last week his Pyongyang talks would be aimed at seeking progress on commitments made in Singapore and mapping out "a set of concrete deliverables" for the second summit. He said Washington was willing to discuss "many actions" to improve ties and entice Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons and that Trump was ready to end the 1950-53 Korean War, which concluded with an armistice, not a peace treaty. Biegun said Kim Jong Un committed during an October visit by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the dismantling and destruction of plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities and that "corresponding measures" demanded by North Korea would be the subject of his talks. At the same time, he set out an extensive list of demands that North Korea would have to meet eventually, including full disclosure of its nuclear and missile programs, something Pyongyang has rejected for decades. Trump, eager for a foreign policy win to distract from domestic troubles, has been keen for a second summit despite a lack of significant moves by North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. He and Biegun have stressed the economic benefits to North Korea if it does so. Trump announced the plan for his second meeting with Kim in his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday, but the exact location for the meeting in Vietnam has yet to be revealed. Trump said much work remained to be done in the push for peace with North Korea, but cited the halt in its nuclear testing and no new missile launches in 15 months as proof of progress. The Singapore summit yielded a vague commitment by Kim to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, where U.S. troops have been stationed since the Korean War. While in the U.S. view North Korea has yet to take concrete steps to give up its nuclear weapons, Pyongyang complains that Washington has done little to reciprocate for its freezing of nuclear and missile testing and dismantling of some facilities. Pyongyang has repeatedly urged a lifting of punishing U.S.-led sanctions, a formal end to the war, and security guarantees. South Korea's Yonhap News agency quoted that country's foreign ministry as saying that Biegun arrived back in Seoul from Pyongyang on Friday evening, Seoul time, and would meet with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha on Saturday morning to provide a briefing on the results of his talks.

White House: China Trade Talks to Resume in Beijing Next Week

Sat, 02/09/2019 - 02:42
The United States and China will hold trade talks in Beijing next week, with deputy-level meetings to start Monday and high-level talks to follow, a White House spokeswoman said Friday. The two countries are trying to hammer out a trade deal weeks ahead of a March deadline when U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods are scheduled to increase. Escalating tensions between the United States and China have cost both countries billions of dollars and roiled global financial markets. Top-level negotiators and President Donald Trump met last week in Washington, but it's unclear that the two sides will have a deal agreed by March 2. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin will travel to Beijing for principal-level meetings that will take place Feb. 14-15, the White House statement said. Deputy-level meetings led by Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Jeffrey Gerrish kick off Monday.

Thailand's King Calls His Sister's Candidacy for PM 'Inappropriate'

Fri, 02/08/2019 - 23:02
Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn said on Friday his elder sister's announcement she is running for prime minister in March elections is "inappropriate" and unconstitutional, likely sinking her candidacy for a populist opposition party. Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, 67, shocked the nation when she announced on Friday she would be the sole prime ministerial candidate for the party, which is loyal to ousted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra. But the opposition from her younger brother, a constitutional monarch, is likely to lead to her disqualification by the Election Commission. "Involvement of a high-ranking member of the royal family in politics, in whatever way, is an act that conflicts with the country's traditions, customs, and culture, and therefore is considered extremely inappropriate," the king said in a statement issued by the palace.

Princess PM Nomination Shocks Thai Politics

Fri, 02/08/2019 - 21:27
A political earthquake has been triggered in Thailand with the nomination of princess Ubolratana Mahidol as a prime ministerial candidate for March election, overturning a Thai tradition that the royal palace plays no public role in politics. Observers say the surprising announcement has completely upended the prospects for incumbent Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha to retain power — which he seized in a military coup in 2014. "The [party] board agrees that the name of Princess Ubolratana, an educated and skilled person, is the most suitable choice," Thai Raksa Chart party leader Preechapol Pongpanich reportedly told a press conference Friday. Her decision to run for a party affiliated with Thaksin Shinawatra, whose parties have won every Thai election since 2001 but were twice ousted by military coups, adds even more intrigue. The exiled billionaire businessman's "red shirt" movement holds a powerful network of rural political strongholds. But they are reviled by some factions of the Bangkok elite and the military — a bitter schism that has fueled near unending turmoil in Thai politics over the past two decades. The strength of the alliance the princess has forged with the populist movement is bolstered by the popularity she enjoys as the respected eldest daughter of the country's deeply revered late king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. She is understood to be close to her younger brother, Maha Vajiralongkorn, who became king following their father's death in October 2016 and is scheduled to be coronated in May, shortly after the election. Royal privileges Despite her lineage the princess is widely perceived as an open, down-to-earth character who sacrificed her royal privileges to marry an American commoner, Peter Jensen, in 1972. After she divorced Jensen in 1998, some of those privileges were restored and Election Commission officials have yet to clarify if her status could conflict with her candidacy for prime minister. Concerns are also being raised about how her royal connection will impact rival politicians who campaign against her, given Thailand has one of the world's strictest Lèse-majesté laws. Technically, Article 112 of the Thai constitution, which allows punishments of up to 15 years in prison for those convicted of insulting, defaming or threatening the monarch or royal family, does not apply to someone of her status. However, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an associate professor at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Political Science, said in recent years the law had been interpreted with increasing elasticity. "So if 112 is to be elastic enough to cover Princess Ubolratana as an aspiring politician, then I think we will see tension ahead because there will likely be challenges," he said. "And many competitors will not accept her for having it both ways." In a statement Friday, Thai Raksa Chart said Princess Ubolratana's official royal status remained revoked — allowing her to participate in party politics — but did not address Article 112. Election predictions Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha also registered his nomination for the top job Friday. Military government spokesperson Weerachon Sukhontapatipak said the incumbent administration welcomed the princess's nomination. "We don't [have] the concern with any candidate because we believe that it's the people's decision, is the most important, nothing to worry," he said. Asked if her nomination had upended Prayut's chances of victory, he said such comments were incorrect because the election would be free and fair. Analysts, however, were unified Friday in their belief that the princess would easily eclipse Prayut at the polls. Paul Chambers, a political analyst and lecturer in Thailand's Naresuan University, said if she stayed in the race, she would definitely win. "I don't see who would vote against her and also you have to realize it's not just royal legitimacy that she has. She also has the fact that she has allied herself with Thaksin and so people who want to have populist measures would be voting for her as well," he said. Chambers said the princess is known as a maverick who has refused to do what traditional institutions expect of her. "And who's on the other side of the equation. Well military dictator and a lagging economy. Who wants that?" 'Opportunity for reconciliation' A victory to the princess would also solidify the power of her brother, he said. "The sovereign of Thailand, who is her brother, finds it is in his interests to have her run as the candidate close to Thaksin," he said. Chulalongkorn University's Thitinan Pongsudhirak said in the longer term, the big question was if the dramatic development would lead to greater polarization of Thai politics or a window to reconciliation. "The Thai predicament and the troubles that we've had in Thai politics ... are centered on an imbalance between having a democratic system and having a monarchy-centered society," he said. "There is opportunity, there's opportunity for reconciliation but it would require participation and inclusiveness." Thaksin and his sister Yingluck, who were both ousted in military coups and subsequently prosecuted, are living in exile. Chayika Wongnaphachan, a member of Thai Raksa Chart and the niece of Yingluck and Thaksin, declined to comment.

Aide: Salvadoran President-Elect to Assess Relationship with China

Fri, 02/08/2019 - 12:19
Salvadoran President-elect Nayib Bukele will assess whether the country should maintain diplomatic relations with China, a member of his team said on Thursday, less than a year after the outgoing government broke ties with Taiwan. During the campaign, Bukele, who emerged victorious at the polls as an outsider candidate on Sunday, was critical of the benefits that El Salvador received after establishing diplomatic relations with China. Federico Anliker, a close member of the Bukele team and secretary general of his New Ideas party, said the incoming administration would investigate why the outgoing government forged ties with China. "With the issue of China, China-Taiwan relations, we have to study them and put them in the balance - what is best for the nation, not what is best for a political party, as the (outgoing administration) did," Anliker told local media on Thursday "We were not consulted, nor did they give us the reasons (for establishing) relations with China. Now we have to investigate in detail," he continued. In August, El Salvador broke ties with Taiwan to establish relations with China, following the Dominican Republic and Panama. China later offered El Salvador about $150 million for social projects and 3,000 tons of rice to feed thousands of Salvadorans struck by a drought. The White House warned in August that China was luring countries with incentives that "facilitate economic dependence and domination, not partnership." Anliker also said that Bukele, a 37-year-old former mayor of the capital, expressed his support for Juan Guaido, who proclaimed himself Venezuela's legitimate head of state in January. Bukele "would not be willing to support a totalitarian government that represses its people and disrespects human rights," he said, referring to the administration of President Nicolas Maduro.

Thai King’s Sister a Candidate for Prime Minister

Fri, 02/08/2019 - 11:34
Thailand’s royalty made an unprecedented move into politics Friday when the sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn was declared a prime ministerial candidate for March 24 elections, registration papers showed. The nomination of Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, 67, the elder sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, promised to upend Thailand’s already turbulent politics because it breaks the long-standing tradition of Thai royalty staying out of politics. Princess Ubolratana will run as a candidate for a party loyal to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra. One of her leading opponents will be Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of Thailand’s military junta, who also announced his candidacy Friday. Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932, but the royal family has wielded great influence and commanded the devotion of millions. Populists vs. establishment The election is shaping up as a battle between Thaksin’s populists and their allies and the royalist-military establishment. However, the nomination of a member of the royal family by the pro-Thaksin Thai Raksa Chart party could change that dynamic. Thai Raksa Chart is an offshoot of the Pheu Thai Party, formed by Thaksin loyalists and the core leadership of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), or “red shirts” group, as a strategy to help Pheu Thai win votes. The simmering conflict between the Bangkok-centered elites and the more rural-based populists has resulted in street protests, military coups, and violent clashes for almost 15 years. “The party has nominated the princess as its sole candidate,” Thai Raksa Chart Party leader Preechapol Pongpanich told reporters after registering his party’s candidate at the Election Commission. “She is knowledgeable and is highly suitable. I believe there will be no legal problems in terms of her qualification, but we have to wait for the Election Commission to endorse her candidacy,” he said. The Election Commission is required to endorse all candidates by next Friday. Reuters could not independently confirm whether Princess Ubolratana’s nomination had the approval of the palace. Prayuth accepted his nomination from the Palang Pracharat Party in an official statement. “I am not aiming to extending my power but I am doing this for the benefit for the country and the people,” he said. There was no mention of the princess’s nomination in Prayuth’s statement. ​Europe-born, US educated Princess Ubolratana, the oldest daughter of King Bhumibol, was born in Lausanne in 1951. She studied mathematics and biochemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of California at Los Angeles. Princess Ubolratana relinquished her royal titles in 1972 when she married an American, a fellow MIT student Peter Jensen. She lived in the United States for more than 26 years before they divorced in 1998. She returned permanently to Thailand in 2001, performing royal duties but never regaining her full royal titles. She is referred to as “Tunkramom Ying,” which means “Daughter to the Queen Regent,” and is treated by officials as a member of the royal family. Princess Ubolratana is known for her “To be Number One” philanthropy campaign, which aims to help young people stay away from drugs, as well as starring in several soap operas and movies. An avid social media user, she recently posted videos eating street food and another complaining about pollution in Bangkok.

North Korean Flag at Heart of New Loyalty Campaign

Fri, 02/08/2019 - 09:37
North Korea is stepping up a new loyalty campaign as leader Kim Jong Un prepares for his second summit with President Donald Trump. The campaign began last month with the introduction of a song in praise of the nation’s flag. A video now being aired on state-run television to promote the song, called “Our National Flag,” shows repeated images of the flag being raised at international sports competitions and being formed by a sea of people holding up colored lengths of cloth at a parade and rally on Kim Il Sung Square. Other images show recent improvements in the economy and standard of living, a reflection of a current government policy shift that focuses on development and prosperity. ​A different tone The video is a departure from the tone of the propaganda that dominated just two years ago, when tensions with Washington were escalating and the focus was on North Korea’s successful missile tests. In the summer of 2017, the country’s most popular musical group, the all-female Moranbong Band, released “The Song of the Hwasong Rocket” to commemorate the successful launch of North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. They also performed at concerts with big-screen images of the ICBM behind them. The new video incorporates imagery from the most recent mass games event, which was staged last September to mark the country’s 70th anniversary. It briefly shows troops at attention during a military parade and fighter jets creating contrails in the national colors of blue, red and white. But it also is interspersed with shots of civilians marching at the same parade, clips of new high-rise apartments in the capital, Pyongyang, fireworks displays and rows of students in their school uniforms. Lyrics to “Our National Flag” have been distributed widely. Large posters showing the flag and the lyrics are being displayed in factories. The song opens with the lines, “As we watch our blue-red banner flying sky high, our hearts are bursting with the blood of patriotism. We feel the breath of our nation as the flag strongly flaps in the wind. The flag as important as life carries the fate of our people. We will love the shining flag of our nation. Please fly until the end of this world.” A note above one poster seen by The Associated Press urged workers at the Kim Jong Suk Textile Factory in Pyongyang to study the song closely. ​Propaganda conundrum Coming after years of what had seemed to be deepening hostility, Kim’s outreach to Washington and his Chinese and South Korean neighbors presents a bit of a conundrum for North Korea’s propaganda chiefs. Few details of Kim’s negotiations with Trump over the future of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal have been made public in the North. The official media have instead focused on how Kim has been welcomed on the world stage and asserted that he is leading the way to defuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula. But the nationalist call for unity and the less-militaristic message of the new video are in keeping with an effort in North Korea to dial back its public displays of overtly anti-U.S. propaganda and redirect attention to Kim’s current priority of mobilizing the entire country behind improving the economy. Kim unveiled that shift in his New Year’s address last year, opening the door to a stunning series of summits with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and, last June, with Trump in Singapore. Kim has since made some big strides with Beijing and Seoul toward undercutting support for the U.S.-backed sanctions that have constrained his development plans. Though little progress has been made on Washington’s main concern, denuclearization, Trump announced during his State of the Union address that he will meet Kim again in Vietnam on Feb. 27-28.

Australia Investigates Apparent Hacking of National Parliament's Computers

Fri, 02/08/2019 - 08:34
Australian authorities are investigating the apparent hacking of the national parliament's computer network, two senior lawmakers said Friday, but there was no evidence that any data had been accessed or stolen. Tony Smith, the speaker of Australia's lower House of Representatives, and Scott Ryan, president of the upper house Senate, said all lawmakers had been told to reset their passwords as a precaution. "We have no evidence that this is an attempt to influence the outcome of parliamentary processes or to disrupt or influence electoral or political processes," they said in a joint statement. "Accurate attribution of a cyber incident takes time and investigations are being undertaken in conjunction with the relevant security agencies," they said. It was also too early to tell who might have been behind the apparent attack, the statement said.

No Talks Between Trump and China's Xi Before Trade Deadline

Fri, 02/08/2019 - 07:53
U.S. President Donald Trump said Thursday he did not plan to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a March 1 deadline set by the two countries to achieve a trade deal. Asked during an event in the Oval Office whether there would be a meeting before the deadline, Trump said: "No." When asked whether there would be a meeting in the next month or so, Trump said: "Not yet. Maybe. Probably too soon. Probably too soon." The remarks confirmed comments from administration officials who said the two men were unlikely to meet before the deadline, dampening hopes of a quick trade pact and sparking a drop in U.S stock markets. Late last year during a dinner between Trump and Xi in Argentina, the two men agreed to take a 90-day hiatus in their trade war to give their teams time to negotiate an agreement. If the talks do not succeed, Trump has threatened to increase U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports. Another round of talks is scheduled for next week in Beijing. Trump, who is proud of having a warm relationship with Xi, said last week he would meet with him again to hammer out a final deal, after Chinese Vice Premier Liu He presented Xi's invitation at the White House. A person briefed on the talks said that Trump's advisers were concerned that accepting a meeting invitation at this stage would raise unfounded expectations for a quick deal and erode U.S. leverage in the talks, where the two sides remain far apart on core structural intellectual property issues. "There was concern about the downside for markets in particular if they don't reach a deal," the source said. The president is scheduled to travel to Asia at the end of this month for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam, and some had speculated that he could meet with Xi on the same trip. Trump had indicated that was one option, or Xi could come to the United States. White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters that the leaders of the two economic superpowers could still meet at a later date. "At some point the two presidents will meet, that is what Mr. Trump has been saying. But that is off in the distance still at the moment," he said. Market drop The news prompted a sharp selloff in U.S. stocks, dashing the optimism that had been building that the countries were progressing toward a deal before tariffs on Chinese imports rise to 25 percent after the March 1 deadline. The S&P 500 Index closed down 0.93 percent in its biggest drop in two weeks. Treasury bond yields dropped as investors sought safety in sovereign U.S. debt. The benchmark 10-year yield slid 4 basis points to 2.66 percent, the lowest in nearly a week. "I could see where that would impact the markets because obviously we had a lift in the month of January from optimism surrounding these trade talks," said Peter Jankovskis, co-chief investment officer at OakBrook Investments LLC in Lisle, Illinois. U.S. demands U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are leaving Monday for the next round of talks in China, one administration official said. "They're hoping for more success," he said. The United States is pressing China to make major reforms, including on structural issues related to how it treats U.S. companies doing business there. Washington accuses China of stealing U.S. intellectual property and forcing American businesses to share their technology with Chinese companies. China denies the accusations. Trump said in his State of the Union address Tuesday that any new trade deal with Beijing "must include real, structural change to end unfair trade practices." Such reforms have been a sticking point in talks so far. Lighthizer told reporters last week that the two leaders may not meet if the negotiations do not progress sufficiently. "If we do make headway, and the president thinks we're close enough that he can close the deal on major issues, then I think he'll want to have a meeting and do that," he told reporters. "I have complete confidence in the president, both to close a deal if we get to that point, but also to make that judgment." Trump has vowed to increase U.S. tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports to 25 percent from 10 percent currently if the two sides cannot reach a deal by 12:01 a.m. (0501 GMT) on March 2. CNBC reported that the tariffs were likely to remain at the 10 percent rate. Three sources familiar with the matter indicated that report was wrong. The president has said repeatedly that the tariffs would go up if no deal has been reached, and that position has not changed, one source said. Lighthizer said last week that tariffs had not been a subject of the talks.