Updated: 1 hour 54 min ago
Leather riding boots are neatly lined up on a carpet, a picture shows blood-thirsty hounds on a fox hunt and a fountain spews water from the mouths of stone horses. It may have the trappings of upper-class Britain, but this is in fact suburban Shanghai and the County Down Club, the self-styled first exclusive membership club in China for horsemanship and fox-hunting. The club, which takes its name from a county in Northern Ireland, was founded three years ago and owner Steven Sun says equestrian sport "has developed rapidly in China during the past five to 10 years". "I think it's a change in awareness," said the 32-year-old, whose interest in horses was triggered while studying in Britain. Rising numbers of Chinese are taking up sports such as horse riding as the country's growing economy -- now the second biggest after the United States -- gives people more disposable income to pursue leisure activities. County Down has a dozen horses and Sun wants it to be at the forefront of promoting equestrian sports in China. The club, which also features an indoor swimming pool, gym and sparkling white piano, is just as much about networking as it is horse riding, Sun says. County Down has about 80 members and annual membership is 58,000 yuan ($8,400), but prospective newcomers will need more than just deep pockets. "We hope our members have good qualities and manners or are highly educated elites," said Sun, in polo shirt and riding trousers. "That can ensure communication between our members will be at the same level. "One of the benefits is that our members can meet using this platform and push each other forward." Sun says he has forged links outside China, too, taking members on fox hunts with European nobility. He also has four racing horses in France. 'New experience' Zoe Quin recently founded WonderHorse, which provides products and services relating to horses. The industry is "booming" for two main reasons, said Shanghai-based Quin. "Chinese parents consider horse riding an elite education to make their kids more outstanding in this highly competitive Chinese society," said Quin, formerly chief representative in China for LeCheval, which promotes the French horse industry. "As for adults, they can extend their participation in equestrian sports beyond riding into broader aspects such as ownership, investment, travel, leisure and social activities. "More than a sport, it is a new experience for Chinese." The governmental Chinese Equestrian Association declined to give numbers, but according to the respected Horsemanship magazine's annual report, there were 1,802 equestrian clubs in China to July 2018. That is double the number in 2016, with the majority in northern and eastern China, notably Beijing and Shanghai, according to the magazine's findings. With the Chinese government stating in 2014 that equestrian sports were to be "strongly supported", the trend looks set to continue. Underlining the point, in January 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in China bearing the gift of a French Republican Guard horse for his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. However, Horsemanship identified areas of concern, primarily the lack of media coverage and a shortage of experts such as trainers and veterinarians. Napoleon on horseback A two-hour drive from Shanghai is the horse-themed "Pegasus Water Town" complete with hotels, art gallery, a mall with Venice-style gondolas, an equestrian club and "Horse Culture Museum". There are more than 400 horses of dozens of breeds imported from around the world and visitors form long queues for horse-drawn carriage tours of the resort in Jiangsu, the province west of Shanghai. Once a week, pristine horses are paraded and perform crowd-pleasing tricks in an opulent arena designed in what the official website calls "Austro-Hungarian Empire style". A giant portrait of Napoleon on horseback overlooks the performance. At one point in the show, women horse riders in white gowns and sparkling tiaras convey white carriages that would not look out of place at a British royal wedding. It is all a far cry from 40 years ago, when China's ruling Communist Party launched wide-ranging reforms that lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. "Forty years ago China was very poor, there was no possibility to do such a high-end sport," said Shen Houfeng, general manager of Heilan International Equestrian Club, one of the jewels of the resort. "But you see 40 years after reform and opening, China has seen big changes. It's gone from a country people didn't pay attention to, to one that everyone cares about."
U.S. President Donald Trump said Wednesday he received a "great letter" from Kim Jong Un and will likely meet with the North Korean leader in the near future. "We really established a very good relationship," Trump said at a White House Cabinet meeting. "We'll probably have another meeting." Trump's comments came one day after Kim warned the current goodwill with the U.S. could end if Washington continues to impose sanctions to force his government to denuclearize. In his annual New Year's Day address, Kim said it was his "firm will" that North Korea will no longer produce or test nuclear weapons, or "use or spread" its arsenal. Kim added he was prepared to hold another meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump this year. But he said his country may have to follow another path unless Washington takes "corresponding measures." Kim called on the U.S. and South Korea to end all joint military drills. Kim and Trump signed a vaguely worded agreement during their historic summit in Singapore last June, but further negotiations have stalled in part over Pyongyang's opposition to Washington's call for complete denuclearization prior to granting any concessions. North Korea is also demanding that the U.S. and South Korea first issue a peace declaration to formally end hostilities and replace the armistice that has been in effect since the Korean War ended in 1953. Critics worry a peace declaration could undermine the justification for the U.S. military presence in South Korea. Despite Kim's warning, South Korea's Unification Ministry welcomed his address, saying it reflected Kim's commitment toward complete denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean peninsula, and the continued improvement of inter-Korean relations. Tuesday's speech was delivered exactly one year after Kim announced his willingness to send a contingent of North Korean athletes to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea the following month. The speech set off a series of diplomatic breakthroughs, including three summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the meeting with President Trump.
Australia's government is facing questions over its decision to strip a suspected Australian-born Islamic militant of his citizenship, after it was revealed he might not be a dual citizen of Fiji. Neil Prakash, who has been jailed in Turkey since 2016 when he was arrested trying to enter from Syria with false documents, is accused of recruiting Australians to join the Islamic State terrorist group. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton announced late last month that the Melbourne native was the 12th Australian dual national to lose his Australian citizenship due to being associated with terrorists. Prakash was believed to hold Fijian citizenship because his father is Fijian. But Nemani Vuniwaqa, Fiji's director of immigration, told the Fiji Sun newspaper that Prakash has never applied for citizenship there. Australian law allows the government to strip someone of their citizenship only if that person is a dual citizen. Dutton says the decision to revoke Prakash's citizenship was made after consultation with several other government agencies.
When Mahmoud Othman tried to figure a way to save his cafe business in the beleaguered Gaza Strip, he was amazed by online videos of tourists in Turkey getting fish pedicures. That got him thinking and a unique idea was born. After getting Israeli approval, he recently imported hundreds of Garra rufa fish, a species of small freshwater fish nicknamed “doctor fish,” from Turkey and added a fish spa section to his hookah bar and cafe in Gaza. The fish, which feed off the top layers of the toughened, dead skin of the feet, have been used in spas as a peeling method for years around the world. “We wanted to introduce a new idea and service at the cafe,” Othman said. “Doctor fish has remedial and recreational sides.” Among the benefits, he believes the treatment “helps the body get rid of negative energy.” A 30-minute session costs 30 shekels, about $8, a hefty sum for most of Gaza’s 2 million inhabitants. Gazans in the coastal territory are struggling to get by under an 11-year-old blockade by Israel and Egypt that has devastated the local economy. The Israeli blockade has made it difficult to import many goods into the strip. Othman said it took him three attempts and over a month to get the necessary permits to bring the fish into Gaza. He didn’t know what to expect but business has been surprisingly brisk — despite unemployment soaring over 50 percent and half of Gaza residents living under the poverty line. Othman said he gets 30 to 40 customers a day. Many of them see the service not only as good for the health, but also as a small luxury and temporary escape from the difficult situation around them. For four years, Mohammed al-Omari, 25, has suffered from warts that made it hard for him to wear shoes. Upon an advice from a friend, he tried the fish treatment and now believes it works for his condition. “The first time I tried it, I had a very beautiful feeling. I came for a second, third and today a fourth time,” he said after drying his feet and putting on socks. “When I find something to relieve the pain and improve my mentality, 30 shekels becomes nothing.” On a recent evening, seven young men sat in a room lit by blue neon lights, pants rolled to the knee and feet dipped into glass tubs. As the tiny fish clustered around their toes, the customers chatted or touched and swiped their smartphones. “It’s a beautiful thing,” said Mahmoud al-Dairi, who came for the leisure factor. Many of those frequenting the cafe are unaware of widespread health warnings over fish pedicures — especially the high possibility of infections. Several U.S. states and Canadian provinces consider the practice unsanitary and some animal rights groups denounce it altogether. But Othman is aware of the pitfalls. He said he has a strict set of procedures to sanitize the 16 tubs by giving the fish a respite of half an hour after every session and obliging the customers to wash their feet twice and apply sterilizers before dunking their feet.
Chinese President Xi Jinping told Taiwan Wednesday it’s time for the two sides to unify and didn’t rule out using force to make that happen. A day earlier, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen told China to respect her government’s existence and the democratic resolve of her self-ruled island’s people. Tsai rejects Beijing’s claim that both sides fall under one flag. The conflicting speeches, timed one day apart, indicate the division between the two old rivals over unification and the lack of a channel to discuss differences. If acted on, they will extend or worsen 70 years of strained relations, analysts believe. “With the current situation between China and Taiwan, I don’t think there is that foundation of trust for any kind of in-depth discussion of debate on these issues,” said Raymond Wu, managing director of Taipei-based political risk consultancy e-telligence, referring to Tsai’s ideas. “The key is whether there is that foundation of trust. That needs to be first established.” China and Taiwan have been ruled separately since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost to Mao Zedong’s Communists. The fleeing Nationalists re-based their government in Taiwan, but the more militarily powerful China insists that the two sides must eventually unite, by force if necessary. Stern words from Beijing President Xi thundered against past efforts in Taiwan to become legally independent of China and said the two sides should pursue a “one country-two systems” model of unification that his government applied to Hong Kong in 1997. China said that year it had given the former British local autonomy. “Peaceful unification and ‘one country, two systems’ are the best methods of realizing unification between the two sides,” Xi said as cited by China’s official Xinhua News Agency. This course, he said, “gives ample consideration to Taiwan’s actual situation and will help Taiwan’s long-term peace and stability after unification.” The president suggested more exchanges and did not rule out use of force if needed to fight Taiwan independence. “We want to make our biggest effort to achieve peaceful unification because this method is most beneficial, but we don’t give up the use of weapons,” Xi said. His speech marked the 40th anniversary of the statement from the standing committee of China’s National People’s Congress calling for unification with Taiwan. Taiwan leader demands respect Taiwan’s president demanded in a New Year’s speech that China recognize her government and respect the resolve of the island’s 23 million people. “Here I want to appeal to China that it must see correctly the existence of the Republic of China, Taiwan, must respect the 23 million Taiwanese people’s resolve for freedom and democracy and must handle existing agreements equitably and peacefully,” Tsai Ing-wen said. “It must also be that only organizations authorized by the two governments can sit down for talks.” These “musts,” she said, form the “most basic and most key foundation for the positive development of relations between Taiwan and China.” The president, elected in 2016, rejects Beijing’s dialogue condition that both sides talk as parts of one “China” and on Tuesday warned local officials against exchanges with Beijing based on “vague prerequisites.” China has responded to her rejection by flying military aircraft near the island, squelching Taiwanese foreign diplomacy and scaling back Taiwan-bound group tourism. Fallout from speeches This week’s speeches could deepen the China-Taiwan gap if Xi pushes ahead or Taiwanese opposition party figures engage him against Tsai’s will, scholars say. Most Taiwanese say in polls they oppose Xi’s goal of unification, and the Communist leadership doesn’t recognize the autonomy of Taiwan. “The demands for unification on the one-China principle violates the will of the Taiwanese people,” said Michael Tsai, chairman of the Institute for Taiwan Defense and Strategic Studies. “We have freedom, democracy and human rights, so how can we be one country, two systems?” he asked. “It’s impossible. Hong Kong is a great example. Since Hong Kong was returned to China, its freedom and democracy have faced a lot of limitations.” Use of force against Taiwan would hurt China by inciting a response from Japan and the United States, Michael Tsai added. Further eroding the chance of dialogue, the Taiwan president probably spoke Tuesday to deter Taiwan’s opposition party mayors and magistrates from holding their own talks, said Shane Lee, political scientist with Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan. The opposition Nationalist Party, whose candidates won 15 of 22 local seats in the November midterm elections, takes a more Beijing-friendly view than the ruling party. “I think she doesn’t want the local officials to have private connections with Xi Jinping or any other PRC officials,” Lee said. “I think she thinks that that’s not only immoral but almost illegal.”
Sitting in a leather chair, wearing a western-style suit, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his annual address to the nation January 1. He announced he was ready to meet U.S. President Donald Trump anytime to continue talks on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, but warned Pyongyang may take a “new path” if U.S. sanctions and pressure against the country continue. Evan Rees, Asia-Pacific analysts with Stratfor, noted the change in optics for Kim’s 2019 address. “It was a lot more intimate. It was more presidential. It made him seem more like a normal leader,” said Rees. “There was something for everyone in Kim’s speech,” added Bruce Klinger, Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia with the Heritage Foundation, in an email to VOA. There were “enough positive statements to affirm in some minds that the North Korean leader is a force for peace on the peninsula and that Washington must offer yet more concessions to maintain diplomatic momentum,” said Klinger. “But as is characteristic of the North Korean regime,” he said, “Kim blamed others for the diplomatic impasse, imposed heavy conditions on his seemingly constructive offers, and threatened to ‘seek a new path to protect the sovereignty of the country and the nation's best interests.’ In short, Kim extended an olive branch, but with very sharp thorns.” Denuclearization talks Rees called the “most important thing to take away” from this year’s address was Kim’s announcement that North Korea would “neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them.” “The production of nuclear devices was in many ways the big takeaway from the speech last year,” Rees said, who called that commitment “an expression of the willingness to continue the [diplomatic] outreach” to move the process forward. South Korea's presidential office said Kim’s speech reflected his wish for the further development of inter-Korean ties and better North Korea-United States relations. “Chairman Kim's firm commitment is expected to have a positive effect on resolving the Korean Peninsula issue smoothly in the new year,” said Presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom. However, Klinger notes this year’s address revisited several reoccurring themes. Kim “reiterated Pyongyang’s lengthy list of demands – an end to all allied military exercises, a prohibition on any deployment of U.S. strategic weapons platforms to the peninsula as well as South Korean purchases of U.S. weapons, reduction of international sanctions, and a peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice,” he wrote. Furthermore, Klinger said, “North Korea did not offer any new denuclearization gestures, such as a data declaration of its nuclear and missile programs as the U.S. has demanded. More ominously, Kim signaled that Pyongyang was losing its patience on garnering benefits and issued a veiled threat of unspecified repercussions if Washington failed to comply with regime demands for ‘reciprocal gestures.’” Rees's analysis coincides with Klinger’s in that if the U.S. doesn’t make concessions to North Korea, it “might have to shift back into it's more belligerent tone.” It was a statement Rees called a “sort of dire warning that things can go another way.” “But as you get into the actual brass tacks, and you move towards another Trump-Kim summit, there's gonna be a lot of pressure on U.S. officials to try to pin North Korea down and move them more towards the U.S. position. That's something North Korea has signaled it’s not willing to do,” he said. Inter-Korean relations Kim Jong Un’s address highlighted a positive message to his domestic audience, according to Kim Dong-yub, Director of Research at the Institute for Far East Studies at Kyungnam University.” “He stressed the positive, hopeful future, and despite the limitations and sanctions, [Kim] tried to unite the people,” said Kim Dong-yub. Peace was the “fundamental” message in this year’s address says Jung Dae-jin, a research professor with the Ajou Institute of Unification. Kim Jong Un gave the current inter-Korean state of affairs positive marks, but attempted to use the improved relationship as a way to reduce the sanctions imposed on North Korea. “Under the U.S. sanctions, it is not possible to resume operations at Kaesong,” said Jung, referring to the jointly operated industrial complex that’s been shuttered since 2016 under the previous Park Geun-hye administration. During his New Year’s Day address, the North Korean leader spent the majority of his time addressing the economy, calling for economic expansion. Jung theorizes North Korea may ask the United States to lift the sanctions on the industrial complex as part of the requisite “corresponding actions” Pyongyang is looking for Washington to move denuclearization talks forward and continue the economic prospects for the peninsula promoted through the three inter-Korean summits in 2018. “Kim has placed North Korea on the moral high ground and placed both the blame and the onus for future steps on Washington’s doorstep,” wrote Klinger, “The message to Trump is to come to another summit if he wants to salvage his claimed denuclearization success, but be prepared to deal.” Lee Ju-hyun contributed to this report.
Chinese President Xi Jinping say the self-governed island of Taiwan should abandon any thoughts of independence and accept that is part of the mainland. President Xi reaffirmed his nation's long-standing policy towards Taiwan in a speech Wednesday marking the 40th anniversary of a landmark speech, “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan,” that eventually led to diplomatic relations between the rivals. Xi said Beijing is open to creating a vast "space for peaceful reunification" with Taipei, which would occur under a "one country, two systems" framework. But he warned that China will not allow room for any sort of "separatist activities," and repeated its vow to use military action in order to achieve reunification. Xi's speech was delivered a day after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said China must accept Taiwan's status as a self-ruled island. In a New Year's Day address from her office, President Tsai said China had to "respect the insistence of 23 million people for freedom and democracy," and for both sides to face the reality that there are fundamental differences between their "values and lifestyles" and political systems. Relations between Beijing and Taipei have been strained since Tsai, the leader of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, took office in 2016 and refused to accept the concept of China and Taiwan joined together as "one China." Beijing has since mounted an aggressive posture towards Taipei, such as carrying out numerous military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, blocking Taipei's participation in international organizations, and persuading several nations to switch diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China. China and Taiwan split after the 1949 civil war when Chaing Kai-shek's Nationalist forces were driven off the mainland by Mao Zedong's Communists and sought refuge on Taiwan.
China will not yield on issues it deems to be its core national interests, a commentary in the ruling Communist Party's official newspaper said on Wednesday, a day after China's president called for cooperation with the United States. "In matters related to core national interests, China has not given in, is not giving in, and will never give in," the People's Daily commentary said. Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump sent congratulatory messages to each other on Tuesday, marking the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. China and the United States face a key deadline in March for talks to end their damaging trade war. Trump has said talks towards a deal are progressing well. However, "regardless of the development of Sino-U.S. relations, China's strategic choice to deepen reform and opening is unswerving, and we are committed to doing our own thing," the commentary said.
Australia announced the closure of Melbourne's controversial Maribyrnong detention center Wednesday, one of several facilities used to lock up immigrants who arrived without papers. The government said the decision to close the much-criticized facility was "another milestone in the ramping-down of Australia's onshore immigration detention network." Maribyrnong opened in the middle of the last century, but has recently been the site of hunger strikes and other protests over harsh treatment. In 2017, the Australian Human Rights Commission — a government body — reported guards at the facility used "more restrictive measures than necessary," including the excessive use of restraints during escort. The few remaining inmates have now been transferred to other facilities. Immigration Minister David Coleman said successful policies had reduced the number of people held at Australia's immigration detention centers from a peak of 10,000 in 2013 to just over a thousand today. Around 19 facilities have been shuttered since September 2013 — as the government looks to elections that will take place by the end of May and intense debate over immigration policies. The ruling Liberal-led coalition has faced fierce public opposition to its harsh immigration policies, including the use of unpopular offshore detention camps.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is hinting that the goodwill established with the United States in 2018 may not continue into 2019. In his New Year's Day address Tuesday, Kim said he would be willing to hold another summit with President Donald Trump, but demanded sanctions relief. "If the U.S. fails to carry out its promise to the world ... and remains unchanged in its sanctions and pressure upon the DPRK, we might be compelled to explore a new path for defending the sovereignty of our country and supreme interests of our state," Kim warned. Most of his New Year speech focused on the moribund North Korean economy and his desire to improve the lives of its citizens — a task that is nearly impossible if trade with North Korea is severely limited. Kim expressed a "firm will" that North Korea will no longer produce or test nuclear weapons or "use or spread" its arsenal. Negotiations between the United States and North Korea have stalled since the June summit in Singapore. Trump has reportedly questioned why the U.S. has provided the lion's share of the cost of the military alliance and defense of South Korea and has asked Seoul to contribute significantly more. Trump has also questioned the need for U.S. forces on the Korean peninsula. There were several diplomatic breakthroughs between Pyongyang and South Korea in 2018 — a sign that the South could be moving away from the U.S. and more toward the North — something that would more than please Kim. 'Blackmail' Former U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State Evans Revere — who has spent many hours negotiating with North Korea — says the U.S. is sailing in uncharted and potentially dangerous waters in Korea. "The statement by the North Koreans that they might seek a new path for a new way to defend their country's sovereignty, I think, is a pretty explicit reference to their preparedness to resume nuclear and ballistic missile testing in the coming months if things do not go their way," Revere said. "It's an attempt to blackmail the United States." Revere said the U.S. and North Korea have different definitions of the word "denuclearization." He said Washington applies it to the North while Pyongyang believes it applies to the entire Korean peninsula. He said the North "is tired of hearing Secretary [of State] Pompeo and other members of the administration talk about denuclearization as the U.S. defines it." There has been no official reaction to Kim's speech from the State Department or White House. Ira Mellman contributed to this report.
During the past year, the United States and China have clashed increasingly over trade, their visions for the world and national security. In 2019, the question of whether the world's two biggest economies can work out a trade deal is something that is set to have an impact not only on their relationship, but the broader Chinese economy as well. Going forward, the trade war will be a big part of the story because of the uncertainty it creates, noted Scott Kennedy, director of the Project on Chinese Business and Political Economy at the Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Not because of high tariffs per se, but the effect that it has on Chinese companies' willingness to invest at home and abroad," he said. Economic crossroads As 2018 drew to a close, the Chinese economy was at a crossroads. Real estate and retail sales started to falter. Car sales too started to sputter. The stock market dropped more than 20 percent and the government was taking measures to control unemployment. Increasingly, some academics and former officials began to question decisions the communist party has made, be it economic policy or the government's approach to the trade dispute with Washington. Some such as former World Trade Organization negotiator Long Yongtu has knocked the government's decision from the get-go in the trade war — to slap a 25 percent tariff on U.S. soybean imports — calling the decision "unwise" and "ill-thought out." When the trade tussle with Washington began kicking into gear earlier last year, China repeatedly said that while it did not want a trade war it would fight to the end. There were many who expressed confidence that China would not only fight, but win. Others are not as sure. In a recent address in Shanghai, senior economist Xiang Songzuo said China needed to reflect on not only the slowing economy and mounting economic pressures, but the trade war and the impact it is having as well. "We need to reflect on the mistakes we've made. We need to reflect on the future and the real steps that we can take to lift up the economy and help it to truly continue to see stable growth," Xiang said. My way As some see it, the choice is simple: Do some heavy lifting and further liberalize or face an even sharper slowdown in economic growth. China says it wants reform, but on its own terms — a message China's powerful leader Xi Jinping drove home at recent meeting marking 40 years of reform and opening up. He also had this ominous warning: "Every step in our reform and opening up is not easy. In the future, we will inevitably face all sorts of risks and challenges, even unimaginable tempestuous storms." No one knows if 90 days will be enough for the U.S. and China to make a deal. At best, analysts said the two sides can hopefully figure out what they can take care of now and what will have to put off for later, but not forever. Grand bargain For years, the United States took a patient approach to China, trying to work with Chinese authorities bilaterally and through multilateral institutions to push forward liberalized reform. Now, that approach has shifted to one that is more impatient and sharper elbowed, analysts note. The approach is pressing China to make big changes in a short amount of time. President Donald Trump's policies are having an impact on global supply chains that is driving a shift away from China and having an impact on Chinese access to technology as well, said Jerome Cohen, a professor at New York University School of Law. "We're going to find the danger of China and the U.S. separating economically, and it is going to have a bad impact on both countries, more severe on China than on the United States," Cohen said. The arrest of high-tech giant Huawei's chief financial officer has added to the complexity of the trade tussle. For now, Washington and Beijing are trying to keep the two issues separate, but clearly, the trade war is about much more than trade. It's also about assumptions that have long been the foundation of U.S.-China relations, said Kennedy. "I think the U.S. goal still is to right the ship to find a place where we can interact with each other peacefully on the commercial side while protecting our national security. I don't think the U.S. has decided to give up and say forget it, we can't interact with these folks, we have to have a divorce. It's going to be cold war number two," he said. For now, whether that happens depends on how the Chinese respond, he added. Going forward, however, deep uncertainty at the commercial and government level will continue.
On the first day of the school year at the Asian University for Women in southern Bangladesh, groups of teenage girls in skinny jeans, sleeveless tops and T-shirts chattered, their laughter carrying through the sticky air. Formin Akter, 19, stood in a corner by a row of suitcases, facing away from the students who seemed so modern and full of confidence. Wearing a tunic and pants that hung loosely on her, she nervously adjusted a brown georgette scarf that kept slipping from her head. When she finally saw someone she recognized, she beamed, holding a card tied to red straps around her neck. "Look at my identity card!" she said, flashing it like a gold medal. Getting a college ID may have been a mildly exciting rite of passage for other new students. For Formin, a stateless Rohingya Muslim from Buddhist-dominated Myanmar, it meant the world. She had spent most of her life dreaming about this moment. But as a Rohingya in Myanmar's apartheid-like Rakhine State, her goal of attending university had been thwarted. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled a campaign of arson, rape and killing by the military since August 2017, and many of those still in the country are languishing in de facto internment camps. Raised by a father who wanted more than his peasant's life for his daughters, Formin and her older sister, Nur Jahan, had defied those in their community who believed education was wasted on women. They were the only two girls from their village ever to finish high school. Back then, the sisters made a pact. Someday, they would go to university together. In her dorm room, Formin moved her belongings into a cupboard: a small pile of clothes, a dinner plate, a steel pot. Her Burmese-English dictionary — one of the few things she had taken with her when fleeing Myanmar a year before — was tucked on the top shelf. On one of the walls of the dorm, someone had painted a quote from the Harry Potter series: "It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live." A few hours to the south, in the world's largest refugee camp, her sister Nur Jahan spends her days teaching children and trying to forget how close she was to realizing her childhood dream. This year, her parents pushed her to accept a young man's proposal; now, she is married and pregnant, and must stay at home. Formin said her sister calls her every day. Formin is excited about college, but she knows she's a constant reminder of the education that her sister, and hundreds of thousands of other Rohingya women, can't have. "I miss my sister more than anything else," she said. "Every time I spent with her, I miss." Skipping a rope in a remote village The two girls loved to skip rope together when they were growing up in Hlaing Thi, an all-Muslim village of about 6,000 people in Rakhine, one of Myanmar's poorest and least-developed states. Now the village where the girls grew up is no longer home. Scores of Rohingya houses in northern Rakhine, including those in Hlaing Thi, were burned and abandoned in what the United Nations has called an "ethnic cleansing" carried out with "genocidal intent." Satellite images show what remains of the village: rolling green interspersed with the fields that former neighbors left behind, cut here and there by narrow streams. Formin would visit one of those streams every day with her mother to collect drinking water in plastic pails. Since the military launched its crackdown in August 2017, more than 730,000 Rohingya have fled northern Rakhine for neighbouring Bangladesh. About 15,000 fled this year alone. Myanmar's government denies committing abuses against the Rohingya, saying the military action in northern Rakhine came in response to attacks by Muslim militants. Still, the country doesn't grant most Rohingya citizenship, and Myanmar authorities refer to the Rohingya as "Bengali," a derogatory term because it implies they are interlopers from Bangladesh. The government and the military didn't respond to questions about specific incidents in this story. Restrictions on education, employment and travel meant most Rohingya were like Formin's father, farmers or day laborers largely cut off from the outside world. According to a 2015 survey by the Yangon-based Center for Diversity and National Harmony, Rakhine had the country's lowest literacy levels and the lowest rates of primary and secondary school enrollment in Myanmar. Rohingya students struggle to understand teachers because their language isn't recognized in the public school system. But Formin's uncle, Sayat Hossain, showed what was possible against the odds. Admitted to an engineering college in 1994 in the then-capital, Yangon, he was forced to leave school after it was shut down in response to pro-democracy protests two years later, and he fled Myanmar to find work as a day laborer in Malaysia. Eventually he made his way to asylum in Norway, where he now works as a translator. "My uncle studied, so he is in Norway. My father didn't study, so he is a farmer," Formin said. For many in Formin's village, her uncle was something of a local hero. "There was no family like theirs in the village," Mohammed Bashar, the Rohingya chairman of Hlaing Thi, said from a refugee camp in Bangladesh. "They understood the value of an education." Formin's father, Mohammed Hossain, imagined a happier future for his daughters. "You get respect when you have an education," he said. "Illiterate people have to do hard work, but educated people can find comfortable work. I wanted that for my girls." In 2012, when Formin was 13 and Nur Jahan was 16, an international humanitarian group was operating schools for children in need of a secondary school education in northern Rakhine. It offered the sisters the chance to study under a program that would cover their tuition and living expenses. But they would have to move away from home. There were murmurs of disapproval in the village. "People thought the girls would be ruined," said Bashar, the former village chairman. Formin's father said he was often told by fellow villagers: "No matter how much you make them study, they have to sit at home and cook for their husbands. What is the point?" But he allowed his daughters to go away to school — just as racial and religious tensions in Rakhine boiled over. Malala on the radio In a white notebook with pink flowers, Formin kept a diary. "I wrote about some happy and sad things every day," she said. "If someone said anything bad about me, I used to write about that." In maintaining that diary, Formin had unconsciously started creating a record of events in Rakhine that few in the largely illiterate population were documenting firsthand. "At that time, we didn't have TV, radio or mobile," she said, matter-of-factly. Just weeks after Formin and her sister began school away from their village, communal violence broke out. It was June 2012, and thousands were displaced across Rakhine State as Buddhists and Muslims torched each other's homes. "We saw the military shoot two people going on a motorcycle," Formin said. Schools were shut, travel was risky, and the hostel where she and other students lived had to close. Authorities responded to the violence, in part, by barring the Rohingya from enrolling in the only university in Rakhine State, citing unspecified "security concerns," according to a report by U.N. investigators earlier this year. That effectively denied the Rohingya access to higher education, which was already limited because of travel restrictions, the report said. But that didn't break the sisters' determination to keep studying. Formin and Nur Jahan moved to a secondary school in Kyein Chaung, a village with a bustling market where Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus ran shops alongside each other. Kyein Chaung had been largely untouched by the wave of violence in 2012, and things began to look hopeful. In 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy swept elections and came to power in a country that had long been ruled by generals. Many Rohingya rooted for Suu Kyi, who had been a political prisoner, believing she would put an end to their persecution. Nur Jahan, three years older, had finished high school and was teaching children for an international nongovernmental organization. She wanted Formin to graduate, like her, and was paying her sister's study costs with her NGO salary. At school in Kyein Chaung, Formin met a teacher, Ali Ahmed, who was one of the few Rohingya licensed to teach in public schools. He says he encouraged her and other Rohingya students to dream big. "Master Ali," as the students called him, would often pepperhis lectures with inspiring stories, sometimes pulled from news reports he heard on the small radio he kept. That was how he first heard about Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani peace and education rights activist. He took the story to Formin's class with a challenge: "If she can go to Oxford from Pakistan, why can't you?" Formin was struck by the story from the moment she heard how a young Muslim woman from rural Pakistan stood up to the Taliban, survived a gunshot wound to the head from a would-be assassin and, in 2014, won the Nobel Peace Prize. At home, she told her family all about Malala. "Did you know they put a gunto her head?" Formin said. "She is a great girl. She cares about education, not other things." In her class, she also heard the story of Helen Keller's remarkable education. Her sister Nur Jahan found her a copy of Keller's autobiography, and she read it with the same rapt admiration. "She is blind, but she didn't stop learning," Formin said. "We can see everything … we can't stop studying." The heroic stories of Malala and Helen kept her dreams of university alive. And she began to nurture another desire: to become an inspiration for Rohingya girls like her. Could she pass her exam? On Oct. 8, 2016, Formin remembers, she went to bed early because she had a physics and chemistry test the next morning. When she woke before dawn for a final round of study, all the students in her lodgings were already up. Overnight, dozens of Muslim militants armed with sticks, knives and homemade weapons had launched an attack on police outposts. The attack marked the emergence of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a group that claimed to be fighting for the rights of the Rohingya. In the early light, Formin said, she could see soldiers fanning out across the village. She heard gunfire. The students hunkered down in their lodgings, afraid to move. Some 80,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in the months that followed, many claiming soldiers had torched homes, arrested and tortured suspected militants and raped women. Once again, schools were shut, and gradually reopened over the next few weeks. But Formin's parents had no plans of sending her back this time. They were terrified. It wasn't until four months later, as Formin's high school graduation exam neared, that her parents finally relented. They were still fearful, her mother said, but they also wanted to prove wrong those in the village who had predicted that Formin would fail. Formin and her father made the risky trip back to her high school to take the test. Of the 150 girls who sat for the exam at the Kyein Chaung school in March 2017, only four would pass. Myanmar's Education Ministry typically puts matriculation results on Facebook, but Formin's village rarely had a connection. She asked a friend in another village to look for her roll number on the list of those who had passed, but the friend couldn't find it. Formin cried for days. One evening, one of her teachers called and asked her: "Formin, your roll number is 542?" "I said yes." "OK," he said. "You passed your exam." ‘I thought I was going to die’ Formin returned to school to receive her diploma. But once again, violence intervened. The militant group ARSA had waged a more ambitious attack in the early hours of Aug. 25, 2017, across security posts in northern Rakhine. In the military's response, the U.N. said, entire Rohingya villages were razed, scores of women were raped and murdered, and an estimated 10,000 people, if not more, were killed. The military denies these allegations and says it made a proportionate response to militant attacks. As houses went up in flames in Hlaing Thi, Formin's mother called her at her lodgings. "Our village is burning. We are leaving for Bangladesh," she said. "What will you do, Formin?" Formin didn't know what to do. She felt paralyzed as the rattle of bullets went on and on around her. For the first time in her life, she said, she felt hope slipping away, and she cried, cried because she was scared for her life, and cried for her dream of attending college. "I thought I was going to die," she said. "I thought that would be the last day of my life." Formin remained locked up inside her lodgings for two days. But as she saw local Buddhists and the military start to burn houses in the village, an account that echoes those of other eyewitnesses on both sides of the conflict in Rakhine, she decided to escape with five schoolmates. She was in a panic over how to get away. From afar, her sister Nur Jahan helped her once again. "She didn't know the way. When I called her on the phone, Formin was crying," Nur Jahan said. "There was military everywhere." "Just follow the people," Nur Jahan told her. Using the dim light of a small phone her father had given her, Formin walked with crowds of people heading toward the border through monsoon-drenched forests and streams, protecting her belongings that were wrapped carefully in plastic under her arm. The group moved by night to avoid security forces and civilian mobs, stopping at abandoned houses for shelter. Along the way, Formin said, she saw several bodies. At the border with Bangladesh, Formin paid the equivalent of $10 to a boatman to cross the Naf River. On a wooden boat with nine other people, she reached the other shore and a refugee camp that would become a home in exile. When she was reunited with her family at the camp, one of the first things she asked about was her books back home. Between tears, her mother told her the house had burned down. Formin's most prized possessions had turned to ash. Gone too, was a small pink-and-white notebook, her first diary. A sister left behind Almost exactly a year since she had fled her country to reach the refugee camps of Bangladesh, Formin was preparing to leave. She was going to college. "I am happy, but nervous," she said, blushing, as she sat on her knees on the mud floor of a hut. She and 24 other Rohingya girls from the refugee camps had been accepted to the university's "Pathways to Promise" program, which offers a full scholarship to selected young women in marginalized communities. She dipped a hand into a purse to fish out a compact face powder with a mirror. She held the mirror in one hand and with the other lightly dabbed the peach-colored powder onto her cheeks with the puff, moving her face from left to right. "I have watched makeup videos," she said, giggling. She also now had a smartphone that she'd bought with her earnings from working as a translator and community health worker for NGOs in the camp. She had filled it with language learning apps: Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, English; and a Bollywood movie about a Hindu boy and Muslim girl who flee communal riots together, and eventually get married. But marriage hasn't been a fairytale ending for her sister Nur Jahan. In May, Nur Jahan married a Rohingya from their village. Like Formin, she had been desperate to continue studying, but she was older, and there was no guarantee the university program in Chittagong would come through. "After coming here, we were worried about our daughters' future. The situation became uncertain," their father said. "She has younger sisters who are growing fast." So when a proposal came from a fellow refugee who had spent time working in Saudi Arabia, her parents pushed her to accept. Her husband declined to allow Nur Jahan to be interviewed alone. She sat in a chair with her back straight and legs folded, listening attentively and speaking enthusiastically about her relationship with Formin and their life back in Hlaing Thi. But midway during talk of college, as Nur Jahan tried to stay composed in front of her husband, her voice cracked, and she started to cry. "Our father was very poor, but he helped a lot for our studies," she said. "We made a pact that we would go to college together, and after we finished our education, we would help our father any way we can." Her 79-year-old grandfather, Nur Ahmed, said: "Nur Jahan is even smarter than Formin. She would do even better at college. "I know she is sad. We are also sad. We wish we had waited. But now we cannot do anything. I am happy for Formin, but I feel bad for Nur Jahan. She still blames us Formin is hoping to study law after she completes her five-year university program, including two years spent improving her English, math and comprehension skills. "I am a Rohingya. If I become a lawyer, I can do something for the cause of the Rohingya," she said. She reflected on her role models, Malala and Helen Keller. And she spoke of another woman whom she revered. Growing up, she said, she idolized Suu Kyi, who has drawn international criticism for her silence on the plight of the Rohingya. "Yes, yes, I really liked her!" she said. "We thought that woman stood for everyone." If she ever met Suu Kyi, she said, she would ask her: "I am Rohingya, but I am also a woman like you. We are all women like you. Please put yourself in our place. What do you feel?"
Over the past year, the United States and China have clashed increasingly over trade, their visions for the world and national security. And in 2019, the question of whether the world's two biggest economies can work out a trade deal is something that is set to have an impact not only their relationship but the broader Chinese economy as well. VOA's Bill Ide has this report.
Thailand has become the first country in Southeast Asia to legalize medical marijuana, but the fine print of the legislation has left advocates of the drug's healing potential with mixed feelings. Since the bill was passed on Christmas Eve, some medical marijuana advocates have expressed disappointment the legislation will effectively exclude the private sector from the lucrative industry, worth tens of billions of dollars globally, in favor of government agencies. Voice of America sat down with Thailand's Office of Narcotics Control Bureau Secretary-General Niyom Termsrisuk to find out who exactly will be able to grow, sell, buy and regulate medical marijuana in a country where it has long been a strictly prohibited substance. Speaking through an interpreter, Termsrisuk told VOA that private firms would be able to cultivate, produce and sell medical marijuana, provided they were two-thirds owned by Thai nationals. "From the cultivation to delivering to the patient, it will be under the law and regulation controlled by the committee. If it fits in the regulation and the qualifications that we have, so (then) yes, they can do it," he said. Authorized government agencies, including those overseeing Thai traditional medicine, individual licensed medical doctors; educational institutions and community farmer cooperatives, would all be permitted to cultivate the crop. "We will designate the process and procedure that is standardized so that if any organization comes to fit into that standard that we set, they will have the authority to do it," Termsrisuk said. "But they need to be authorized and registered under the law. And apart from that, it will be in the consideration of the minister of public health but also approved by the committee," he added. There will be strict controls on cultivation, including a mandate that all medical marijuana is grown indoors — which is intended to help prevent illegal practices and ensure quality — but that significantly increases the cost of cultivation. Chokwan Kitty Chopaka, an activist with Highlands Network, has enthusiastically welcomed the legalization but said there were numerous caveats in the legislation that made commercial cultivation effectively precluded. "All of those (groups) are allowed, but only if they are working under the control of those that have the license," she said, adding these licenses were restricted to government research institutions and universities. "But it's not really for commercial purposes, I would say, because it strictly said research, and it also said mainly for teaching," she said. Chopaka was also critical of a five-year restriction the law places on any expansion of these licenses, and a two-year mandated review that she says could, in theory, result in a complete reversal of legalization if the impacts are assessed to be negative. Nevertheless, the law represents a dramatic shift in a country where strongly conservative drug politics have been underlined by zero-tolerance policies, harsh sentencing laws and a brutal war on drugs. A perception of all drug use as evil had been reinforced through Thai educational institutions and political messaging, though cannabis had been used traditionally for centuries, Chopaka said. But as countries such as Canada, a member of the G-7, brought in full nationwide legalization, attitudes in Thailand had also begun to slowly shift, she said. "So, I think the way it's being done, it is baby steps and like they just want to test out the water," she said. Keeping tight control Marijuana-based medicines will be permitted for patients suffering chemotherapy side effects and from Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and as a Thai tradition remedy for cancer pain, according to the ONCB. Thailand's Government Pharmaceutical Organization is already working on strain selection, breed improvement, cultivation and harvesting to produce medicines targeting these conditions. Both medical doctors and Thai traditional healers will be able to prescribe these medications under Thailand's Food and Drug Administration and Ministry of Health. But individuals, including patients, will not be permitted to personally grow marijuana at home, and recreational legalization is not on the agenda for the time being, the ONCB said. "It's almost as strict as Australia but probably not that strict, because (in) Australia, the main rule around it was it has to be your last choice. You have to try all the other stuff first before you use cannabis," Chopaka said of the Thai government's legalization model. Dr. Somyot Kittimunkong, who has stood at the forefront of cannabis legalization advocacy in Thailand, is deeply unhappy with restrictions in the law he believes will cut local farmers out of the medical marijuana market. "This is the main issue — that if they want to help the people at the grassroots level, like the farmers, I think they should allow the Thai farmers to grow for export for making drugs to treat the people," he said. Somyot also interprets the law as constraining commercial entities to cultivation for research only, which he says is unnecessary given the volume of cannabis studies that have already been conducted worldwide. He said mandated indoor cultivation would increase the cost of production by about five times in a country with very good conditions to grow marijuana outside. Mana Siriphittayawat, director of the Legal Affairs Bureau at the ONCB, said that he understood the law may have fallen short of some expectations but defended tight controls to ensure quality and prevent illicit misuse. "We will monitor and control those two things, the production and cultivation, under the necessity (of) using it for medical purposes within the country," he said. Though not yet fully developed, long term the government was looking to develop Thailand's medical marijuana business for export, he said. "We have a vision in developing the medical cannabis business."
Rescuers recovered six more bodies buried under tons of mud from a landslide that crashed onto a hilly village on Indonesia's main island of Java, bringing the death toll to 15, officials said Tuesday. The landslide that plunged down surrounding hills just before sunset Monday buried 30 houses in Sirnaresmi village in West Java's Sukabumi district. Sixty people who lost their homes were forced to move to a temporary shelter, said National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho. Television video showed relatives wailing as they watched rescuers pull a mud-caked body from a devastated hamlet. It was placed in a blue bag and taken away for burial. Authorities struggled to bring tractors and other heavy equipment over washed-out roads after torrential rains sent mud and rocks crashing onto the hilly hamlets. Hundreds of police, soldiers and residents dug through the debris with their bare hands, shovels and hoes as heavy rain hindered their efforts. "Lack of equipment, bad weather and a blackout hampered our rescue efforts for those who are still missing and feared dead," Nugroho said. Made Oka Astawa, head of the operations division at the National Search and Rescue Agency, said the six bodies were found under 4 meters (13 feet) of mud with the help of two excavators that managed to reach the devastated area. Astawa said rescuers also pulled out four injured people, including an infant who died in a hospital. Twenty villagers are still believed to be missing. He said the search effort was halted late Tuesday due to darkness and heavy rains that made the landslide areas unstable. The operation is to be resumed early Wednesday. Seasonal rains and high tides in recent days have caused dozens of landslides and widespread flooding across much of Indonesia, a chain of 17,000 islands where millions of people live in mountainous areas or near fertile flood plains close to rivers. The landslide occurred during New Year's Eve celebrations. On Dec. 22, the Anak Krakatau volcano in the Sunda Strait erupted and partially collapsed into the sea, causing a tsunami that killed at least 437 people on Java and Sumatra islands. At least 16 people are still missing and more than 33,700 residents were displaced.
Thousands of demonstrators marched in the streets of Hong Kong on New Year's Day to protest China's apparent tightening grip on the semi-autonomous territory. Pro-democracy activists have become alarmed over a series actions taken by Hong Kong's pro-Beijing government, including banning the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party for reasons of national security, rejecting the renewal of a visa of a Western journalist who hosted a forum with the head of the party, and barring pro-democracy candidates from running in local elections. Several pro-independence activists were among the protesters taking part in Tuesday's march. Hong Kong's youth-driven pro-democracy movement sprung from the massive 2014 pro-democracy "Umbrella Revolution" demanding fully free elections. Hong Kong has enjoyed numerous freedoms under the "one country, two systems" formula established when Britain relinquished control of the territory in 1997, including the right to assembly and free speech.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is warning that the current goodwill with the United States could end if Washington continues to impose sanctions to force his regime to denuclearize. In his annual New Year's Day address, Kim said it was his "firm will" that North Korea will no longer produce or test nuclear weapons, nor would it "use or spread" its arsenal. He added he was prepared to hold another meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump this year. But he said his country may have to take another path unless Washington takes "corresponding measures." He also called on the United States and South Korea to end all joint military drills. Kim Jong Un and President Trump signed a vague agreement during their historic summit in Singapore last June, but further negotiations have stalled over Pyongyang’s demand for front-loaded sanctions relief tied to small progress, and its opposition to Washington’s call for complete denuclearization prior to granting any concessions. North Korea is also demanding that the United States and South Korea first issue a peace declaration to formally end hostilities and replace the armistice that has been in effect since the Korean War ended in 1953. Critics worry a peace declaration could undermine the justification for the U.S. military presence in South Korea. Despite Kim's warning, South Korea's Unification Ministry welcomed his address, saying it reflected Kim's commitment towards complete denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean peninsula, and the continued improvement of inter-Korean relations. Tuesday's speech was delivered exactly one year after Kim announced his willingness to send a contingent of North Korean athletes to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea the following month. The speech set off a series of diplomatic breakthroughs, including three summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the meeting with President Trump.
Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn will have his official coronation on May 4, the palace announced Tuesday. The coronation will be more than two years after Vajiralongkorn succeeded his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died at age 88 after reigning for seven decades. The palace said the coronation ceremonies for Vajiralongkorn, 66, will be held on May 4-6, with the monarch making a public appearance on the last day. Bhumibol's coronation, held almost four years after he was named king, took place in 1950 on May 5, a date that is a public holiday in Thailand. Major royal ceremonies in Thailand are usually very ornate, but Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said in June last year that Vajiralongkorn had expressed the desire that his coronation be held in a relatively modest manner, though in keeping with elaborate royal tradition. Vajiralongkorn gave a New Year's Eve address televised Monday night, wishing the Thai people good health, happiness and prosperity, and urging them to act virtuously for the sake of the nation. His New Year's greeting card, another tradition, expressed similar sentiments.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen says China must accept Taiwan's status as a self-ruled island. In a New Year's Day address from her office, President Tsai said China had to "respect the insistence of 23 million people for freedom and democracy," and for both sides to face the reality that there are fundamental differences between their "values and lifestyles" and political systems. Relations between Beijing and Taipei have been strained since Tsai, the leader of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, took office in 2016 and refused to accept the concept of China and Taiwan joined together as one China. Beijing has mounted an aggressive posture towards the self-ruled island, carrying out numerous military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, blocking Taipei's participation in international organizations, and persuading several nations to switch diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China. President Tsai called on China to seek "peaceful" ways to sort out their differences.
At least eight people were injured when a man deliberately drove his car into a crowded Tokyo street filled with people who had gathered for the city's New Year's festivities. The incident happened shortly after midnight Tuesday on Takeshita Street in the city's popular Harajuku fashion district near the Meiji Shrine. Police took a man in his 20s into custody and charged him with suspicion of attempted murder.