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Beijing Done, for Now, Acquiring Land in South China Sea

Fri, 03/15/2019 - 16:15
Two American B-52 bombers flew over the South China Sea on a training mission Wednesday for the second time in 10 days, acts that Beijing considers provocative. Chinese officials resent any challenge to their hold over hundreds of the sea’s tiny islets, which other countries claim, too. But China appears, at least for now, to be done adding positions in the sea that’s claimed in whole or in part by five other governments, maritime scholars agree. They say a seven-year effort to reclaim land for building on once uninhabitable atolls and reefs paused indefinitely two years ago because Beijing had reached the level of control it wanted over the waterway. “The Chinese basically feel that they have finished what they called the first stage of land reclamation in the South China Sea,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate with the Stimson Center think tank in Washington. ​Indefinite pause Island building that started around 2010 led to the construction of aircraft hangars, radar systems and facilities to support fishing and oil exploration. Civilian populations live on a few islets. China controls the whole 130-island Paracel chain and seven major features in the Spratly archipelago. Chinese contractors created 3,200 acres of reclaimed land on the sea’s reefs and atolls to help develop them, according to a Pentagon estimate in 2016. “If the end goal is de facto control of the waterways and air space, then perhaps the number of features that China currently occupies are enough to achieve that end goal,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam claim all or parts of the sea, which stretches from Hong Kong to the island of Borneo. Those governments prize the 3.5 million-square-kilometer waterway for its fisheries, shipping lanes and energy reserves under the seabed. The other countries, all militarily weaker, resented China’s landfill work and follow-up militarization, especially when projects overlapped their own exclusive maritime economic zones. Their opposition has prompted the U.S. government to periodically send naval ships and aircraft through the area. Washington does not have a territorial claim but says the sea should be open to everyone. China’s most recent significant dredging or landfill work took place on two Paracel islands in early to mid-2017, said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative under Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. Most larger-scale building had wrapped up in 2015, Poling said. ​Political will China might restart reclamation or take over more islands after settling the year-old Sino-U.S. trade dispute, Sun said. Chinese consider trade talks a “priority for now,” she said, and don’t want to take action that would anger Washington. While trade talks are going on, she said, China might just strengthen existing maritime claims. “The first stage is completed, so I think it’s more a question of political will to move forward with reclamation at this point,” she said. Beijing will avoid taking over more islets controlled by other countries, Sun added, because it wants to strengthen relations with Asian governments as a counter to U.S. influence in the sea. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes states that oppose Chinese maritime sovereignty claims, is talking with China now through 2021 about a code of conduct that would head off mishaps between ships. China hasn’t occupied any new features since 1994, though it took effective control of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines after a tense standoff in 2012, setting off a four-year political spat. Since 2016, China has offered aid and investment to the Philippines, helping to ease friction. China probably won’t “proactively occupy new features” unless it feels pushed by a foreign government, Spangler said. Chinese officials cite historic documents to back their claim to about 90 percent of the sea. The government is now in a phase of “deployment of assets” to the islands it holds, Poling said. “I think there is a false assumption that not much is happening in the South China Sea, because there aren’t many clashes or incidents on the same scale, but China is continuing to fill in infrastructure on the islands at a fair clip and it’s already got the ability I think to use those islands,” said Euan Graham, international security director with the Lowy Institute for International Policy. “They have all the infrastructure in terms of fuel, hangar space for combat aircraft,” Graham said.

Nearly 50 Killed in New Zealand Mosque Attacks; 4 in Custody

Fri, 03/15/2019 - 15:42
Mass shootings at two mosques full of worshippers attending Friday prayers killed 49 people on what the prime minister called “one of New Zealand’s darkest days,” as authorities detained four people and defused explosive devices in what appeared to be a carefully planned racist attack. One man has been charged with murder in the attacks and will appear in court Saturday, police say. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the events in Christchurch represented “an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence” and acknowledged many of those affected may be migrants and refugees. In addition to the dead, she said more than 20 people were seriously wounded. “It is clear that this can now only be described as a terrorist attack,” Ardern said. Police took three men and a woman into custody after the shootings, which shocked people across the nation of 5 million people. While there was no reason to believe there were more suspects, Ardern said the national security threat level was being raised to the second-highest level. Authorities have not specified who they detained, but said none had been on any watch list. A man who claimed responsibility for the shootings left a 74-page anti-immigrant manifesto in which he explained who he was and his reasoning for the attack. He said he was a 28-year-old white Australian and a racist. Television New Zealand (TVNZ) identified him as Brenton Tarrant from Grafton, New South Wales. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that one of the four people detained was an Australian-born citizen. Ardern at a news conference alluded to anti-immigrant sentiment as the possible motive, saying that while many people affected by the shootings may be migrants or refugees “they have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us.” As for the suspects, Ardern said “these are people who I would describe as having extremist views that have absolutely no place in New Zealand.” Police Commissioner Mike Bush said police were not aware of other suspects beyond the four who were detained but they couldn’t be certain. “The attackers were apprehended by local police staff. There have been some absolute acts of bravery,” Bush said. “I’m hugely proud of our police staff, the way they responded to this. But let’s not presume the danger is gone.” Bush said the defense force had defused a number of improvised explosive devices that were attached to vehicles stopped after the attacks.   He said anybody who was thinking of going to a mosque anywhere in New Zealand on Friday should stay put.  Deadliest attack The deadliest attack occurred at the Masjid Al Noor mosque in central Christchurch about 1:45 p.m. Arden said 30 people were killed there. One man who said he was at the Al Noor mosque told media the gunman was white, blond and wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest. The man burst into the mosque as worshippers were kneeling for prayers. "He had a big gun ... he came and started shooting everyone in the mosque, everywhere," said the man, Ahmad Al-Mahmoud. He said he and others escaped by breaking through a glass door. Witness Len Peneha said he saw a man dressed in black enter the mosque and then heard dozens of shots, followed by people running from the mosque in terror. Peneha, who lives next door to the mosque, said the gunman ran out of the mosque, dropped what appeared to be a semi-automatic weapon in his driveway, and fled. Peneha said he then went into the mosque to try and help. “I saw dead people everywhere. There were three in the hallway, at the door leading into the mosque, and people inside the mosque,” he said. “It’s unbelievable nutty. I don’t understand how anyone could do this to these people, to anyone. It’s ridiculous.” He said he helped about five people recover in his home. He said one was slightly injured. “I’ve lived next door to this mosque for about five years and the people are great, they’re very friendly,” he said. “I just don’t understand it.” He said the gunman was white and was wearing a helmet with some kind of device on top, giving him a military-type appearance. ​Attack livestreamed A video that was apparently livestreamed by the shooter shows the attack in horrifying detail. The gunman spends more than two minutes inside the mosque spraying terrified worshippers with bullets again and again, sometimes firing again at people he has already cut down. He then walks outside to the street, where he shoots at people on the sidewalk. Children’s screams can be heard in the distance as he returns to his car to get another rifle. The gunman then walks back into the mosque, where there are at least two dozen people lying on the ground. After walking back outside and shooting a woman there, he gets back in his car, where the song “Fire” by English rock band “The Crazy World of Arthur Brown” can be heard blasting from the speakers. The singer bellows, “I am the god of hellfire!” and the gunman drives away. The video then cuts out. Second mosque attacked There was a second shooting at the Linwood Masjid Mosque that Ardern said killed 10 people. Mark Nichols told the New Zealand Herald he heard about five gunshots and that a Friday prayer-goer returned fire with a rifle or shotgun. Nichols said he saw two injured people being carried out on stretchers past his automotive shop and that both people appeared to be alive. Man claims responsibility The man who claimed responsibility for the shooting said he came to New Zealand only to plan and train for the attack. He said he was not a member of any organization, but had donated to and interacted with many nationalist groups, though he acted alone and no group ordered the attack. He said the mosques in Christchurch and Linwood would be the targets, as would a third mosque in the town of Ashburton if he could make it there. He said he chose New Zealand because of its location, to show that even the most remote parts of the world were not free of “mass immigration.” ​Cricket team’s narrow escape New Zealand is generally considered to be a welcoming country for immigrants and refugees. Last year, the prime minister announced the country would boost its annual refugee quota from 1,000 to 1,500 starting in 2020. Ardern, whose party campaigned on the promise of raising the intake of refugees, dubbed the planned increase “the right thing to do.” A cricket match between New Zealand and Bangladesh scheduled to start Saturday was canceled after the Bangladesh cricket team had a narrow escape. Players and members of the team’s coaching staff were reportedly on their bus, approaching the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Hagley Park when the shooting broke out. Batsman Tamim Iqbal tweeted “entire team got saved from active shooters. Frightening experience and please keep us in your prayers.” Reuters news agency contributed to this report.

North Korean Actions Show Possible Negotiation Tactics

Fri, 03/15/2019 - 15:00
North Korea says Pyongyang has no intention of giving in to Washington’s demands and Kim Jong Un would be making a statement soon on the possibility of further talks. Reports also indicate Kim may reconsider ending the more than yearlong ban on missile tests that have been in place. In a report from the Associated Press, Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, who briefed reporters and diplomats in Pyongyang Friday, said Washington threw away a golden opportunity when Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump failed to reach a deal during their second summit, held in Hanoi in late February. President Trump said he walked away from the negotiating table because of different positions on what would be required for North Korea to receive sanction relief. President Trump said during a press conference that Pyongyang requested all sanctions be lifted in exchange for its continued moratorium on missile and nuclear tests, as well as the decommissioning of its Yongbyon test facility. North Korea claimed it had only requested a partial lifting of the sanctions. The Associated Press also reported Choe claimed, “Personal relations between the two supreme leaders are still good and the chemistry is mysteriously wonderful.” In a statement, the South Korean presidential Blue House said, “It is not reliable to judge the current situation only by remarks of Choe Son Hui. We closely monitor the situation. The government will put every effort to resume the North Korean - U.S. talks.” ​Threats of more sanctions Earlier this week, Moon Chung-in, South Korean Special Adviser to the President for Foreign Affairs and National Security, told reporters that increasing sanctions wasn’t an appropriate course of action if North Korea didn’t denuclearize. Moon’s remark was in response to a statement by U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton on Fox Business Network last week. “They’re not going to get relief from the crushing economic sanctions that have been imposed on them. We’ll look at ramping those sanctions up in fact,” Bolton said. “It is undesirable for the U.S. to impose additional sanctions if North Korea has not made an explicit provocation,” Moon said, “Extra sanction requires supporting reasons to justify, and without legit cause, it will prevent from two side talking.” Moon urged Pyongyang and Washington to continue their dialog and make “likely proposals” to facilitate denuclearization. In addition, Moon said, “The role of South Korea in this situation, or the role of President Moon [Jae-in] is not a mediator but facilitator, because a mediator should be an interest-free party, but South Korea is also involved in this problem.” ​Last ditch effort? In a statement following the State Assembly election last week, Kim may still be trying to salvage dialog with the United States, experts told VOA following the release of a statement that stressed the need for “the improvement of the economy and people’s daily lives.” Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, says Kim Jong Un’s message may be an indication the North Korean leader was indirectly expressing a willingness to continue talking to U.S. President Trump if Washington took action to bridge the gap between the two sides. “At this time, they (North Korea) are willing to reform and become more open, which requires sanctions being lifted, but they also need to show their willingness to denuclearize and are urging the U.S. president to take action,” he said. The Asian Forum Japan’s Senior Fellow, Jonathan Berkshire Miller, said that following the “humiliating” summit in Hanoi, Kim used his address to reiterate to the international community that North Korea wasn’t looking to have all sanctions dating back to 2009 removed, but the sanctions that have been the most impactful. Miller explains those are the sanctions that came after 2016 and have “effectively cut off North Korea, their supplies for coal, copper, crude oil, those are the ones that basically North Korea wanted relief [from].” ​Sohae launch facility Between Feb. 16 and March 2, the Washington-based 38 North, a North Korea project of the Henry L. Stimson Center, detected structures on the launch pad at the Tongchang-ri launch site, also known as Sohae, had been rebuilt, although now it appeared activity had ceased. “Recent commercial satellite imagery of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station (Tongchang-ri) shows no changes to the launch pad or engine test stand between March 8 and March 13,” according to a post on the 38 North website. The site further explained, “In imagery from March 8, the construction observed over the past few weeks seemed to have been completed and the two facilities had been cleared of debris. At the launch pad, the rail-mounted transfer/processing structure had been moved to the edge of the pad and the environmental cover had been closed around the gantry tower. In imagery from March 13, the transfer structure remains in the same position and the environmental cover still conceals the gantry tower.” Kim Yong-hyun said the activity at Sohae may have been a ploy by North Korea to change the bargaining dynamics between Pyongyang and Washington. Seoul’s Korea Times newspaper quotes South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense expressing “uncertainty” if the activity at the Sohae facility signaled a true intention to carry out a launch. “[Kim Jong Un] pretended to play the Tongchang-ri card, but never intended to fire a missile to place pressure on the United States,” Kim Yong-hyun said. Miller also characterized the developments at Sohae as a way for North Korea to place additional pressure on Washington leading up to the summit to signal that the talks are a “fragile process,” but that approach didn’t yield the results Pyongyang had hoped for. The activity at Sohae “doesn’t necessarily really surprise me,” Miller said. Miller asserts that since activity was taking place before the Hanoi summit, it was not being conducted as a reactionary tool from no deal being struck in Hanoi. “I don’t think that really falls in the line of the way that the North Koreans approach things. I mean, they’re actually very rational, very calculated,” he said. Lee Ju-hyun contributed to this report.

New Zealand Mosque Shootings Leave Many Dead; 4 in Custody

Fri, 03/15/2019 - 11:56
Multiple people were killed in mass shootings at two mosques full of people attending Friday prayers, as New Zealand police warned people to stay indoors as they tried to determine how many gunmen were involved. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described it as “one of New Zealand’s darkest days” and said the events in the city of Christchurch represented “an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence.” Three men and one woman were taken into custody, Police Commissioner Mike Bush said, but police “cannot presume that the danger is gone.” He said anybody who was thinking of going to a mosque anywhere in New Zealand on Friday should stay put. Schools were also in lockdown across the city. Anti-immigrant manifesto Authorities have not said whom they have in custody. But a man who claimed responsibility for the shootings left a 74-page anti-immigrant manifesto in which he explained who he was and his reasoning for his actions. He said he considered it a terrorist attack.  Ardern at her news conference alluded to anti-immigrant sentiment as the possible motive, saying that while many people affected by the shootings may be migrants or refugees “they have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us. The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not.” Authorities have not yet said how many people were killed and wounded.  “It’s a very serious and grave situation,” Bush said. ​Two mosques hit The deadliest shooting occurred at the Masjid Al Noor mosque in central Christchurch about 1:45 p.m. Witness Len Peneha said he saw a man dressed in black enter the mosque and then heard dozens of shots, followed by people running from the mosque in terror. Peneha, who lives next door to the mosque, said the gunman ran out of the mosque, dropped what appeared to be a semi-automatic weapon in his driveway, and fled. Peneha said he then went into the mosque to try and help. “I saw dead people everywhere. There were three in the hallway, at the door leading into the mosque, and people inside the mosque,” he said. “It’s unbelievable nutty. I don’t understand how anyone could do this to these people, to anyone. It’s ridiculous.” He said he helped about five people recover in his home. He said one was slightly injured. “I’ve lived next door to this mosque for about five years and the people are great, they’re very friendly,” he said. “I just don’t understand it.” He said the gunman was white and was wearing a helmet with some kind of device on top, giving him a military-type appearance. Police said there was a second shooting at the Linwood Masjid Mosque. Mark Nichols told the New Zealand Herald he heard about five gunshots and that a Friday prayer-goer returned fire with a rifle or shotgun. Nichols said he saw two injured people being carried out on stretchers past his automotive shop and that both people appeared to be alive. The man who claimed responsibility for the shooting said he was 28-year-old white Australian who came to New Zealand only to plan and train for the attack. He said he was not a member of any organization, but had donated to and interacted with many nationalist groups, though he acted alone and no group ordered the attack. He said the mosques in Christchurch and Linwood would be the targets, as would a third mosque in the town of Ashburton if he could make it there. He said he chose New Zealand because of its location, to show that even the most remote parts of the world were not free of “mass immigration.” Mass shootings in New Zealand are exceedingly rare. The deadliest in modern history occurred in the small town of Aramoana in 1990, when gunman David Gray shot and killed 13 people following a dispute with a neighbor.

Factbox: History of Christchurch, New Zealand

Fri, 03/15/2019 - 11:51
New Zealand police said there were multiple fatalities after a mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, a city of about 375,000 located on the nation's South Island. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the shootings have led to "one of New Zealand's darkest days." What is the history of Christchurch, New Zealand? The planned settlement of Christchurch was founded in 1850 by a company financed by the Church of England. Population 4,545,627, as of July 2018, according to the CIA: The World Factbook. Gun ownership The estimated number of guns (both licit and illicit) held by civilians in New Zealand was estimated to be more than 1.2 million in 2017, according to GunPolicy.org. Shooting deaths New Zealand has had few mass shooting deaths. One the deadliest case involved David Gray who in November 1990 went on a shooting spree in the small town of Aramoana, located about 360 kilometers south of Christchurch. Armed with a semi-automatic rifle, he killed 13 people, including a police sergeant. Between 2008 and 2017, there were 76 murders or manslaughters involving guns in New Zealand, according to police statistics compiled by Radio NZ. Natural disasters An 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck Feb. 22, 2011, causing severe damage in the towns of Christchurch and Lyttelton, killing 185 people and injuring several thousand others. A 7.1-magnitude temblor struck on Sept. 4, 2010, near Canterbury, New Zealand, about 160 kilometers west of Christchurch. The quake caused severe damage but no one was killed. Sources: CIA: The World Factbook, New Zealand History

New Zealand Police Hunt Mosque Gunman; Witness: 'Many Dead'

Fri, 03/15/2019 - 09:29
New Zealand police were hunting “an active shooter” in the center of Christchurch city Friday after a gunman opened fire at a mosque inflicting several casualties. “A serious and evolving situation is occurring in Christchurch with an active shooter,” New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush said. “Police are responding with its full capability to manage the situation, but the risk environment remains extremely high.” Witness Len Peneha said he saw a man dressed in black enter the Masjid Al Noor mosque in central Christchurch about 1:45 p.m. and then heard dozens of shots, followed by people running from the mosque in terror. Peneha, who has lived next door to the mosque for about five years, said the gunman ran out of the mosque, dropped what appeared to be a semi-automatic weapon in Peneha's driveway, and fled. Peneha said he then went into the mosque to try and help. “I saw dead people everywhere. There were three in the hallway, at the door leading into the mosque, and people inside the mosque,” he said. “It's unbelievable nutty. I don't understand how anyone could do this to these people, to anyone. It's ridiculous.” Media reported that a gunman opened fire inside mosque in Christchurch’s Hagley Park. There were reports of armed police at a second mosque in the suburb of Linwood. People in center of the city should stay indoors, police said. Police did not immediately comment on whether the incident took place in the mosque or nearby. There is no official confirmation on casualties. Media said shots had been fired near a mosque and a witness told broadcaster One News that he had seen three people lying on the ground, bleeding outside the building. Radio New Zealand quoted a witness inside the mosque saying he heard shots fired and at least four people were lying on the ground and “there was blood everywhere.” “Horrified to hear of Christchurch mosque shootings. There is never a justification for that sort of hatred,” said Amy Adams, a member of parliament from Christchurch. The Bangladesh cricket team was in the vicinity of the shooting but all members were safe, a team coach told media. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

New Zealand Students Walk Out of Class, Kicking Off Global Strike

Fri, 03/15/2019 - 07:42
Thousands of students walked out of class across New Zealand on Friday, kicking off a global student strike against government inaction on climate change. "Climate change is worse than Voldemort," read one student's handmade sign, referring to the evil wizard in the hugely popular Harry Potter books and films. "I bet dinosaurs thought they had time too," read another sign, as students and parents marched on parliament house in the capital Wellington. Student protests were held in 30 towns and cities across New Zealand and are planned for capitals and cities across Australia, Europe and the United States later Friday. The marches are part of a worldwide student strike movement, which started in August 2018 when 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg began protesting outside her parliament on school days. Norwegian lawmakers have nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize. "The government just needs to change some things, which is why if we go on strike on a school day then they'll notice and they might actually do something about it," said 14-year-old New Zealand student Inese, who did not want her surname made public. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has pledged NZ$100 million ($68 million) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, supports the student strikes, saying teenagers should not wait until they are old enough to vote to use their voice. Ardern's support of the students contrasts with politicians in Australia and Britain who have rebuked them for cutting class. "For action on issues that they think is important, they should do that after school or on weekends," Australia's Minister for Education Dan Tehan told reporters ahead of protests in Melbourne. Wellington parent Alex, who marched beside his 11-year-old son, disagreed. "It's a much better day of education ... this is the greatest issue of our time," he said. Scientists say the burning of fossil fuels such as coal releases greenhouse gases that trap heat and lift global temperatures, causing more floods, droughts, heat waves and rising sea levels. At the 2015 Paris climate conference, countries pledged to work to limit the rise to 2 degrees Celsius (35 Fahrenheit), a step that will require a radical reduction in the use of coal and fossil fuels.

Mnuchin: Trump-Xi Summit Will Not Happen in March

Fri, 03/15/2019 - 06:39
A summit to seal a trade deal between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will not happen at the end of March as previously discussed because more work is needed in U.S.-China negotiations, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday. Mnuchin, speaking to reporters following a U.S. Senate Finance Committee hearing, said both sides were "working in good faith" to try to reach a deal "as quickly as possible." "There's still a lot of work to do, but we're very comfortable with where we are," Mnuchin said. "I don't think there's anything significantly different on the currency issue from where we were last time." Since Trump delayed a threatened March 1 tariff hike on Chinese goods following a late February round of talks, no new face-to-face meetings have been scheduled in the negotiations. But Trump and other administration officials have since sought to portray the talks as still making progress. "We're doing very well with China talks," Trump told reporters Thursday at the White House as he sat down to meet Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. "We're getting what we have to get, and I think we're getting it relatively quickly." At another White House event later Thursday, Trump said: "Probably one way or the other we're going to know over the next three or four weeks." He added that China had been "very responsible and very reasonable." Trump acknowledged on Wednesday that Xi may be reluctant to come to the U.S. president's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida without an agreement in hand after seeing Trump end a separate summit in Vietnam with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without a peace deal. But he said he was in no rush to complete a trade deal with China. Tit-for-tat battle Washington and Beijing have been locked in a tit-for-tat tariff battle as U.S. officials press China for an end to practices and policies it argues have given Chinese firms unfair advantages, including subsidizing of industry, limits on access for foreign companies and alleged theft of intellectual property. At a separate hearing in the House of Representatives on Thursday, Mnuchin said he expected elements of the discussions to be resolved in the near future, as the two sides pore over a 150-page document they are working on. The United States and China have slapped import duties on each other's products that have cost the world's two largest economies billions of dollars, roiled markets and disrupted manufacturing supply chains. "As to whether or not we'll strike a final deal, that I would never want to say," Trump said Thursday. "If it's not a deal that's a great deal for us, we're not going to make it." A person familiar with the matter told Reuters there "were rumblings" about a possible meeting late next month.

US General: Google's Work in China Benefiting China's Military

Fri, 03/15/2019 - 02:07
The United States' top general said on Thursday that the Chinese military was benefiting from the work Alphabet Inc's Google was doing in China, where the technology giant has long sought to have a bigger presence. "The work that Google is doing in China is indirectly benefiting the Chinese military," Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. "We watch with great concern when industry partners work in China knowing that there is that indirect benefit," he said. "Frankly, 'indirect' may be not a full characterization of the way it really is, it is more of a direct benefit to the Chinese military." Last year Google said it was no longer vying for a $10 billion cloud computing contract with the U.S. Defense Department, in part because the company's new ethical guidelines do not align with the project. In June, Google said it would not renew a contract to help the U.S. military analyze aerial drone imagery when it expires, as the company sought to defuse an internal uproar over the deal. At the same time, Google said it has "no plans" to relaunch a search engine in China, though it is continuing to study the idea. During the hearing, Republican Senator Josh Hawley sharply criticized the tech company, referring to it as "a supposedly American company." Technology companies have recently been a favorite target of many members of the U.S. Congress, who have criticized them over a wide range of issues such as privacy, work in China and allowing foreign meddling in U.S. elections. Lawmakers and Google employees have raised concerns the company would comply with China's internet censorship and surveillance policies if it re-enters the Asian nation's search engine market. Asked about Dunford's comments, Google referred to previous statements. Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai has previously said the company has invested in China for years and plans to continue to do so, but that the company also was continuing to work with the U.S. government on projects in health care, cybersecurity and other fields.

US Warns China’s Detention of Uighurs to Counter Terrorism Will Backfire

Thu, 03/14/2019 - 23:35
A senior U.S. official has rejected China’s claim that the mass internment of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China’s Xinjiang region is part of a counter-terrorism program and says it will backfire. The United States co-hosted an event on the sidelines of the U.N. Human Rights Council to put the spotlight on the dire situation of Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities. The United Nations says China is arbitrarily detaining more than one million Uighurs and other ethnic Muslims in so-called re-education camps in Xinjiang Province.  Human Rights activists say they are subjected to torture and brainwashing. Adrian Zenz, an independent researcher who focuses on China’s ethnic policy, says China is interning ethnic minorities, separating families and sending children to state-run orphanages to maintain ideological control over them. “All-in-all the Chinese State’s present attempt to eradicate independent and free expressions of distinct ethnic and religious identities in Xinjiang is nothing less than a systematic campaign of cultural genocide and should be treated as such,” said Zenz. China denies these charges. It says the de-radicalization of Uighurs in the camps is intended to counter terrorism and prevent violent extremism from gaining hold. U.S. Ambassador Kelley Currie says the conflation of ethnic and religious identity with terrorism and efforts to erase the identity of the Muslim groups is unjustifiable and outside any legal norms. She says it also is deeply counter-productive to China’s stated goal of preventing extremism. “By engaging in the wholesale repression of an ethnic and religious minority in this way, they are inviting further alienation, further isolation, further resentment among this community in a way that is not likely to lead to peaceful co-existence and the long-term stability of the region,” said Currie. Currie says the United States has been actively trying to engage Muslim majority countries to pressure China to change its repressive policies toward the Uighurs. She says Washington is disappointed by the lack of response from members of the OIC or Organization for Islamic Cooperation. She says the U.S. applauds Turkey’s recent statement publicly calling on China to close the re-education camps. Unfortunately, she says this comment was swiftly followed by retribution from China. China has demanded Turkey withdraw what it calls false accusations. Relations between the two countries remain tense and observers fear this ongoing spat could negatively impact their political and economic alliance.

China Investment Laws Fail to Deliver, Raise New Concerns

Thu, 03/14/2019 - 20:57
China’s top legislature is expected to pass the country’s first Foreign Investment Law this week at a time when negotiators from Beijing and Washington work to hammer out a trade deal. Analysts and business groups say the legislation is a step in the right direction, but still falls short. In some ways, they add, it even raises new concerns that negotiators need to address before the two sides reach a deal. For decades, China has been grappling with the question of just how far and how fast it should open up its state directed economy, and steps — while always welcome — have long lagged behind expectations. The Foreign Investment Law is not different. In a statement, the American Chamber of Commerce in China (AmCham China) said it welcomes the law and appreciates the effort to improve the investment environment. “We are concerned, however, that such an important and potentially far-reaching piece of legislation will be enacted without extensive consultation and input from industry stakeholders, including Foreign Invested Enterprises,” the statement said. An earlier version of the law was put together in 2015, but later stalled during the review process, only to resurface more recently. When it did, the wording was more general and more vague, analysts note. By contrast, the first version had 171 articles, the new one has 41. This some argue, helped pave the way for the bills speedy passage. NPC Observer, a website that closely follows China’s legislature or National People’s Congress, notes that by keeping the legislation vague, the government will have more room and time to craft implementing regulations after the law is enacted. “The law is phrased and drafted with very general provisions. There are a number of things that are not covered in there, such as what percentage of foreign investment qualifies as foreign invested,” said Lester Ross, who heads AmCham China’s policy committee. “Another major concern is the requirement for security assessments even for non-mergers and acquisitions, even for greenfield investments, which seems unnecessary.” Subsidies still an issue The newer version of the law was fast-tracked as Washington and Beijing work to hammer out a trade deal. While the provisions in the legislation address some persistent concerns, such as forced technology transfers, equal access to government procurement and national treatment, it does not address other issues, such as subsidies for state owned enterprises. Clearly though, the legislation was pushed through the system in part to address what is being discussed at the negotiation table, said Mats Harborn, president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China. “It is more than a law, it is a document that states principles and it is a document that states principles that we [foreign investors] would like to hear. And it also states the principles that U.S. negotiators want to have on paper from China,” Harborn said. “But the proof in the pudding will be the implementation.” National security concerns And while the law echoes concerns that are part of what trade negotiators are discussing, issues such as the broad application of national security reviews and the mention of national security in the law are cause for concern, argues Austin Lowe, a Washington D.C.-based consultant and analyst. In a recent article on the legal and national security website Lawfare, Lowe highlighted provisions in the legislation that foreign companies should not “harm national security or the public interest” and that businesses that affect national security should be subject to a review. “Together, these provisions essentially give the state — and, in turn, the Chinese Communist Party — free rein to intervene in a wide range of investment activity, signaling to foreign investors that they are better off avoiding any investment in an area that may be construed as politically sensitive or threatening,” he wrote. Ross notes that while security reviews have been in place since 2011, they have, so far, been used very selectively and largely for mergers and acquisitions. “Now it looks like this is an additional hurdle that will apply across the board,” he said. While it doesn’t mean that every investment could face such scrutiny, there are no bounds to how it can be applied, and in some cases that would require revealing a company’s intellectual property, Ross added. “When you put national security into any document it creates a great deal of arbitrary judgement on what is national security and what is not,” notes the EU Chamber of Commerce’s Mats Harborn. “It is a very wide definition that creates uncertainty.” Not only does it create uncertainty, but the questions the new law raises will add to the issues negotiators will need to resolve going forward, Ross said. “While on the one hand it is a good thing that they are showing some significant degree of intention to reduce barriers to foreign investment and actually making some substantive changes, once the law is in place it may actually be more difficult to make departures from that in the course of the negotiations,” he said.

Wide-Ranging K-Pop Scandal Rocks South Korea

Thu, 03/14/2019 - 20:21
South Korea’s entertainment industry was upended this week after a celebrity’s cell phone, which was in for repairs, revealed widespread alleged acts of sexual misconduct. YG Entertainment, which is tied closely to the stars at the center of the scandal, has seen its stock fluctuate this week as high-profile K-pop singers tied to it were implicated in the illegal activity. It’s a blemish on South Korea’s leading cultural export that’s spawned the creation of a Seoul Metropolitan Police unit to look into the matter. At the center of the scandal are ex-Big Bang member Seungri (real name Lee Seung-hyun), Jung Joon-young, and FT Island’s Choi Jong-hoon. While Seungri hasn’t admitted to any specific acts of wrongdoing, Jung has. On Wednesday, Jung admitted to filming women he had sex with and then sharing the videos online. He said this was done without the knowledge or consent of his partners. "I admit to all of my sins. I filmed women without their consent, shared the videos in a SNS [social networking service] group chat and did such behavior without feeling any sense of guilt,” Jung said in a statement. He added, “Most of all, I kneel down to apologize to the women who appear in the videos and all those who might be disappointed and upset at this shocking incident.” Seungri apologized to his fans via his Instagram account, but has yet to elaborate on his role in the scandal. "I've disappointed so many people and made so many people angry, I want to apologize once more and I will cooperate with the investigation,” he said. Among K-pop entertainment labels, YG Entertainment, which signed Seungri, was hit hardest by the scandal. The firm’s stock price slid 14 percent on Monday, but has regained some ground since. JYP Entertainment and S.M. Entertainment, also K-pop powerhouses, saw their shares dip earlier in the week as the scandal’s scope grew, before the market reversed that trend. Choi’s agency, FNC Entertainment, announced the singer would stop performing with FT Island and place his career on hold. Some 126 officers are now part of the criminal investigation that includes members from the narcotics unit, serious crime squad, a regional investigation unit, and a cyber investigation team. Alleged criminal activity For ex-Big Bang member Seungri, questions over his involvement in alleged illegal activity date back to January, when authorities began investigating claims that the Gangnam club Burning Sun had drugged female patrons, who later said they were raped in the club’s VIP room. Seungri also stands accused of providing prostitutes for wealthy investors. At one point on South Korean television, Seungri claimed to be the owner of the Burning Sun, but as authorities began their investigation into the allegations the club provided gamma-hydroxybutyrate, a date rape drug to the female guests, it was revealed that the relationship had been severed. However, Seungri has admitted he bribed policemen in Gangnam with about $18,000 to help facilitate the entrance of underaged guests into the nightclub. In addition to admitting to using date rape drugs in the past, Jung Joon-young said he uploaded video footage he took to a private chatroom on multiple occasions. Jung said the women in the videos were filmed without their consent and even included some celebrities. At least 10 victims have been identified by authorities at this time. It’s not the first time Jung has been involved in a case involving nude images. In 2016, he was alleged to have recorded nude videos of his then-girlfriend. However, the case was dropped after a private digital forensics company contracted to retrieve the potentially illicit material said that nothing could be obtained from his mobile device. Suspicions have now arisen that some members of the police asked the technology firm to guarantee no data could be recovered in Jung’s case. Local media reported Thursday that the unnamed forensics firm was raided Wednesday in connection to the current scandal. Other group chat messages allege Choi Jong-hoon and others discussed payment being made to the police to cover up his drunk driving accident in 2016. Police Commissioner Min Gap-ryong has launched an internal investigation into potential cover-ups and police wrongdoing. Implications South Korea remains fixated on the scandal and the plethora of allegations that continue to emerge, but Choi Ji-eun, a former journalist and commentator on South Korean pop culture, said it’s too early to predict the scandal’s impact on the perception of nation’s music industry. “This is a criminal case of adult men, treating women as goods and sexual objects, but it is a bit early to predict the future of K-pop,” said Choi Ji-eun. Choi calls the problem “deep-rooted” and asserts it will not be easy to change the culture. But if those charged were to be found guilty and severely punished when they illegally film and share the footage; use date rape drugs, and commit sexual harassment, “it will break down the strong structure [of a male-dominated society] and vicious circle.” South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, as well as the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, declined VOA’s request for comment. Lee Ju-hyun contributed to this report.  

Illegal Mining Endangers Lives, Environment in Indonesia

Thu, 03/14/2019 - 17:03
The collapse of an unlicensed gold mine in Indonesia this month is renewing attention on illegal mining in the country, which authorities say often overlooks safety, health and security requirements. Indonesian rescue teams managed to evacuate 34 victims of a collapsed and unlicensed gold mine in North Sulawesi March 6, but only 18 of them survived. The authorities believed there are still dozens trapped inside the mine, located on a steep hillside in Bolang Mongondow Regency. The accident happened at the end of February when the wooden beams that support the mine broke causing the soil to shift. In the same area in North Sulawesi, in June 2018, another illegal gold mine collapsed, killing six people. Two weeks after that, another accident occurred in a mine in West Lombok. Thirteen gold miners died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Sri Raharjo, the director of engineering and environment of mineral and coal at the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, says illegal mining can create lethal hazards. “The potential for accidents is great. For example, underground mining must use beams that are sturdy with certain measurements. But in the case of the collapsed mine, they only use the beams at the entrance,” he told VOA. According to data by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, there are 8,663 unlicensed mines in 352 locations in Indonesia, covering a total of 500,000 hectares. About 25 percent of them are gold mines. Complicated procedures Erwiza Erman, a senior researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Science, says illegal mining is usually a small-scale operation managed by the local community or people. She said the procedure to get a mining license is complicated for small-scale miners.  “Mostly it takes a long time, it could be years to wait for the license. The problem is not that the people don’t want to legalize the mine,” she said. The government can issue a Community Mining License, or IPR, which requires miners to abide by good mining practices while the local government supervises the operation to ensure safety. Raharjo said the process to get a license takes about 14 working days.  “That’s usually how long it takes for most permits, to make it easier. But of course there are requirements, and we need to do a survey first to identify whether the mine really has mineral or coal reserve and how much. After that, we can issue the IPR,” he explained. But he admits the survey might take time and if there is not enough reserve in the mine, the government cannot grant the license.  “The problem is if there is only very little reserve and the mine runs out of resources, most of the time people will just move,” he said referring to the process of restoring the area that has been mined. Erman believes the regulation on community mining must be improved because there is no comprehensive law on different commodities. Costs to government, environment Raharjo said it is difficult to determine how much money the government is losing because of illegal mining over unpaid taxes and royalties.  “But to give an example, in one illegal mine that spans 10 hectares located inside a concession area, the amount of gold production is 1,600 kilograms a year. If we do the math, the potential of financial loss is around $12 million, that is only from one place,” he added. Meanwhile, Karliansyah, the director general for pollution and environmental damage control at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, said illegal mines can potentially harm the surrounding environment because there is no reclamation plan after mining. “The ministry has to do reclamation on soil that is already polluted because of illegal mining, which usually uses cyanide and mercury,” he said. In dealing with the issue, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry has allocated $20 million (Rp 290 billion) out of the state budget in 2018. But with it, the ministry can only perform two to three small-scale reclamation projects every year. Raharjo said the government is working on closing many of the unlicensed mines in Indonesia.  “But it’s an uphill battle, because if we close it then a few weeks later they will mine again or move to a new spot,” he said. But Erman is unsure that closing the mine is the best solution for the problem.  “How can you close it if there is no economic alternative for them? There is no subsidy for their basic needs, and they see the opportunities in front of their eyes. They would think, why not,” she added. According to Erman, the government should work with big mining companies and provide training as well as raise awareness to the small-scale miners on mining safety and protection of the environment.  “It’s a task for the government, give them direction to create safety,” she said.

China, Saudi Arabia Condemned in Human Rights Report

Thu, 03/14/2019 - 12:30
The human rights situation in China has seen no improvement in recent years, according to a new report presented on Wednesday. The U.S. Department of State also condemns Saudi Arabia in its annual report on human rights abuses around the world. The U.S. ally is cited for last year's killing of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports Venezuela is also noted for its abysmal human rights record.

Malaysia: Vietnamese Woman to Stand Trial in Kim Killing

Thu, 03/14/2019 - 11:26
Malaysia’s attorney general ordered the murder case to proceed against a Vietnamese woman accused in the killing of the North Korean leader’s estranged half brother, prosecutors said in court Thursday.  Prosecutor Iskandar Ahmad gave no explanation for the refusal to drop the murder charge against Doan Thi Huong, who is the only suspect in custody after the stunning decision to drop the case Monday against Indonesian Siti Aisyah.  Huong’s lawyer Hisyam Teh Poh Teik told the court they were disappointed with the attorney general’s decision and said prosecutors were being unfair to Huong.   “It does not bring confidence to our criminal justice system. Very obviously, there is discrimination. The AG favored one party to the other,” Teh said.    He also sought a deferment of the trial, saying Huong has been unwell since Aisyah’s release and is not in a position to testify.   Huong stood in the dock and responded to the judge’s questions on the deferment request, saying she suffered from tension and stress.  “I have no idea what is going on,” she said. ​Trial postponed The judge agreed to postpone the trial until April 1 but warned there should be no more delay. The defense phase of the trial was to have begun Monday. Huong looked tired and was sobbing as she spoke to Vietnamese Embassy officials after the court hearing ended. Vietnamese Ambassaador Le Quy Quynh said he was “very disappointed” with the attorney general’s decision. He said Vietnam’s justice minister had written to the Malaysian attorney general seeking Huong’s release and that Vietnam will keep lobbying Malaysia to free her.   “We will request Malaysia to have fair judgment and release her as soon as possible,” he said.    A Vietnamese delegation said Huong told them she was happy for Aisyah but that she was also innocent.    The two women were the only people in custody after four North Korean suspects fled the country Feb. 13, 2017, when Kim Jong Nam was poisoned with VX nerve agent. Prank or conspiracy? Aisyah and Huong have said they thought they were taking part in a prank for a TV show.  A High Court judge last August had found there was enough evidence to infer that Aisyah, Huong and the four missing North Koreans engaged in a “well-planned conspiracy” to kill Kim Jong Nam. Lawyers for the women have previously said that they were pawns in a political assassination with clear links to the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and that the prosecution failed to show the women had any intention to kill. Intent to kill is crucial to a murder charge under Malaysian law. Malaysian officials have never officially accused North Korea and have made it clear they don’t want the trial politicized. Kim Jong Nam was the eldest son in the current generation of North Korea’s ruling family. He had been living abroad for years but could have been seen as a threat to Kim Jong Un’s rule.

Trump Says He is in No Rush to Complete China Trade Deal

Thu, 03/14/2019 - 11:03
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he was in no rush to complete a trade pact with China and insisted that any deal include protection for intellectual property, a major sticking point between the two sides during months of negotiations. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping had been expected to hold a summit at the president's Mar-a-Lago property in Florida later this month, but no date has been set for a meeting and no in-person talks between their trade teams have been held in more than two weeks. The president, speaking to reporters at the White House, said he thought there was a good chance a deal would be made, in part because China wanted one after suffering from U.S. tariffs on its goods. But he acknowledged Xi may be wary of coming to a summit without an agreement in hand after seeing Trump end a separate summit in Vietnam with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without a peace deal. "I think President Xi saw that I'm somebody that believes in walking when the deal is not done, and you know there's always a chance it could happen and he probably wouldn't want that," Trump said. China has not made any public comment confirming Xi is considering going to meet Trump in Florida or elsewhere. The president, who likes to emphasize his own deal-making abilities, said an agreement to end a months-long trade war could be finished ahead of a presidential meeting or completed in-person with his counterpart. "We could do it either way. We could have the deal completed and come and sign, or we could get the deal almost completed and negotiate some of the final points. I would prefer that," he said. Trump decided last month not to increase tariffs on Chinese goods at the beginning of March, giving a nod to the success of negotiations so far. But hurdles remain, and intellectual property is one of them. Washington accuses Beijing of forcing U.S. companies to share their intellectual property and transfer their technology to local partners in order to do business in China. Beijing denies it engages in such practices. Asked on Wednesday if intellectual property had to be included in a trade deal, Trump said: "Yes it does.” He indicated that from his perspective, a meeting with Xi was still likely. "I think things are going along very well - we'll just see what the date is," Trump told reporters at the White House. "I'm in no rush. I want the deal to be right. ... I am not in a rush whatsoever. It's got to be the right deal. It's got to be a good deal for us and if it's not, we're not going to make that deal." 'Maintaining contact’ China's Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that Xi had previously told Trump that he is willing to "maintain contacts" with the U.S. president. Over the weekend, Vice Commerce Minister Wang Shouwen, who has been deeply involved in the trade talks with the United States, did not answer questions from reporters on whether Xi would go to Mar-a-Lago. Two Beijing-based diplomatic sources, familiar with the situation, told Reuters that Xi would not be going to Mar-a-Lago, at least in the near term. One said there had been no formal approach from the United States to China about such a trip, while the second said the problem was that China had realized a trade agreement was not going to be as easy to reach as they had initially thought. "This is media hype," said the first source, of reports Xi and Trump could meet this month in Florida. Though Trump said he is not in a hurry, a trade deal this spring would give him a win to cite as an economic accomplishment as he advances his 2020 re-election campaign. The trade war has hurt the global economy and hung over stock markets, which would likely benefit from an end to the tensions. In addition to smoothing over sticking points on content, the United States is eager to include a strong enforcement mechanism in a deal to ensure that Beijing can be held accountable if it breaks any of its terms. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who has spearheaded the talks from the American side, said on Tuesday that U.S. officials hoped they were in the final weeks of their talks with China but that major issues remained to be resolved.

US Rights Report Highlights Venezuela, Iran, China

Thu, 03/14/2019 - 04:24
The U.S. State Department is painting a grim picture of violations and abuses in countries that already have dismal records in its "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018." Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday highlighted abuses in Iran, South Sudan, Nicaragua and China in his remarks on the release of the report. "I wish I could say that the record of every country evaluated in this year's report is spotless or even improved, but it's simply not the case," Pompeo said. This year's report evaluates the practices of roughly 200 countries and territories. Venezuela In Latin America, the report cited extrajudicial killings, the stifling of free expression, and restrictions on political participation in Venezuela. It said the May 20, 2018, presidential vote that re-elected Nicolas Maduro was "deeply flawed" and was boycotted by the opposition and condemned by the international community. The State Department report also pointed to issues including "pervasive corruption and impunity among all security forces" in Venezuela and in the Maduro government, "trafficking in persons and the worst forms of child labor, which the government made minimal efforts to eliminate." "The situation on the ground is deteriorating. It's so tragic. The humanitarian conditions there are just awful. You have people starving, can't get medicine to the sick," Pompeo said in an interview in Houston. "The human rights situation in Venezuela is terrible" and is only getting worse, said Ambassador Michael Kozak from the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, adding the denial of U.S. medical and food aid by the Maduro government only exacerbates its humanitarian crisis. Iran On Iran, the report said, "The government's human rights record remained extremely poor and worsened in several key areas." The high-profile case of Iranian attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh was featured in the report. Sotoudeh, who represents political prisoners and women that protested against the country's compulsory hijab law, was arrested on June 13, 2018, on national security charges.She was sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes on March 12, 2019. "We are outraged," said State Department deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino in Tuesday's briefing. "This sentence is beyond barbaric." The human rights report also pointed to issues including executions for crimes without fair trials, arbitrary killings and forced disappearance, harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, systematic use of arbitrary detention and imprisonment, unlawful interference with privacy, and severe restrictions on free expression, the press and the internet. China On China, the State Department's human rights report said the government significantly intensified its campaign of mass detention of members of Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang). Pompeo said China is "in a league of its own" when it comes to human rights violations. "Today, more than 1 million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and other Muslims are interned in reeducation camps designed to erase their religious and ethnic identities. The government also is increasing its persecution against Christians, Tibetans and anyone who espouses different views from those or advocates those of government — or advocates change in government," said the top U.S. diplomat. Other issues include arbitrary detention by the Chinese government; physical attacks on and the criminal prosecution of journalists, lawyers, petitioners, and their family members; severe restrictions on religious freedom; the forcible return of asylum-seekers to North Korea, where they have a well-founded fear of persecution; and official repression of the freedom of speech, religion, movement, association and assembly in Tibet, according to the report. China says it is running a deradicalization program and that the camps are vocational training centers to teach people about the law and the Mandarin language.Chinese authorities said Tuesday that the camps in Xinjiang will "gradually disappear" if a time arises when "society does not need them." Samuel Brownback, the U.S. ambassador for religious freedom, said Friday during a speech in Hong Kong that China's detentions are not proportionate to any real threat it faces from extremism. "China is not solving a terrorist problem by forcibly moving women, children, the elderly and the highly educated intelligentsia into mass detention centers and internment camps. Instead, they are creating one," he said. U.S. lawmakers are pressuring the Trump administration to take stronger actions against China. The House Foreign Affairs Committee told Pompeo last week it "appears the administration has taken no meaningful action" on the matter. Pompeo said the administration is considering sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for rights abuses against the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Reproductive rights missing Separately, critics on Wednesday pointed to the fact that the report does not highlight countries that commit human rights abuses around reproductive health. "For the last 25 years, most of the world has recognized that empowering women to control their bodies helps them and their families to access other rights, but you wouldn't know that from today's report," said Sarah Margon, Washington director at Human Rights Watch. "The State Department is essentially deciding that a significant set of women's rights are not human rights at all," she added. It is the second time since 2012 the State Department's human rights report eliminated references to women's "reproductive rights" since 2012.

Australian Cardinal's Future Likely to be Decided by Vatican After June Appeal

Wed, 03/13/2019 - 22:13
The Vatican’s former treasurer, Australian Cardinal George Pell, has been sentenced to prison for sexually abusing choir boys. Handing down the sentence Wednesday, the judge said Pell would be listed as a sex offender for the rest of his life. Pope Francis will now have to decide what will happen to his former close advisor.  The 77-year-old cardinal was sentenced in Australia to six years by Victoria County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd. The judge read the sentence, making it clear Pell would immediately start serving time in prison, although he has lodged an appeal that will be heard in June.   "I set a non-parole period of three years and eight months," said Kidd. "That means you will become eligible to apply for parole after serving this non-parole period. Your release on parole will be a matter entirely for the parole board."   No reaction was immediately forthcoming from the Vatican. The sentence came down on the very same day Pope Francis marked six years as head of the Catholic Church. He is on a weeklong spiritual retreat outside the Vatican, as is customary for him at the start of the Christian season of Lent. Pope Francis could decide to defrock Cardinal Pell, as the pontiff did in February with the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, for similar issues. No decision is likely to be made until Pell's appeal is heard. And Pell is not expected to return to Rome unless he is successful in overturning his conviction.   In the event he is successful, it is unlikely Pell will be welcomed back in Rome. The more likely scenario is that he will no longer serve in any Church role but given his age and failing health, he likely will be granted a pension. Under Vatican rules, Church officials normally resign at the age of 75 although the pope can choose to extend their service.   If the conviction is upheld on appeal and Pope Francis decides to defrock him, Pell stands to lose not only his freedom for some time but also the perks he enjoyed as a senior official of the Vatican, namely a home close to Saint Peter’s Square and a car and driver. Whether he would be able to maintain any financial support and health care would have to be discussed. He would no longer be allowed to celebrate Church sacraments.  

Uighur Detentions in China Among Issues in New US Rights Report

Wed, 03/13/2019 - 18:30
The U.S. State Department is due to release Wednesday its annual report on human rights issues in countries around the world. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will deliver remarks along with the release, after which journalists will be able to question Ambassador Michael Kozak. A senior official told VOA one of the issues featured in the report is the case of Uighur Muslims in China's Xinjiang province. The U.S. and other Western governments, as well as rights groups, have accused China of detaining Uighurs and other Muslims in internment camps meant to purge their religious and cultural identity. China says it is running a deradicalization program and that the camps are vocational training centers to teach people about the law and the Mandarin language. Chinese authorities said Tuesday that the camps in Xinjiang will "gradually disappear" if a time arises when "society does not need them." Samuel Brownback, the U.S. ambassador for religious freedom, said Friday during a speech in Hong Kong that China's detentions are not proportionate to any real threat it faces from extremism. "China is not solving a terrorist problem by forcibly moving women, children, the elderly, and the highly educated intelligentsia into mass detention centers and internment camps. Instead, they are creating one," he said. U.S. lawmakers are pressuring the Trump administration to take stronger actions against China. The House Foreign Affairs Committee told Pompeo last week it "appears the administration has taken no meaningful action" on the matter. Pompeo said the administration is considering sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for rights abuses against the Uighurs in Xinjiang.

Chaos, Gridlock a Daily Ordeal for Manila's Long-suffering Commuters

Wed, 03/13/2019 - 11:15
It's 3.30 a.m. in the Philippines and much of San Jose Del Monte is fast asleep. Flashlight in hand, street sweeper Alejandro Galasao, 58, navigates a labyrinth of alleys to a main road to catch a bus to the capital Manila 30 km (18.6 miles) away. He has to wake up in the middle of the night for a job that doesn't start until 6 a.m. Traffic is so bad in Manila that if he leaves any later, there's no way he will clock in on time. "If I go to work at rush hour, it would take me three hours," Galasao told Reuters. "This is the only job I know. Even if I find something else, I doubt I would earn any better." Metro Manila, a sprawl of 16 cities fused together by outdated infrastructure, is creaking under the weight of millions of vehicles, owing largely to economic growth of more than six percent a year since 2012. Urban rail coverage is limited, trains are prone to breakdowns and queues spill onto streets where exhaust fumes are intoxicating. Quality of life is poor for many urban Filipinos, who spend a chunk of their day commuting. Janice Sarad works at a bank head office and leaves home four hours before work starts in Bonifacio Global City, a Manila business hub. On a typical day, Sarad, 22, takes a train, a bus and two passenger jeeps to get to work. "In the morning, it's even more difficult to commute because the pressure not to be late is there. You really have to fight your way in," she said. Heavy Toll A 2015 survey by GPS-based navigation app Waze found that Manila had the world's worst traffic congestion, partly due to a tripling of annual car sales from a decade ago. Oliver Emocling, 23, rides the train, but queues are so long that he arrives late often, and has been docked wages as punishment. "When I get home, it's already 10 p.m.," said Emocling, who works at a magazine. "I could be using that time to sleep more, rest more. Instead, my time gets wasted." The daily loss of business in Manila due to traffic woes has risen to 3.5 billion pesos ($67.2 million) in 2017 from 2.4 billion pesos ($46.1 million) in 2012, according to the Japan International Cooperation Agency. President Rodrigo Duterte has said that fixing Manila's traffic wasn't easy, adding that it was the only campaign promise he had failed to deliver. He recently approved a law that encourages companies to support more employees to work from home. The government is making some headway on an $180 billion program to modernize roads, railways and airports, including a subway system which was set to begin construction at the end of February. However, the building works are exacerbating snarl-ups. Ferdinand Tan, a 53-year-old wealth coach, lets his staff work from home and has modified his van to cope with traffic, turning it into a mobile office with a power supply, computer and even a foot massager. "No one can really solve the traffic. So instead of complaining about it, I try to maximize (the time)," he said. "I use unproductive time to be productive."

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