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With Missile Test, North Korea Sends Message to Seoul

Mon, 05/06/2019 - 22:22
By conducting what appears to be its first ballistic missile test in a year-and-a-half, North Korea has presented an obvious challenge to U.S. President Donald Trump, who has refused to relax sanctions on Pyongyang. But the launch also seems intended to pressure South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has increasingly become the target of North Korea’s outrage as nuclear talks with the U.S. falter. In a test personally overseen by Kim Jong Un, North Korea on Saturday fired a new short-range ballistic missile, analysts said, along with several other projectiles from a multiple rocket launcher, into the sea off its east coast. Though the launch appears to violate U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban North Korean ballistic missile activity, Trump and other U.S. officials quickly downplayed the importance of the test, pointing out the North did not violate its self-imposed suspension of tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles. But the launch is tricky for Moon, who wants to continue his signature policy of engagement with North Korea, but risks being seen as weak in the face of continuing North Korean provocations. North Korea blames Moon for not implementing aspects of the inter-Korean agreements reached during his three summits with Kim over the past year. U.S. and international sanctions have prevented Moon from following through on many parts of the pacts. North still upset about exercises Pyongyang is also upset Seoul has gone ahead with joint military exercises with Washington, even though the drills have been scaled back to help facilitate diplomacy with the North. According to long-time North Korea scholar Robert Carlin, the North Korean test was likely the “corresponding measure” Pyongyang had warned of late last month in a statement blasting Seoul for continuing the military exercises. In that statement, Kim criticized the scaled-back U.S.-South Korean military exercises as “disguised persistent hostile acts...in other codenames, though they were agreed to be stopped.” While North and South Korea agreed last April to stop “all hostile acts” against each other and eliminate the “danger of war,” the two sides never signed a statement agreeing to completely halt military exercises, and drills have continued on both sides. Despite the drawdown of U.S.-South Korea exercises, U.S. military officials have said they observed no similar scaling back of regular North Korean military drills. Firmer response from Seoul? For its part, South Korea’s presidential office said it is “very concerned” the North Korean missile test violates the spirit of the inter-Korean agreements, and called on Pyongyang to stop acts that raise military tensions. Seoul’s response stands in contrast to the softer approach of the Trump administration, which has not yet publicly criticized the North Korean launch. In a Saturday tweet, Trump said he believes Kim “fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea and will do nothing to interfere or end it. He also knows that I am with him and does not want to break his promise with me.” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also did not criticize the North Korean missile test during three separate television interviews on Sunday morning. “At no point was there ever any international boundary crossed,” Pompeo told ABC’s This Week. “That is, they landed in the water east of North Korea and didn’t present a threat to the United States or to South Korea or Japan.” Pompeo said the U.S. is still analyzing the data and considering a response, but that he is confident the launch did not involve intercontinental ballistic missiles and therefore did not violate Kim’s moratorium on missile tests. “The moratorium was focused, very focused, on intercontinental missile systems, the ones that threaten the United States, for sure,” Pompeo told Fox News Sunday. Diverging views among, Tokyo, Washington, Seoul? To some analysts, that suggests the Trump administration is willing to tolerate any North Korean test short of an ICBM, a stance that could unnerve U.S. allies in Northeast Asia. “Pompeo's response made no sense as a strategy and undercut our allies in the region,” said Mintaro Oba, a former State Department diplomat focused on East Asia. “He effectively defended the legitimacy of shorter-range North Korean launches.” “Pompeo could have made all of the right points while also saying that the United States is ready and willing to talk with North Korea at any time, but that it's critical for Pyongyang to avoid escalating tensions and undermining the diplomatic process,” Oba added. While the U.S. mainland might only be reached by North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, South Korea and Japan are within range of the North’s short and medium range arsenal. “The South Koreans aren’t on board with Pompeo’s ‘test anything you want as long as it can’t reach me’ standard,” Jeffrey Lewis, a North Korea watcher and Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute, said on Twitter. The U.S. and South Korea have repeatedly insisted they are in broad agreement on North Korea policy, and have attempted to downplay any reported differences of opinion. When disagreements have arisen, it is usually Seoul that is taking is the more conciliatory approach than Washington -- making this latest situation a role reversal, Oba said. Moon is under considerable domestic, as well as international pressure, on North Korea. An increasing number of conservative opposition South Koreans oppose his outreach to the North, viewing it as naive and unsuccessful. In the days following his first meeting with Kim, Moon’s public approval rating was more than 80 percent. It has now slipped to the mid-40s. Adding to Moon’s woes, South Korea’s economy unexpectedly contracted in the first quarter of 2019. Moon, whose presidential term isn’t up until 2022, still has time to deliver. He remains optimistic about engagement with the North, saying last month he would hold a fourth summit with Kim “any time, any place.”

Thailand Crowns New King for New Era

Mon, 05/06/2019 - 19:34
Thailand wraps up three days of elaborate and carefully choreographed ceremonies Monday consecrating a new king who has wasted little time making his mark on the monarchy. Thousands of well-wishers wearing uniform yellow shirts lined the streets of Bangkok's old quarter Sunday afternoon to catch a glimpse of King Maha Vajiralongkorn on his 7 km loop from the Grand Palace to a trio of Buddhist temples where he paid his respects. A royal retinue of hundreds in colorful dress marched in lock step down the route as the king rode a gilded palanquin to the tunes of a marching band. The main coronation events, estimated to cost upwards of $30 million, began Saturday when the king was showered and purified with waters gathered from across the country before donning the full royal regalia, replete with sword, scepter and diamond-capped crown. A mix of Buddhist and Hindu Brahmin rituals, the rights of passage are meant to transform the king into a divine embodiment of the gods. Monday he greeted the public from the balcony of the Grand Palace and granted an audience with foreign dignitaries. The coronation is the first for Thailand in 69 years and consecrates the reign of the new king — also known as Rama X, the tenth king of the Chakri dynasty — who ascended the throne in late 2016 after the death of his widely revered father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Wannaruch Sookmaung came out for Sunday's procession to wish the king a long life, and because it would likely be the only coronation in her lifetime. "I believe King Bhumibol [was a] good person and very kind. I think King X also [has a] heart like King IX," she said. "If [the] king can [be] patient, he can take care [of the] people of Thailand." "I think he [is] like a center, like a heart of Thailand," said Aan Tan, who felt compelled to see the king in the flesh. She said she hoped he would help heal the country's deep political divide, which has pitted pro-democracy forces against a military and business elite that has aligned itself with the monarchy. Later this week, official results from a March 24 election will decide whether pro-democracy parties have enough legislative seats to push the leaders of a 2014 coup out of power. "When they have fight [with] each other, the king will help," Aan said, "because they also respect him, so they will listen to him, [because they] have to look [out] for the people, not their own things that they want." Though the monarchy is meant to refrain from the country's politics, it is rarely far from the fray. And while strict lèse-majesté laws keep a tight lid on what is said about the king in Thailand, reverence for the royal family does run broad and deep. Over several turbulent decades, King Bhumibol came to be seen as a stabilizing force who helped oversee the transformation of the country's economy, now the second largest in Southeast Asia. But Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said King Vajiralongkorn was inheriting the crown in very different times. "His Majesty takes over the throne under vastly different circumstances than his late father, whose reign coincided with Thailand's Cold War decades and the need to thwart communism and buil[d] a nation. This reign will be about Thailand's challenges in the 21st century, [in] particular its protracted political conflict," he said. "His father also had to rebuild the monarchy whereas His Majesty has inherited a strong kingship at the apex of society," he added. King Vajiralongkorn, 66, has already made bold moves to assert that strength and further consolidate his control of royal affairs. He held off on promulgating a new constitution the junta drafted until it agreed to concessions that tighten his grip on the Crown Property Bureau, estimated to be worth at least $30 billion. They also let the king, who spends much of his time in Germany, where he has a home, travel abroad without having to name a regent in his stead. The junta also granted the king the authority to appoint the Sangha Supreme Council, the governing body of Thai Buddhism, as well as a new chief monk, which he soon used. "He's demonstrated that he is a much more direct and proactive leader than his father," said Paul Chambers, a political analyst and lecturer at northern Thailand's Naresuan University, citing also the transfer of some military units, including the 1st Infantry Division of the king's guard, under direct palace control in April 2017. Chambers said the ex-generals the king has also appointed to the Privy Council hail from a faction of the military traditionally opposed to the one that dominates the present junta, and that he was likely to keep appointing members more loyal to him than to the junta or his father. "You're going to see people on the Privy Council that are very loyal to the new king. And those people, same people, are not going to be close to the current junta. Basically this new king is going to try to remake the Thai political-military leviathan in a way that reflects his own interests and his own people," he said. "So more changes are going to happen."  

China Rejects US Military Passage in South China Sea

Mon, 05/06/2019 - 18:32
China objected Monday to the passage of two U.S. warships near disputed islands in the South China Sea. Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the warships entered the waters without Chinese permission. He said the warships had violated China's sovereignty, while also harming peace, security "and good order in the relevant seas." China has expanded its control over much of the South China Sea in recent years, building military bases and airstrips on tiny islands and reefs. The United States and its allies have responded with freedom of navigation exercises near Beijing's disputed claims to ensure that China does not block sea and air traffic Reuters quoted a U.S. military spokesman saying the vessels were involved in an "innocent passage" to challenge "excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways."

EXPLAINER: Who Pays Trump's Tariffs — China and Other Exporters or US Customers?

Mon, 05/06/2019 - 17:51
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday he would raise tariffs to 25 percent from 10 percent on $200 billion of Chinese goods. The United States has levied tariffs on a total of $250 billion of Chinese imports, global steel and aluminum imports, and shipments of washing machines and solar panels since January 2018, when Trump's administration levied its first trade tariffs. Trump has referred to himself as a "Tariff Man" and says the duties he has imposed on a range of goods and metal imports are filling up state coffers. Through mid-March, Washington netted $15.6 billion through tariffs imposed since February 2018, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Customs duties receipts in the first half of the current fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1, have shot up by 89 percent from a year ago to $34.7 billion, data from U.S. Treasury shows. WHO IS PAYING THE TARIFFS? Trump says China foots the bill for U.S. tariffs on imported Chinese good. "For 10 months, China has been paying Tariffs to the USA" he wrote on Twitter on Sunday. "We have billions of dollars coming into our Treasury — billions — from China. We never had 10 cents coming into our Treasury; now we have billions coming in," he said on Jan. 24. PAID AT CUSTOMS A tariff is a tax on imports. The CBP typically requires importers to pay the duties within 10 days of their shipments clearing customs. So the tariffs are paid to the U.S. government by importing companies. Most importers of Chinese-made goods are U.S. companies, or the U.S.-registered units of foreign companies that import goods from China. Every item imported into the United States legally has a customs code. Importers are expected to check the tariffs and other taxes and duties due on the goods they bring in, calculate what they owe, and pay it. The CBP reviews the payments. If it discovers an underpayment, U.S. customs will send the importer a fresh bill. DO U.S. IMPORTERS PASS ON THE COSTS OF TARIFFS TO THEIR SUPPLIERS IN CHINA? Some of them do, yes. So Chinese companies pay some of the cost. An importing company paying tariffs can manage the cost in several ways: 1. Pay the full cost and live with a lower profit margin. 2. Cut costs to offset higher tariffs. 3. Ask suppliers in China for a discount to help offset the higher tariffs. 4. Seek to source supplies from outside China. So some Chinese companies are losing business. 5. Pass the tariff costs on to customers by increasing retail prices. Most importers could use a mix of those options to spread the cost between suppliers, themselves, and consumers or buyers. HOW DOES THAT ACTUALLY WORK? For example, higher duties on imports of metals and Chinese products increased Caterpillar's production costs by more than $100 million last year. In response, the heavy-duty equipment maker increased prices for its products. Tractor manufacturer Deere & Co estimates a $100 million increase in its raw materials costs this year because of Trump's tariffs on Chinese imports. Deere has cut costs and increased prices to protect its profits. A Congressional Research Service report in February found that the tariffs had led to an increase of as much as 12 percent in the price of washing machines in the United States, compared to January 2018 when the duties were not in effect. According to a study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the steel and aluminum tariffs increased the price of steel products by nearly 9 percent last year, pushing up costs for steel users by $5.6 billion. Separately, a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Princeton University, and Columbia University concluded that the Chinese and steel and aluminum tariffs cost companies and consumers $3 billion a month in additional taxes and companies a further $1.4 billion in efficiency loses in 2018.0 WHAT DO CHINESE FIRMS PAY? China has retaliated against U.S. tariffs by imposing its own tariffs on imports from the United States. Most importers in China are Chinese. So in the same way the U.S. government is receiving import taxes on Chinese goods from U.S. importers, the Chinese government is receiving taxes on U.S. goods from Chinese importers. WHAT'S THE TOTAL BILL? Trump has imposed a 25 percent tax on $50 billion of Chinese goods, and a 10 percent tax on goods worth $200 billion more. That, in theory, would mean the U.S government would receive a total of $32.5 billion per year on top of whatever duties were already in place. U.S. tariff revenue in 2018 was $49.7 billion. That was up 41.2 percent from the $35.2 billion in 2017 before the trade wars started. China has imposed 25 percent tariffs on $50 billion of U.S. imports, and also has tariffs of 5 to 10 percent on $60 billion more. That equates to around $15.5 billion to $18.5 billion in tariffs. Chinese tariff revenue in 2018 was 284.8 billion yuan ($42.41 billion), down from 299.8 billion yuan ($44.65 billion) in 2017.    

How Vietnam, Philippines Will Get around China’s Fishing Ban in Disputed Sea

Mon, 05/06/2019 - 15:51
Beijing has declared a moratorium on fishing in about half the heavily disputed South China Sea every year since 1995. And every year other countries with competing sovereignty claims keep letting their own fishing fleets do as they wish.  The Chinese coast guard says the ban that took effect May 1 this year will be enforced, but people who follow the South China Sea politics expect the authorities to catch only Chinese-registered boats that violate the ban.  China would go easier on boats from the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam because it wants to build relations in Asia and avoid a stronger U.S. role in the maritime dispute, those analysts believe. U.S. allies Taiwan and the Philippines call all or some of the moratorium tract their own. Vietnam makes a similar claim and has grown closer to Washington since 2016.  China is telling other countries about the three-month moratorium largely to remind them of its sovereignty claim, analysts say. “To date, we haven’t really seen serious enforcement on their part, especially against other countries,” said Jay Batongbacal, international maritime affairs professor at University of the Philippines. “The minimum, I think, is to create a record of supposed exercises of jurisdiction over the entire South China Sea.” Annual moratorium South China Sea waters above the 12th parallel north of the equator, along with other waterways under Chinese control, will be monitored 24 hours a day and “any violation will be dealt with in time,” China’s official Xinhua News Agency said, citing the national coast guard. Xinhua says the summer fishing ban will help “promote sustainable marine fishery development and improve marine ecology.” The sea is considered heavily overfished, especially by vessels that can process and refrigerate their catches before reaching land, said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, Southeast Asia-specialized fellow with the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. The 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea stretching from the island of Borneo north to Hong Kong yields 16.6 million tons of fish every year and the fishing industry employs about 3.7 million people across nationalities, according to National Geographic data. Claimant countries prize the sea as well for its marine shipping lanes and undersea reserves of gas and oil. Harmonizing with China’s fishing bans Other countries are accustomed to China’s annual moratoriums. In years past some have quietly told their own fishing fleets how to work the sea without upsetting China – though without renouncing sovereignty claims. That trend is expected to continue this year despite the threat of tough enforcement. Taiwan notified its own vessels about the Chinese moratorium this year, said Shih Chin-yi, division chief under the Fisheries Agency. The agency cares about the regeneration of fisheries near its coastlines, including the South China Sea to its southwest, Shih said.  “We’ve also made notifications in the past to let fishermen know that during this period mainland China bans fishing as long it’s north of the 12th parallel into the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay,” Shih said. China also claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan, making any territorial dispute extra-sensitive. Each side normally observes sea boundaries set by the other, and Taiwan has its own moratorium zones.  Vietnam, the country most outspoken about China’s activity in the disputed sea, protested the moratorium on Sunday. A foreign ministry spokeswoman in Hanoi said the ban violates Vietnam’s sovereignty over the sea’s Paracel Islands and goes against United Nations maritime convention, according to the news website Hanoi Times.  The Philippines generally gives no formal advice to its fishing boats to avoid either inflaming China or conceding that China has a right to call a ban, political scholars in the country have said. The two countries have gotten along since 2016, with China reportedly accommodating some Filipino boats in disputed waters. “I think they just live and let live and just hope they won’t be rammed or arrested,” said Chalermpalanupap, referring to ships from any country. Neighbor relations, US role Brunei and Malaysia also claim parts of the sea, but south of 12th parallel. All militarily weaker than Beijing, the Southeast Asian claimants resent China’s maritime landfill work and follow-up militarization since 2010. Island-building facilitates construction of aircraft hangars and radar systems as well as support for fishing and oil exploration.  Their resentment prompts the U.S. Navy to send ships regularly into the South China Sea, upsetting China. Washington claims no part of the sea. Beijing hopes to build relations with Asian governments to counter U.S. influence, said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate with the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, D.C. To build those ties, Beijing is talking now with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes four claimant states, about signing a South China Sea code of conduct as early as 2020 to help head off mishaps between ships. 

Brunei Says Death Penalty Moratorium to Cover Sharia Laws

Mon, 05/06/2019 - 11:55
Brunei's sultan said Sunday a moratorium on capital punishment will also extend to sharia laws that include stoning to death for gay sex and adultery, after a furious backlash against the punishments. It was the first time Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah had commented publicly on the new penal code since it fully entered force last month, and his remarks appeared aimed at assuaging worldwide criticism. The laws, which also include amputation of hands and feet for thieves in the tiny sultanate on Borneo island, sparked fury from celebrities, including actor George Clooney, the United Nations and rights groups.  In a televised speech ahead of the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the sultan said: "I am aware that there are many questions and misperceptions with regard to the implementation of the (sharia penal code)." "There should not be any concern on the sharia law as it is full of Allah's mercy and blessings," he said, according to an official translation of his address. "As evident for more than two decades, we have practiced a de facto moratorium on the execution of death penalty for cases under the common law. "This will also be applied to cases under the (sharia penal code), which provides a wider scope for remission." He also vowed Brunei would ratify the United Nations convention against torture which it signed several years ago.  Muslim-majority Brunei operates a dual-track legal system with civil courts operating alongside sharia courts that handle issues such as marital and inheritance cases.  Some crimes were already punishable with death by hanging under the civil code but Brunei has not executed anyone for decades, and the sultan's comments suggest this will not change with the introduction of the new sharia laws. Rape and robbery are also punishable by death under the sharia code and many of the new laws, such as capital punishment for insulting the Prophet Mohammed, apply to non-Muslims as well as Muslims. The sultan -- one of the world's wealthiest men -- announced plans for the sharia penal code in 2013. The first section was introduced in 2014 and included less stringent penalties, such as fines or jail terms for offenses including indecent behavior or skipping Friday prayers. But the introduction of the harsher punishments in the former British protectorate of about 400,000 people was repeatedly delayed after they sparked criticism. 

US Downplays North Korean Missile Launches

Sun, 05/05/2019 - 21:53
The U.S. on Sunday downplayed North Korea's short-range missile launches, saying it believes there still is an opportunity to reach an agreement to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News Sunday that the barrage of projectiles Pyongyang launched into waters off its shores did not cross over any other country. "We still believe there's an opportunity" for an agreement with North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program, the top U.S. diplomat said, and "hope" that the missile launch watched by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un "won't get in the way." President Donald Trump said Saturday he thinks a deal with Kim will still occur. On Twitter, Trump said Kim "fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea, & will do nothing to interfere or end it. He also knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen." Pompeo said the U.S. and North Korean have communicated with each other since the February collapse of talks between Trump and Kim in Hanoi, when the U.S. balked at Kim's demand to ease sanctions in advance of a full agreement to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Pompeo said that if "these nuclear weapons go away it will make a huge difference" in North Korea's chances to advance its economy. Cynthia Warmbier, the mother of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died in 2017 after being imprisoned for months in North Korea, on Friday disparaged U.S. efforts to deal with North Korea. "There’s a charade going on right now," she said. "It’s called diplomacy. How can you have diplomacy with someone that never tells the truth? That’s what I want to know. I’m all for it, but I’m very skeptical.” She described Kim's regime as “absolute evil.” “It’s obvious to the world that we’re on to him,” she said of Kim. “But unless we keep the pressure on North Korea, they are not going to change, and I’m very afraid that we are going to let up on this pressure.” Pompeo voiced sympathy for the Warmbier family, adding that Trump "understands the challenges" of dealing with Pyongyang. North Korea on Saturday said it tested “multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons." Kim Jong Un personally “gave an order of firing” of the projectiles into the sea off North Korea’s east coast, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported.              

Newly-Crowned Thai King Carried in Elaborate Royal Procession

Sun, 05/05/2019 - 20:05
Thailand's newly-crowned King Maha Vajiralongkorn was carried by soldiers on a gilded palanquin through the streets of Bangkok Sunday, in front of crowds who craned to witness the historic event. The king, Rama X of the Chakri dynasty, wore a bejeweled robe and broad-brimmed hat with a feather on the second of three days of pageantry and royal splendor. The 7-kilometer procession brings the public into close proximity with the 66-year-old monarch for the first time, two years after he ascended the throne in an increasingly assertive reign. It started around 5pm (1000 GMT) at the grand palace in Bangkok's old quarter as trumpets blared, soldiers shouted commands and cannons fired a 21-gun salute. Thais wearing yellow shirts -- the royal color -- and carrying hats and umbrellas to protect against temperatures reaching 36 degrees Celsius filled the streets outside with many clutching portraits of Vajiralongkorn and shouting "Long live the King! "It may be my first and last chance to see this," 57-year-old street Nattriya Siripattana told AFP ahead of the first ceremony of its kind in 69 years. The three-day coronation, which started Saturday, is the first since Vajiralongkorn's adored and revered father was crowned in 1950. The highlight of Saturday's sombre ceremonies was the King's anointment with holy water, before he placed the 7.3 kilogram (16 lbs) golden tiered crown on his head. Early Sunday, the king bestowed royal titles on family members who crawled to his throne in a striking show of deference to the monarch, who was joined by his new Queen Suthida. The queen, 40, was deputy commander of the king's royal guard before her marriage to Vajiralongkorn, which was announced days before the coronation. During the procession, she marched in red and black uniform next to the palanquin. Thailand's monarchy is swaddled in ritual, protocol and hierarchy all orbiting around the king, who is viewed as a demigod. During the hours-long procession Thais will have the opportunity to "pay homage" to the king who will also stop at several major temples to pray before large gilded Buddha images. On the ground authorities sprayed mists of water over the crowds whose numbers were bolstered by droves of "Jit Arsa" -- or "Spirit Volunteers" -- intended to project a show of devotion and fealty to the monarchy. But soaring temperatures threatened to thin out the numbers. Vajiralongkorn ascended the throne in 2016 after the death of his father Bhumibol Adulyadej. The elaborate coronation ceremonies have been broadcast on live television and include a network of the powerful and influential in Thailand. Junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who seized power in a 2014 coup, took part in many of the key rituals, including the procession. The king and queen stayed the previous night in the royal residence, where a Siamese cat and a white rooster were placed on a pillow as part of housewarming rituals intended to bring good tidings. One of the family members to receive royal titles was 14-year-old Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, who knelt and prostrated in front of his father as he was anointed with water. The teenager is the king's son from his third marriage. He has six other children, including four sons from two previous wives. 'Focus on politics' Criticism or in-depth discussion of the royal family in Thailand is guarded by harsh lese-majeste rules that carry up to 15 years in prison. All media must self-censor and the country's lively social media platforms have been subdued. But the dazzling display of the primacy of the monarchy in Thai life belies a simmering political crisis held over from elections in March. The junta that seized power in 2014 and has vowed to defend the monarchy is aiming to return to power through the ballot box. Its proxy party has claimed the popular vote. But a coalition of anti-military parties says it has shored up a majority in the lower house. Full results are not expected until May 9, a delay that has frustrated many Thais. "When the event [coronation] is finished we will have to focus on politics," said Titipol Phakdeewanich, a lecturer at Ubon Ratchathani University. Since ascending the throne the king has taken several assertive moves, including bringing the assets of the Crown Property Bureau under his direct control. Though the royal family is nominally above politics, the king issued an election-eve message calling on Thais to vote for "good people" against those who create "chaos". And in February, he scuttled the prime ministerial bid of his older sister Princess Ubolratana with an anti-junta party.

Ride a Roller Coaster with No Wheels, No Track

Sun, 05/05/2019 - 13:05
Virtual Reality had a fantastic year in 2016, with the release of several anticipated VR glasses, including the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. Gaming and technology fairs presented the new toys proudly, but the boom quickly declined, leaving the technology to only niche applications. Now, a southeastern Chinese city has opened an entertainment park that intends to show VR's potential as a future technology. Markus Meyer-Gehlen reports.

North Korea Confirms Test of ‘Multiple Rocket Launchers’

Sun, 05/05/2019 - 08:48
North Korea tested “multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons,” state media confirmed Saturday, the first comments on a launch that has further raised military tensions. Kim Jong Un personally “gave an order of firing” of the projectiles into the sea off North Korea’s east coast, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported. “The purpose of the drill was to estimate and inspect the operating ability and the accuracy of striking duty performance of large-caliber long-range multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons,” KCNA reported. The test is North Korea’s latest attempt to gradually increase pressure on and signal its frustration with the United States and South Korea, since the breakdown of nuclear talks. Pyongyang’s statement did not contain any explicit threats or even mentions of the United States or South Korea. Seoul on Friday condemned the launch as needlessly provocative and a violation of an inter-Korean military agreement. ​Missile or projectile? There has been some confusion about the exact type of weapons North Korea launched. South Korea’s defense ministry initially characterized the launch as a “short-range missile” test. Later statements referred to the weapons as “projectiles.” A picture published Saturday by the North’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper suggested that at least one of the projectiles launched was in fact a short-range missile. Under a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions, North Korea is banned from conducting medium- or long-range ballistic missile launches. Seoul says the weapons traveled from 70 to 200 kilometers, which would be classified as a short-range test. North Korea has not carried out a missile test since November 2017. The self-imposed moratorium has helped facilitate nuclear talks with U.S. President Donald Trump. In Kim’s view, the moratorium, which was never formalized, does not cover short-range tests. But by launching multiple short-range projectiles, Kim may be attempting to test the limits of how Washington interprets that moratorium. Last month, North Korea said it tested a “tactical guided weapon.” Commercial satellite images have also detected increased activity at some North Korean nuclear and satellite launch facilities in recent weeks. Trump: Deal still possible So far, Trump has played down the provocations. But he has also not signaled a change in his negotiating stance. Reacting to the latest test, Trump said he still believes a nuclear deal with North Korea is possible. Kim, who wants the removal of international sanctions hurting his economy, has said he will give the United States until the end of the year to become more flexible in the nuclear talks. Trump says he will not relax sanctions until Kim agrees to completely abandon his nuclear program. Deadlocked talks Trump and Kim have held two summits over the past year. At the first meeting, in Singapore, both men agreed to work “toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But U.S. officials later acknowledged the two sides never agreed on what that means. At the second meeting in Vietnam, Trump rejected Kim’s offer to dismantle a part of North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for major sanctions relief. Since that meeting, the two sides have struggled to even hold talks, U.S. officials say. Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, will visit South Korea and Seoul in coming days to help advance the talks. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whose liberal government has prioritized engagement with the North, says he is willing to hold a fourth summit with Kim anytime, anywhere. Last week, Japan’s conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said he is willing to meet with Kim “unconditionally and talk with him frankly with an open mind.”

After Missile Test, S. Korea Urges North to Stop Raising Tensions

Sat, 05/04/2019 - 15:41
South Korea called on North Korea to stop raising military tensions, after the North fired a barrage of projectiles into the sea off the east coast of Korea. In a statement, a South Korean presidential spokesperson said the tests go against a September military agreement it signed with North Korea. Seoul said it expects Pyongyang to resume dialogue as soon as possible. North Korea fired the barrage of projectiles from the eastern town of Wonsan into the sea off Korea's east coast just after 9 a.m. local time, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement. It is North Korea's latest provocation following the breakdown of nuclear talks with the United States. Earlier, South Korean officials described the projectiles as missiles. No other details about the weapons were immediately available, but a short-range missile test would not violate international sanctions on North Korea's missile program. North Korea has not commented on the test. ​Skirting his moratorium  Since November 2017, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has observed a self-imposed moratorium on missile tests. Testing a short-range ballistic missile "might skirt the line" on that moratorium, says Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Kim has stated (the moratorium) only applies to ICBMs, while the U.S. believes it applies more broadly," Narang says. "It's enough to signal slightly greater concern but giving the U.S. an out if it wants to, to dismiss it as not a violation of the moratorium." After the launch, U.S. President Donald Trump was "fully briefed" by National Security Adviser John Bolton, according to a senior administration official. "We are aware of North Korea's actions tonight. We will continue to monitor as necessary," said White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. Measured escalations North Korea, which wants sanctions relief from the U.S., has carried out a series of measured escalations since nuclear talks with the U.S. broke down. Most notably, the North said last month it conducted a test of a tactical guided weapon. It has also threatened to respond to U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises. Kim has said he will give the U.S. until the end of the year to become more flexible in nuclear talks. Trump has said he will not relax sanctions until North Korea commits to giving up its entire nuclear weapons program.

Putin Demands a Role in Eurasian Part of Belt and Road

Sat, 05/04/2019 - 14:57
Russia appears to be shifting its stance on China’s Belt and Road development initiative in Eurasia, envisioning a bigger role for itself in the process, in what could be a sign that Moscow is worried about waning influence among its neighbors. When Vladimir Putin traveled to Beijing last month for China’s Belt and Road Forum, he described Russia-China relations now as “the best they have been in their entire history.” He also said the Belt and Road initiative is “intended to strengthen the creative cooperation of the states of Eurasia.” But Putin’s enthusiasm for participating came with a polite demand, asking China to accommodate Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). It was originally meant to be a Russia-led alliance on political, trade and infrastructure construction issues in Eurasian countries. But the plan has suffered because of Moscow’s paucity of funds. ​From Russia with love In his speech, Putin indicated that Russian cooperation is essential to overcome challenges to BRI in the Eurasian region. “(Furthermore,) it is necessary to eliminate infrastructure restrictions for integration mainly by creating a system of modern and well-connected transport corridors. Russia with its unique geographic location is willing to engage in this joint activity,” Putin said in his speech. Putin proposed an integration between different programs and institutions like EAEU, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and One Belt, One Road (old name of Belt and Road Initiative). Mohan Malik, professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies at Honolulu, said Putin insists on calling the Chinese plan by the old name to expose China’s attempt to show that all roads lead to Beijing. “By drawing attention to Moscow’s own EAEU initiative and stressing the need for OBOR to partner with the EAEU, the SCO and the ASEAN, Putin is indirectly criticizing Beijing’s ‘go it alone’ approach which is already facing global backlash,” he said. It is also a reminder from Putin that Russia still has a significant presence in Central Asia, especially on security issues but also in trade and investment, said Zach Witlin, senior analyst at Eurasia Group. Analysts said Putin is engaged in political posturing and some amount of bargaining for Chinese investments, but he does not have the deep pockets to match Beijing’s clout and implement Moscow’s Eurasian initiative. Bargaining game “It is a sign of just how little bargaining leverage he has that he has to make such a plea in public and lump Russia together with all the rest as supplicants,” said Stephen Blank, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. “Implicitly he is also trying to induce China to invest in the Arctic and other major infrastructure and transportation projects in Asia,” he said. China included a road link passing through Russia when Chinese President Xi Jinping first announced the Belt and Road plan in 2013. It took six years of wrangling before Russia recently agreed to implement the project, which is the Russian section of the Meridian toll highway. The road is meant to link China’s western neighbor Kazakhstan with Belarus. But Putin did not mention the project in public discussions during his Beijing visit last month. In Russia, the project has been given least importance with just one line being mentioned in the 110-page blueprint on “National Projects” published last February: “By the end of 2024, the Russian section of the Meridian toll highway will be built.” The Chinese have been patient with Moscow for their own reasons.  “Russia is very important for the Belt and Road, you need its cooperation to achieve success with Eurasian countries,” Bloomberg quoted Wang Yiwei, a former Chinese diplomat and now professor at Renmin University in Beijing. “You cannot bypass Russia.” But bargaining with Beijing for collaboration in other parts of Eurasia and South East Asia would not yield much result.  “China will not cede primacy to Russia anywhere in the BRI,” Blank said. US role The U.S. sent a relatively low-ranking delegation to the Belt and Road Forum meeting and issued a press release criticizing the BRI on several counts. Some analyst believe Washington is making a tactical mistake by allowing high-powered growth of the Chinese program in crucial areas like Eurasia. Malik said the Obama administration had outlined its “New Silk Road” vision for joint investment projects and regional trade in the region. “However, Washington dropped the ‘New Silk Road’ plan under pressure from Beijing,” he said adding that the Obama administration largely ignored China’s growing outreach in Central Asia. “In contrast, the Trump administration has reassessed the challenge that OBOR poses and turned extremely critical and hostile to it,” Malik said. U.S. officials routinely warn countries that China’s infrastructure deals can carry long-term financial costs that countries can struggle to repay. When Italy signed on to Beijing’s development plan in March, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told U.S. lawmakers that such deals with China ultimately hurt the country signing onto them. “It may feel good in the moment: You think you got a cheap product or a low-cost bridge or road built. And in the end there will be a political cost attached to that which will greatly exceed the economic value of what you were provided,” he said.

Coronation of Thai King Cements His Royal Legitimacy

Sat, 05/04/2019 - 12:20
After a more than a decade of political strife, including a military coup and a contentious election less than two months ago, the people of Thailand are witnessing this weekend the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn in a centuries-old royal tradition that last happened seven decades ago. The coronation represents a renewal of the monarchy’s power after the October 2016 death of Vajiralongkorn’s revered father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The 66-year-old Vajiralongkorn has served as king since then. But to be fully and formally invested with regal power and to ensure his legitimacy, he will be consecrated in an elaborate series of ancient rites that culminate in three days of elaborate pageantry. The main ceremony will take place Saturday, when Vajiralongkorn will put on a crown, more than 200 years old, 66 centimeters (26 inches) high, weighing 7.3 kilograms (16 pounds) and ornamented with diamonds set in gold enamel. Other events include a parade and an appearance by the monarch on a balcony of the Grand Palace in Bangkok. “This ceremony is significant to Thailand because the monarchy ... is a very important institution of our country and is the soul of our nation,” said Naowarat Buakluan, a 41-year-old civil servant. “If you ask why the ceremony is being held this year when his majesty has already ascended the throne, it’s because this is the right moment. Previously we Thais were mourning the loss of our beloved late king.” Political turmoil, tight control Vajiralongkorn inherits a nation in political turmoil, with the powerful army entrenched in government for five years after staging a coup in 2014. An election held in March has been widely seen as rigged through convoluted election laws to favor the military and its preferred candidate, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the coup and has headed the government since then. Vajiralongkorn has tightened control over royal institutions and what amounts to political privileges. He surprised the country’s ruling junta when, “to ensure his royal powers,” he requested changes to a new constitution that had already been approved in a referendum. They acquiesced. The powers he acquired centralize royal authority in his hands and make explicit his right to intervene in government affairs, especially in times of political crisis. Sulak Sivaraksa, a prominent intellectual and social critic, said he doesn’t expect Vajiralongkorn’s coronation to differ much in style from his father’s — though Thailand did not have television broadcasts in 1950, and this weekend’s events will have blanket coverage across all channels, with looks inside the palace that ordinary people could only have dreamed of 69 years ago. Vajiralongkorn, said Sulak, “doesn’t like ceremony himself, personally, but when it is performed he wants it to be proper.” When his father was cremated in 2017, Vajiralongkorn “insisted that everything had to be done properly.” “Likewise the coronation has to be done properly and he doesn’t mind the expense, but it has to be done properly,” Sulak said. High point of the coronation ​A book on the history of Thai coronations vividly described the high point of what was just one of the ceremonies in preparation for Bhumibol’s 1950 coronation. “When the auspicious time arrived, the royal astrologer hit the Gong of Victory, the scribe and the royal augur began inscribing on the Royal Golden Plaques the official title of the King and the King’s Horoscope. At the same moment, the artisan also began to engrave the Royal Seal of State. During the whole period, monks were chanting auspicious prayer, Brahmins were blowing conch shells, while the royal officers of the Thai musical ensemble played their instruments.” Saturday’s rituals include the royal purification ceremony at the Grand Palace, where holy water is showered over the king’s head. He then ascends the throne and sits beneath the 9-tiered umbrella, used only by the king, to receive the royal golden plaque, royal regalia and weapons of sovereignty, and his crown, among other symbols of the monarchy, from the chief Brahmin — a dignitary whose role reflects the influence of Hinduism on Thai’s monarchy. The king later receives members of the royal family, the Privy Council and Cabinet, among other senior officials, who will pay their respects in the Throne Hall. Afterward he will visit the Temple of the Emerald Buddha to announce he is the royal defender of Buddhism. The day’s events end with a ceremony of the Assumption of the Royal Residence, a symbolic palace housewarming. On Sunday, there will be a 7-kilometer (4.3-mile) royal procession involving 343 men, some of them carrying the king through old Bangkok in an ornately decorated palanquin, allowing Thais to pay homage to their new king. Monday will see the king greet the public from the balcony of the Grand Palace in the late afternoon and then hold a reception for the diplomatic corps.

Seoul Confirms North Korea Tests Short-Range Missile

Sat, 05/04/2019 - 08:03
North Korea has test-fired a short-range missile, South Korea said Saturday, in what appears to be Pyongyang’s latest small-scale provocation following the breakdown of nuclear talks. North Korea fired the missile toward the east from the eastern town of Wonsan just after 9 a.m. local time, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement. No other details about the missile were immediately available, but a short-range missile would not violate international sanctions on North Korea’s missile program. North Korea has not commented on the test. ‘Skirt the line’ of moratorium Since November 2017, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has observed a self-imposed moratorium on missile tests. Testing a short-range ballistic missile “might skirt the line” on that moratorium, says Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Kim has stated (the moratorium) only applies to ICBMs, while the U.S. believes it applies more broadly,” Narang said. “It’s enough to signal slightly greater concern but giving the U.S. an out if it wants to, to dismiss it as not a violation of the moratorium.” Measured escalations North Korea, which wants sanctions relief from the U.S., has carried out a series of measured escalations since nuclear talks with the U.S. broke down. Most notably, the North said last month it conducted a test of a tactical guided weapon. It has also threatened to respond to U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said he will give the U.S. until the end of the year to become more flexible in nuclear talks. U.S. President Donald Trump has said he will not relax sanctions until North Korea commits to giving up its entire nuclear weapons program.

Pentagon Warns of Chinese Military Spying 

Sat, 05/04/2019 - 04:59
China's two decades of military modernization has paid off big in missile development and domains like cyber and space, but the Pentagon says China is still relying on spying on others to steal the latest military technology.    "China uses a variety of methods to acquire foreign military and dual-use technologies, including targeted foreign direct investment, cyber theft, and exploitation of private Chinese nationals' access to these technologies, as well as ... computer intrusions and other illicit approaches," according to a congressionally mandated Pentagon report released Thursday.    Randall Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, told reporters Friday at the Pentagon that China frequently uses tactics that fall just short of armed conflict to reach its goal of becoming a "world-class military by 2049," from threats and coercion against media and academia to jamming systems against ships in international waters in the South China Sea.   The report said China has used these illicit approaches to acquire military-grade technologies from the United States that ranged from antisubmarine to aviation equipment.    He said the Chinese were "very aggressive" with modernization and had made "significant progress" in their ballistic and cruise missile development, but he stopped short of calling Beijing an adversary.    "We certainly don't see conflict with China, and it doesn't preclude cooperation where interests align," Schriver told reporters.    Arctic    The report also shows increased Chinese activities in the Arctic region.    Arctic states have expressed concerns that Beijing could use its presence there to strengthen China's military reach, mirroring worries about Chinese military presence in Africa and Latin America following its Belt and Road economic initiative.    "Civilian research could support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, which could include deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks," the report notes.   The Pentagon report noted that European allies like Denmark have expressed concern about Chinese proposals to establish a research station and a satellite ground station in Greenland.    Concentration camps    Schriver also noted the U.S. military's concern that the Chinese Communist Party's Central Military Commission has taken sole authority of the People's Armed Police, China's primary force for internal security.    He accused China of imprisoning close to 3 million Chinese Muslims in "concentration camps" that "erode the rules-based order." He later defended his description, which harks back to the Jewish concentration camps in Nazi Germany, as appropriate, given the magnitude of the Chinese detentions and the goals of the camps based on public comments from the Chinese government. 

UN: 10 Million-plus N. Koreans Face Hunger This Year

Sat, 05/04/2019 - 02:55
Two U.N. agencies warned Friday that more than 10 million people in North Korea are facing severe food shortages because the recent harvest was the worst in a decade.   The World Food Program (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said a combination of weather conditions and limited supplies of fuel, fertilizer and other agricultural inputs have resulted in a harvest of less than 5 million tons. For the past 10 years, total crop production has not fallen below the 5 million-ton level.     Prospects for crops that will be harvested in June are not promising, because of a widespread lack of rainfall and a lack of snow cover, which experts say left crops exposed to freezing temperatures during the winter.     The U.N. said that annually, 11 million people, or 43 percent of North Korea's  population, are undernourished.    In addition to having less to eat, there are also shortages of certain types of nutrient-rich foods.   ​Little protein   "Our assessment showed that there are some people getting so little protein in their diet that they are eating eggs and other protein maybe several times a year," WFP spokesman Steve Taravella told VOA. "So it's not just quantity but diversity of diet that is of real concern right now."    The diet of the average North Korean lacks vital vitamins, minerals, proteins and fats, and consists mainly of rice, maize or potatoes, and kimchi (pickled cabbage) or other vegetables when they are available.     The FAO is concerned about wheat, barley and potato shortages, which are key staples during the lean season, which begins in May and runs through September.     Many urban families rely on their rural relatives to improve their access to food, but the U.N. assessment warned that rural families are also facing food shortages this year.     The agencies also found that the government's public distribution system, on which many North Koreans rely, has been forced to cut rations to the lowest level ever for this time of year. Since January, rations have been reduced to 300 grams per person per day, compared with 380 grams at the same time last year. The U.N. warned rations could be cut further during the peak lean season, without substantial external assistance.  ​Effects of sanctions   The international community has imposed increasingly tighter economic sanctions on North Korea in the past two years in a bid to get it to give up its illicit nuclear weapons program. While U.N. Security Council sanctions are not intended to hurt the civilian population, WFP spokesman Taravella said sometimes sanctions have unintended consequences and in North Korea, food production has been affected.     "Yes, we have experienced indirect implications of the sanctions, things like ship owners being more reluctant to send vessels to DPRK because of the now-lengthier cargo inspections and possible fines," he said, referring to North Korea by its acronym. "So that means there have been delays in getting vital goods, including food assistance, into the country."    Despite a thaw in relations between the United States and North Korea resulting in two summits between their leaders in the past year, the international community has not eased sanctions, choosing to wait to see progress on denuclearization from Pyongyang first.    The World Food Program provides nutrition assistance to 770,000 malnourished women and children across nine North Korean provinces. It needs $28.5 million this year to continue its work. The Food and Agriculture Organization supports more than a half-million cooperative farmers with agricultural inputs, techniques and technologies to improve their crop yields. 

Cambodian Journalist Sees Media Situation Deteriorating

Sat, 05/04/2019 - 02:30
Cambodian journalist Aun Pheap used to be a dedicated reporter. He would chase stories for The Cambodia Daily, a local independent paper, and write articles that government officials, businessmen and other powerful players would rather not see published. Things radically changed in May 2017 when he and his Canadian colleague, Zsombor Peter, an associate editor at the paper, went to Ratanakkiri in the kingdom's north to report on the only commune in the province in which the opposition party had won a commune chief position in 2012. They wanted to assess whether and how the situation had changed, and find out whether villagers would most likely vote for the opposition party again during the commune elections in June 2017. While they were reporting, though, authorities ordered them to leave, saying the two lacked permission to be there. Insisting on their right of press freedom, the two continued to do their job. 'Just exercising our rights' "We [were] just exercising our rights. We are reporters, so we are not required to submit our letter with the authorities," Aun Pheap told VOA. Aun Pheap said he suspected that local authorities had long been unhappy with stories he reported about illegal logging. Aun Pheap and Peter had won the 2017 Excellence in Investigative Reporting award from the Society of Publishers for an investigation into the military's involvement in illegal trade. In August 2017, they were charged with incitement. Aun Pheap left the country a few weeks later and has not returned.  ​Seeking asylum in US After spending five months in Thailand, where the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, recognized him as a refugee, Aun Pheap went to the United States. His asylum application is pending, he said.  Reflecting on press freedom in Cambodia, Aun Pheap described the situation in the country as dire. "If someone criticizes the government, then they use a trick. They say, 'Oh, this newspaper has no professional [attitude],' then they shut it down. So now there is not any independent newspaper in Cambodia," he said. The Cambodia Daily was forced to shut down. Its rival, The Phnom Penh Post, was sold to an investor with ties to the government. Additionally, more than 30 radio stations went off the air, and journalists were arrested. In the World Press Freedom Index, the country fell to a rank of 143 out of 180 countries. Many commentators attributed what they termed a crackdown on the free press to national elections held last July, and Aun Pheap said not much has changed since then. "The government still puts pressure, still intimidates the local people if they want to give opinions," he said. Asked how he foresaw developments over the next few years, Aun Pheap said he didn't believe the situation would improve.  "Worse. It's going [to become] worse. Worse and worse," he said. "I don't think it's going [to be] better, because the prime minister, Hun Sen, right now, he's still running the government. And after he becomes old, he plans to transfer the power to his son. So if the power is going to his son, nothing changes. ... I have no hope that Cambodia is going to be better in the future."  Huy Vannak, a government official at the Interior Ministry and head of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia, said journalists enjoyed press freedom as long as they remained professional. "[For example], they keep using the word, when they refer to the royal government of Cambodia, they call it, 'Hun Sen regime,' " he said. "It is rude. ... For Cambodian culture, it is immoral, it is hate speech and it is incitement."  'Clampdown' on journalism The Committee to Protect Journalists' Southeast Asia representative, Shawn Crispin, described the charges against Aun Pheap in the context of an "ongoing clampdown on free media and independent journalists." In an email to VOA, Crispin said, "The incitement charges filed against him and his colleague aimed to stifle reporting on the now-banned political opposition. The charges are bogus and underscore the lack of judicial independence under Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party." Huy Vannak rejected the accusations and said it was merely a matter of respecting other people's rights. "Your freedom has a border. I don't think you can use your freedom to violate dignity," he said. By way of example, he said that calling Hun Sen, who lost an eye in a battle during the 1970s, a "one-eyed prime minister" was "immoral" and did not fall under press freedom.  

Press Freedom Continues to Face Setbacks in China

Sat, 05/04/2019 - 01:30
The hope for press freedom has long been an elusive aspiration in China, and the outlook has become increasingly dire under the tight rule of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.  Over the past year, Chinese authorities have stepped up the use of technology, and intensified efforts to snuff out access to news, opinions and information — even on social media platforms that are blocked in China, such as Twitter.  In the world's second-largest economy, thousands of internet sites are blocked, including Facebook, Gmail, Google, Instagram and Pinterest. News websites such as VOA English and Chinese, the BBC, The New York Times, Bloomberg and others have been forced outside of what is called the Great Firewall of China. With the tightening of social media at home, Twitter has become a place for some to share information and read more about world events.  In recent months, however, individuals from scholars to rights advocates — even some with very few followers — have been forced to delete posts and, in some cases, close down their feeds permanently.  Rights advocates estimate that dozens have been called in since late last year and told to stop or face jail time — some just for re-tweeting or liking posts. Focus on Twitter The actions of authorities are part of the continuing crackdown on freedom of expression that has taken place under Xi. It's a tightening that has trickled down from the blocking of overseas websites to pressuring operators of domestic internet sites and organizers of group chats on Chinese social media. The focus on Twitter is affecting those looking for a place to vent, as well as Chinese citizens and others seeking access to more than just state and party directed media reports.  "Some of the sources that are on Twitter are important sources of information for foreign journalists, and it is a place where people in China not only voice their opinions but expose information and post videos," said Sarah Cook, a research analyst with the New York-based censorship watchdog Freedom House. It is estimated that 1% to 3% of Chinese internet users are on Twitter. That's a small portion for a country that boasts an online population of more than 800 million people. The growth of Chinese language media posts could be one reason for the tightening of controls on Twitter. Another factor: 2019 is a year of important and sensitive anniversaries in China — from the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People's Republic of China to the 30th anniversary of the communist party's bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown.  The New York Times, BBC and others have Chinese-language Twitter accounts with more than a million followers. VOA's Chinese language news site has more than 780,000. The English version of state-run Xinhua News Agency has more than 12 million followers, and its Chinese language feed has more than a million. "They are using freedom of information and freedom of expression and those channels that we have globally to the best of their advantage, while at the same time ensuring that they strictly adhere to Communist Party whims," said William Nee, a China researcher with Amnesty International. Propaganda tools  Before Xi began his rise to power in 2012, analysts and activists say the government's approach was much different. Under former leader Hu Jintao, there was more space for the sharing of information online through social media.  Since then, Xi has taken a much more sophisticated and technologically savvy approach, they note.  "Xi Jinping has clearly consolidated his power and because of that there is less space for freedom of the press," said Zuo La, a prominent citizen journalist and blogger who left China before Xi came to power.  "In China, there are fewer and fewer investigative journalists, citizens' space for freedom of speech is being squeezed and more are being arrested for what they have said," he said. In addition to tightening controls, technology is being used to advance China's domestic and global propaganda objectives, as well as its vision for the media.  Late last year, Xinhua News Agency and tech firm Sogou showcased the world's first robotic news anchor, which uses AI to mimic the voice, lip movements and expressions of a news presenter. The AI anchor was touted as being able to work 24 hours a day and boost efficiency.  But more than robot-like journalists, the combination of AI and the Chinese government's propaganda machine is something more worrisome, said Freedom House's Cook. "Particularly with regards to the idea of changing certain words in the story or in the headline for different users to make it more attractive for someone like these news aggregator apps that are run on AI," Cook said.  The ability to tailor stories and create different versions that can reach more viewers who engage with it based on the algorithms of the apps they are using makes for a very powerful propaganda tool, she adds. "I am not sure how effective having an AI anchor is ... but I think there are some real and more insidious uses of AI when you talk about it being combined with an agency like Xinhua," Cook said.

Independent Cambodian News Outlet Starts Publishing in English

Sat, 05/04/2019 - 01:21
On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, an English news website was launched Friday to help revive the stifled independent media landscape in Cambodia.  "[We] established [it] because we saw the lack of independent media platforms in Cambodia that provide very independent information to the people living outside Cambodia, especially the international community," said Nop Vy, director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, or CCIM. Until recently, Voice of Democracy's news website was written in the Cambodian language, Khmer. VOD, which published a few articles recently, hopes to fill in the gap left behind by independent news outlets that were forced to close or were sold over the past few years, Nop Vy added. Independent newspaper The Cambodia Daily was forced to shut down in September 2017 when faced with a tax bill of $6.3 million. Additionally, Radio Free Asia closed its doors in Phnom Penh, citing pressure from the government, 30 radio stations were taken off air, and the last English independent daily newspaper, The Phnom Penh Post, was sold in May of last year.  With a new team of five to seven people, including reporters and editors, Nop Vy said he hoped the website could play "the role as the watchdog in order to monitor the actions of the government" that had previously been performed by other outlets.  This, he said, would contribute to good governance and democracy in the country.  Nop Vy said he aimed to generate income for the Khmer website and activities of CCIM in general, to which VOD belongs.Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, welcomed the creation of the English website. "Cambodia's press freedom situation has deteriorated significantly in recent years due to government harassment and threats," he said in an email. "[Cambodian Prime Minister] Hun Sen's government clearly sees free media as a threat to his consolidation of an unchallenged one-party state." 'Immoral' articles Government official Huy Vannak, who simultaneously serves as undersecretary of state at the Interior Ministry and head of the Union of Journalist Federations of Cambodia, denied the accusation. He said press freedom was "open and wide" and that journalists who complained about a lack thereof misunderstood the concept of freedom of expression. "I think they want to use freedom for hate speech; they want to use freedom for incitement," he said. Journalists who said they felt they could not report freely often wrote "immoral" articles, he said, by harming other people's or government officials' dignity — such as calling Cambodia's government the "Hun Sen regime." "If they have good intentions, and if they practice professionalism, they can do whatever [they want to do]," he said. "But the point is people misunderstand how to exercise their freedom." 'Huge gap' filled Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, echoed CPJ's assessment. He said that while the new program "really fills a huge gap in reporting," this was likely not a permanent solution. "Sadly, the big question is not if — but rather when — the Cambodian government decides to go after VOD and its reporters," Robertson told VOA by email.  "Freedom of the press is still an endangered species in Hun Sen's Cambodia. Diplomats should be telling the Cambodian government to respect media freedom and end the persecution of RFA, VOD, and other independent media," Robertson added. The CCIM's Nop Vy said his organization attempted to prevent this from happening by building a "mutual understanding between the government and the independent journalists."

Myanmar Authorities Arrest Critics Even as They Pardon Prisoners

Fri, 05/03/2019 - 22:46
Myanmar has launched a crackdown in recent weeks on peaceful critics of the military and the government, arresting satirical performers, activists, a journalist and a prominent filmmaker with liver cancer. The surge in arrests comes even as officials promise to release “politically related” prisoners and people linked to rebel armed groups following last month's mass pardon of inmates, who were mostly serving time for drug offenses. For many activists, the pardons, far from being a sign of hope, show that Myanmar’s first civilian leaders in decades remain committed to playing by the same rulebook as their military-backed predecessors. To win their freedom “those persecuted by the state are forced to rely on the ‘forgiveness’ of this same state,” the Burma Human Rights Network said in a statement late last month. One of those recently arrested, filmmaker and rights advocate Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, has been repeatedly denied bail despite fears he could die in custody as he struggles with liver cancer. He was charged in early April under section 66d - a notorious anti-defamation law that critics say is used to silence dissent - after he posted on Facebook criticizing the military’s dominant role in politics. He was later charged under section 505a, which bans statements that might induce members of the military to “disregard” their duties. He faces up to four years in prison, but some are worried he might not live through the trial if he is not transferred to a hospital for specialized care. At a hearing last week at Yangon’s Insein court, he was so weak that he collapsed while sitting on a bench. Officials continued the hearing as his friends and family propped up his head and fanned him while he laid down. Later, defense lawyer Robert San Aung tried again to convince the judge to grant bail on health grounds. Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi’s friends helped him to his feet and unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a scar running down the length of his torso from a recent operation on his liver. The judge didn’t react, but promptly dismissed the lawyer’s request for bail. In a joint letter ahead of the hearing, hundreds of filmmakers and other professionals from around the world wrote that they were “gravely concerned for his health and fear for his life” if he is kept in custody. Government spokesperson Zaw Htay could not be reached for comment. Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, told VOA that the military, faced with increasing condemnation from abroad for its treatment of the Rohingya and other minorities in various conflicts around the country, “is doubling down on silencing critics at home.” “Many activists, especially younger activists, are being careful with their social media posts” after the recent spate of arrests, said youth activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi. But she sees the arrests as a sign that campaigners are doing their jobs properly and “a chance to show the military’s true nature, even though they are saying they support democracy."   Many had hoped that the party of former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD), would use its large parliamentary majority to revoke laws used to stifle free speech when it came to power in 2016. Instead, says Robertson, her party has found that having laws on the books to silence its own critics “is too tempting for the NLD to resist.”   Zau Jat, an anti-war activist who was pardoned last month after being jailed in December for “defaming” the military during a protest, told VOA the NLD uses oppressive laws to its advantage. “They want to threaten people who complain about them,” he said.