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Analysts Look Ahead at Uncertain North Korean Talks

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 16:20
North Korea announced last week it would not pursue denuclearization unless the United States removes what it calls its “nuclear threat.” The Institute for North Korean Studies’ Yongwook Ryu was not surprised by North Korea’s declaration. “Most people suspected that North Korea and the United States, also including South Korea, has a different understanding of denuclearization,” he said. “Analysts and pundits knew that by denuclearization, North Korea meant the removal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula, as well as U.S. nuclear threat.” However, the Asan Institute’s Seong Whun Cheon goes further, saying, “North Korea hijacked the terminology denuclearization from South Korea and the United States. “Denuclearization was coined by Washington,” Cheon said, referring to a process whereby “South Korea and North Korea give up all forms of nuclear position, including uranium enrichment and reprocessing facilities that can be devoted to military purposes.” Cheon said that was the ultimate goal of the 1991 joint North and South Korean declaration, but Pyongyang ignored the statement and continued to develop its programs, all the while telling Seoul and Washington they were abandoning them. Timing of North Korea’s statement North Korea’s statement defining “denuclearization” came as Pyongyang and Washington are trying to negotiate a second summit between its two heads of state, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump. But in its statement Pyongyang said, “The United States must now recognize the accurate meaning of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and especially, must study geography. “When we talk about the Korean Peninsula, it includes the territory of our republic and also the entire region of (South Korea) where the United States has placed its invasive force, including nuclear weapons. When we talk about the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it means the removal of all sources of nuclear threat, not only from the South and North but also from areas neighboring the Korean Peninsula,” the statement read. Ryu indicates that North Korea may be signaling that it is not interested in initiating dialogue with the United States at this time. “This does not necessarily mean they do not want to have talks with [the United States], but it’s telling the American side that it’s not intending to begin negotiations at this moment in time,” he said, noting Washington should respond to the statement in some way. “The most recent statement from North Korea is just a repetition of their view,” Cheon said. “The problem is we have ignored, or we simply were fooled by North Korea’s propaganda.” He says the timing of the statement may be in response to the Trump administration’s pressure on Pyongyang to implement the terms of the Singapore Summit, as the United States interpreted them. ​Prospects for a second Trump-Kim summit “We still are working through the execution of Chairman Kim’s commitment to denuclearize,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Kansas-based KNSS Radio last week. The U.S., he added, is “hopeful that in the new year President Trump and Chairman Kim will get together not too long after the first of the year and make even further progress on taking this threat to the United States away from us.” Cheon is slightly less optimistic than Pompeo, predicting the likelihood of a second summit at 50 percent and the deciding factor is what President Trump’s position will be on North Korea, “in the wake of General Mattis’ departure from the Defense Department.” “I think the swing of America’s North Korea policy is so wide,” he said, that engagement policies could hit two extremes. “On one hand, President Trump may compromise with North Korea [and] be satisfied with eliminating North Korea’s ICBMs and [some of their] nuclear warheads,” but Cheon said that if the president believes he was “fooled by North Korea ... he may take more radical, hotter and aggressive action toward North Korea.” While the United States has been discussing the timing of a second summit early in 2019, Ryu says that while such a meeting may still happen, it may happen later than that. In Kim Jong Un’s forthcoming New Year’s Day address, Ryu said there is a possibility that the North Korean leader “will not emphasize North Korea being a nuclear sate as a gesture to the USA and South Korea [and] that it is still interested in holding talks and advancing negotiations with the hope of removing sanctions on Pyongyang.” Meanwhile, Seoul has unveiled its national defense strategy that continues to pursue peace on the peninsula in the wake of stalled talks and an uncertain future. Lee Ju-hyun contributed to this report.

Taiwanese Don Yellow Vests to Protest Taxes

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 15:21
Thousands of Taiwanese, taking a page from France’s yellow vest movement, protested Thursday for the third time in a week to demand lower taxes and the fair handling of tax disputes. Wearing yellow vests, they shouted slogans and blared air horns outside the Ministry of Finance in Taipei, the capital city, and waved banners calling Taiwan’s tax collection policies illegal. Some wore clear plastic raincoats over their vests in a light rain. “This is about our futures,” said Joanna Tai, a 23-year-old English language graduate student who plans to teach after graduation next year. “We look at wages in Hong Kong and mainland China. We want to know why there’s so much of a gap with Taiwan,” she said. “Then a lot of my classmates want to start companies and be their own bosses but, because of taxes, a lot of small businesses have folded.” ​Thousands march The Tax & Legal Reform League, an activist group, called the protest after marshaling about 20,000 people outside the presidential office in an initial demonstration a week ago, and another 10,000 on Saturday, according to organizers and Taiwanese media. The organizers said they were inspired by the success of the recent French protests, which turned violent and were blamed for 10 deaths. The Taiwanese protests have been peaceful. French President Emmanuel Macron eventually agreed to scrap a tax hike for gasoline and diesel, increase the minimum salary for full-time workers as well as other steps. “We saw Macron and he wanted to soften up, so that gave us some encouragement to protest, so we hope the president here can hear our voices,” Reform League media liaison Wang Chih-lan said. “The Ministry of Finance is the major culprit. It’s a big organization that’s causing poverty in Taiwan.” Years of complaints A ministry spokeswoman said earlier this week that anti-tax activists have been pushing for lower taxes for about 20 years. Tsai Meng-chu said that the ministry has responded to some of their complaints on its website, including a rebuttal to allegations that the tax system contributes to poverty. “Their complaints are just that they’re not satisfied with the tax system,” she said, noting that Taiwan offers payment deferrals to low-income individuals. Protesters said they had received tax bills sent in error or asking for too much tax. An appeal costs too much, they said, and tax collectors sometimes keep hounding them for taxes even after losing in court. Income taxes add hardship to young people in low-paid, entry-level jobs, some said. The average monthly wage in Taiwan is $1,364, and the minimum wage is set to rise to $750 in January. During her campaign, President Tsai Ing-wen said she would work on wages and welfare for young people. Taiwanese who earn less than $2.42 million New Taiwan dollars (about $78,500) a year pay no more than 20 percent in taxes, according to data compiled by professional services firm KPMG. KPMG ranked Taiwan 33rd for the world’s highest taxes on a list of 135 countries and regions. France ranked 12th.

Japan to Leave International Whaling Commission; Resume Commercial Whaling

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 13:16
Japan will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission and resume commercial whaling in July. Wednesday's announcement was met with opposition from animal rights groups, who say that Tokyo is violating international law. Japan says whaling will only be in its own waters and exclusive economic zone. Arash Arabasadi reports.

Lost Idol: New Wave of Myanmar Youth Activists Look Beyond Suu Kyi

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 13:03
Myanmar youth activist and television host Thinzar Shun Lei Yi would once have called herself one of Aung San Suu Kyi's greatest fans. Now, she is one of her most vocal critics. The 27-year-old belongs to a small but high-profile group of liberal activists, many former die-hard Suu Kyi supporters, who are growing increasingly disillusioned with the administration they voted into power with sky-high hopes three years ago. "I lost my idol, I'm confused, frustrated and lost," said Thinzar Shun Lei Yi, who hosts an 'Under 30' talk show on a popular local website. "Most of the activists and youths are now thinking: 'What is next', 'What will happen?', 'What can we do?' At this stage, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is going her own way and nobody can intervene, and she won't listen to civil society organizations," she said, using the honorific for women in Myanmar. While Suu Kyi continues to inspire devotion among many ordinary Burmese, the emergence of a dissenting youth movement – driven by anger over her handling of ethnic minorities, including the Muslim Rohingya, as well as curbs on the media and civil society – presents a new challenge for her administration. At stake is the future of Myanmar's transition towards democracy after years of military rule. With a general election looming in 2020, the country's first civilian government in decades is confronted by growing divisions among activists who once coalesced around her National League for Democracy party. NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt said the party was trying to win over young people, increasing the budget for education and supporting vocational training programs. "The youth and the people expected a lot from our government," he said. "We couldn't live up to their expectations, we admit. But we are doing our best." Suu Kyi took power in 2016 after a landslide election win, vowing to continue democratic reforms and end the country's long-running civil wars. Since then, the administration has come under pressure over its response to a military crackdown against the Rohingya minority that the United Nations has described as "ethnic cleansing" with "genocidal intent", as well as faltering peace talks with ethnic armed groups and a stagnating economy. Free speech Activists say the civilian government has also become increasingly authoritarian, failing to use its overwhelming parliamentary majority to scrap colonial-era laws used to stifle dissent, while tightening restrictions on civil society. In recent months, they have staged several protests, including an anti-war march in the commercial capital of Yangon in May that ended in scuffles. A total of 17 people were charged with unlawful protest, including Thinzar Shun Lei Yi. Their trial is ongoing. "Sensitive issues are banned, and protesters arrested and beaten," she said. "The National League of Democracy, the party using the name of democracy, must respect democracy and human rights.” According to free speech organization Athan, which means 'Voice' in Burmese, 44 journalists and 142 activists have faced trial since the Suu Kyi government took power. They include Reuters reporters Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, who were sentenced to seven years in prison in September after being convicted of breaking the colonial era Official Secrets Act. The journalists are appealing their conviction to the country's High Court, citing evidence of a police set-up and lack of proof of a crime. Suu Kyi said in September their jailing had nothing to do with freedom of expression. The government says Myanmar's courts are independent. Athan's founder, poet and activist Maung Saung Kha, was among the protesters charged alongside Thinzar Shun Lei Yi in May. Four months later, in September, they both helped organize another demonstration, this time for free speech. Facing the crowd, Maung Saung Kha who is still an NLD member donned the orange shirt traditionally worn by his party's lawmakers and draped a green jacket resembling military garb over it. Armed with a copy of the state-run daily newspaper The Mirror, he began beating journalists gathered nearby. "The government has failed to use its power to protect people's rights," he told Reuters. Myo Nyunt, the party spokesman, said the government was cooperating with non-governmental organizations, but their activities needed to be examined case-by-case. "If it is not related to security or not a divisive issue among ethnics, we accept them," he said. "We are going forward to democracy so we acknowledge the role of NGOs, but we have concerns that NGOs are being influenced by sponsors instead of being independent." "Acknowledge Rohingya" While she has no control over the military, Suu Kyi has faced international criticism for failing to defend the Rohingya, more than 730,000 of whom fled a sweeping army crackdown in western Rakhine state in 2017, according to U.N. agencies. The operation was launched in response to insurgent Rohingya attacks on security forces. Myanmar denies almost all the allegations of atrocities made by refugees, saying the army was carrying out a legitimate campaign against terrorists. While many among Myanmar's Buddhist majority revile the Rohingya, the young activists offer a rare sympathetic voice. "We acknowledge Rohingya. We totally denounce the fact that they are referred to as 'Bengali'," said Maung Saung Kha, referring to a term commonly used in Myanmar to imply the Rohingya are interlopers from Bangladesh, despite a long history in the country. "We haven't seen any acknowledgement or punishment for the things that happened," he said. "The refugees will not come backas long as these people think of them as less than humans, and that it is not a crime to kill them." Khin Sandar, another young activist facing unlawful protest charges, spent months campaigning for the NLD ahead of the 2015 election but lost faith in Suu Kyi over her handling of the Rakhine crisis. Her family was affected in a wave of communal violence in 2012, when not only Rohingya but members of the Kaman Muslim minority, who also face discrimination but unlike the Rohingya are considered Myanmar citizens, were driven from their homes. They live in crowded internal displacement camps outside the Rakhine state capital Sittwe and are subjected to severe restrictions on movement. In a speech after last year's violence, Suu Kyi said all residents of Rakhine "have access to education and healthcare services without discrimination." "My own nephew and nieces are still living in the Sittwe camps and they don't have those rights," said Khin Sandar. "I was shocked. How can she say that in her speech?" Afterwards, she said, she quit her job as researcher for an NLD lawmaker. While the youth activists represent only a small segment of Myanmar society they are increasingly influential in the grassroots activism scene, while their protests and public comments have attracted significant attention from media and from their vast social media followings. Mostly in their 20s and 30s, they highlight the gulf between Myanmar's young population the median age is 27 and its aging leadership, comprised of mostly men in their 60s and 70s. "Myanmar is a very conservative country, these young people especially from Yangon are now challenging that," said Myat Thu, a political analyst from the Yangon School of Political Science. "In order to have a revolution of ideas, not many people need to know. They will spread it gradually."

Satellite Shows Collapse of Indonesian Volcano

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 12:07
Radar data from satellites, converted into images, shows Indonesia’s Anak Krakatoa island volcano is dramatically smaller following a weekend eruption that triggered a deadly tsunami. Satellite photos aren’t available because of cloud cover, but radar images from a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency satellite taken before and after the eruption show the volcano’s southwestern flank has disappeared. Dave Petley, head of research and innovation at Sheffield University who analyzed similar images from a European Space Agency satellite, said they support the theory that a landslide, most of it undersea, caused the tsunami that killed at least 430 people Saturday evening. “The challenge now is to interpret what might be happening on the volcano, and what might happen next,” he wrote in a blog. Indonesian authorities are warning people to stay at least a kilometer away (less than a mile) from the Sunda Strait coastline because of the risk of another tsunami. JASA’s post-eruption image shows concentric waves radiating from the island, which experts say is caused by ongoing eruptions. ​Child of Krakatoa Anak Krakatoa, which means child of Krakatoa, is the offspring of the infamous Krakatoa volcano that affected global climate with a massive eruption in 1883. Anak Krakatoa first rose above sea level in 1929, according to Indonesia’s volcanology agency, and has been increasing its land mass since then.  Alert raised Meanwhile the continuing eruptions prompted Indonesia to raise the alert level Thursday to the second highest and ordered all flights to steer clear. The national geological agency, in raising the alert level, set a 5-km exclusion zone around the island. Authorities have warned that the crater of Anak Krakatoa remains fragile, raising fears of another collapse and tsunami, There are also fears of a bigger eruption. The volcano has been rumbling on and off since July but has been particularly active since Sunday, spewing lava and rocks, and sending huge clouds of ash up to 3,000 meters into heavily overcast skies. Reuters news agency contributed to this report.

Report: China to try Canadian Citizen on Drug Charges

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 10:18
A Chinese court will try a Canadian citizen on drug charges on Saturday, a government-run news portal said, in a case that could further test already difficult relations between Beijing and Ottawa. The two countries have sparred over the fate of two Canadian citizens detained in China on suspicion of endangering state security, and of Canada's arrest of a high-ranking Chinese executive at the request of the United States. The high court in the northeastern province of Liaoning said on Wednesday a man it identified as Robert Lloyd Schellenberg would be tried on drugs smuggling charges in Dalian on Saturday. A Dalian government news portal said late on Wednesday Schellenberg was a Canadian citizen and that this was an appeal hearing after he was found by an earlier ruling to have smuggled "an enormous amount of drugs" into China. There was no immediate response from the Canadian government. Drug offenses are routinely punished severely in China. China executed a Briton caught smuggling heroin in 2009, prompting a British outcry over what it said was the lack of any mental health assessment. Canada has pressed for the release of the two Canadians who China detained earlier this month. The two were detained after Canadian police arrested Huawei Technologies Co Ltd's chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, on Dec. 1. Neither country has drawn a direct connection between the cases. China has demanded Canada free Meng, who is fighting extradition to the United States. Canada arrested Meng at the request of the United States, which is engaged in a trade war with China. Meng faces extradition to the United States to face fraud charges that carry a maximum sentence of 30 years jail for each charge.

Report: US Trade Team to Travel to China for Talks  

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 07:27
A U.S. trade delegation will go to China the week of Jan. 7, Bloomberg reported Wednesday, citing two people familiar with the matter. It will be the first time the two sides will meet face to face since U.S. President Donald Trump and China's Xi Jinping agreed to de-escalate a trade war during a meeting in Argentina on Dec. 1. The U.S. team will be led by Deputy Trade Representative Jeffrey Gerrish and will include David Malpass, Treasury undersecretary for international affairs, Bloomberg said.  For months, the U.S. and China have engaged in tit-for-tat increases in tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of exports flowing between the two countries.  At the meeting in Buenos Aires, the two leaders agreed to a 90-day truce in the trade war between the world's two largest economies. Trump also agreed to leave the tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese products at 10 percent, and not raise them to 25 percent on Jan. 1 as he had threatened. Trump said his agreement with Xi would go down "as one of the largest deals ever made. … And it'll have an incredibly positive impact on farming, meaning agriculture, industrial products, computers — every type of product." Trump and Xi also agreed to immediately begin negotiations on structural changes with respect to forced technology transfer, intellectual property protection, nontariff barriers, cyber intrusions and cyber theft, services and agriculture.  U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who was put in charge of the China talks, said the negotiations would not be extended beyond the 90-day deadline. He said that March 1 was a "hard deadline" that was endorsed by Trump, Bloomberg reported. Lighthizer will not be part of the team going to Beijing.

Cambodia Ends Long-Running Debate as it Celebrates 20 Years of Peace

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 00:20
Cambodia's government will host the start of a three-day celebration marking the 20-year anniversary of the end of civil war. The event, beginning Dec. 29, is designed to lay to rest the issue of when the long-running conflict finally ended. Tens of thousands are expected to gather in Chroy Changvar, the peninsula that fronts the capital, dividing the Mekong River and Tonle Sap, to mark the war's end — known as "win-win." They will also mark the opening of a memorial that the government says will "tell the next generation the real history of Cambodia." On Dec. 29, 1998, Cambodia's 30-year war ended when surviving Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan formally surrendered to Prime Minister Hun Sen at his compound on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. "Win-win policy allows Cambodia to attain peace and territorial unity and that it brought about socioeconomic development and poverty reduction, particularly as Cambodian people no longer died in war as in the past," Hun Sen recently said. ​Paris Peace Accords The capitulation came seven years after the 1991 Paris Peace Accords were signed and the end of the war declared; however, the arrival of peacekeepers with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in 1992 failed to disarm the Khmer Rouge. As a result, the fighting, kidnappings and terrorist attacks continued with three armies loyal to Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, and to the two prime ministers who shared power — Hun Sen of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and Prince Norodom Ranariddh of the Funcinpec party — squaring off against each other. According to CPP honorary chairman Heng Samrin, that changed in 1997 when Ranariddh sought a deal with the Khmer Rouge. He wanted to forge a military alliance in an effort to outgun Hun Sen, who responded accordingly. Hundreds were killed and Ranariddh was routed. Amnesties in return for defections were offered to the Khmer Rouge as government troops loyal to Hun Sen made a final push into their last strongholds along the Thai border and forced a final surrender. In the book The People's Struggle, Cambodia Reborn, recently released to coincide with the celebrations, author Heng Samrin credits Hun Sen with ending the conflict which began with a Khmer Rouge call to arms in August 1968. "In extinguishing the fire of war — something the U.N. was unable to achieve — Cambodians and observers from other countries expressed admiration for the tactics of the CPP leaders," he wrote. Peter Starr, English language editor of Cambodia Reborn, said the U.N. and the Paris Peace Accords contributed much to Cambodia's development. "Heng Samrin acknowledges the U.N.'s important role in helping to resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees along the Thai border and supervising multi-party elections in 1993. But he also sets the record straight by explaining that the U.N. did not end the civil war — that would take another five years." And it was the final surrender that enabled the Khmer Rouge tribunal to begin in earnest, securing convictions against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan for genocide and crimes against humanity The trouble with peace Cambodia's two decades of peace have been anything but trouble-free. A border dispute with Thailand turned to armed conflict in 2008 and Hun Sen accused a variety of insurgents of attempting to undermine his administration, including the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, Islamic militants and a recent color revolution. Political violence is not uncommon, while land-grabbing and corruption rankle as chief complaints. At elections in July, Cambodia was again returned to a one-party state after Hun Sen banned the main opposition party from contesting the poll. But among ordinary Cambodians, the security that came with peace opened this country up to the outside world, and delivered unprecedented economic growth and a post-war baby boom. "After the war ends, everything is going smoothly, people live peacefully, the country is developing, kids can go to school and people have jobs," said 24-year-old waitress Hean Khea. Her sentiments were echoed by Raksmey El, also 24 and a recent university graduate, who was mindful of the problems experienced by Cambodia amid two decades of peace, particularly with regard to corruption and elections. "I hope that this peace and this political stability will keep improving from today on," he said. "Nowadays we can see that we have more development in our Cambodia, bringing more foreign direct investment, and especially we can see the tourism sector is dramatically increasing every year. "However there are still some problems, for example the corruption, which should be completely eliminated by the government." The government has insisted the three-day "win-win" celebrations are not a snub to the Paris Peace Accords, which also injected $2 billion into Cambodia's struggling economy, but is simply an acknowledgment that civil war lasted 30 years and that its final end was orchestrated by Hun Sen and not the United Nations.

China Arrests Marxist Student Leader for Celebrating Mao's Birthday

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 21:19
Chinese police detained a well-known Marxist student activist at a top university on Wednesday, a witness said, for attempting to commemorate the 125th birth anniversary of Mao Zedong, whose legacy in China remains controversial. A student eyewitness told AFP that Qiu Zhanxuan, the head of Peking University's Marxist society, was forced into a black car by seven or eight plain-clothes officers near the subway station outside the university's east gate. Qiu was "screaming and resisting arrest," the student said, declining to be named due to the sensitive nature of the issue. "I heard him say I am Qiu Zhanxuan... I did not break the law. Why are you taking me away? What are you doing?" The eyewitness said police showed their "public security department documents," when questioned by onlookers. Peking University and the Ministry of Public Security did not respond to requests for comment. Considered China's most prestigious university, Peking University has a history of student activism with its alumni playing a key role in the pro-democracy Tiananmen protests in 1989. But campus activism has been quashed under President Xi Jinping. In August, a police raid swept up student activists at several universities, beating some of them and confiscating their phones for supporting a labor rights movement. The Jasic Workers Solidarity group rose to prominence this summer when student activists backed its efforts to form a workers' union at Jasic Technology, a welding machinery company in southern Guangdong province. In April, Peking University faculty tried to silence another student, Yue Xin, who co-authored a petition demanding details of a sexual abuse case at the school. "I believe it's ridiculous. Is there anything wrong with commemorating Mao?" the eyewitness, also a member of the campus Marxist society, said. "The faculty has always prevented activities by the Marxist society... It's difficult to spread information, posts on online campus bulletin boards would be deleted and WeChat [messaging] accounts would be blocked... Information about the arrest was strictly blocked by the school." The Communist party in recent years has tried to distance itself from the legacy of Mao. Once hailed as China's "great helmsman", there were no official events to mark his 125th birth anniversary Wednesday. Despite Qiu's arrest, Marxist students from across Beijing gathered at an undisclosed location to organize a "flash-mob style event" Wednesday afternoon, a labor rights NGO worker in close contact with Marxist student groups told AFP. Another group of students, who traveled to Mao's home village Shaoshan in central China's Hunan province, posted a video of them singing revolutionary songs on social media.    

Heavy Rains Complicating Rescue, Relief Efforts on Indonesia's Tsunami-Hit Areas

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 20:01
Heavy rains are complicating efforts to provide aid to communities on Indonesia's remote western islands cut by last week's massive tsunami that killed 429 people. The rains have made roads impassible, holding up convoys delivering heavy machinery and relief supplies to isolated areas, forcing disaster officials to send helicopters to drop supplies and evacuate residents. There is speculation that Saturday's tsunami that slammed into the west coast of Java and southern Sumatra was caused by a massive underwater landslide that followed eruptions by Anak Krakatoa volcano, located in the Sunda Straits, between Java and Sumatra. The tsunami, which struck without warning, swept over popular beaches, and engulfed tourist hotels and coastal settlements. Nearly 1,500 people were injured in the disaster, and as many as 150 people remain missing, while thousands more have been displaced. Authorities are urging residents to stay away from the coast, as continued volcanic activity and high tides mean more damaging waves could strike. The chief of the Indonesian Geological Agency, Rudy Suhendar, told VOA's Indonesian Service that it is still investigating what caused the tsunami. The Anak Krakatoa volcano lies on an island that was formed decades after the catastrophic 1883 eruption of the Krakatoa volcano that killed more 30,000 people. Saturday's tsunami is the latest in a series of disasters to strike Indonesia, including the September 28 quake and tsunami that struck near the city of Palu, on the island of Sulawesi, killing more than 2,500 and displacing about 70,000. Wednesday marks the 14th anniversary of the tsunami that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia, triggered by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean. VOA's Indonesian Service and Ira Mellman contributed to this report.

Koreas Celebrate Joint Railway

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 19:20
North and South Korea held a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday to mark the start of a joint project to connect railways throughout the divided peninsula. The event was held after both Korea’s inspected railways along the peninsula’s east coast. Ministry of Foreign Affairs Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Lee Do-hoon told reporters last week, “The railroad linkage project and related groundbreaking ceremony were given the go-ahead to proceed as scheduled in the working group today,” referring to meetings held with State Department Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Biegun in Seoul. Jung Dae-jin, a research professor with the Ajou Institute of Unification called the ceremony a strong indicator of both North and South Korea wanting to continue discussions held by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this year. “It looks frozen water from the surface, but the potential of having those conversations is still alive, like the water flowing beneath the ice,” he said. Jung added that as the North’s rail and roadways are improved, “it can reduce the traveling time which encourages exchanges” between the two governments. A special train carried 100 South Korean officials, politicians and members of families displaced by the war to the ceremony at Panmun Station in the border city of Kaesong. In addition to officials from the United Nations, China, Russia, and Mongolia, South Korea’s unification ministry said they were joined by North Korea’s delegation of 100 people. Following Wednesday’s ceremony, North and South Korea agreed to undertake further railway inspections and work closely with the United States and the United Nations to garner further support for the project and to address sanction concerns. Railways and sanctions North Korea’s rail system is said to be antiquated and in desperate need of repair in order to be linked with the South’s. During the first inter-Korean summit in April, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to "modernize" and "connect" the roads and railways across their border as part of efforts to improve ties and promote development and prosperity. The railway inspection project had been delayed for months amid concerns about possible violations of UN sanctions on North Korea, but the project was given the go-ahead when the UN Security Council granted a sanctions exemption. Professor Jung recalls that connecting the North’s and South’s rail lines were part of the 2000 Joint Declaration made by Seoul and Pyongyang and between 2007 and 2008, trains traversed the border several hundred times. But, “if the extra sanctions are not lifted in the future, the whole plan of modernizing North Korea’s railroad will not be possible too,” he said. Jung ties the future success of President Moon’s initiatives and plans for the connected railway to North Korea’s denuclearization. “We need to see the New Year’s address by Kim Jong Un,” he said and notes that it is necessary that the global community see concrete measures taken by Pyongyang toward denuclearization for the process of rail and roadway use to proceed. Lee Ju-Hyun contributed to this report.  

Heavy Security as China Opens Trial of Prominent Rights Lawyer

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 16:33
Chinese police locked down a courthouse on Wednesday at the start of the trial of a prominent rights lawyer who is accused of subverting state power and whose case has attracted widespread concern in Western capitals. Wang Quanzhang, who took on sensitive cases of complaints of police torture and defended practitioners of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, went missing in August 2015 during a sweeping crackdown on rights activists. Most cases from that summer, known as the 709 cases for the first day of detentions on July 9, 2015, have concluded. Wang, however, was incommunicado for more than 1,000 days. An investigation said he had "for a long time been influenced by infiltrating anti-China forces" and had been trained by overseas groups and accepted their funding, according to a copy of the indictment seen by Reuters. Police outside the court in the northern city of Tianjin told reporters they could not get near the building because it was a closed trial. The indictment says Wang worked with Peter Dahlin, a Swedish rights worker who was detained in China for three weeks before being deported in 2016, and others to "train hostile forces," as well as actively providing investigative reports overseas. It also says Wang had hyped up and distorted the facts in his online statements about the case of a policeman who killed a petitioner in Heilongjiang in 2014 and of "cults" that he had defended. Dahlin, now in Madrid, said on Twitter they had kept all documentation dating back to 2009 "and will release anything needed to dispel that it constitutes subverting state power." Calls to the court seeking comment went unanswered. The trial could last just a single day, although a verdict may not come immediately. Western diplomats were expected to be outside the courthouse. Wang's wife, Li Wenzu, says she has been unable to visit her husband since he went missing. She said seven lawyers she appointed to try to represent Wang had also been unable to visit him. Li said in a statement sent to Reuters state security agents had followed her when she left her Beijing home and blocked off the six entrances to her compound. She decided she would be unable to go to Tianjin after more than an hour spent trying to leave, she said. It was not possible to reach the State Security Ministry for comment because it has no website or publicly available telephone number. Chinese President Xi Jinping has strengthened efforts to quash dissent since coming to power six years ago, with hundreds of rights lawyers and activists detained and dozens jailed. China routinely rejects foreign criticism of its human rights record, saying all Chinese are treated equally in accordance with the law and that foreign countries have no right to interfere. 

Rohingya End Hard Year Still in Limbo

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 12:10
More than 750,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled military attacks in Myanmar remain in Bangladesh camps as future repatriation and resettlement plans remain unclear. Across the sprawling camps in Cox’s Bazar, close to a million Rohingya Muslim refugees remain in limbo — without a clear future. Voluntary repatriation plans last month were postponed amid security concerns about ongoing abuses and a lack of international monitoring. The Myanmar government has allowed tightly controlled trips for international media in recent months, but access to areas where alleged atrocities were carried out has been denied.   In Bangladesh, published footage of a resettlement compound on the remote Bhasan Char Island was also being viewed with concern. “The UNHCR has not been let on the island to do a risk assessment of the flood conditions but many say the island is prone to flooding and dangerous that means that thousands of Rohingya refugees could potentially be on a flood prone island and that’s a very dangerous situation,” said John Quinley III, a human rights worker for Fortify Rights. The concrete compound with barred windows awaits an estimated 100,000 refugees who will be transferred from Cox’s Bazar onto the remote silt island, built up by Chinese construction crews and the Bangladesh navy. With the Bangladesh election set for December 30, any move to repatriate people or relocate refugees to the remote island will be postponed until 2019. Education prospects The long-term impact on the Rohingya population are yet to be felt, but analysts say the prolonged denial of education for the school-aged children will be damaging. “Rohingya in Rakhine that Fortify Rights has spoken to say that the situation on the ground right now is an apartheid state. They have no freedom of movement, no formal access to education, Rohingya students in Sittwe that want to go to Sittwe university cannot go there,” Quinley added. The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) presents a bleak assessment of the future for children on either side of the border, speaking of a lost generation of children and youth. UNICEF said it was widening education programs in the Bangladesh camps, currently for children up to the age of 14, to try to meet the needs of older children. A UNICEF spokesman told VOA that "programming for youth including education at post primary level remains a clear gap which urgently needs to be addressed by increasing both the range of services and access opportunities for youth. The lack of education and economic opportunities exposes this population to multiple risks including drug abuse, and gender-based violence and extremist views." UNICEF points out that even more basic than education needs are the health challenges faced by the Rohingya: "Despite nine massive vaccination campaigns since October 2017 until May 2018 (delivering over 4.2 million doses of vaccines), routine immunization since June 2018 remains a challenge. The children are still vulnerable and at risk of a potential disease outbreak. Continued health support is critical to assist the refugees and especially children to survive in the crowded refugee camps.  " Land issues And while the life in the camps can be hard, it is not clear if the Rohingya will ever have anywhere to go back to in Myanmar. Authorities in Myanmar say land that has been burned becomes government managed property, casting into doubt the ownership of more than 200 Rohingya villages that were burned to the ground in the past year and a half. Rohingya lawyer Kyaw Hla Aung said official records can prove rightful ownership, provided they are requested. The 78-year-old activist just won the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity - a global humanitarian award - for his dedication to fighting for equality, education and human rights for the Rohingya people in Myanmar, in the face of persecution, harassment and oppression. With a background as a law clerk for more than two decades in Rakhine state, Kyaw Hla Aung is adamant that land ownership should be easily proven for returning Rohingya citizens. “They have all the documents, all the records in the land record office in the home ministry,” he said. “The international community should ask the government to show all these records.” “They are not only confiscating the land in Rakhine state but also in Shan state, Kachin state and in the midst of Burma in Karenni state as well,” he added. Justice concerns Accountability and justice are other key factors in delaying any form of voluntary return. “Rohingya that we have spoken to say they won't go back to Rakhine state until there’s restored citizenship rights and accountability for the atrocities that have occurred,” said Quinley. Analysts see the ongoing restrictions and attacks as a pattern indicating deliberate actions to eliminate a group. Officials in Myanmar have consistently denied allegations of abuse and repression against the Rohingya, saying its military has conducted legitimate operations against terrorists. Earlier this month, (Dec. 13) the U.S. House of Representatives passed H. Res. 1091, declaring the crimes carried out during the Myanmar military clearance operation as genocide. “The most recent wave of persecution began in August of 2017, when Burmese security forces and civilian mobs began a horrific wave of attacks,” said Chairman Ed Royce, on the house floor. “Mass murder, rape and destruction of villages throughout Rakhine State has been documented.” Activists say the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya Muslims has all the earmarks of a genocide, including lack of access to education, an action by the state government, that was increased since the 2012 communal violence in Rakhine state. “The government is making us illiterate so that they can allege that these people are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh because they don’t know anything about the world,” explained Kyaw Hla Aung. Commission report At a news conference this month, Rosario Manalo, chair of Myanmar’s Independent Commission of Enquiry, stated that the commission had found “no evidence” to support allegations of human rights abuses in the four months since it officially opened its investigation. “We will clarify how we collected the evidence later. But for the time being, allegations are still allegations. There is no conclusive evidence,” the former deputy foreign minister of the Philippines added, during the press conference. The commission started their investigation Aug. 15, and is to submit its findings to the Myanmar president’s office by August 2019. Rights groups are condemning investigation commissions that have been set up by the Myanmar government. “The Myanmar commission’s dismissal of the extensive documentation of gross human rights abuses against the Rohingya makes abundantly clear that it is not serious about seeking justice,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.  “The U.N. Security Council should stop giving credence to this commission and refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court (ICC).” The ICC ruled in September that it has jurisdiction over alleged deportations of Rohingya people from Myanmar to Bangladesh as a possible crime against humanity.

Japan Announces IWC Withdrawal, Will Resume Commercial Whaling

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 11:30
Japan is withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission and will resume commercial whaling next year, a government spokesman said Wednesday, in a move expected to spark international criticism. "We have decided to withdraw from the International Whaling Commission in order to resume commercial whaling in July next year," top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told reporters. "Commercial whaling to be resumed from July next year will be limited to Japan's territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. We will not hunt in the Antarctic waters or in the southern hemisphere," Suga added. The announcement had been widely expected and comes after Japan failed in a bid earlier this year to convince the IWC to allow it to resume commercial whaling. Tokyo has repeatedly threatened to pull out of the body, and has been regularly criticized for catching hundreds of whales a year for "scientific research" despite being a signatory to a moratorium on hunting the animals. Suga said Japan would officially inform the IWC of its decision by the end of the year, which will mean the withdrawal comes into effect by June 30. Leaving the IWC means Japanese whalers will be able to resume hunting in Japanese coastal waters of minke and other whales currently protected by the IWC. But Japan will not be able to continue the so-called scientific research hunts in the Antarctic that has been exceptionally allowed as an IWC member under the Antarctic Treaty. The withdrawal means Japan joins Iceland and Norway in openly defying the IWC's ban on commercial whale hunting. It is certain to infuriate conservationists and anti-whaling countries such as Australia and New Zealand, and deepen the divide between anti- and pro-whaling countries. Japan has hunted whales for centuries, and their meat was a key source of protein in the immediate post-World War II years when the country was desperately poor. But consumption has declined significantly in recent decades, with much of the population saying they rarely or never eat whale meat. 

Rohingya End Hard Year Still in Limbo

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 10:55
More than 750,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled military attacks in Myanmar remain in Bangladesh camps as future repatriation and resettlement plans remain unclear. Steve Sandford reports on the challenges that lie ahead for the Rohingya in the coming year.

Koreas to Pledge Road, Rail Links on Divided Peninsula

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 09:09
A South Korean delegation left for North Korea on Wednesday to attend a groundbreaking ceremony for reconnecting roads and railways across the divided peninsula despite stalled denuclearization talks.    A nine-car special train carrying 100 South Koreans, including officials and five people born in the North, was seen leaving Seoul railway station early in the morning for a two-hour journey to the North's border city of Kaesong.    South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the North's leader, Kim Jong Un, agreed to hold the ceremony by the end of this year when they met at their third summit, in Pyongyang in September.    Concerns arose that the train and other materials being brought into the North for the ceremony could breach various sanctions imposed on the isolated regime over its nuclear weapons program, but the U.N. Security Council reportedly granted a waiver for the event.    Seoul stressed that the ceremony would not herald the start of actual work on reconnecting and modernizing road and rail links between the Koreas — which remain technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended without a peace treaty.  Expression of intent   The event is a mere "expression of a commitment" to the projects, a South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman said, adding that construction would depend on "progress on the North's denuclearization and circumstances concerning sanctions."    The two sides wrapped up their joint railway and road inspections for the projects this month.     South Korea has set aside $620,000 for the endeavor.    The ceremony comes as the United States ramps up efforts to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.   Following a rapid rapprochement earlier this year that culminated in a historic summit between Donald Trump and Kim, progress has stalled with both sides accusing each other of dragging their feet and acting in bad faith.    Critics say North Korea has made no concrete commitments and is unlikely to surrender its atomic arsenal, while Washington's policy of maintaining pressure through isolation and sanctions has left Pyongyang seething.    Trump said Monday that he was "looking forward" to his second summit with Kim, which Washington says may take place early next year.     He tweeted the statement after he was briefed by Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative on North Korea, who wrapped up a three-day trip to Seoul on Saturday.  Travel ban   Biegun said last week that the United States will be more lenient in enforcing its blanket ban on U.S. citizens' travel to the totalitarian state when dealing with aid workers, a goodwill gesture as Trump seeks a fresh summit.    The Trump administration has generally refused to let U.S. aid groups operate in North Korea, seeking to both maximize pressure on Pyongyang and ensure the safety of Americans.    Biegun also said in Seoul last week that Washington was willing to discuss trust-building initiatives with Pyongyang.    Senior transport officials from Russia, China and Mongolia as well as several foreign ambassadors to South Korea will attend Wednesday's ceremony, the South's Unification Ministry said.  

Indonesia Uses Drones, Dogs to Help Find Tsunami Victims

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 06:15
Indonesian rescuers used drones and dogs Tuesday to aid searches for more than 100 people still missing after tsunami waves slammed into the west coast of Java and southern Sumatra on Saturday, killing 429 people. The waves left another 1,400 people injured, while thousands more, having fled to higher ground, were displaced. The tsunami, which struck without warning, swept over popular beaches and engulfed tourist hotels and coastal settlements. The waves may have been caused by a massive underwater landslide that followed eruptions by Anak Krakatoa volcano, located in the Sunda Strait, between Java and Sumatra. Authorities cautioned that continued volcanic activity and high tides meant more damaging waves could strike.    A false alarm on Tuesday sent panicked coastal residents fleeing.     The chief of the Geological Agency, Rudy Suhendar, told VOA's Indonesian service that it was still investigating what caused the tsunami.    Jakarta resident Suhada was fishing on Carita Beach and visiting his family for the weekend when he ran from what he described as three waves between 10 and 11 p.m. Saturday. Suhada was able to flee to higher ground with his family.    "Thank God I could save my family," he told VOA.    Disaster agency head Endan Permana told local media that many people were missing in the tourist locale Tanjung Lesung, Banten province, near Jakarta.    Meanwhile, church leaders in mostly Muslim Indonesia called on Christians in the country to pray for tsunami victims.   Pastor Rusman Anita Sitorus presided over a service Tuesday at the Rahmat Carita Pentecostal Church near Carita, one of the hardest-hit areas.    "After this incident, God let us continue to serve the people, and especially this is a chance to serve God better," Sitorus said.    Saturday's tsunami was the latest in a series of disasters to strike Indonesia.    Laura Ngo-Fontain, a spokeswoman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told VOA the government had learned some lessons from earlier incidents and their capacity to respond had "expanded exponentially."   Ngo-Fontain said the aid group was providing blankets and tarps and organizing the acquisition of drinking water and access to medical services. She said doctors were needed because many of the injured had broken bones.   On Sept. 28, a quake and tsunami hit near the city of Palu, on the island of Sulawesi, killing more than 2,500 and displacing about 70,000.    On Dec. 26, 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean triggered a tsunami that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.    VOA's Indonesian service and Ira Mellman contributed to this report. 

Former Nissan Executive Released from Tokyo Jail

Tue, 12/25/2018 - 23:16
Former Nissan Motor Co. executive Greg Kelly was released from jail in Japan Tuesday after a Tokyo court rejected prosecutors' request to continue to detain him. The Tokyo District Court granted his release after setting bail at $636,000. Kelly had been detained for 37 days after being arrested and charged with underreporting the pay of his boss, ousted Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn, by $44 million. Ghosn was also arrested along with Kelly on November 19 on suspicion of conspiring to understate Ghosn's pay. Ghosn remains in custody. The charge is part of a wider effort by Japanese prosecutors and the auto company to show that Ghosn leveraged his position for personal gain. The court set restrictions on Kelly's release. Kelly is prohibited from traveling outside Japan without the court's permission and from meeting with people linked to the case against him.

Japan Stocks Fall Below 20,000

Tue, 12/25/2018 - 21:50
Shares on Japan's key stock exchange plummeted Tuesday, highlighting investor fears about political turmoil in Washington and this month's massive losses on Wall Street. The Nikkei lost 1,000 points -- five percent of its value --to close Tuesday at 19,155.14, finishing under 20,000 points for the first time since September 2017. Tuesday's closing numbers are down 21 percent from its October high. China's Shanghai index finished nearly one percent lower Tuesday.Markets in Hong Kong, Australia, South Korea, the U.S. and Europe were all closed in observance of Christmas. The losses on the Nikkei were a spillover from Monday's down day in the U.S., where the Dow Jones, S&P 500 and NASDAQ all lost more than two percent, continuing this month's run of near-daily losses, putting U.S. markets on track for its worst December since 1931, during the height of the Great Depression. The U.S. Christmas Eve selloff was triggered in part by President Donald Trump's Twitter attacks on the central bank, the Federal Reserve, and its chairman, Jerome Powell, for a recent decisions to raise interest rates, as well the partial shutdown of the U.S. government.Investors were also rattled by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's phone calls to the heads of the nation's six largest banks on Sunday to determine if they had enough capital on hand to continue operating normally.

Thailand's legislature Legalizes Medical Use of Marijuana

Tue, 12/25/2018 - 20:33
Thailand’s legislature on Tuesday agreed to amend the country’s drug law to allow the licensed medical use of marijuana, as well as kratom, a locally grown plant traditionally used as a stimulant and painkiller. Thailand is the first country in Southeast Asia to take such action, which is also under consideration in neighboring Malaysia. New Zealand’s government earlier this month enacted a law liberalizing the medical use of marijuana, which had previously been tightly restricted. The Thai legislation passed its final reading at the National Legislative Assembly by a vote of 166-0 with 13 abstentions. The changes, which become law when published in the Royal Gazette, legalize the production, import, export, possession and use of marijuana and kratom products for medical purposes. Purveyors, producers and researchers will need licenses to handle the drugs, while end-users will need prescriptions. Recreational use of the drugs remains illegal and subject to prison terms and fines commensurate with the quantities involved. Public hearings showed overwhelming support for the measure. The bill introducing the legislative changes had noted that recent studies have shown that marijuana extract has medicinal benefits, which has prompted “many countries around the world to ease their laws by enacting legal amendments to allow their citizens to legally use kratom and marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes.” It added that despite being classified as an illegal drug, many patients have used marijuana to treat their diseases.  

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