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Ghani Vows Repatriation of All Afghans in Pakistan in Two Years

57 min 14 sec ago
Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani has pledged to bring back all refugees in Pakistan in “the next 24 months,” saying it will put an end to allegations the displaced community is a source of regional instability. The pledge came as ties between the two uneasy neighbors have deteriorated over allegations the Pakistani military shelters and assists Taliban militants and those of the Haqqani network waging deadly attacks in Afghanistan against local and U.S.-led forces.  Pakistan hosts an estimated 2.7 million Afghan refugees, half of them undocumented, and has been pressing the need for an early repatriation of the displaced population, saying their presence “helps Afghan terrorists to melt and morph among them.”  “In the next 24 months my priority and goal is to bring back all Afghan refugees in Pakistan,” President Ghani said in a televised speech Saturday.  “We don't want them [Pakistanis] to say refugees do this or do that. [We know] refugees are innocent. So, let us resolve to bring them back to solve this problem once for all,” Ghani asserted. He also promised to make efforts to bring back Afghan refugees in Iran.   Ghani was speaking to a gathering at the presidential place in Kabul marking the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that had forced millions of people to take refuge in Pakistan and Iran.   Critics are skeptical, however, of Ghani's declarations because his government also initiated a refugee repatriation soon after it took power in 2014.  But a lack of jobs and basic services, such as health care and education, as well as allegations of rampant corruption in the relevant Afghan ministry discouraged displaced families from returning at the time, according to international aid workers and refugees. Even those Afghans who did return home, ended up back in Pakistan or attempted to flee to other foreign destinations, they say.  In his speech Saturday, President Ghani disclosed that Kabul will host an international conference on February 28 where it will table a proposed plan to promote peace with the Taliban to end the violence.  But as he spoke, officials elsewhere in the country said separate insurgent attacks in western Farah and southern Zabul provinces killed at least 13 Afghan forces and overran security outposts there.  The Taliban has regularly attacked Afghan forces, and the violence is expected to intensify in the coming summer fighting season.  

Fire Erupts At Major Tibetan Monastery; No Injuries Reported

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 23:07
A large fire broke out Saturday at the Jokhang monastery in Tibet, raising fears of severe damage to a 1,300-year-old religious site that's considered the spiritual heart of Tibetan Buddhism. Jokhang, located in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, caught fire at 6:40 p.m. before it was put out, according to a short report in the state-run Tibetan Daily. No injuries were reported. Video on Chinese social media showed a roof in the monastery complex consumed by large flames that were visible from hundreds of meters (yards) away. The cause of the fire was not immediately known. Early reports of the blaze in Chinese state-run media did not give details and many social media posts discussing the fire appeared to be quickly censored. News of major incidents in Tibet, a restive and politically sensitive region, are often tightly controlled in China. The extent of the fire damage was also unknown. Jokhang is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and contains numerous sculptures and religious paintings in a vast complex covering more than 6 acres. Many Tibetans are celebrating Losar, the New Year festival that began Friday.

Iran and India Agree to Lease Part of Chabahar Port to New Delhi

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 22:56
India and Iran sealed nine agreements during a visit by the Iranian President to New Delhi including a key accord that leases operational control of part of the Iranian port of Chabahar to New Delhi for 18 months. India is helping develop the port to create a strategic trade route to landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics, bypassing rival Pakistan.  Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also agreed to step up efforts to bring stability to war-ravaged Afghanistan after holding talks in New Delhi.  "We both will work for restoring peace, stability, prosperity and a pluralistic system in Afghanistan," Modi said. “We want to see our region free from terrorism.” During his three-day visit to India, the Iranian leader, who faces the threat of reimposition of sanctions, focused on seeking Indian investments as he tries to shore up his country’s economy. Prime Minister Modi sent out a reassuring message, saying that both countries want to intensify economic cooperation and increase connectivity and trade. New Delhi has been a key buyer of Iranian oil and gas and maintained trade ties with Tehran even when it faced international sanctions over its nuclear program.   Chabahar is India’s first major overseas port venture and is seen as a counter to China’s development of the Gwadar port in Pakistan. India has committed $85 million for its development and although progress has been slow, the project has taken off the ground with India shipping the first consignment of wheat to Afghanistan through Chabahar in October. Modi called Chabahar a “golden gateway” to Afghanistan and promised to help in construction of infrastructure that will make it possible to send goods from the port onto Afghanistan, and Central Asian countries.   “We will support the construction of the Chabahar-Zahedan rail link so that Chabahar gateway’s potential could be fully utilized,” Modi said. Rouhani said the rail line will be an economic boon for both countries. He also said that both sides "are prepared for joint ventures in gas and petroleum sectors" and sought Indian investments in the industrial and mining sectors.  After sanctions were lifted on Iran in 2015, India had promised to invest billions of dollars in the country in petrochemical plants, railway lines and other industries in the areas. But U.S. President Donald Trump’s warning that he could scuttle the nuclear deal with Tehran has slowed progress on investments, largely because Western banks are hesitant to do business with the country.  According to Indian media reports, India is exploring the option of investing in Iran through its own national currency, the rupee, to bypass potential problems that may arise if sanctions are reimposed.  Rouhani also said in New Delhi that Iran would adhere to commitments under its 2015 international agreement to limit its disputed nuclear program. Before coming to New Delhi, the Iranian president visited the southern Indian city of Hyderabad where, during an address at a prominent mosque on Friday, he strongly criticized the Trump administration's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau Begins Weeklong India Visit

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 21:59
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived in India on Saturday for a weeklong visit aimed at enhancing business ties between the two countries. Trudeau and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are also expected to focus on areas including civil nuclear cooperation, space, defense, energy and education. Trudeau was received at New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport by Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, a junior agriculture minister. A formal ceremony will be held on Feb. 23 before his talks with Modi, who visited Canada in April 2015. "Wheels up for India and a busy visit, focused on creating good jobs and strengthening the deep connection between the people of our two countries," Trudeau tweeted on Friday before leaving for New Delhi with his family. Canada has an estimated 1.4 million people of Indian origin. During his visit, Trudeau will meet with top business leaders in Mumbai and visit key Indian monuments, including the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Golden Temple in Amritsar and the Jama Masjid in New Delhi. At Davos last month, while President Donald Trump supported new tariffs on imports, Trudeau and Modi came out forcefully against a drift toward protectionism in the global economy. In 2017, two-way merchandise trade between Canada and India amounted to $8.4 billion, split equally between exports to and imports from India, according to Indian media. Canada mainly imports pearls, organic chemicals, pharmaceutical products, textiles, bicycles and motorcycles from India. It exports vegetables, paper, fertilizers, wood pulp, iron and steel and precious stones to India.

Pakistan Court Hands Down Four Death Sentences to Child Killer

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 20:59
An anti-terrorism court in Pakistan gave four death sentences to a man it found guilty of raping and murdering a six-year old girl.  The victim, Zainab Fatima, was attacked last month in her native eastern city of Kasur in Punjab province. The news of the incident shocked the nation, sparking demands to swiftly bring the killer to justice.   A major manhunt in and around the city and DNA tests enabled police to arrest the man, identified as 24-year-old Imran Ali, who later confessed to his crime. He was tried in the special speedy court at a high-security prison in the provincial capital of Lahore and media was not allowed to attend the proceedings.  Police found Zainab’s body in a city garbage dumpster four days after she was reported missing. Provincial prosecutor general Ehtisham Qadir Shah told reporters outside the court Saturday that Ali was given four death sentences after being convicted of rape, murder and terrorism charges.  Shah explained that the convict can appeal the sentence in 15 days, though he predicted no relief, citing “irrefutable” evidence police have gathered against Ali, including his personal confession.  “This serial killer has raped a total of nine young girls [including Zainab]. Two of them are alive and seven have been murdered. The trials in other cases are expected to be concluded in about 15 days,” the prosecutor general said.  Investigators say they have matched DNA from other girls' bodies with Ali. The girl’s mother, Nusrat Bibi, spoke to reporters shortly after the verdict was announced, and she repeated her demand for the death penalty in public.   “I want him to be hanged publicly at the place where he took Zainab. He has not murdered just one young girl. He has killed many more and his public execution will deter others from committing such acts,” Bibi said. Prosecutor General Shah did not rule out the possibility of a public execution as has been requested by the victim's family.   “We are considering [it]. Since he [the convict] has been tried and charged under the special law of Anti-Terrorism Act, in which the government can think over it, the mode and manner [for carrying out the death penalty]," he said.  Shortly after the news of Zainab's gruesome murder surfaced, protesters took to the streets in Kasur, where demonstrators stormed police stations and set fire to homes of local politicians for not taking action, despite repeated incidents of child rape and murder cases in the city.  Relatives have reported more than a dozen cases of rape and murder in and around Kasur in less than two years, but no serious action had been taken until Zainab's case surfaced.

As US Signals Openness to Talks With North Korea, Uncertainties Loom

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 19:44
Despite recent inter-Korean engagement at the Winter Olympics that has created a thaw for diplomacy between the United States and North Korea, the resumption of talks between the two sides remains elusive, former U.S. officials and analysts say. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said this week the U.S. is interested in having “a preliminary chat” aimed at setting an agenda for more substantive talks over denuclearization of the North. The willingness to “chat” is seen by many experts as a subtle shift in how Washington should resume talks with Pyongyang and comes after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s attendance at the games in Pyeongchang. The Washington Post reported during his visit that Washington and Seoul had agreed on “terms for further engagement” with Pyongyang.  The Trump administration says that the overall policy on North Korea remains unchanged, with its “maximum pressure” campaign in full swing, despite the flexibility on dialogue, a stance widely endorsed by former U.S. officials and experts in Washington. “I think it is a correct policy to be exerting maximum pressure with sanctions. I think the administration has made some progress on sanctions, and I would very much continue that,” said Christopher Hill, who led the U.S. delegation for nuclear talks with North Korea during the George W. Bush administration. Nicholas Eberstadt, a Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute, believes increasing pressure will most likely increase the prospect for talks with North Korea.  “My guess is there won’t be any substantive talks unless the North is desperate to have those talks,” Eberstadt said. “So my presumption would be that the U.S. should, or attempt to, increase international economic and other pressure on the DPRK state.” Some, however, argue the Trump administration’s strategy of employing both talks and pressure simultaneously may not be working given North Korea’s current nuclear posture. “In theory, it’s very easy to do both, but in practice it’s very difficult,” said David Straub, a former State Department official who is now with the Sejong Institute in Seoul. Straub added the engagement strategy could even undermine international sanctions against the North, saying, “the rest of the international community … may say ‘why should we spend all of our time implementing sanctions?’” So far, Pyongyang has not shown any willingness to engage in nuclear talks with Washington. Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, says the North’s stance casts doubts on the prospect of any future talks with the reclusive state. The former CIA analyst said Washington will not engage in negotiations with Pyongyang as long as North Korea “rejects the basic premises of the Six Party Talks, which is denuclearization of North Korea,” referring to the stalled multistate talks designed to persuade the North to abandon its nuclear weapons program.  Joint military drills conducted by the U.S. and South Korea are also another point of contention between Washington and Pyongyang. Washington and Seoul delayed scheduled drills until after the Olympics; they are expected to resume the exercise in April. Robert Gallucci, the chief U.S. negotiator during the North Korean nuclear crisis in the 1990s, thinks the resumption of the military drills could close the opening for talks with Pyongyang. Hill, however, believes the U.S. should proceed with the exercises despite any concern, saying it is vital to the U.S.-South Korea alliance.  “Alliances without exercises are like orchestras without instruments,” said the former envoy. The mood for dialogue emerged after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reached out to Seoul to offer to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics. Kim dispatched his sister Kim Yo Jong to the games to invite South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang. The North’s diplomatic initiative comes amid growing concern in Washington that Pyongyang is rapidly advancing its missile and nuclear programs. This week, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates warned time was running out for the U.S. to act on the North Korean nuclear threat. “Decision time is becoming ever closer in terms of how we respond to this,” Coates said at a Senate committee hearing. Soyoung Ahn contributed to this story.

Fireworks Suspected in Fatal Fire in China

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 15:51
Nine people have died in a fire at a waste processing facility in southern China that is suspected of being sparked by fireworks residue, state news agency Xinhua said Saturday. The fire broke out in the early hours of the morning in Qingyuan city in the southern province of Guangdong, Xinhua said, citing the local government. The fire has been extinguished and a survivor with serious burns was sent to a hospital, the report said. Police have detained several suspects in connection with the fire, Xinhua said, without giving details. “Preliminary investigation showed that fireworks residue initially caused the fire. When three workers were trying to put out the flames, an explosion occurred, killing more people living nearby,” it said. The victims consisted of workers at the facility and their families, who lived in makeshift wooden rooms on the second floor, Xinhua said. “The garbage burnt quickly and discharged heavy smoke. The victims were unable to escape,” it said. China has just begun a weeklong holiday for the Lunar New Year, when fireworks and firecrackers are traditionally let off in celebration.

Pakistan Plans to Reform Nation's Religious Seminaries 

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 06:12
In an effort to control militancy and the alleged abuse of madrassas (religious seminaries) by some militant groups operating in the country, Pakistan’s government recently announced plans to bring all madrassas under the formal education structure of the country. Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan’s interior minister, reportedly told a seminar last month the government already has allocated funds for initiating the reforms in the country’s education sector, and they include modernizing the educational curriculum and bringing traditional seminaries into the formal government structure. The new measures are part of efforts to prevent the abuse of religious schools in the hands of militant groups. Of the four provinces of the country, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa seems to suffer more than the others from the problem of madrassas being abused by militant groups, according to officials. A 2015 report by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government called 145 religious schools in the province “highly sensitive” and noted that 26 percent of madrassas in the province remained unregistered and off the official books. Officials charge the problem still exists, and the government plans to address it. “Unfortunately, some madrassas in the terror-wrecked KP [Khyber Pakhtunkhwa] had been involved in promoting extreme ideologies in the past decades and some even have worked as facilitators and sympathizers for terror groups,” Sardar Yousaf, Pakistan’s federal minster for religious affairs, told VOA.  “By mainstreaming the madrassas, the government will ensure that no one is allowed to promote extremist ideologies, terrorism, hatred or sectarianism. We cannot allow it at any cost,” Yousaf added. Yousaf said the planned reforms would be implemented across the country in all madrassas, but the government has not yet set any deadline for provinces to meet.   “All provinces are required to implement the madrassa reforms. Sindh, Baluchistan and Punjab are also working on plans to implement these reforms in their provinces at their own pace,” he said. National Action Plan Pakistan’s interior ministry last year directed all provinces to devise strategies and mechanisms to place madrassas under the national educational system in an effort to comply with the National Action Plan (NAP), a 20-point national strategy adopted in 2015 to counter terrorism in the country. Yousaf said the registration of madrassas and efforts to bring them into the mainstream educational system are all part of the NAP.  “The initiative shows our effort and commitment to implement the National Action Plan that clearly states religious schools should be regulated and monitored by the government,” Yousaf said.  Some analysts applaud the government’s recent efforts, but point to past failed attempts. Rahimullah Yousafzai, a Peshawar-based journalist, pointed toward the failed madrassa reform project initiated by former President Pervez Musharraf in 2002. “There had been attempts to bring reforms to the madrassa system in the past as well, but there was no success. Remember what happened to the madrassa reforms program initiated by Musharraf?” Yousafzai asked.  Yousafzai said change has to be participatory in nature and must involve religious scholars in order for it to succeed.   “In order to achieve long-lasting results and to bring revolution in the madrassa education system, the government will have to get full consent of the religious scholars belonging to different sects of Islam,” Yousafzai said.  Yousaf asserted that problem has been ironed out this time around and the planned reforms have the blessing of religious leaders across the country. “We’ve got phenomenal response from the religious clerics and scholars representing different madrassas across the country. They're willing to introduce the reforms in their religious seminaries,” Yousaf said. According to Pakistan’s Board of Madrassas, there are about 2.5 million students enrolled in more than 3,500 registered madrassas across the country. Additionally, there are thousands of unregistered madrassas for which the government has no exact count. Resistance to science  Madrassas, for the most part, follow a curriculum that’s heavily dependent on Islamic theology and the Arabic language. There seems to be resistance from religious clerics to the introduction of scientific subjects. Some experts are hopeful the government will modernize the system and allow millions of children access to science and other necessary subjects.  “These are much-needed and long-awaited reforms. It is time to introduce modern academic tools to the enormous and unregulated madrassa network, which houses millions of children across the country,” Yousafzai said. Some madrassas in Pakistan have been accused of links with terror groups and promoting hatred and intolerance. For instance, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa-based Darul Uloom Haqqania, a madrassa with thousands of students, is believed to have sympathy for the Afghan Taliban fighting the U.S. and Afghan forces in Afghanistan. The Islamic seminary is often called the “University of Jihad” by critics inside and outside Pakistan. “There is evidence that many Islamic seminaries in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa openly participated in militancy in the past and some even worked as promoters and recruiters for terror groups, such as Taliban fighting in Afghanistan,” Hasan Askari Rizvi, a regional analyst from Lahore, told VOA. Rizvi said the number of madrassas in Pakistan grew over the years partly because of a lack of formal education in poor neighborhoods and the government’s negligence. “The government is responsible for the deteriorating social, educational and financial setup of the religious seminaries. It was because of government’s negligence that some madrassas promoted extreme and ultraorthodox ideologies and continued to impose a hard-core interpretation of Islam,” Rizvi said  Rizvi noted that religious schools in Pakistan are a good alternative for people because they promise food, shelter and education, and attract a large number of students, mostly from the impoverished classes of society. 

Pakistan Under Scrutiny for Planned Troop Deployment in Saudi Arabia

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 02:45
Pakistan's decision to deploy troops to Saudi Arabia has sparked domestic criticism the country is taking sides in the Yemeni conflict in violation of a parliamentary resolution, and it's a move some say likely will upset neighboring Iran. The Pakistani military announced Thursday it was sending a "contingent" of troops "on a training and advice mission" to Saudi Arabia "in a continuation of ongoing … bilateral security cooperation." The statement, however, explained the Pakistani "troops or those already there" will be stationed on the soil of Saudi Arabia. Nearly 1,200 Pakistani troops are permanently stationed in Saudi Arabia as part of a training mission for more than 250,000 Saudi troops. The English daily DAWN quoted the Pakistan army spokesman as saying the size of the new contingent would be "less than a division," which usually consists of about 10,000 forces. Riyadh and Islamabad have been close allies for decades. The Saudis have been pressing Pakistan for the troop deployment since the outbreak of the Yemen conflict in 2015. But the national parliament that year unanimously adopted a resolution affirming Islamabad's strict "neutrality" in the conflict and called for the government to use diplomacy to end the crisis. 'Grave consequences' On Friday, Pakistani lawmakers criticized the government for bypassing that resolution and "making unilateral decisions to the determent" of the country. Opposition Senator Farhatullah Babar initiated the debate in the upper house and warned of " grave consequences " for Pakistan. The senator from the Pakistani Peoples Party alleged that recent statements by the foreign ministry were aimed at justifying the troop deployment to "actively engaging the Yemenis in the conflict on the side of the Saudis." The debate prompted Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani to summon the foreign minister on Monday for a clarification and to explain reasons for sending troops to Saudi Arabia. Opposition members in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, also slammed the decision and sought clarifications to make sure the troop deployment in Saudi Arabia would not "contravene" Pakistan's neutrality outlined in the parliamentary resolution. "Mr. Speaker, as you know, Saudis themselves are embroiled in the war [against the Shiite Houthi rebels] and it is not reaching any conclusion," observed Shireen Mazari of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. She demanded the government explain terms and conditions of the security pact with Saudis and the type of missions Pakistani troops will undertake there. "How and on what grounds the government took the decision, or was this decision not taken by the government as such but it was just part of a routine that the military decided to send more troops?" Mazari asked. The lawmaker was indirectly referring to widespread perception in Pakistan that the powerful military, and not the civilian government, makes key foreign policy decisions when it comes to dealing with countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United States, Afghanistan and rival India. Ties to Iran Pakistan has decided to deploy troops at a time when Iran-backed Houthis have increased missile attacks against Saudi targets, though the country's air defense system intercepted and destroyed most of the rockets and prevented any damage. While Sunni-dominated Pakistan has deep economic, religious and military ties to Saudi Arabia, it shares a porous border with Iran, stretching 900 kilometers. A fifth of its more than 200 million residents are Shiite Muslims who maintain close cultural and religious ties with Iran. Critics warn that Islamabad's military engagement could upset the country's minority Shiite community and undermine bilateral relations with Tehran. Pakistani officials in background interviews, however, dismissed those concerns and told VOA that Iran "has been taken into confidence" with regard to sending troops to Saudi Arabia. They cited a recent visit to Tehran by Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, where he discussed the matter with the Iranian leadership. Political commentator and television talk show host, Talat Hussain, questioned the army's statement that Pakistani troops will not be employed outside Saudi Arabia. "It fools no one to say [troops] won't leave Kingdom boundaries. Saudi-Iran are fighting. Iran-Israel are fighting. In the middle of it are now are our contingents. This will have long-term implications," Hussain wrote on his Twitter account.

Aung San Suu Kyi Scores 1st Win in Myanmar's Crumbling Peace Process

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 00:00
Two ethnic armed groups added their signatures to a "nationwide" cease-fire pact with the Myanmar government, marking Aung San Suu Kyi'sfirst concrete win in a peace process undermined by recurrent conflict and stalled dialogue. In a televised ceremony in the capital Naypyidaw on Tuesday, the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and the Lahu Democratic Union (LDU) assented to a document the government insists is key to resolving more than 50 years of civil war between the military, dominated by the ethnic Bamar majority, and minority ethnic groups. The NMSP, representing the Mon ethnic group, has been a prominent player in peace negotiations and for decades has run parallel government structures, including schools and law courts, in southeastern Myanmar. However, the LDU, representing the Lahu of northeastern Myanmar, is a small group that lacks military or organizational clout. The U.S. Embassy called Tuesday's signing "but one of the many steps on a long road to sustainable peace." Western governments consistently have backed Myanmar's peace process, offering advice and helping finance negotiations via a Joint Peace Fund. Entering government in early 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) inherited a process begun by a military-backed administration whose crowning achievement was the signing of a Nationwide Cease-fire Agreement with eight, out of close to 20, ethnic armed groups in Myanmar in October 2015. The NLD, whose landslide election victory extended to most ethnic minority areas, pushed peace to the top of its governing agenda. Northern problem Shunning the back-channel approach favored by the previous government, Aung San Suu Kyi has tried to spark public enthusiasm with a series of grand-scale peace conferences. At the last conference, held in May of last year, the government and military reached agreement with the eight signatory armed groups on a number of vague "principles" that would form the core of a peace deal and, in turn, a new federal system. Myanmar's constitution, drafted under military rule, centralizes government and control of resources to the exclusion of minority ethnic groups. It also grants the military control of all security agencies, allowing them to pursue brutal objectives without civilian oversight. The autonomy retained by the military has proved fatal to Aung San Suu Kyi's efforts to build trust with the majority of armed groups that remain outside of the Nationwide Cease-fire Agreement. The military has been laying siege to one of these groups, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Myanmar's far north. In January, several thousand civilians were trapped in an amber-mining region while shells rained down on nearby KIA bases. Agencies bearing relief for displaced communities run up against tightening military blockades. Several embattled groups ranging along Myanmar's long border with China, including the KIA, have formed a Northern Alliance that rejects the government's current cease-fire deal. Together, the alliance commands the most significant firepower in Myanmar outside of the military. Seeking leverage, it has tried to draw China into a peace process that has so far avoided international mediation. Ethnic Shan analyst Sai Wansai explained to VOA that, ultimately, the participation of this northern bloc is "the key to resolve the conflict." Tuesday's singing ceremony with the MNSP and LDU, he said, "will give Aung San Suu Kyi a temporary boost. But in the long run it will not have real impact on the peace process." Military at odds Deliberately or otherwise, military actions have also undermined Aung San Suu Kyi's efforts to win over groups outside of this more hardline Northern Alliance. The Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) was tipped to sign the nationwide cease-fire agreement alongside the MNSP, but the December killing of three KNPP soldiers and one civilian in disputed circumstances in Kayah State has severely antagonized ethnic Karenni civil society and put off KNPP participation indefinitely. The military also has obstructed the holding of community consultations by signatory armed groups. In December and January, the Restoration Council of Shan State was summarily blocked from hosting a number of public meetings. Min Zaw Oo, executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, told VOA this has chilled cooperation on national-level political dialogues between signatory armed groups and the government. "When one side proposes a meeting, the other now rejects it," he said. Ethnic armed groups and the military also find themselves at increasingly bitter odds over a section of the Nationwide Cease-fire Agreement on "security reintegration." This was kept deliberately vague, after the military and the ethnic armed groups advanced competing definitions. The former pushes a doctrine of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR), while the latter urges Security Sector Reform — the integration of minority ethnic forces into what is now an overwhelmingly Bamar army. Since last May's conference, however, the military has doubled-down on its call for ethnic armed group disarmament as part of a peace deal. Kim Joliffe, an independent researcher on conflict in Myanmar, said that, besides the recent blocking of public consultations, "the main block on progress in the peace process has been the [military] insisting security reintegration' simply means DDR of ethnic armed organizations rather than holistic reform of the entire security sector." Min Zaw Oo said security reintegration, though, was not a "make or break" issue: there had simply been "too little interaction around this topic." "Once they have decided to sit down together, and explore ways, there could be some solution," he said. Min Zaw Oo said the peace process wasn't on the verge of collapse. "We are currently at the stalling point," he said, projecting progress to pick up in the middle of this year. "If the military were totally stubborn, it would never have signed the Nationwide Cease-fire Agreement."

Process to Repatriate Myanmar Rohingyas Stalled

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 23:48
A month since the Myanmar and Bangladesh governments reached an agreement to begin the repatriation of mainly ethnic Rohingya refugees to northern Rakhine State, the process appears to have stalled.   On January 16, the two governments agreed to return the estimated 688,000 people who have fled to Bangladesh since August. The process was due to begin on January 23, but later it was delayed indefinitely by Bangladesh. Myanmar insists it is ready. It has established two reception centers, one in the very north of Rakhine for those returning by land, and one further south for those coming back over the Naf River, which is the official boundary between the two countries. Once processed, the refugees will be transferred to what Myanmar officials have said are temporary camps elsewhere in Rakhine State. The agreement attracted criticism from the international community and Rohingya currently in refugee camps in Bangladesh. “People here feel quite strong. They don’t want to go back unless they are ensured their citizenship rights and U.N. security,” a Rohingya in southern Bangladesh where the camps are located, and who didn’t want to be identified, told VOA. Gabrielle Aron, an independent analyst specializing on Rakhine affairs, said that many refugees in Bangladesh are hopeful the international community can intervene in the issue, but “I wouldn’t say there’s a broad consensus on what specific international intervention should look like.” Aron said that one of the key concerns is the ability for the refugees to be able to return to their place of origin. “Reception centers have been built with housing facilities, but there’s been no clear timeline laid out for exit from those reception centers,” she told VOA.  Following the outbreak of violence in 2012 across Rakhine more than 100,000 people, mainly ethnic Rohingya, were moved to internally displaced persons camps where most of them remain today. “So I think articulating this plan, and offering support for rebuilding lives within the place of origin would be one positive step to addressing these concerns,” said Aron.   Conditions 'not yet conducive’ Chris Lewa, director of The Arakan Project, a non-governmental organization, said the repatriation process “has completely stalled.” “I think the refugees have been quite clear about their views. That they will not accept just to return. The general feeling is that they don’t want to return right now, which is of course understandable, Lewa told VOA. “At this point, I don’t see it moving forward at all.” Speaking before the U.N. Security Council in New York this week, Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said “the causes of this crisis originate in Myanmar” and that a genuine search for solutions must begin. “Let me be clear. Conditions are not yet conducive to the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees. The causes of their flight have not been addressed, and we have yet to see substantive progress on addressing the exclusion and denials of rights that has deepened over the last decades, rooted in their lack of citizenship,” said Grandi. A UNHCR spokesperson told VOA the agency believes the safeguards for potential returnees are absent, and that there are still restrictions on access for aid agencies, the media and other independent observers. “At the same time, refugees from Myanmar continue to arrive in Bangladesh,” the spokesperson said by email. “To ensure the right of refugees to return voluntarily, and in safety and in dignity, UNHCR has called on Myanmar to allow the necessary unhindered humanitarian access in areas of return and to create conditions for a genuine and lasting solution.” At the root of the issue is the fact that many Rohingya are denied access to citizenship in line with the 1982 citizenship law, which was introduced by former dictator Ne Win. The Rohingya are not officially recognized as one of Myanmar’s 135 “ethnic races,” a list that was first made public in 1990. The government has introduced a National Verification Certificate process that, if successful, allows people to apply for citizenship, but it has largely been distrusted by Rohingya and Rakhine people. There are concerns in the Rakhine community that the process could mean more Rohingya being granted citizenship. “Most Rohingya, particularly from northern Rakhine, feel that to accept the NVC and to agree to apply for citizenship through the verification process would be an implicit acknowledgement that their right to citizenship is in question,” said Aron. “The Rohingya position generally is that their citizenship should be granted automatically on the basis of being born in Myanmar. That’s the key issue at the center of the debate.” Aron said that a way for the government to improve trust in the NVC would be to better explain the process to those who are applying. “I think people need to know what they are signing up for before they agree to apply for citizenship through this process. If they can see that there is a reasonable arrangement and a pathway to citizenship, even if they are ultimately rejected, then that could build confidence,” she said.  

Blackface in Chinese Lunar New Year Sketch Draws Criticism

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 23:24
A comedy sketch that featured a Chinese woman in blackface has drawn accusations of racism after being broadcast on Chinese state television's Lunar New Year variety show, although some people in Beijing were left wondering why it would be considered offensive. The skit was shown Thursday night on state broadcaster CCTV and depicted the opening of a Chinese-built high-speed railway in Kenya. It featured actors in monkey and giraffe costumes, while the actress in blackface donned an exaggerated false bottom and a basket of fruit on her head. The segment was meant to celebrate Sino-African relations, but many viewers blasted it online for cultural insensitivity. The performance was part of CCTV's annual Lunar New Year gala, which draws an audience of up to 800 million and is said to be one of the most watched programs in the world. The 13-minute segment opened with a dance sequence set to Colombian singer Shakira's "Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)" featuring Africans dressed in zebra, lion and gazelle costumes, and actresses playing attendants on Kenya's new Chinese-built high-speed rail line. The skit then began with a black woman asking the show's host to pose as her husband when meeting her mother in order to avoid being set up on a blind date. A Chinese actress playing her mother then strides in made up in blackface followed by an actor in a monkey costume. The host's Chinese wife then appears, ending the deception. But the African mother says she can't be angry because "China has done so much for Africa." "I love Chinese people! I love China," the actress in blackface exclaims. Although the skit, titled "Same Joy, Same Happiness," was meant to celebrate Sino-African relations, many viewers condemned it online, with some calling it "cringe worthy" and "completely racist." Reaction in Beijing But the reaction on the streets of Beijing on Friday was muted, with some saying the criticism was overblown. "It's normal for Chinese actors to dress up like foreigners when performing a foreign play," said Zhou Hengshan, 80. "This wasn't meant to demean any specific ethnic group." Xue Lixia, 20, said she trusted CCTV's judgment in assessing whether the skit was racist. "After all, this is a sketch that was broadcast on the Lunar New Year gala. If there was any racism, then it would have already been cut," Liu said. Chinese society is overwhelmingly dominated by the Han ethnic majority and racial sensitivities are generally much less pronounced than in the West. Blackface is considered especially offensive in the United States because of its strong connections to slavery and bigotry against African Americans. This isn't the first time CCTV's Lunar New Year gala has come under fire. The show is laden with praise for the ruling Communist Party and its policies, especially on culture and ethnic relations, and its portrayals of China's own ethnic minorities, particularly Muslim Uighurs from the northwestern region of Xinjiang, have sometimes been derided as crude.

Massive Fraud at Indian State-Owned Bank Linked to Celebrity Jeweler

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 23:08
The uncovering of one of the biggest frauds at a state-owned bank in India has rocked the country's financial sector and brought scrutiny to a billionaire jeweler who counted Hollywood stars among his customers. The nearly $1.8 billion fraud reported at India's second-largest state-owned bank is a blow to the government's efforts to revive the state-owned banking sector, which is already staggering under a mountain of bad debt. Nirav Modi, whose jewelry boutiques span high-end streets from Hong Kong to London to New York and whose diamonds have been worn by Hollywood stars such as Dakota Johnson and Kate Winslet, is being investigated for the fraudulent transactions. His brand ambassador is Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra, who has also carved a niche in the United States. The fraud, which officials say had been going on from a single branch of Punjab National Bank in Mumbai, went undetected since 2011. Calling it a "cancer," the bank's chief executive, Sunil Mehta, told a news conference earlier this week that it had been removed. "We will resolve it and we will honor all our bona fide commitments." Officials at the bank have accused Modi and his companies of obtaining unauthorized letters of undertaking from junior employees to secure credit from overseas branches of Indian banks.  Modi has not responded to the allegations and, according to some reports, left the country last month. His home, stores and offices were raided by Indian investigators. His passport is being revoked, according to the Law and Justice Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad. "No one will be spared," he said. "The taxpayers' money will not be allowed to be lost. The investigation is proceeding with great speed and pace." Modi, whose worth is estimated at about $1.74 billion, is the 85th richest man in India, according to Forbes. Belonging to a family of diamond traders, the soft-spoken businessman founded a company called Firestone Diamond in 1999 — later rechristened Firestar Diamond — and quickly made a name in the business. He later set up his own jewelry design brand and won the rich and famous among his customers. In January, he attended the economic summit in Davos, where a large Indian business delegation was present, along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The two are not related.  The fraud, which went undetected for years, has reignited concerns about governance standards at Indian banks and norms that are used for lending to corporate customers. Questions have been raised as to why audits failed to detect the fraud for years. It came to light weeks after the government announced a $14 billion bailout for state banks. These banks, which account for about two-thirds of all bank assets in the country, are the backbone of the financial system, but are saddled with bad debt estimated at $147 billion. Economists have warned that this mountain of bad loans threatens India's efforts to accelerate its economy as it slows down efforts by banks to lend to potential investors.

Thai Junta Charges 50 Anti-Government Activists

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 21:24
Thailand's military government has filed criminal charges against 50 activists over a recent protest in which they demanded the army give up power and restore civilian rule through elections, a lawyers' group said Friday.   The Lawyers Association of Thailand said Friday that seven leading activists were charged with sedition and 43 others with violating a ban on political assembly for the February 10 demonstration, in which 400 people participated. They were charged earlier this week, but as of Friday morning there had been no public announcement and at least some of those charged had not been notified.   The lawyers' group said the charges were meant to protect the military's position and threaten those who criticize it.   The military ousted an elected government in May 2014. It has pushed back promised dates for new polls several times.   The junta uses a number of measures to discourage dissent, such as a ban on political gatherings of more than five people, which are punishable by up to a year in prison. Sedition, defined as illicit efforts to bring about change in the country's laws, is punishable by up to seven years in prison.   It is the second time in less than a month that the junta has charged the same group of young activists, some of whom have been charged multiple times for their nonviolent political activities.   Thai courts rejected police requests to detain nearly three dozen activists over the same two charges last week, saying the protesters had cooperated with authorities and were not a flight risk.   Narinpong Jinapuck, president of the Lawyers Association of Thailand, said the latest charges were filed by Col. Burin Tongprapai, a junta representative who has filed various charges against the military's political opponents.   “These activists gathered to ask for their rights in line with the democratic process and within the framework of the constitution that protects them,” Narinpong said. “They asked for elections, not anything else.”   “The group says that you must live up to your word and hold elections in November 2018 as promised, that is the stance that we share with the student activists,” Narinpong said.   Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Kruea-ngam said Friday that elections could take place in March 2019 or even later depending on legal technicalities. He said a definitive poll date would be announced next month.   Thailand's military seized power with a promise to undertake political reforms and stamp out corruption, but public support has waned as the ruling generals have been tied to several corruption scandals of their own.  

Indonesia’s Sectarian Tensions Likely to Worsen in Election Season

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 17:30
A sword attack at a Catholic church by a Muslim assailant this week in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta injured four people during Sunday Mass, a disturbing sectarian episode in a country that has typically seen communities of various faiths live together without incident.  This wasn’t the first such attack on a church in Indonesia; there were two other knife attacks in the cities of Medan and Samarinda in 2016. Police shot and wounded the 22-year-old male assailant, Suliono, at St. Lidwina Bedog church in Yogyakarta’s Sleman District. His victims include an 81-year-old German priest; all four who were wounded are now reportedly in stable condition. He also decapitated statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. “The attack on the church in Yogyakarta was clearly an extremist act of violence,” said Bonar Tigor Naipospos of the Setara Institute, a religious affairs think tank in Jakarta. “Although the police have not yet completed the investigation and have been dubbing it a ‘lone wolf’ attack, this incident it indicates that violent extremist acts in Indonesia don’t just target police officers, who are considered the agents of a kafir [nonbeliever] government, but also religious minority groups.” Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and is about 87 percent Muslim. Extremist networks Knife attacks are becoming a copycat phenomenon because it is the “easiest way” to inflict violence in Indonesia, which has fairly strict gun control laws, said Nava Nuraniyah, a researcher with the Institute for Policy Analysis and Conflict (IPAC). Indonesia’s national police chief, Tito Karnavian, has indicated that the assailant may have links to extremist cells in Poso, a region in Central Sulawesi that harbored deadly conflict between Christians and Muslims in the 1990s and has more recently seen militants from ISIS-linked terror groups. The last major church attack, in Samarinda, East Kalimantan, was also initially described as a “lone wolf” incident but was later revealed to have links with a regional ISIS affiliate called Jamaah Anshorud Daulah (JAD). Suliono is being questioned in Jakarta by Indonesia’s elite counterterrorism force, Densus-88. Police spokesman Setyo Wasisto told Kompas he seems to have self-radicalized on the internet and has tried “two or three times” in the past to go to Syria and join the radical Islamic State group. Domestic terrorist activity has spiked in Indonesia, particularly on Java island (where Yogyakarta and Jakarta are both located) after 2016, when it became difficult for ISIS-sympathizers to travel to the Middle East and calls were issued to “wage war at home,” according to a recent report from IPAC. The report claims that the extremism of ISIS-sympathizers “has not disappeared, but rather has been temporarily pushed underground where it will stay dormant until the next leader or movement or big idea comes along to stir up sleeping cells.” Suliono also reportedly sold mobile phones in order to buy the sword used in the attack and researched churches near the mosque where he was staying in Yogyakarta, indicating a degree of premeditation. Sectarian tensions The attack has been widely condemned in Indonesia, where actual violence against religious minorities remains low despite rising intolerance. The Sultan of Yogyakarta, who is also the region’s governor, condemned the incident and called on police to solve the case. Christians account for about 9 percent of Indonesia’s 260 million people, and are free to worship according to the constitution, which is not secular but protects six different religions. There has been a steady drip of anti-Christian sentiments in recent years, peaking in 2017 when Jakarta’s Christian governor was ousted and imprisoned because of an extensive campaign from Islamic fundamentalists. It’s not always dramatic: sometimes Christmas services are disrupted, or Muslim small business turn down Christian customers. Whatever its severity, religious intolerance is likely to escalate as Indonesia heads into the long 2019 presidential election season, during which religious identity will be a presiding concern.

Cambodia Passes Lèse-Majesté Law

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 16:58
Cambodians will now be constitutionally obligated to “defend the motherland” and forbidden from insulting the king under a number of new legislative changes that observers say suggest a prolonged assault on civil liberties in the country. A new lèse-majesté law similar to one in Thailand that observers say has been blatantly and systematically misused to silence political dissent will carry a one- to five-year jail term. It was passed by Cambodia’s National Assembly on Wednesday along with a suite of vague constitutional amendments, among them a change allowing the permanent removal of voting rights for convicted felons. Order to exercising freedom Justice ministry spokesman Chin Malin said the lèse-majesté law was “very necessary” to bring order to the way citizens “exercised their freedoms,” stressing it only applied to insults against the king and not other members of the royal family. “The reason that we did not make it previously and only managed to do it now is that the current context is different with some people irresponsibly exercising their freedom of expression beyond the boundaries that have reached the dignities of the king,” he said. Malin said the constitutional amendments could enable the courts to “confiscate” a felon’s rights to vote and run for office with a possible permanent ban, an adjustment from a prior provision that merely enabled these rights to be withdrawn while the person was incarcerated. “There’s nothing for (any) group with opposite political tendencies to the government to worry about with this legislation, if they put the national interests first.” Little predictability Kingsley Abbott, a senior international legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists, said governments around the region were passing on key lessons on “how to misuse the law to curtail the expression of fundamental freedoms.” “Notably, these obligations are worded so vaguely they could be interpreted capriciously to include a broad range of activities the government may wish to repress,” he wrote in an email. “As such, in addition to infringing on protected freedom of expression, association and so on, they would be inconsistent with one of the key requirements of the rule of law, as properly understood, namely predictability,” he said. ​Thais convicted Scores of Thais have been convicted of lèse-majesté since the military government came to power in 2014. An insurance salesman was handed a 35 year sentence for Facebook posts deemed insulting to the monarchy. Prominent 85-year-old academic Sulak Sivaraksa, who questioned accounts of a Thai king’s role in an elephant battle more than 400 years ago, and a man who allegedly made sarcastic comments about the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s deceased dog are among those who have been targeted using the legislation. In Cambodia, existing defamation, incitement and espionage laws have proved sufficient to target overzealous acts of free expression. Last week, 29-year-old San Rotha was arrested on his wedding day in Cambodia for urging his compatriots to stand up against authoritarianism in a Facebook post. In the same week Thailand deported a Cambodian woman, Sam Sokha, who had been granted U.N. refugee status after she was allegedly filmed throwing her shoes at a poster of ruling party leaders. Opposition leader Kem Sokha, whose party has been dissolved by the courts, remains in jail awaiting trial on a widely derided espionage charge, as do two former Radio Free Asia reporters and an Australian filmmaker. Meanwhile there has been only one notable recent public case in Cambodia related to comments made about King Norodom Sihamoni, extracted from what was supposed to be a private conversation. Former Deputy Prime Minister Lu Lay Sreng fled the country in October after secretly recorded audio was leaked in which he called king Norodom Sihamoni a “castrated chicken” for his reluctance to wade into politics. Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said he saw no indication that anyone had said much recently about the current monarch, calling the law yet another case of the Cambodian government misusing legislation to cross a human rights “red line.” It would be telling, he said, to see the new European Commission policy toward Cambodia set to be adopted February 26, in light of the continuing trend. “I think that it’s very possible that the Everything But Arms trade preferences that are provided contingent on respect for human rights and labor rights may well be threatened,” he said.

UN: More Than 10,000 Civilians Killed or Wounded in Afghanistan in 2017

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 14:09
The United Nations says more than 10,000 civilians were killed or wounded in Afghanistan last year, many of them as a result of suicide bombings and attacks. The U.N. report says the number of casualties dropped by 9 percent compared with 2016, but it could increase again this year as the government and international forces step up aerial attacks against insurgents. VOA's Zlatica Hoke has more.

Senior US diplomat: No 'Bloody Nose' Plan for North Korea

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 13:55
A senior State Department official cast doubt Thursday on the idea that the U.S. can carry out a limited military strike on North Korea, a proposal that has become known as the "bloody nose" strategy. VOA State Department Correspondent Nike Ching reports.

Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Refuses to Resign Over Affair

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 12:49
A major rift opened up in Australia’s fragile ruling coalition Friday as Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce refused to quit over an affair with a staff member, and derided Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s condemnation of his behavior as “inept.” Turnbull, whose coalition holds a razor-thin majority of just one seat, said Thursday that Joyce had shown a “shocking error of judgment” for conducting the affair with his former press secretary, who is now pregnant, and called on his deputy to consider his position. The comments were seen as a thinly veiled call for the National Party leader to resign from the Cabinet, but Joyce, a married father of four who had campaigned on “family values,” said Friday he had the support of his colleagues to continue. Comments 'inept' Joyce leads the rural-based National Party, the junior partner in the center-right government led by Turnbull’s Liberal Party, a political alliance that has existed since 1923. “Comments by the prime minister yesterday at his press conference, I have to say that in many instances, they caused further harm,” Joyce told a press conference in Canberra, wearing his trademark bushman’s hat. “I believe they were in many instances inept and most definitely in many instances unnecessary ... All that is going to do is basically pull the scab off for everybody to have a look at.” Pressure to fire deputy Turnbull refused to comment on Joyce’s criticism, but the public spat fuels pressure on the prime minister to sack his deputy, which would put the government’s one-seat majority at risk should he choose to leave parliament. The Senate on Thursday passed a motion for Joyce to resign over the affair, saying he had breached standards of behavior expected of a minister. Although lawmakers had previously been reluctant to criticize Joyce, a plain-spoken small-town accountant turned politician, he has come under pressure following revelations that his former staffer was given two highly paid jobs after leaving his office. “This government is in crisis. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are at war with each other. This crisis cannot be allowed to continue. Malcolm Turnbull must sack the Deputy Prime Minister from the Cabinet,” said Bill Shorten, leader of Australia’s main opposition Labor Party. Eager to draw a line under the scandal, Turnbull said he will change the ministerial conduct rules, new standards broadly similar to a ban on relationships between lawmakers and staffers adopted last week by U.S Congress. Unlike the U.S. rules, the Australian rules currently only relate to Cabinet ministers and their direct subordinates, leading to criticism of the changes.