Saturday, March 16, 2013

North Korea tells South to leave islands

South Korean marines patrol on Yeonpyeong island, March 10
A North Korean propaganda website has warned of strikes against Southern islands and advised residents to leave.

The Uriminzokkiri website, linked to the regime, mentioned targets including Yeonpyeong island, which was attacked by Northern forces in 2010.

Pyongyang has made a series of threats since its last nuclear test in February prompted the UN to tighten sanctions.

The US said on Friday it would refocus missile defences to its west coast to counter the North's threats.

Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said 14 more batteries would be placed in Alaska by 2017, adding to 30 already in place along the coast.

'War games'
On 12 February the North tested a nuclear device, which is believed to be its third such test.

The UN Security Council condemned the move and tightened sanctions on the regime.

Before and after the UN announcement, Pyongyang promised reprisals for the sanctions, including a threat to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the US.

North Korean media has also been vitriolic against the South.

The Uriminzokkiri website stated: "Even an accidental spark by the belligerents in their war games can grow into a fire.

"And the damage for those living along the border and on the five western islands will be great."

The threats came shortly after South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won visited Yeonpyeong.

The US and South Korea also began military drills earlier in the week.

South Korea's western islands are regarded as being particularly vulnerable to attack as they lie 10km (six miles) south of the sea boundary.

In 2010, the North bombarded Yeonpyeong with artillery shells, causing four deaths.

North Korea's foreign policy has for decades been dominated by threats of military strikes, and bartering over its nuclear programme.

Although Pyongyang has given up parts of its nuclear programme in return for aid, it has continued to develop missiles and enrich nuclear material.

The most advanced missiles have the capacity to reach Alaska.

It is not thought to have a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.-British Broadcasting Network (March 16, 2013)

Thai navy denies shooting Rohingya refugees

The Thai navy has denied reports that its personnel opened fire on a group of Rohingya refugees, killing at least two.

Thai Navy commander Admiral Surasak Rounroengrom said that "no [Thai] navy officer could be that ruthless".

He was responding to reports that Thai sailors shot at a boat of around 20 Rohingya refugees off Thailand's south-western coast in February.

Thousands of Rohingyas are fleeing ethnic violence in western Burma.

Many of the boats, often bound for Malaysia, end up on Thailand's west coast.

Eyewitnesses told journalists and human rights groups that they saw several bodies in the water, and had sheltered some refugees who escaped after the incident.

"Navy personnel fired into the air three times and told us not to move," a refugee told Human Rights Watch (HRW). "But we were panicking and jumped off the boat, and then they opened fire at us in the water".

Adm Surasak said that navy officers had no reason to kill Rohingya refugees, because they were not an enemy.

"Since the policy is to push them back out to sea, we provide humanitarian aid with food and water, medicine and gas for them to continue their journey. All we do is help them, even fixing their boats [if necessary], before sending them back on their way," he said.

In the past, Thai authorities have been accused of dragging refugee boats that end up in Thai waters out to sea, leaving them to die. They have also been accused of selling on asylum seekers to human traffickers.

While the government has promised an investigation into the incident, Thai officials are rarely called to account over these kinds of allegations, the BBC's South East Asia correspondent Jonathan Head reports.-British Broadcasting Network

Indonesia carries out first execution since 2008

Indonesian police inspect marijuana plants in Aceh Besar district
The authorities in Indonesia have carried out their first execution for more than four years.

Officials confirmed that Adami Wilson, a Malawi national convicted of drugs smuggling, was executed by firing squad north of Jakarta on Thursday night.

The human-rights group Amnesty International called the execution a "shocking and regressive step".

Wilson was sentenced to death in 2004 after he was found guilty of smuggling 1kg (2.2lb) of heroin into the country.

His execution in the Pulau Seribu island chain is the first in Indonesia since 2008.

The attorney general's office told the AP news agency that nine other convicts were due to be executed this year.

Amnesty says that more than 140 people are on death row in Indonesia, mostly for drug crimes. About a third of them are foreigners.

"We oppose the death penalty in all circumstances, but Indonesia's long period without executions and the pledge to put even more people to death, makes this even more shocking," said Amnesty's Papang Hidayat.-British Broadcasting Corporation

‘Limited force’ could be used to rescue Filipinos in Sabah, says Santiago

The Philippines may use “limited force” against Malaysia if the  lives of Filipinos caught  in the middle  of a violent dispute in Sabah are in danger, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago said  on Friday.

While the use of law is prohibited under international law, Santiago said there are certain conditions that allow a state to use a “limited  force”   to protect and save the lives of its nationals.

“International law prohibits the use of force.  But there is an unwritten exception which allows states to protect or rescue their nationals by means of armed forces in the territory of another state,”  she said before the annual convention of the Association of Nursing Service Administrators Philippines held at the Manila Hotel.

“However, this exception should not be invoked, unless the Philippines has to carry out rescue operations,” said Santiago, a judge-elect at the International Criminal Court.

Santiago said among the pre-conditions that the  Philippine must first observe before  undertaking rescue operations in Malaysia are the following:

The lives of Filipino nationals should be genuinely in danger
Malaysia is unwilling or unable to ensure the safety of the persons concerned
The Philippines does not pursue any other purpose at the occasion of the operation
The scale and effects of the military force used are adequately measured to the purpose and conditions of the operation.

Asked  later during a press conference if the present  situation  in Sabah  warrants  the  Philippines’ use of  a limited force against  Malaysian authorities, Santiago said, “ According to the preconditions that are available, then the   Philippines could go to war in a limited sense as long as  these preconditions are met…”

“So as long as we meet these conditions under international law, we can avail of the exemption that allows us to use limited force to rescue Filipinos. We should have rescue operations there if the Filipinos are in danger of losing their lives,” she said.

Under international law, Santiago said, the  states in  conflict  with each other must avail  only peaceful means of settlements  of dispute.

“Meaning to say that war is considered illegal under international law for proving that a state has the right of sovereignty over a certain territory…That  of course applies to the dispute in Sabah by the Philippines and Malaysia,” she pointed out.

But the senator pointed out   how Malaysia stood  firm in sending first Filipinos out of Sabah before discussing any means  of settlement to end the dispute.

This attitude  by Malaysia, she said, was not approved by the international law.

“That’s is not provided for  by international law. If Malaysia insists that first Filipinos should all get out of Sabah then it will be willing to discuss any means of settlement of dispute, I’m afraid that Malaysia will be in danger   of being branded as a rouge state by the international community. That behavior is not anticipated and is not approved of by international law,” she said.

But  before  the  Philippines  takes  any action against  Malaysia, Santiago proposed the appointment of a third-party that would investigate  the recent spate of violence  in  Sabah.

When Congress opens in July, the senator said she would file a resolution expressing the sense of the Senate that President Benigno Aquino III should invite  Malaysia to agree  to an investigation by a third-party.

Santiago said the third-party could be a former prime minister or president of Southeast Asian Nations.-Philippine Daily Inquirer (March 16, 2013)

Philippines chosen as "most popular destination in Asia"

The Philippines was selected as the most popular destination by Guanzhou Information Times and the Guangzhou International Tourism Fair (GITF) during separate ceremonies held in the capital of Guangdong in southern China.

Li Xinzhang, vice president of Guangzhou Information Times, presented to the Philippines the “Most Popular Destination in Asia”. Philippine Tourism Undersecretary Daniel Corpuz and Consul General to Guangzhou Raly Tejada received the award.

Guangzhou Information Times is a subsidiary of Guangzhou Daily.

Meanwhile, the Philippines was also among the recipients of the “Most Popular Destination” awards during the Guangzhou International Travel Fair (GITF) Awards Night held at the China Marriott Hotel. 

The Philippines was the lone recipient from Southeast Asia. The other co-winners include Dubai (United Arab Emirates), Chicago (United States), Korea, Seychelles, Mauritius, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Macau, and Italy.

The GITF is organized by the Guangdong Provincial Tourism Administration through the Tourism Administration of Guangzhou Municipality in cooperation with Hannover Milano Fairs Shanghai Ltd..

Held every year in Guangzhou, Guangdong, China, the GITF has been recognized as one of the most significant annual international travel fairs in the Asia-Pacific Region for its extensive influence upon the tourism industry and related industries.

The Philippine Consulate General in Guangzhou issued a total of 59,861 visas to Southern Chinese visitors to the Philippines in 2012.

The Philippines continues to hold a strong appeal to the Chinese market as the Consulate General posted an increase of 6.45% in visa issuance for January 2013 over the same period last year.-ABS-CBN News (March 16, 2013 3:46PM)

Friday, March 15, 2013

Malaysia on guard against retaliatory attacks from Kiram forces

Malaysian security forces are on guard against what Malaysian Defense Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi described as possible retaliatory attacks by followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III.

According to a report by Malaysia's state-run Bernama news agency, Zahid said a "culture of seeking revenge" in parts of the southern Philippines may spark a repeat of the bloody clashes in Lahad Datu.

“I am putting my full confidence on our armed forces and police in ensuring the tragedy is not repeated despite fear that it may take place again,” he added.

For now, Zahid said, the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM), which secures the 1,400-km coastline of East Sabah, is on guard to agaisnt the feared repeat attacks.

Meanwhile, Zahid was appreciative of Philippine efforts to work closely with Malaysia to resolve the issue, and prevent a repeat of the incident by blocking Kiram's followers from entering Malaysia.

However, he said that a joint Malaysia-Philippine operation in the southern Philippines to address the threat at its source was an impossibility.

“Firstly, if we were to enter the Philippines, we would not be respecting the sovereignty of the Philippines and vice versa in Malaysia. The sovereignty of both countries must be respected,” he said.

Furthermore, the Defense Minister does not see military action as a solution to the issue.

Malaysian security forces have so far killed 56 suspected Kiram followers. The clashes also killed ten Malaysia security members.

Also, 156 people have been detained for being in the red zone of offensive operations.

Also, some 97 were held for suspected links to Kiram's followers.-GMA News (March 14, 2013 11:51PM)

Asian Catholics celebrate election of Pope Francis

At the left Pope Benedict XVI,
Center, Pope Francis (the current Pope)
and at the left, the late Pope John Paul II

Catholics across the Asia-Pacific celebrated Thursday the election of the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, hailing Argentina's Jorge Mario Bergoglio as a champion of the developing world.

Any disappointment that Benedict XVI's successor was not Asian appeared to be largely offset by the new Pope Francis ending the European dominance, as well as his credentials as a humble man with a deep commitment to social reforms.

However, there was a word of admonishment from a group supporting victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Australia.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino, who leads Asia's biggest Catholic country but who has challenged the Church over its opposition to contraception, offered warm praise for the 76-year-old new pontiff.

"The president, along with the Filipino people, joins all the Catholic faithful as they receive their new leader and meet his proclamation with a sense of boundless promise," said a statement released by Aquino's office.

Aquino said Francis raised hopes of "renewal" in the Catholic Church, citing his status as the first pope from outside Europe since Saint Gregory III, born in present-day Syria who was pope between 731 and 741.

The Philippine leader also pointed to Francis's status as the first Jesuit pope. The Society of Jesus is known for its emphasis on education and critical evaluation of Catholic doctrine.

Many people in the Philippines, which is home to about 80 million Catholics, had been hoping for Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle from Manila to be elected in Wednesday's conclave at the Vatican.

But Father Emmanuel Alfonso, the head of the Jesuit Communications Foundation in Manila, said there was also relief that Filipinos had not "lost" their leader to the global role.

"Setting aside national pride, the Church here needs a pastor, the Church here also needs inspiration... to lose him right away would be a big loss," Alfonso said, pointing out Tagle was still relatively young at 55.

Alfonso said Catholics in Asia had little issue with the fact that the new pope resembled previous pontiffs from the Old World, in that he has Italian heritage and is getting on in age.

"He was born in Argentina, he grew up in Argentina, he studied in Argentina. I think the cardinals considered him Argentinian," Alfonso said, insisting his election marked a "radical" shift for the Church.

There were similar voices of support for Pope Francis in India, which is home to about 17 million Catholics, the Church's second-largest community in Asia after the Philippines.

Father Savio Barretto, rector at the Basilica of Bom Jesus in the holiday state of Goa, said he was "thrilled" to have a non-European pope and the first fellow Jesuit.

"I am proud to have a pope who is in our order. We are expecting a lot from him. We are also happy because he belongs to the Third World," he said.

One in four of Goa's 1.5 million population is Catholic -- a legacy of centuries under Portuguese rule.

Remedios Fernandes, a retired civil servant in Goa, was impressed with reports the new pope cooked his own food and traveled by bus as a cardinal.

"We are optimistic that his simplistic qualities will help the Church to get a closer and realistic look at social issues," he told AFP.

Indonesia's Catholic minority hailed Pope Francis as an ideal leader for members of the faith in developing countries.

"He is a breath of fresh air for the Catholic Church as he doesn't come from the Vatican, he's not from the Curia (Vatican government) and he always speaks up for justice," said Benny Susetyo from the Indonesian Bishops Conference.

Bishops across Australia also offered warm praise, although victims of sex abuse by Catholic priests urged Pope Francis to prove he could end the cover-ups and prevent further crimes.

Nicky Davis, from the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, called on Pope Francis to hand over secret Vatican files about child sex abuse in Australia, as a gesture to show he was serious about change.

"One of the first actions of the new pope should be to open all the secret Vatican files relating to child sexual abuse in Australia and hand them to Australia's royal commission," she said.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced last year a royal commission to investigate the issue.-ABS-CBN News (March 14, 2013)

Thailand asks Laos to repatriate straying elephants

Lao authorities reported yesterday that the Governor of Si Songkhram district in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, had asked the Governor of Hinboun district in Khammuan province to ensure the quick round-up and return to Laos of wild elephants because they were worried the animals would cause extensive damage.

Department director Khamphay Phengphaengmeuang said the governors spoke to each other by phone about the elephants, which had crossed the Mekong River from Khammuan into Thailand.

“The governor of Si Songkhram district said he found one male elephant in Siowsongkham village but did not see any others. He is now asking Laos to expedite its return to Laos before it becomes a danger to local people,” Khamphay explained.

Officials in Houaykhiow and Donlab villages in Hinboun district said four wild elephants were seen near their villages on the night of March 10. Local residents and officials drove the animals away because they were worried about the damage they might cause to their crops and property. The elephants disappeared into the nearby jungle.

Later that night, at about 11:30pm, the elephants returned and once again officials and villagers drove them away but this time the elephants headed to the Mekong riverbank and crossed the river to the Thai side.

After this happened, the department arranged an urgent meeting with the Khammuan provincial governor yesterday and reported the matter.

Khamphay said all involved sectors in Vientiane are in official contact with the Thai government. The Department of Agriculture and district officials are cooperating with the Natural Resources and Environment Department to bring the elephants back to Laos.

“We have asked all parties involved to join with us on this. We believe there are at least three to five elephants because we have seen a group of five wild elephants in our province in the past, including two mothers and a large male,” he added.

He said this was the first time in five years that the wild elephants have entered villages to forage for food.

Khamphay said the five elephants came to Khammuan from the jungles of Borikhamxay province several years ago in their hunt for food.

The department responsible is now working hard to find the best way to bring the animals back to Laos as soon as possible under instructions from the government.-Asia News Network (March 13, 2013)

Philippines a good candidate for upgrade

The Philippines has pitched for an investment-grade status from Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services (S&P) whose diligence visit to the country early this week was described by officials as “very positive.”

“We are a good candidate for investment grade. I am quite optimistic we will get it,” Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan told reporters yesterday.

S&P rates the Philippines one notch below investment grade at BB+ with a “positive” outlook. The forecast suggests an upgrade could come within the year.

The New York-based debt watcher is ahead among two other major credit raters, Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings, which despite rating the country one notch  below investment grade, both pegged their outlooks at “stable.”

Last month, Fitch also conducted its annual due diligence but the results are yet to be made public.

“I cannot share with you the exact details of the meeting but basically it was very positive,” Finance Undersecretary Jeremias Paul Jr. said in a phone interview.

National Treasurer Rosalia de Leon, in a separate phone interview, said the government shared its liability management strategies concentrated on lowering borrowing costs and lengthening debt maturities.

“They were very positive with what we presented,” De Leon said.

S&P officials, led by associate director Agost Benard, also asked for “clarifications” on the fiscal figures, she said without elaborating. Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, in a text message, said the agency is here to “conduct assessment” of the over-all economy.

On Tuesday, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima reiterated the Philippines remains as one of “the most underrated” countries in the world, suggesting the market is already rating local bonds investment grade.

The Aquino administration has enjoyed 11 positive credit rating actions since it took over in July 2010 on the back of strong growth, low inflation, strong external payments position and improving state finances.-ABS-CBN News (March 14, 2013)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Japan seeks defense ties with ASEAN amid territorial rows with China

Japan on Wednesday called for stronger security ties with Southeast Asia as Tokyo looks to boost alliances at a time of growing territorial tensions with China.

Vice-minister level representatives from Japan and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations were beginning a two-day gathering at a Tokyo hotel, with several participating nations embroiled in sovereignty rows with Beijing.

"The Asia-Pacific region has various issues concerning security and defense ... including territorial conflicts in the South China Sea," Vice Defense Minister Akinori Eto told the opening session of the closed-door meeting.

"On top of the growing maturity of our economic cooperation, Japan and ASEAN need to further strengthen ties in the field of security and defense," Eto said.

The meeting is the first high-ranking defense dialogue of its kind since hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office late December following a landslide victory in general elections.

"Our country changed governments late last year," Eto said. "Under the new regime, we want to reinforce cooperation in security and defense with ASEAN countries and contribute to peace in the region," he added.

Japan and several members of ASEAN have locked horns with China over separate territorial disputes.

Relations between Beijing and Tokyo have deteriorated badly over the last year as the two sides argued about the sovereignty of Tokyo-controlled islands in the East China Sea.

On Tuesday, three Chinese government ships spent several hours in the 12-nautical-mile territorial zone off one of the Senkaku islands, claimed by Beijing under the name Diaoyus. Taiwan also claims them.

ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as China and Taiwan, have claims to parts of the South China Sea, which contains some of the world's most important shipping lanes and is believed to be rich in fossil fuels.

Simmering tensions over the issue have risen in the past two years, with the Philippines and Vietnam accusing China of becoming increasingly aggressive.

China claims most of the sea, including waters close to the shores of its neighbors.

Relations between the Philippines and China have become particularly tense since patrol vessels from both countries engaged in a standoff over the Scarborough Shoal in April.-Interaksyon (March 13, 2013)

North Korea places South Korean island in crosshairs

North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un threatened to "wipe out" a South Korean island as Pyongyang came under new economic and diplomatic fire Tuesday, March 12, from US sanctions and UN charges of gross rights abuses.

Military tensions on the Korean peninsula have risen to their highest level for years, with the communist state under the youthful Kim threatening nuclear war in response to UN sanctions imposed after its third atomic test last month.

It has also announced its unilateral shredding of the 60-year-old Korean War armistice and non-aggression pacts with Seoul in protest at a joint South Korean-US military exercise that began Monday.

While most of these statements have been dismissed as rhetorical bluster, the latest threat to the border island of Baengnyeong, which has around 5,000 civilian residents, appears credible and carries the weight of precedent.

In 2010, the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan was sunk in the area of Baengnyeong with the loss of 46 lives, and later that year North Korea shelled the nearby island of Yeonpyeong, killing four people.

On a visit Monday to frontline artillery units, Kim Jong-Un briefed officers on plans for turning Baengnyeong into "a sea of flames".

"Once an order is issued, you should break the waists of the crazy enemies, totally cut their windpipes and thus clearly show them what a real war is like," Kim was quoted as saying by the Korean Central News Agency.

Priority targets included radar posts, Harpoon anti-ship missile launchers, 130mm multiple rocket stations and 150mm self-propelled howitzer batteries, Kim said.

An administrative official on Baengnyeong, Kim Young-Gu, said civilian emergency shelters on the island had been fully stocked and all village councils put on high alert.

"It's not like there's a mass exodus of panicked islanders to the mainland. But to be honest with you, we're a bit scared," he told AFP by telephone.

The disputed sea border off the west coast was the scene of deadly naval clashes in 1999, 2002 and 2009.

Residents on a number of frontline islands have reportedly taken to sleeping in their clothes in preparation for a night-time alert.

The crisis represents an early test for South Korea's new President Park Geun-Hye, who was sworn in only two weeks ago, while analysts worry about just how far the inexperienced Kim Jong-Un is willing to go.

In Seoul, Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok said the North Korean leader's frontline visits were aimed at exerting "psychological pressure" on South Korea.

Kim said the North had already begun a series of naval drills using submarines and was expected to launch full-scale military maneuvers in the coming days.

"If the North provokes us, we will respond in ways that will cause them more harm," he said.

In a move likely to provoke a fresh round of furious rhetoric from Pyongyang, the United States on Monday slapped sanctions on North Korea's primary foreign exchange bank and four senior officials.

The United States will "continue to work with allies and partners to tighten national and international sanctions to impede North Korea's nuclear and missile programs", US national security advisor Tom Donilon said in New York.

Past sanctions have failed to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program, but the international community hopes measures targeting financial lifelines can slow down the process and curb proliferation.

The US measures come on top of financial sanctions imposed last week by the UN Security Council including China, North Korea's economic and diplomatic patron.

While Donilon labelled the recent threats emanating from Pyongyang as "hyperbolic", he stressed the United States would use the "full range of our capabilities" to protect the US and its allies such as South Korea.

Pyongyang also came under attack on another front at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, where the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea laid out a litany of abuses and crimes against humanity.

Rights violations in North Korea "have reached a critical mass", Marzuki Darusman told the council, citing public food deprivation, torture and arbitrary detention.

He also highlighted concerns about a network of political prison camps believed to hold at least 200,000 people, including detainees who were born in captivity because entire families are thought to have been sent there.

He called for an international commission of inquiry into the human rights record of North Korea, which has repeatedly refused to cooperate with past UN investigators. - Rappler (March 13, 2013)

Thailand, Laos sign MOU on contract farming

Thailand and Laos yesterday signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on cooperation in the promotion of contract farming scheme to support production of farm products in the neighboring country.

Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul inked the document with Laos's Minister of Industry and Commerce Nam Viyaketh in Vientiane on the sideline of 5th summit of the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS).

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Lao counterpart Thongsing Thammavong witnessed the signing ceremony.

The MOU is a part of cooperation on agriculture under the ACMECS scheme to accelerate and facilitate contract farming to guarantee food sufficiency in the region. Under the MOU, Thailand will import Lao farm products with tariff exemption under the Asean Trade in Goods Agreement.

List of products would be determined and announced later by concern authorities in Thailand. Contract farming is an agricultural scheme which buyer and farmers agree upon conditions on production and marketing. The contract farming is a Thai flagship project to promote supply of farm products in neighboring countries into the Thai economy. Thai private sector involved and invested under the contract farming in Laos for more than a decade.

To concern of the two countries, sometime Thai market could not absorb some particular farm items due to domestic over production, causing troubles for Lao producers.

The MOU would establish a working committee to regularly consult at least once a year on matters relating to annual operation plan and the review of the list of farm products under the scheme.

The MOU was not a dispute settlement mechanism but any disputes could be settled through consultations within the working committee,

According to the article 14. The ACMECS Business Council may participate in the coordination for the settlement of disputes.

The MOU would play a crucial role in facilitating agricultural activities in Laos. Both countries would lender assistance to companies in forming partnership with local partners.

Authorities of both sides would facilitate border crossing of staff members of agricultural companies to carry out contract farming activities. Import of seeds, seedlings, fertilizers, equipment and machinery for the purpose of contract farming would be granted privilege tax incentives.

The MOU remains valid for initially five years after the signing but can be renewed as agreed by both sides. It could be terminated by giving the other side six months prior notice.-The Nation (March 13, 2013)

China's military buildup worries Taiwan

China has continued to grow its military strength with part of that development concerning military units with a focus on Taiwan, according to a defense review released by Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense (MND) on Monday.

The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) has continued to upgrade arms for troops stationed with Nanjing and Guangzhou military units, which have the potential to threaten Taiwan, a MND-released Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) said. The report said this situation, which has emerged despite improving cross-strait ties, poses a major threat to Taiwan.

For the past few years, the PLA has been conducting military exercises which focus on the scenario of taking an island should possible military conflict occur, the QDR also said.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government continued to call on the United States to stop selling weapons to Taiwan in the hope of increasing the military gap between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, it said.

The above evidence all shows that Beijing's growing military strength continues to target and threaten Taiwan, the QDR said.

This is the second version of the QDR released by the MND. Defense Minister Kao Hua-chu was scheduled to report to the legislatures' Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee today.

On March 16, 2009, Taiwan issued its first QDR to the legislature for review as a result of an amendment to the National Defense Act. Regulation requires that the QDR be sent to the Legislative Yuan for review every four years.-Asia News Network (March 13, 2013)

Reforms in Myanmar gaining momentum

The reforms in Myanmar have started to gain momentum and observers say this is a sign of President Thein Sein's vision bearing fruit.

It is also an indication of the president's efficiency since he took office two year ago.

From the acceptance of public protests, release of political prisoners to revisions to a number of existing laws, President Thein Sein, a former general, has introduced sweeping changes in Myanmar since he assumed his new role in 2011,

Political analyst Toe Zaw Latt said: "I think there is a dramatic change and it is not only a change in the person but also a change in the players. In the past, it was a one man regime which is one senior general but now, the power is in three areas. One is the president, parliament and at the same time army. So this is the reality."

Many acknowledge that President Thein Sein has moved the country from being outright authoritarian towards the path of democracy.

"There has been significant changes or steps taken in different areas, political, economic, media. So transformation or reform process is taking its momentum. Many people believe in the president that he is doing a good job. One of the most important achievements he has made in this very short time is that he can convince the Myanmar public, to a large extent, as an ex-general, a large proportion of the public has gained more and more belief in him," said Sithu Koko, a journalist.

Political watcher Win Kyaw said: "The public believe Thein Sein as a person but he hasn't brought about any great achievement yet. However, we see and feel that he is really trying to bring about a change in the current situation."

However, some Myanmar nationals believe more should be done to further liberalise the nation.

To do that, the cabinet ministers, mainly former military men, must rid their old mindset of governing.

"They still hold the mindset that people should be kept quiet. Those ex-generals do not believe in being accountable to the people and they don't understand or feel that they have a need to teach the citizens about the concept of freedom. That's the main area which requires improvement," said Win Kyaw.

There is no denial that the political environment in Myanmar has changed since President Thein Sein assumed office in March 2011. The wheel of change is certainly in motion, prompting even some to wonder if the speed of change may be too fast for some to handle.

But many, including critics of the political landscape here believe that the development now will enable the country to hold a free and fair election come 2015.-Channel News Asia (March 13, 2013)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Vietnam to learn from Philippines' anti-graft fight

Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung told Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales of the Philippines that Vietnam hopes to learn from the anti-corruption experiences of countries across the world, including their regional neighbours, during a meeting in Hanoi yesterday.

Dung emphasised that the Party and State of Vietnam pay much attention to the prevention and combat of corruption, a constant struggle that requires drastic and long-term measures to increase the transparency of government procedures and uphold the punishment of offences.

As a neighbour of the Philippines and fellow Asean member, Vietnam attaches a great deal of importance to nurturing their relationship to achieve mutual benefits for both countries, the PM added.

Applauding the cooperation between the two partners, Dung declared his support for the quick and effective implementation of agreements reached during Morales's visit.

Morales earlier briefed Dung on the results of her talks with her Vietnamese counterpart, Inspector General Huynh Phong Tranh. She described the newly-signed memorandum of understanding on collaboration in the area of transparent governance.

She added that her agency wants to further boost cooperation with the government Inspectorate of Vietnam so that the two parties can learn from each other in the fight against corruption.

Efficient management

The same day, Inspector General Tranh held extensive talks with the visiting Filipino guests.

He said he believed the delegation's visit to be a valuable opportunity for progress in the battle against corruption, and would subsequently lead to more efficient state management, increased accountability and greater transparency in the countries' inspection activities.

In reply, Ombudsperson Morales said corruption negatively impacts human beings and socio-economic development.

The newly signed memorandum of understanding is a chance for both inspection agencies in both nations to share their anti-corruption expertise. -Viet Nam News (March 12, 2013)

China's envoy for Asia to prioritise Myanmar 'for now'

China has appointed its first special envoy for Asian affairs, and his top priority will be Myanmar, the Foreign Ministry announced on Monday.

The announcement came as Myanmar's government met Kachin rebels on the Chinese side of the border for renewed peace talks on the same day.

The negotiations, attended by Chinese officials, were held to resolve a festering ethnic conflict that has undermined local reforms, according to media reports.

Chinese experts said the government established Myanmar as the envoy's priority because "there have been too many issues recently", including the conflict and commercial problems. The envoy will deal with other Asian affairs, they said.

China has nominated former vice-minister of foreign affairs Wang Yingfan as the first special envoy for Asian affairs, and he will be mainly engaged in China-Myanmar affairs, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Monday at a daily news briefing.

Beijing has established three similar positions before - special envoys for Africa, the Middle East and Korean Peninsula affairs.

Xu Liping, an expert on Southeast Asian studies with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said, "China should have appointed a special envoy for Asian affairs long before."

"There are many issues in the region that affect China's national interests. I'm sure the special envoy will go beyond issues concerning Myanmar," Xu said.

Wang was born in 1942 and spent many years in the ministry's department of Asian affairs.

He was Chinese ambassador to the Philippines in the late 1980s and is a former director of the department of Asian affairs.

"He has rich experience in Asian affairs and has his own way of handling the issues," Xu said.

On Monday, representatives of Myanmar's Kachin Independence Organization met with Myanmar government officials in the Chinese border town of Ruili, AFP quoted an analyst as saying.

"I think this meeting may be a little more productive than the previous one (in February) although we cannot expect too much," said Aung Kyaw Zaw, an analyst with close ties to the KIO who was monitoring the talks in Ruili.

"Myanmar troops are not retreating from Kachin state yet," he said, adding that Chinese officials and members of some of Myanmar's other ethnic groups were also present for the talks.

A dozen rounds of talks since 2011 have faltered with fighting continuing to claim lives.

But analysts said a new round in February, followed up by Monday's discussions, were a positive development after the latest upsurge in fighting.

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced since June 2011, when a 17-year ceasefire between the government and the Kachin broke down.

Beijing has urged an end to the fight.

Song Qingrun, a Myanmar studies researcher with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said China-Myanmar relations have faced a number of challenges. The countries share a 2,200 km border.

"The Kachin conflict endangers security along the border. And since 2011, several large-scale Chinese projects in Myanmar have been suspended, bringing huge losses to Chinese firms," Song said.

He was referring to incidents such as Myanmar in 2011 suspending work on a $3.6 billion Chinese-led dam in Myitsone, Myanmar's largest hydropower project, citing complaints from residents and opposition parties.

"The projects have been discredited by some anti-China groups, while media reports have ignored the huge contribution they were to bring to the local economy and community. Now Chinese companies are extremely cautious in investing in Myanmar," Song said.-China Daily (March 12, 2013)

South Korea and US begin military drills as North Korea threatens war

North Korean state media said Monday that Pyongyang had carried through with a threat to cancel the 60-year-old armistice that ended the Korean War, as it and South Korea staged dueling war games amid threatening rhetoric that has risen to the highest level since North Korea rained artillery shells on a South Korean island in 2010.

Enraged over the South's joint military drills with the United States and recent U.N. sanctions, Pyongyang has piled threat on top of threat, including vows to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S. Seoul has responded with tough talk of its own and has placed its troops on high alert.

The North Korean government made no formal announcement Monday on its repeated threats to scrap the armistice, but the country's main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, reported that the armistice was nullified Monday as Pyongyang had earlier announced it would.

The North followed through on another promise Monday, shutting down a Red Cross hotline that the North and South used for general communication and to discuss aid shipments and separated families' reunions.

The 11-day military drills that started Monday involve 10,000 South Korean and about 3,000 American troops. Those coincide with two months of separate U.S.-South Korean field exercises that began March 1.

The drills are held annually, and this year, according to South Korean media, the "Key Resolve" drill rehearses different scenarios for a possible conflict on the Korean peninsula using computer-simulated exercises. The U.S. and South Korean troops will be used to test the scenarios.

Also continuing are large-scale North Korean drills that Seoul says involve the army, navy and air force. The South Korean defense ministry said there have been no military activities it considers suspicious.

The North has threatened to nullify the armistice several times in times of tension with the outside world, and in 1996 the country sent hundreds of armed troops into a border village. The troops later withdrew.

Despite the heightened tension, there were signs of business as usual Monday.

The two Koreas continue to have at least two working channels of communication between their militaries and aviation authorities.

One of those hotlines was used Monday to give hundreds of South Koreans approval to enter North Korea to go to work. Their jobs are at the only remaining operational symbol of joint inter-Korean cooperation, the Kaesong industrial complex. It is operated in North Korea with South Korean money and knowhow and a mostly North Korean work force.

The North Korean rhetoric escalated as the U.N. Security Council last week approved a new round of sanctions over Pyongyang's latest nuclear weapons test Feb. 12.

Analysts said that much of the bellicosity is meant to shore up loyalty among citizens and the military for North Korea's young leader, Kim Jong Un.

"This is part of their brinksmanship," said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based expert on North Korea with the International Crisis Group think tank. "It's an effort to signal their resolve, to show they are willing to take greater risks, with the expectation that everyone else caves in and gives them what they want."

Part of what North Korea wants is a formal peace treaty to end the Korean War, instead of the armistice that leaves the peninsula still technically in a state of war. It also wants security guarantees and other concessions, direct talks with Washington, recognition as a nuclear weapons state and the removal of 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

Pinkston said there is little chance of fighting breaking out while war games are being conducted, but he added that he expects North Korea to follow through with a somewhat mysterious promise to respond at a time and place of its own choosing.

North Korea was responsible for an artillery attack that killed four South Koreans in 2010. A South Korean-led international investigation found that North Korea torpedoed a South Korean warship that same year, killing 46 sailors. Pyongyang denies sinking the ship.

Among other threats in the past week, North Korea has warned Seoul of a nuclear war on the divided peninsula and said it was cancelling nonaggression pacts.

South Korean and U.S. officials have been closely monitoring Pyongyang's actions and parsing its recent rhetoric, which has been more warlike than usual.

One analyst said Kaesong's continued operations show that North Korea's cutting of the Red Cross communication channel was symbolic. More than 840 South Koreans were set to cross the border Monday to Kaesong, which provides a badly-needed flow of hard currency to a country where many face food shortages, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry.

"If South Koreans don't go to work at Kaesong, North Korea will suffer" financially, said analyst Hong Hyun-ik at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea. "If North Korea really intends to start a war with South Korea, it could have taken South Koreans at Kaesong hostage."

Under newly inaugurated President Park Geun-hye, South Korea's Defense Ministry, which often brushes off North Korean threats, has looked to send a message of strength in response to the latest comments from Pyongyang.

The ministry has warned that the North's government would "evaporate from the face of the Earth" if it ever used a nuclear weapon. The White House also said the U.S. is fully capable of defending itself against a North Korean ballistic attack.

On Monday, Park told a Cabinet Council meeting that South Korea should strongly respond to any provocation by North Korea. But she also said Seoul should move ahead with her campaign promise to build up trust with the North.

North Korea has said the U.S. mainland is within the range of its long-range missiles, and an army general told a Pyongyang rally last week that the military is ready to fire a long-range nuclear-armed missile to turn Washington into a "sea of fire."

While outside scientists are still trying to determine specifics, the North's rocket test in December and third atomic bomb test last month may have pushed the country a step closer to acquiring the ability to hit the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction. Analysts, however, say Pyongyang is still years away from acquiring the smaller, lighter nuclear warheads needed for a credible nuclear missile program.

But there are still worries about a smaller conflict, and analysts have said that more missile and nuclear tests are possible reactions from North Korea.

North Korea has a variety of missiles and other weapons capable of striking South Korea. Both the warship sinking and island shelling in 2010 occurred near a western sea boundary between the Koreas that North Korea fiercely disputes. It has been a recurring flashpoint between the rivals that has seen three other bloody naval skirmishes since 1999.

Last week, Kim Jong Un visited two islands just north of the sea boundary and ordered troops there to open fire immediately if a single enemy shell is fired on North Korean waters.

Kim was also quoted as saying his military is fully ready to fight an "all-out war" and that he will order a "just, great advance for national unification" if the enemy makes even a slight provocation, according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.-The Fox News (March 12, 2013)

Aquino banks on Najib promise to protect 800,000 Filipinos in Sabah

The Philippine Palace yesterday said it was holding on to the promise of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to protect the 800,000 Filipinos living and working in Sabah.

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said Najib made the promise to President Aquino when they talked by phone on March 2 after Malaysia launched a military action to end the intrusion of followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III into Sabah.

Hundreds Filipinos are fleeing Sabah to avoid getting caught in the crossfire between Malaysian security forces and an armed group led by Jamalul’s brother Agbimuddin.

Those returning tell of abuses being committed by Malaysian police against Filipinos they suspect have links to Agbimuddin’s group.

One refugee, Amira Taradji, recounted that Malaysian police ordered Filipino men to run then shot them. Her brother was among those killed.

Lacierda said the government, through the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), was documenting reports of abuses from the refugees.

“Social welfare officials are talking to those who are coming home from Sabah to find out if there’s some truth to these reports,” he said.

If the reported abuses are true, Lacierda said, they are an offshoot of the intrusion of Agbimuddin’s group into Sabah.

“We have, from the very start, told them that this is something that may happen. The path that they have taken is the wrong path, and it is a path that would lead to violence,” he said, referring to the Sulu sultanate’s decision to press its claim to Sabah by occupying the land.

Lacierda said the government needed to verify the reports of abuses before taking action.

Civic and activist groups and lawmakers have called on the government to take action, including protesting the reported abuses to Malaysia.

The Blas F. Ople Policy centre on Monday joined the call for protection for the Filipinos in Sabah, urging the International labour Organisation to monitor abuses being committed against Filipinos in the eastern Malaysian territory.

“We wish to appeal to ILO to work with member states—Malaysia and the Philippines—in ensuring that the rights and welfare of migrant workers in conflict-afflicted communities in Sabah are upheld at all times,” Susan Ople, head of the policy centre, said in a statement.

The crush of refugees from Sabah is taxing the government’s logistics, both for ferrying refugees and moving food.

Rice is becoming scarce in Tawi-Tawi, and the government is having difficulty checking the problem.

Lt. Gen. Rey Ardo, chief of the military’s Western Mindanao Command, confirmed a “developing crisis” in Tawi-Tawi—a dwindling rice supply and rising fuel prices.

Tawi-Tawi imports rice and fuel from Sabah.

“It may not be as immediate as it is, but it is a developing crisis and the indicator is the prices of fuel there have reached 100 pesos (US$2) per litre,” Ardo said.

On Sunday, the DSWD said it was running out of rice to feed the refugees.

But Ardo said the Philippine Navy could not simply “pull out one ship to ferry 1,000 sacks of rice from Zamboanga to Bongao.”

He said some of the Navy’s vessels were deployed to waters off Sabah, patrolling the sea to guide refugees fleeing from the territory and to block reinforcements for Agbimuddin’s group from Mindanao.

Another vessel is being used by the humanitarian mission that is still waiting for permission from the Malaysian government to enter Sabah.
Another problem, Ardo said, is spreading out military resources to the many islands in the south where refugees are landing.

Admiral Armando Guzman, commander of Naval Forces Western Mindanao, said the Navy had already spread out its assets to secure the safety of the refugees fleeing Sabah.-Asia News Network (March 12, 2013)

South Korea warns North on armistice threat

South Korea says North Korea cannot scrap the armistice that ended the Korean War and called on Pyongyang to tone down its rhetoric.

A unilateral move to end the pact was not legally possible, it said.

As well as the armistice threat North Korea has in recent days also cut off a hotline and vowed to end non-aggressions pacts with Seoul.

It says it is responding to US-South Korea military drills and new sanctions imposed after its third nuclear test.

The two Koreas remain technically at war because the 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice, not a treaty.

North Korea has declared that armistice "invalid", but South Korea said a one-sided declaration was insufficient.

"Unilateral abrogation or termination of the armistice agreement is not allowed under its regulations or according to international law," Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-Young said.

Seoul would "absolutely keep the armistice agreement as well as strengthen consultation and cooperation with the United States and China, who are also concerned parties of the armistice", he said.

"We demand North Korea withdraw remarks threatening stability and peace on the Korean peninsula and in the region," the spokesman added.

This is not the first time North Korea has said it was withdrawing from the armistice. It also issued a similar threat after its nuclear test in 2009, for example.

'Bellicose rhetoric'
In recent weeks, however, there has been a marked escalation in rhetoric from Pyongyang, following international condemnation of its nuclear test.

It opposes the fresh UN sanctions and has also voiced bitter opposition to two annual joint US-South Korea military exercises that are currently under way.

State-run television showed footage on Monday of mass rallies across the country to denounce the US and South Korea, while the state news agency also described leader Kim Jong-un briefing troops at a military unit near a border island.

He told local commanders on Baengnyeong Island - close to the disputed inter-Korean maritime border and the site of the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan - to conduct "merciless firepower strikes" if provoked, KCNA said.

Late last week he gave similar instructions to troops near Yeonpyeong Island, the scene of shelling in November 2011 that left four South Koreans dead, KCNA said.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the US was "certainly concerned by North Korea's bellicose rhetoric".

"The threats that they have been making follow a pattern designed to raise tension and intimidate others," he said.

On Monday the US imposed additional sanctions on North Korea. The US Treasury added the Foreign Trade Bank (FTB) of North Korea and Paek Se-bong, the chairman of a committee which it said oversaw production of ballistic missiles, to the sanctions list.

The US State Department also added three North Korean officials it said had links to the communist country's proliferation activities.

The sanctions ban any US individual or entity from transactions with those named.

In a speech, US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon said North Korea should "change course" to obtain the aid and respect it sought.

"North Korea's claims may be hyperbolic, but as to the policy of the United States, there should be no doubt: We will draw upon the full range of our capabilities to protect against, and to respond to, the threat posed to us and to our allies by North Korea."

A spokesman for South Korean President Park Geun-hye, meanwhile, has said that her first overseas trip since taking office will be to the US in May, taking into account "the recent Korean Peninsula situation".

North Korea's third nuclear test followed an apparently successful launch in December of a three-stage rocket, seen as a banned test of missile technology.

Regional neighbours and the US fear Pyongyang is working to build a nuclear warhead small enough to put on a missile, but believe it does not yet have the capabilities to do so.-British Broadcasting Corporation (March 12, 2013)

Myanmar confirms phosphorus used at mine protest

A Buddhist monk receives treatment at a hospital after police fired water cannon and gas during a pre-dawn crackdown on villagers and monks protesting against a Chinese-backed copper mine, in Monywa northern Myanmar on November 29, 2012.
An official parliamentary report in Burma has found that police used smoke bombs containing phosphorous during a protest against a Chinese-backed mine.

The panel, led by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, said protesters suffered "unnecessary burns".

Police had said they only used tear gas and water cannon against protesters, many of them monks, at the November incident.

The report recommended work on the mine continue, however, despite opposition.

A separate report last month by Burmese lawyers and the US-based Justice Trust accused police of using military-issue white phosphorus grenades to disperse protesters.

This report, ordered by President Thein Sein, did not specifically mention white phosphorus. But it said the devices used on protesters contained phosphorus, which "can cause fire when they explode".

"We have found that unexpected and unnecessary burns were caused to some monks and civilians because the police used smoke bombs without knowing what their effect would be," the report said.

The protests were a result of a "lack of transparency", it said, and that compensation offered people "was not at market value".

"This massive project is beneficial to the country even though the benefit is slight," the report said.

The conclusion of the report, released late on Monday, drew an angry reaction from protesters. Thwe Thwe Win, a protest leader, said demonstrations would resume.

"I am very dissatisfied and it is unacceptable,'' she told Associated Press news agency.

"There is no clause that will punish anyone who had ordered the violent crackdown. Action should be taken against the person who gave the order."

The mine at Monywa in Burma's north-west is jointly owned by a Chinese company and Myanmar Economic Holdings, owned by the Burmese military.

Hundreds of local villagers, supported by activists and Buddhist monks, took part in months of sit-in protests, saying they had been unfairly forced to give up their land.

Dozens of people suffered injuries, including burns, when police moved in to end the protest on 29 November.

The government later apologised to the injured and set up an investigation commission led by Ms Suu Kyi.

She is expected to travel to the mine to talk with villagers on Wednesday.-British Broadcasting Corporation (March 12, 2013)