Saturday, April 06, 2013

Philippine Navy confirms 2 unidentified fighter jets intrude into airspace

Two unidentified fighter jets intruded into the country's airspace, Col. Edgard Arevalo, designated Navy spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea and other special naval concerns, confirmed on Saturday. 

“Naval operating forces in Palawan have reported sightings of two unidentified aircraft passing at high speed and high altitude over the vicinity of Pagasa Island,” Arevalo said.

Arevalo said the sightngs were affirmed by Commodore Joseph Rustom Pena, commander of the Naval Forces West based in Puerto Princesa City, in his report to Flag-Officer-in-Command Vice Admiral Jose Luis Alano.

The aircraft, which "headed north coming from the southwest direction," were spotted on Thursday, April 4, at 9:50 a.m., according to Arevalo. The intrusion happened a day before the opening of the 2013 Balikatan exercises of some 8,000 Filipino and Americam soldiers in Luzon

The Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brune,i and Malaysia are claiming portions of the territories in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). China claims the whole area. 

Earlier, military sources disclosed to the airspace intrusion of alleged Chinese Sukhoi fighter jets in the West Philippine Sea. 

“The intrusions allegedly happened last week and early this week. Local fishermen who reported the incident claimed the fighter jets were always in tandem,” the source said.

The source added that the three airspace violations happened in Kalayaan Island Group (KIG), a municipality in Palawan composed of seven islets and two reefs found within the West Philippine Sea. The area lies within the oil-rich Spratly Islands being claimed by China.  

The source said it was not clear if the Russian-made multirole fighter jets were part of the Chinese naval drill that was slated recently in the South China Sea and “deliberately” intruded over KIG.

More than two weeks before the Friday opening of the Balikatan exercises, local fishermen claimed ships with Chinese markings entered KIG at night and allegedly unloaded construction materials on the shallow part of an islet.

The Intrusion of suspected Chinese fighter jets into the West Philippine Sea is not new, though.

In May 2011, the military confirmed that two unidentified aircraft intruded into Philippine airspace, three weeks before the arrival of the US Carrier Strike Group 1 led by its mother-ship USS Carl Vinson in the country for a visit." 

Philippine Air Force (PAF) insiders said the “unidentified” aircraft were Mig-29 “Fulcrum” jets that buzzed over two PAF OV-10 conducting reconnaissance mission in the Spratlys.

They said the Chinese aircraft had threatened the two PAF planes. The incident was the second intrusion of Chinese forces after the March 2011 incident in the Reed Bank where two Chinese Navy gunships harassed a group of oil explorers led by the Department of Energy.-Interaksyon (April 06, 2013)

US plays down North Korea threat

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (centre) inspecting landing drills, 25 March 2013
US officials have played down the threat of war on the Korean peninsula, after weeks of bellicose statements from Pyongyang.

A White House spokesman said the US "would not be surprised" if North Korea launched a missile, while a top US military officer said recent threats appeared to fit a familiar pattern.

Pyongyang has threatened to attack both US and South Korean targets.

It has told foreign embassies it cannot guarantee their safety in a conflict.

Diplomats in Pyongyang were asked on Friday to tell the foreign ministry by 10 April what help they would need in evacuating.

The warning prompted Russia to ask whether Pyongyang was offering help in the event of a conflict, or making a decision.

South Korean media reported on Friday that the North had moved two intermediate range missiles into position on the east coast.

The missiles are untested but it is believed they could reach as far as the Pacific Island of Guam, where the US has a military base, and where it has confirmed it will deploy a missile defence system.

Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, said two warships equipped with Aegis defence systems would monitor the situation.


North Korea has issued a series of unusually strong threats since it was sanctioned by the UN in March for having carried out a third nuclear test.

It has threatened nuclear strikes on the US, formally declared war on the South, and pledged to reopen a nuclear reactor in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Friday a missile launch would not be unexpected.

"We would not be surprised to see them take such an action,'' he said. "We have seen them launch missiles in the past.''

Seoul has also played down the North's reported missile move, saying it may be planning a test rather than a hostile act.

Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the North's nuclear threat "reckless", but said it seemed to fit a decades-long pattern of escalation followed by accommodation.

"I wouldn't say I see anything to lead me to believe that this is a different kind of cycle,'' he told the Associated Press news agency.

Even so, Gen Dempsey said the cycle was more unpredictable because relatively little was known about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who came to power after his father's death in December 2011.

"Though we've always said that North Korea has been a bit opaque to us, in the past we've understood their leadership and the influencers a little better than we do today," he said.

Many of North Korea's angry statements have cited the annual military exercises between US and South Korean forces as provocation.

The US flew nuclear-capable B2 and B52 bombers over the South as part of the drill, and has since deployed warships with missile defence systems to the region.

Gen Dempsey said US moves had been "largely defensive and exclusively intended to reassure our allies".

The BBC's Lucy Williamson reports from Seoul that the heightened atmosphere could make any action riskier for North Korea.

With military communication lines cut, even an unarmed test-flight of its rockets could be misconstrued, and any glitch in flight path or target could lead to a major escalation, she adds.

North Korea has not taken direct military action since 2010, when it shelled a South Korean island and killed four people.

Despite its warning that it could not guarantee the safety of foreign embassies, both Russia and the UK said they had no immediate plans to evacuate their embassies in Pyongyang.-British Broadcasting Coporation (April 6, 2013)

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Philippines accuses 16 Taiwanese of retiree scam

Philippine authorities have arrested 16 Taiwanese in connection with an online scam that mostly targeted retirees living in China and Taiwan, an official said yesterday.

The suspects pretended to be bank employees and persuaded victims to reveal their account numbers and ohther details, said Ronald Aguto, chief of the Computer Crimes Division of the Philippines' National Bureau of Investigation.

He said suspects called retirees and told them their accounts had been compromised and must be upgraded or changed. Others represented themselves as prosecutors and persuaded their victims to settle nonexistent complaints by depositing money to a syndicate's account, he said.

The suspects, 15 males and one female, were arrested Tuesday in three separate houses inside the Subic Bay Freeport, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Manila, Aguto said.

He said the group used Internet telephone connections and read from prepared scripts when talking to the victims.

"When they think they could not convince the person, they would say, 'Somebody will call you,' or, 'You can call this number of the prosecutor's office or another branch of government,' ... and they have another script for that," Aguto said.

He said his bureau was tipped off by a concerned citizen and the scam had been going on for two months. Agents recovered computers, telephones and fake credit cards, some of them still blank, he said.

Philippine police arrested and deported nearly 300 Taiwanese and Chinese nationals involved in a similar scam last year. Aguto said the syndicate continued to operate in small cells, including the one busted this week.

He said that the suspects face charges of illegal use of electronic access devices such as ATM and credit cards. A more comprehensive anti-cybercrime law is still under review by the Supreme Court.

If convicted, each suspect could face six to 20 years in prison. In last year's cases, however, the Philippine government sent Taiwanese suspects to their home country to face charges there, at Taiwan's request.-The Philippine Star (April 04, 2013)

North Korea 'moves mid-range missile'

North Korea has shifted a missile with "considerable range" to its east coast, South Korea's foreign minister says.

Kim Kwan-jin played down concerns that the missile could target the US mainland, and said the North's intentions were not yet clear.

Pyongyang earlier renewed threats of a nuclear strike against the US, though its missiles are not believed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

The US is responding to North Korea by moving missile defence shields to Guam.

Meanwhile, Russia said Pyongyang's attempts to "violate decisions of the UN Security Council are categorically unacceptable".

"This radically complicates, if it doesn't in practice shut off, the prospects for resuming six-party talks," foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement on Thursday.

The talks involving North and South Korea, the US, Russia, China and Japan were last held in late 2008.

'Worst-case scenario'

Japan said it was co-operating closely with the US and South Korea to monitor the North's next move.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that although the rhetoric was "increasingly provocative", Tokyo would "calmly" watch the situation.

Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga earlier told reporters that Japan was braced for a "worst-case scenario".

The Pentagon said the shield on its Pacific island territory would be ready within weeks, adding to warships already sent to the area.

The North has previously named Guam among a list of possible targets for attack that included Hawaii and the US mainland.

Japanese and South Korea reports had suggested the missile being moved by the North was a long-range one with a capability of hitting the US west coast.

However, experts believe the North's most powerful rocket, which it test-fired last December, has a range of 6,000km (3,700 miles) and can reach no further than Alaska.

Kim Kwan-jin told MPs in a parliamentary defence committee meeting that the missile had "considerable range".

"The missile does not seem to be aimed at the US mainland. It could be aimed at test firing or military drills," he said.

Analysts have interpreted Mr Kim's description as referring to the Musudan missile, estimated to have a range up to 4,000km. Guam would be within that range.

Declaration of war

The North is believed to have its main military research centres in the east.

It has test-fired missiles from there before, and its three nuclear weapons tests were carried out in the east.

Despite its belligerent rhetoric, North Korea has not taken direct military action since 2010, when it shelled a South Korean island and killed four people.

But in recent weeks it has threatened nuclear strikes and attacks on specific targets in the US and South Korea.

It has announced a formal declaration of war on the South, and pledged to reopen a mothballed nuclear reactor in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.

In its latest statement, attributed to a military spokesman, the North appeared to refer to continuing military exercises between the US and South Korea in which the US has flown nuclear-capable bombers over the South.

The statement said the "ever-escalating US hostile policy towards the DPRK [North Korea] and its reckless nuclear threat will be smashed".

It promised to use "cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means of the DPRK" and said the "merciless operation of its revolutionary armed forces in this regard has been finally examined and ratified".

The US Department of Defense said on Wednesday it would deploy the ballistic Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (Thaad) to Guam in the coming weeks.

The Thaad system includes a truck-mounted launcher and interceptor missiles.

US officials recently also announced that the USS John McCain, a destroyer capable of intercepting missiles, had been positioned off the Korean peninsula.

Some analysts say Pyongyang's angry statements are of more concern than usual because it is unclear exactly what the North hopes to achieve.

As well as the angry statements, the North has also shut down an emergency telephone line between Seoul and Pyongyang and stopped South Koreans from working at a joint industrial complex in the North.

The Kaesong complex, one of the last remaining symbols of co-operation between the neighbours, is staffed mainly by North Koreans but funded and managed by South Korean firms.-British Broadcasting Coporation (April 04, 2013)

Singapore regulator investigates football officials

Singapore's anti corruption agency, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), has said it is investigating three Lebanese football officials.

The officials, who were in Singapore to referee a match, were taken in for questioning on Wednesday.

The inquiry comes just weeks after a Singapore syndicate was named as a key part of a global match-fixing ring.

However, the CPIB did not say if the three Lebanese officials were part of the match-fixing investigation.

But the agency did issue a statement saying that it adopted a "zero tolerance approach towards corruption, and match-fixing of any kind is not condoned in Singapore".

The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) confirmed that the officials that were taken in for questioning were referee Ali Sabbagh and assistant referees Ali Eid and Abdallah Taleb.

The FAS said the officials were "assisting the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau in their investigations".

"Singapore and FAS have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to match-fixing and football corruption which includes the imposition of permanent suspension from all football activities on any player or official convicted in a court of law for football corruption offences," the FAS said in a statement.

"We take a serious view of allegations pertaining to match-fixing and football corruption activities and the authorities and FAS will spare no effort in minimising the possibility of such activities taking place within the local football scene."

Earlier this year, Singapore police said that a businessman, Tan Seet Eng, also known as Dan Tan, was helping Singapore authorities with their inquiries.

Mr Tan is said to be the central figure in a match-fixing organisation under investigation by Interpol.-British Broadcasting Coporation (April 04, 2013)

Quake hits off Philippines shore

A 5.3-magnitude earthquake struck offshore in northeastern Philippines on Thursday, the United States Geological Survey said.

There were no immediate reports of casualties or damages.

The quake struck about 100 miles northeast of Manila and had a depth of 23 miles, the USGS said. - Channel News Asia (April 04, 2013)

Indonesian government threatens to pull plug on Merpati

Indonesia's state-owned domestic carrier PT Merpati Nusantara Airlines (Merpati) is on the verge of losing its wings as the government ponders whether to terminate the debt-ridden airline’s operations. 

State-Owned Enterprises Minister Dahlan Iskan said on Wednesday that scores of proposals had been received by his office to close down Merpati following the poor performance of the Jakarta-based airline. 

With that, he said, the State-Owned Enterprises Ministry, as Merpati’s sole shareholder, would consider terminating the airline - known for pioneering flights to eastern regions of the archipelago

“For so long there have been recommendations to shut down Merpati,” Dahlan said on the sidelines of a press briefing in Jakarta. “I will check those recommendations one by one before making a final decision.” 

The debt-ridden Merpati has yet to show progress in clearing its debts, despite the abrupt change of leadership in May last year. 

In May 2012, Dahlan fired then Merpati president director Capt. Sardjono Jhony Tjitrokusumo for his inability to rescue the company, replacing him with Rudy Setyopurnomo, previously president commissioner of the company. 

Rudy, who is also a former president of private carrier Indonesian Airlines Aviapatria, was recently quoted by Antara news agency as saying that he hoped the government would persuade the airline’s creditors to write off the company’s debts. 

The top executive said he would not lose sleep over Merpati’s debts as most of the lenders to the company were also state-owned firms, although he did say the debts presented problems to the airline’s management in their daily operations. 

Reportedly, Merpati’s debts currently total 3.14 trillion rupiah (US$32.70 million), which include the airline’s debt to state-owned oil and gas firm PT Pertamina for fuel purchases plus debts to state-owned lender Bank Mandiri, state-run airport operator Angkasa Pura II, state asset manager PT PPA and state-owned insurance company PT Jasindo. 

In order to reduce its operational costs, Merpati had closed more than 10 per cent of its 124 routes, including the Jakarta-Bandung route, as previously reported by The Jakarta Post. The company’s data shows that 112 of 124 of Merpati’s routes are operating at a loss because their passenger-load factors, which represent flight occupancy, are less than 60 per cent.

Separately, aviation expert Dudi Sudibyo said the government should have temporarily suspended Merpati’s operations after dismissing Capt. Sardjono Jhony Tjitrokusumo.

“Merpati needed time to recover after suffering such severe financial problems that were affecting their operations,” he said. 

Dudi also referred to the case of Mandala Airlines, which made a comeback last year after financial woes had forced them to close down operations a year earlier.

Merpati, he said, was the pioneer airline that opened up flight routes to the eastern half of the archipelago, particularly Papua. However, the chief editor of air travel magazine Angkasa said Merpati had become faced with financial woes after becoming a cash cow. 

“It will be very sad if Merpati is closed completely as it is endeavouring to compete in a market that, ironically, it helped to pioneer,” he said, adding that the government should provisionally suspend Merpati’s operations instead. 

Contacted separately, Transportation Ministry spokesman Bambang S. Ervan said the ministry had offered several recommendations to Merpati to improve the firm’s operations, flight safety and to expand its routes. 

“However, we do not recommend that Merpati be closed down. It is a state asset that must be maintained,” he said via text message.-Asia News Network (April 04, 2013)

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

North Korea blocks South workers from Kaesong zone

North Korea has stopped South Koreans from crossing the border to work at the jointly run Kaesong industrial zone, for the first time since 2009.

Seoul said about 800 South Koreans who had stayed overnight at the complex were being allowed to return.

Kaesong is a crucial revenue source for the North, which has not indicated how long the entry ban will last.

Pyongyang has threatened the South and the US in recent weeks, and has vowed to restart a mothballed nuclear plant.

The border into Kaesong is the last functioning crossing between the two Koreas, and the complex is the last significant symbol of co-operation.

The industrial park is home to more than 120 factories that employ more than 50,000 North Koreans and several hundred managers from the South.

Permission is granted on a daily basis for workers to cross into the complex, where they can stay overnight.

More than 850 South Koreans were at Kaesong when the ban was announced, and very few have returned.

The BBC's Lucy Williamson, at the border, says many have decided not to return immediately because they fear they will not be allowed back in.

One South Korean worker who returned from the complex said some of his colleagues had been held up because they had no transport.
"Other people couldn't return because they were supposed to be taken home on trucks scheduled to carry supplies into North Korea, but the trucks couldn't get into the North," said the worker.

The South's Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-seok told reporters he wanted the ban to be lifted immediately.

"Ensuring the safety of our citizens is our top priority and the South Korean government will take necessary measures based on this principle," he said.

South Koreans were briefly denied access in March 2009, in an apparent response to annual US-South Korea military exercises.

Seoul says the South's firms pay $80m in wages each year to workers in the North.

The complex sustains the city of Kaesong, with an estimated population of 300,000.


North Korea threatened to shut down the Kaesong complex last week.

It has also threatened attacks on US military bases in Asia and South Korean border islands.

On Tuesday it said it planned to restart its mothballed reactor at Yongbyon, which is the source of plutonium for its nuclear weapons programme.

The North has apparently been angered by UN sanctions imposed after a recent nuclear test.

Its statements against the US seem to be in response to the current round of US-South Korea military drills.

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry called recent North Korean actions "dangerous" and "reckless".

"Let me be perfectly clear here today. The United States will defend and protect ourselves and our treaty ally, the Republic of Korea [South Korea]," he said after talks with his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se.

The US has recently made a series of high-profile flights of advanced aircraft over South Korea.

The sorties included stealth fighters and nuclear-capable B-52 bombers.

Officials have also confirmed that the USS John McCain, an Aegis-class destroyer capable of intercepting missiles, has been positioned off the Korean peninsula.

A second destroyer, the USS Decatur, has been sent to the region.

China, the North's only powerful ally, said it had despatched officials on Tuesday to hold talks with ambassadors from North Korea, South Korea and the US.

Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the officials had expressed "serious concern" about the current situation.

"China believes all sides must remain calm and exercise restraint and not take actions which are mutually provocative and must certainly not take actions which will worsen the situation," he said.

On Tuesday UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that the crisis had "gone too far" and called for urgent talks with the North.

"Things must begin to calm down, there is no need for the DPRK [North Korea] to be on a collision course with the international community. Nuclear threats are not a game," Mr Ban said.-British Broadcasting Corporation (April 03, 2013)

Malaysian PM Najib Razak paves way for general election

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has dissolved parliament ahead of a general election.

Mr Najib, whose National Front (BN) coalition has been in power for over 50 years, made the announcement in a televised address.

He will face opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in what is expected to be a tightly-contested race.

The National Front lost its two-thirds majority for the first time in the 2008 elections.

Election officials will meet in coming days to fix a polling date - many expect the vote to be held in late April.

"The king has accepted my request to dissolve parliament effective 3 April," Mr Najib said in the address.

Mr Najib was constitutionally obliged to call a general election in April, when the National Front's five-year mandate ran out.

Under pressure

In 2008 the National Front coalition suffered its worst election result in decades, losing its two-thirds parliamentary majority and control of five state assemblies.

Mr Najib Razak assumed office in the wake of the election, replacing Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

The National Front has dominated Malaysian politics since its independence, and losing its majority was hugely embarrassing, the BBC's Jonah Fisher in Bangkok reports.

The coalition will be under pressure to reverse losses it suffered in 2008, our correspondent adds.

In his televised address on Wednesday, Mr Najib warned Malaysians not to "gamble the future of [their] children and Malaysia".

He is likely to highlight Malaysia's strong economic growth over the past year in his election campaign.

Challenger Anwar Ibrahim leads a coalition of three opposition parties: his Parti Keadilan Rakyat, and the Islamist Parti Agama SeMalaysia and the Democratic Action Party.

The opposition, which has accused the ruling party of corruption and racial discrimination, has gained support in urban areas.

Mr Anwar once served as deputy prime minister under the National Front, but fell out with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1998.

He was jailed for misuse of power for six years, and charged with sodomy twice - although on both occasions, the charges were overturned.

He has described the charges as politically motivated.-British Broadcasting Corporation (April 03, 2013)

'US won't go too far in backing PH, Japan in sea dispute'

The United States is likely to “press the brake” if tension involving the Philippines and Japan with China comes to a tipping point, limiting assurance and support to its treaty allies, a senior Chinese scholar said last Monday.

Ruan Zongze, vice president and senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), said the US is not expected to go too far in its support to the Philippines and Japan, as he emphasized that China will not engage in international arbitration initiated by Manila.

CIIS is the think tank of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It conducts research and analysis on a wide range of foreign policy issues.

Ruan, invited by the Chinese embassy in Manila to give a briefing to the media, said the Philippines is consistently pushing its own agenda to take advantage of the US rebalance in Asia, being its treaty ally.

“I assume the Philippine side sees that this might be the opportunity to assert the sovereignty claim over Panatag Shoal (Huangyan). Because you are a treaty ally of the Americans so they will support you. But China and US relationship is pretty solid and robust,” Ruan told reporters at the embassy.

“This tension must be managed under certain circumstances, but at the same time, if the tension comes to a tipping point, the Americans will press the brake. They are not going too far. Even our bigger dispute with Japan, will Americans really fight for Japanese over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands? I don’t believe so,” he said.

Ruan said the US will assure its treaty allies of support but the assurance is “limited.”

He said China will be a very constructive player in the international community but “we will not engage in international arbitration.”

China’s decision not to participate in the arbitration process is Beijing’s choice and right, according to Ruan.

He said China viewed the Philippines’ action bringing the issue to international arbitration as a unilateral action to escalate the tension.

“That is another escalation of tension because let me put it this way, nobody can really address the sovereignty issue, even the United Nations arbitration,” he said, adding that patience is needed in resolving the issue through negotiation.

Squatting strategy

Meanwhile, former Western Command (Wescom) commander, retired Lt. Gen. Juancho Sabban, on Monday called for sustained pro-active actions in addressing China’s “squatting” technique, if only to establish their permanent presence within the country’s exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea.-ABS-CBN News (April 03, 2013)

French warship visits Palawan

French Marine Nationale’s light monitoring frigate FS Vendemiaire (F734) arrived at Puerto Princesa Tuesday morning for a two-day port call and goodwill visit.

According to Commander Joffrey Gerry, captain of the French Navy warship, the visit is intended to exchange culture and competences of the 92 French Navy aboard the said vessel and their Filipino counterparts.

Although there will be no field training exercises, personnel of the Naval Forces West of the Philippine Navy will be given a chance to familiarize the frigates navigational operation as well as its weaponry.

The French Navy Team were welcomed by deputy Wescom chief Brigadier General Elmer Amon and Commander of the Naval Forces West Commodore Joseph Rustom Pena.

"We are happy that our friends from the French Navy visited us here in Palawan. It is just an affirmation of the friendship between the French and the Filipino Forces," said Major Oliver Banaria, Wescom spokesman.

FS Vendemiaire is a Floreal class frigate complete with radars, electronic warfare and decoys, missiles, and a panther helicopter.

This is the first time that the French vessel visited Palawan after its foray to Manila in 2009 and in Cebu just last year.-Interaksyon (April 03, 2013)

Singapore urges US to boost trade agenda with ASEAN

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien urged the United States on Wednesday to pursue a more active trade agenda in Southeast Asia in response to China's growing economic influence in the region.

"Over the last decade, China has become the top trading partner of almost all Southeast Asian nations, including U.S. allies such as the Philippines and Thailand," Lee said in a speech to U.S. business groups.

"The U.S. must adopt a more active trade agenda with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). In Asia, trade is strategy," Lee said.

The United States is already involved in free trade talks with four ASEAN nations - Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei - as part of negotiations on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a regional agreement including 11 countries on both sides of the Pacific.

But the TPP talks are currently limited to members of another regional grouping, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which does not include ASEAN members Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.

All ten ASEAN members are negotiating a free trade agreement with China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Trade experts say that pact is not expected to be as comprehensive or groundbreaking as the TPP agreement.

Japan has recently expressed interest in joining talks on the TPP.

"I welcome Japan's decision to join the TPP," Lee said. "It is a strategic move that brings an important US ally in Northeast Asia into this important grouping."

Both the TPP and the RCEP are considered stepping stones to the long-term goal of an even broader Asia Pacific agreement, potentially including all 21 members of APEC and the 10 members of ASEAN, with some overlap.

Lee said he welcomed President Barack Obama's decision to put "trade at the center of his agenda" by pursuing the TPP pact, a free-trade agreement with the European Union and by seeking "trade-promotion authority" from Congress.

That legislation, long considered essential for U.S. trade negotiations, allows the White House to submit trade deals to Congress to vote on without amendments.

Lee also discussed U.S.-China relations, which he said was of importance to every country in the region.

"The U.S., as the incumbent superpower, which will remain dominant for decades to come, naturally has interests to protect," Lee said.

"China understands that its success depends on a stable international environment. It wants its rightful place in the sun, and will be wary of any perceived attempt to conscribe its freedom of action," Lee said.

"So, strengthening strategic trust (between the United States and China) is critical," Lee said.-ABS-CBN News (April 03, 2013)

Vietnam land eviction trial begins

The trial of four Vietnamese farmers who used home-made bombs and shotguns to fight land eviction has opened in the port city of Haiphong.

Doan Van Vuon, 53, his brother and two other relatives are facing attempted murder charges for injuring several police officers in January 2012.

The case has attracted attention, as farmers resorting to violence to protect their land in Vietnam is rare.

Farmers receive rights for a limited time, as land belongs to the state.

Security has been tight outside the court where hundreds of protesters have gathered to await news on Mr Vuon's fate.

Aside from the four men, two others are also facing charges of resisting law enforcement.

Mr Vuon and his brothers have become heroes of sorts in Vietnam, says the BBC's Nga Pham.

Rarely have the police been challenged, even if violently, during land clearances, although such incidents happen almost every day, our correspondent adds.

The district government gave Mr Vuon the land to farm for 14 years before it said it wanted it back as part of a future infrastructure project. The remaining part was to be rented at a higher cost.

Mr Vuon protested against the decision, arguing that his family had spent years developing the land and had to pay back debts.

The government moved to evict him after negotiations failed and this resulted in a stand-off.-British Broadcasting Corporation (April 03, 2013)

Singapore PM, in US, warns of Asia risks

Singapore's prime minister warned Tuesday that miscalculations in Asia could set back the fast-growing region for years as President Barack Obama hailed the city-state for military cooperation.

On a visit to Washington, Lee Hsien Loong said that the United States had "fundamental interests" in freedom of navigation and stability in a region where China's disputes with neighbors have intensified.

"We should seek to prevent any miscalculation or mishap which will set the region back for many years," Lee told a dinner of business leaders after talks at the White House with Obama.

Singapore, while a longstanding US partner, has pursued friendly relations with China. Lee said he believed there was "enough common ground" for the two Pacific powers to accommodate each other's interests.

"The US, as the incumbent superpower who will remain dominant for decades to come, naturally has interests to protect," he said.

China nonetheless "wants its rightful place in the sun" and will be "wary of any perceived attempt to conscribe its freedom of action," Lee said.

Relations have worsened between China and Japan over islands in the East China Sea, while Vietnam and the Philippines have led Southeast Asian criticism over Beijing's alleged heavy-handedness in South China Sea disputes.

Tensions in Asia have soared in recent weeks due to a crisis with North Korea, which tested a nuclear bomb in February and has threatened to attack the United States over what it calls hostility.

Singapore has given the green light for the temporary deployment of four littoral combat ships, which are meant to project US power in shallow coastal waters. The first, the USS Freedom, is on its way across the Pacific.

"We have extremely close military cooperation," Obama said as he met with Lee at the Oval Office, praising the capitalist Southeast Asian state as "one of the most successful countries in the world."

"I want to thank Singapore for all the facilities that they provide that allow us to maintain our effective Pacific presence," Obama said.

Singapore has traditionally been a key source of advice and interpretation of events in Asia, particularly in China, for US administrations, and Obama said that Lee had been especially helpful to him.

"Personally, there are very few world leaders who I am more appreciative of in terms of their advice, counsel and thoughtful analysis than Prime Minister Lee," Obama said.

The meeting focused on regional security challenges as well as trade, with Singapore and the United States key players in the evolving Trans-Pacific Partnership pact.

Lee, in an address to the US Chamber of Commerce and US-ASEAN Business Council, called on the United States to pursue a "more active trade agenda" despite the political pitfalls for Obama at home.

"In Asia, trade is strategy. A more active trade agenda will benefit the US economically and strategically," Lee said.

The Singaporean prime minister called Southeast Asia "a huge market" for the United States, saying that the world's largest economy enjoyed advantages thanks to its creative innovation.

Lee welcomed Japan's decision to enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, which will offer a major boost in the size of the potential pact even if its presence may complicate negotiations.-ABS-CBN News (April 03, 2013)

Philippines takes Malaysia to UN over Sabah 'abuses'

The Philippines has filed an official complaint to the United Nations over alleged human rights violations by Malaysia against Filipinos in the Malaysian state of Sabah.

The abuses cited were reportedly committed during Malaysia's assault against more than 200 Filipino armed men who entered Sabah to claim ownership of the island in February.

Philippines civil society groups have asked the UN to express grave concern over the human rights abuses, as well as prompt Malaysia to provide compensation to the victims.

The petitioners quoted Filipinos who fled Sabah for the Philippines. They heard cases of homes being raided, and of people with immigration papers being killed by Malaysian forces.

Philippines foreign diplomats have also expressed concern over reports of mistreatment of Filipinos by Malaysian authorities.

Since February 12, followers of self-proclaimed Filipino sultan, Jamalul Kiram III, have been in Sabah demanding recognition as the rightful owners of the Malaysian section of the island.

The stand-off is Malaysia's worst security crisis in years and authorities are demanding the gunmen surrender unconditionally.-Australia Network News (April 03, 2013)

Monday, April 01, 2013

Philippines readies evacuation of Filipinos in South Korea

The Philippines on Monday said it was ready with a contingency plan to protect the safety of more than 50,000 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in South Korea if tensions with North Korea over its plan to launch a new rocket escalated into a full-blown crisis.

Vice President Jejomar Binay, who is in Seoul attending a nuclear security summit with other world leaders, also said the government would direct local governments with migrant workers in South Korea to be prepared for any eventuality.

“Our embassy (in Seoul) is ready for a worst-case scenario,” Binay said in a statement released by his office.

Pyongyang has said it plans to launch a satellite into space aboard a new rocket between April 12 and 16, triggering warnings from the United States and its allies that the launch was intended to test a missile capable eventually of delivering an atomic warhead.

North Korea has said the first stage of the rocket is expected to fall in international waters about 140 kilometers off the South Korean west coast. The second stage is projected to splash down some 190 km off the northeast coast of the Philippines.

“This is an unfortunate situation because there are existing United Nations resolutions and North Korea has said it will comply with the resolutions,” Binay said. “We hope it does not happen and North Korea complies with the UN resolutions.”
A UN Security Council resolution passed after North Korea staged missile and nuclear tests in 2009 bans a ballistic missile launch for any purpose.

Asean summit

The North Korean issue will be discussed by President Benigno Aquino III and other leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) during the April 3-4 Asean summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said in Malacañang.

The 10-nation Asean includes the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, Brunei Darussalam, Laos and Burma (Myanmar).

“I think there will be a topic on DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea),” Lacierda said, adding the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) was “on top of the situation” insofar as contingency plans for OFWS were concerned.
He said there were around 56,000 Filipinos in South Korea and seven to nine Filipinos in North Korea working with UN-related agencies.

4 alert levels

Told that North Korea had already moved the rocket to its launch site and asked whether the Philippines would join the US call for China to rein in its North Korean ally, Lacierda said “the most effective means of addressing the North Korean issue has always been the six-party talks.”

He was referring to the dialogue on ending North Korea’s nuclear program that began in 2003 and involves the United States, China, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas.

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario has told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that the Philippines will press Pyongyang to abandon its rocket launch plan.

The Philippine Embassy has posted on its website a 10-page advisory on the contingency plan for Filipino workers in South Korea.

Written in Filipino, the advisory directs the workers to  familiarize themselves with four alert levels.

Convergence points

Under Alert Level 1, the OFWs are required to observe heightened alertness. Alert Level 2 calls for restriction of movements, while Alert Levels 3 and 4 call for relocation and actual evacuation, respectively.

Three “convergence areas” for evacuees have been marked: Seoul, Daejeon and Busan (or Pusan), which is some 330 km southwest of Seoul. If the Gimpo and Incheon international airports are already closed, Busan will be the main convergence point.

From Busan, the embassy plans to evacuate Filipinos, using both the city’s major port and Gimbae International Airport.

No crisis yet

All 90 Philippine embassies and consulates worldwide have a contingency plan for Filipinos, the DFA said.

Raul Hernandez, the DFA spokesperson, said “that could include the mobilization of a network of Filipino community leaders, logistical movements of Filipinos to safer areas and possible evacuation of nationals to the Philippines.”
“This plan is amended or revised as needed depending on the actual situation on the ground,” Hernandez said.

However, “no crisis alert level [for Filipinos] in the two Koreas has been declared” by the DFA, he said.

‘Helpless observer’

The Senate defense committee chairman, Panfilo Lacson, said in a text message that North Korea’s launch plan should be a cause for concern “because it automatically threatens the peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Lacson said the situation was not helped by North Korea being a “secretive” country.

He added: “Unfortunately, [the situation] is further aggravated by some tough talk from [US President Barack] Obama and warnings from the West. How China reacts to the situation will surely affect the stability in the area.”

Lacson also said: “The Philippines, being a helpless observer, may be better off staying that way. Our efforts are limited to using our diplomatic channels with our neighboring countries, to speak as one voice with them.”

The Senate defense committee vice chairman, Gregorio Honasan, said: “I’m sure this is more about saber rattling, threat and counterthreat. Even North Korea understands the global implications of what it plans to do. So this is not a doomsday scenario, I’m sure diplomacy would come into play.”

Honasan said there was no cause for panic. “For concern and worry, yes. But let’s not be paranoid … Realistically, our best bet is our regional and global alliances,” he stressed.

Senator Antonio Trillanes IV warned “conflict may arise” in the Asia-Pacific if countries displeased with North Korea’s plan took stronger measures.

But Trillanes added: “The public isn’t alarmed too much because people are more concerned about the more evident gut issues like the rising oil and power prices, fare hike, and later on, the increase in the prices of commodities.”-Philippine Daily Inquirer (April 01, 2013)

Thailand to adopt region's cross border securities offering standards

The decision was announced today at the Asean Capital Markets Forum (ACMF).

"I am proud of this achievement. The arrival of the fully harmonised set of disclosure standards simply proved that ACMF is determined to make fund raising process most efficient for companies looking to expand their businesses. It creates more opportunity for Asean to channel our savings to promote growth of our own region. I hope that, in the near future, more Asean securities regulators will join Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand in adopting the Asean Disclosure Standards, yet enlarging the impact of this Scheme." said Vorapol Socatiyanurak, Secretary-General of Thailand’s Securities and Exchange Commission.

Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are the first three Asean jurisdictions to implement the Scheme. Other bourses can join when they are ready.

The scheme aims to facilitate fund raising activities as well as to enhance the investment opportunities within Asean capital markets. Issuers offering equity and plain debt securities in multiple jurisdictions within Asean will only need to comply with one single set of disclosure standards for prospectuses, known as the Asean Disclosure Standards, bringing about greater efficiency and cost savings to issuers. 

 It replaces the Asean and Plus Standards Scheme that was announced on June 12, 2009 and is one of the capital market initiatives undertaken by the ACMF as part of the regional capital market integration plan endorsed by the Asean Finance Ministers in April 2009 in Pattaya, Thailand.

 "The implementation of the Scheme is another significant achievement in the ACMF's continuing efforts to foster Asean capital market integration. With the Scheme in place, issuers will only need to prepare one set of prospectus for a multi-jurisdiction offering in the region. The ACMF hopes that this will encourage more companies to offer securities across Asean and help promote Asean as integrated capital market for fund-raising," said Lee Chuan Teck, chairman of the ACMF and Assistant Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

To Ranjit Ajit Singh, chairman of the Securities Commission Malaysia, the initiative represents a significant milestone towards creating a more efficient environment for access to capital across the region, and is a key initiative by Asean capital market regulators to promote greater cross-border investment flows and grow the region's capital markets. 

"The fully harmonised disclosure standards will allow issuers more seamless access to financing opportunities within the region while facilitating investors' decision making in multi-jurisdiction offerings."-The Nation (April 01, 2013)

North Korea's parliament meets amid nuclear tension

After weeks of war-like rhetoric, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gathered legislators Monday for an annual spring parliamentary session taking place one day after top party officials adopted a statement declaring building nuclear weapons and the economy the nation's top priorities.

The meeting of the Supreme People's Assembly follows near-daily threats from Pyongyang, including vows of nuclear strikes on South Korea and the U.S.

Pyongyang has reacted with anger over routine U.S.-South Korean military drills and a new round of U.N. and U.S. sanctions that followed its Feb. 12 underground nuclear test, the country's third. Analysts see a full-scale North Korean attack as unlikely and say the threats are more likely efforts to provoke softer policies toward Pyongyang from a new government in Seoul, to win diplomatic talks with Washington and to solidify the young North Korean leader's military credentials at home.

On Sunday, Kim and top party officials adopted a declaration calling nuclear weapons the "the nation's life" and an important component of its defense, an asset that wouldn't be traded even for "billions of dollars." Pyongyang cites the U.S. military presence in South Korea as a main reason behind its drive to build missiles and atomic weapons. The U.S. has stationed tens of thousands of troops in South Korea since the Korean War ended in a truce in 1953.

North Korea also has threatened in recent days to shut down a jointly run factory complex in the North — the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean rapprochement. But officials in Seoul say hundreds of workers traveled as usual across the heavily armed border to the North Korean factory Monday as they have throughout the rising tensions.

"I have no idea about what it will be like when I go to the North Korean side. It seems OK to be here, but we will be living there in a tense situation for a week," Kim Won-soo, a South Korean manager working in Kaesong, said before his departure Monday from Paju, South Korea.

World ( Article MRec ), pagematch: 1, sectionmatch: 1
While analysts call North Korea's threats largely brinkmanship, there is some fear that a localized skirmish might escalate. Seoul has vowed to respond harshly should North Korea provoke its military. Naval skirmishes in disputed Yellow Sea waters off the Korean coast have led to bloody battles several times over the years. Attacks blamed on Pyongyang in 2010 killed 50 South Koreans.

South Korea's new president, Park Geun-hye, is pursuing a policy that seeks to re-engage North Korea with dialogue and aid after five years of standoff. But she told her military Monday to set aside political considerations and respond strongly should North Korea attack.

Meanwhile, deputies to North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly gathered in Pyongyang. The SPA schedule Monday was unclear.

Under late leader Kim Jong Il, North Korea had typically held a parliamentary meeting once a year. But Kim Jong Un held an unusual second session last September in a sign that he is trying to run the country differently from his father, who died in late 2011.

Parliament sessions, which usually are held to approve personnel changes and budget and fiscal plans, are scrutinized by the outside world for signs of key changes in policy and leadership.

At a session last April, Kim was made first chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, the body's top post.

On Sunday, Kim presided over a separate plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers' Party, which set a "new strategic line" calling for building both a stronger economy and nuclear arsenal.

North Korea's nuclear weapons are a "treasure of a reunified country" not to be traded for "billions of dollars," according to a statement issued by state media after the meeting. North Korea's "nuclear armed forces represent the nation's life, which can never be abandoned as long as the imperialists and nuclear threats exist on earth."

Sunday marked the first time for Kim to preside over the committee meeting, a top decision-making body tasked with organizing and guiding the party's major projects. The last plenary session was held in 2010, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry, and before that in 1993.

The plenary statement also called for strengthening the moribund economy, which Kim has put an emphasis on in his public statements since taking power. The U.N. says two-thirds of the country's 24 million people face regular food shortages.

The North also named former Prime Minister Pak Pong Ju as a member of the party central committee's powerful Political Bureau, a sign that he could again play a key role in the North's economic policymaking process. Pak reportedly was sacked as premier in 2007 after proposing a wage system seen as too similar to U.S.-style capitalism.

Pak is reform-minded and his promotion sets him up for further advancement and "for him to take the lead in the North's economic policies," said Cheong Seong-jang at South Korea's Sejong Institute.-The Philippine Star (April 01, 2013)

Privately owned daily Newspaper return to Myanmar

Myanmar New Newspapers
The newspaper industry might be shrinking in the rest of the world but it expanded Monday in Myanmar when privately run daily newspapers hit newsstands for the first time in 50 years.

For many people, the rebirth of daily papers is a novelty: Many weren't even born when the late dictator Ne Win imposed a state monopoly on the daily press in the 1960s.

But for 81-year-old Khin Maung Lay, it's like a second lease on life. He is chief editor of Golden Fresh Land, one of four dailies that went on sale Monday as Myanmar takes another step in its march toward democracy.

"We've been waiting half a century for this day," said the veteran editor, adding that the paper's initial print run of 80,000 copies was sold out by late morning. "It shows how much people long for private daily newspapers. This morning, I was in tears seeing this."

He's old enough to recall there once had been a big and vibrant daily press in the Burmese, English, Indian and Chinese languages in the period of parliamentary democracy after Myanmar, known then as Burma, won independence from Britain in 1948.

Khin Maung Lay worked as a senior newsman at the Burmese language Mogyo daily before it was driven out of business by government pressure in 1964.

Now as chief editor of Golden Fresh Land — the name sounds less awkward in the original Burmese — he heads a team of young journalists he recruited from various weeklies, journalists who have only the briefest of acquaintances with the concept of a free press, having grown up under the military government that ruled for five decades. They are up against some media behemoths and papers belonging to the country's top political parties.

The ruling USDP party launched a daily called The Union, and the well-established weekly The Voice is converting itself into the Voice Daily. The other newcomer is The Standard Time Daily. All four newspapers are in Burmese, ranging in price from 150 kyat-200 kyat (US20 cents- 25 cents).

Khin Maung Lay acknowledges there are innumerable challenges ahead, but said he is ready to face them "in the name of freedom of press." He's well acquainted with the cutting edge of the concept — he went to jail three times under Ne Win, including a three-year stretch in "protective custody," a catch-all phrase the military regime used when imprisoning critics.

"I foresee several hurdles along the way," he said. "However, I am ready to run the paper in the spirit of freedom and professionalism taught by my peers during the good old days."

One of the main hurdles will be beating the competition.

"It won't be easy for all the newspapers to survive. As a reader, I can't afford to buy every newspaper, every day," said taxi driver Tun Win, 52, who normally kept up with current affairs by buying three news weeklies. Nonetheless, he called the arrival of daily papers a big step for the impoverished country.

"Now we can get information every day, rather than once a week," he said. "It's the best way to get up-to-date news for those who don't have access to the Internet."

The newspaper renaissance is part of the reform efforts of President Thein Sein, who, after serving as prime minister in the previous military regime, took office in March 2011 as head of an elected civilian government. Political and economic liberalization were at the top of his agenda, in an effort to boost national development.

As part of an easing of media restrictions, The Associated Press became the first international news agency to open a bureau in Myanmar since the new government took power two years ago. Six multi-format journalists will staff the new AP bureau full-time.

The government lifted censorship in August last year, allowing reporters to print material that would have been unthinkable under military rule.

It's not smooth sailing yet. The draconian 1962 Printing and Registration Act remains in place until a new media law is enacted. It carries a maximum seven-year prison term for failure to register and allows the government to revoke publishing licenses at any time.

The government announced in December that any Myanmar national wishing to publish a daily newspaper was welcome to apply and could begin publishing on April 1.

There were nearly two dozen applications, and Golden Fresh Land was one of 16 to win approval. Others include dailies to be put out by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party and Thein Sein's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.

The Voice Daily made its debut Monday, issued by the same group that has published a popular weekly since 2004.

"I am very excited that we are finally printing daily editions. It is a dream come true because that was our objective when we began publishing the Voice Journal in 2004," 42-year-old editor-in-chief Kyaw Min Shwe said Sunday, as reporters hustled around his newsroom to put out their first edition.

He said the established government newspapers have an advantage in terms of money and distribution, but "I can say with absolute confidence that we can compete with government papers in terms of content and quality of news."

Most coverage of local and national news in the state press is little more than the equivalent of government press releases, typically reporting on less-than-riveting topics such as the names of all the officials who attended the inauguration of a new bridge. Opinion pieces invariably reflect conservative positions that seem decades behind the times.

Aware of its vulnerability, the English-language state paper, the New Light of Myanmar, is seeking a joint venture partner to help with a makeover.

The entry of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party plans to make use of its strong financial base. The pro-military party, which holds a strong majority in parliament, is backed by many tycoons. Chief editor Win Tin said the paper will be distributed free of charge for the first 10 days.

"We are financially strong and we have many experienced people," he said, adding that the party will have its own separate propaganda sheet and that the newspaper will not be a mouthpiece for it.

Strong competition will come from savvy big media groups who say they will launch later.

"We need more time for preparation. It is quite challenging for the reporters to switch from weeklies to dailies," said Nyein Nyein Naing, executive editor of the 7-Day weekly news journal.

"We need more time for preparation and we have to have test runs before we start the daily edition," said Dr. Than Htut Aung, CEO of the popular Eleven media group, which plans to launch The Daily Eleven on May 3.

"I will print my first daily edition on May 3, Press Freedom Day, because it is very symbolic," he said.-Associated Press (April 01, 2013)