Saturday, July 13, 2013

Thailand agrees Muslim rebel Ramadan ceasefire

Soldiers hold their weapons at a checkpoint in the troubled southern province of Yala, 28 February 2013

The Thai government and Muslim separatists in the south of the country have announced they will stop fighting each other during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

The conflict has killed more than 5,000 people in the last decade.

The agreement is the first major step since February, when the two sides signed a first-ever peace talks deal.

Malaysia is facilitating the negotiations but correspondents say that progress has been slow.

Attacks in the region have occurred almost daily despite several rounds of talks since March.

'Stepping stone'
Mediator Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim said that both parties had "reached a common understanding to work towards a violence-free Ramadan".

Under the terms of the "Ramadan Peace Initiative", Thai security forces will refrain from "aggressive actions" while rebel groups including the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) will not engage in "armed attacks, bombings and ambushes" against Thai troops.

"This is a stepping stone to what we want to achieve in the future. If there are no incidents, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It will be a precedent, a stepping stone," Mr Hashim said.

The deal is for a 40-day period from 10 July to 18 August and will be effective in the southern provinces of Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and Songkhla, he said.

Thailand's National Security Council chief and lead peace negotiator Paradorn Pattanatabut welcomed the rebels' pledge, but warned that some splinter groups were opposed to dialogue.

"But I'm convinced that the BRN will be able to curb violence," he told the AFP news agency in Bangkok. "In the past they never came out and made a clear announcement of their goal."

The BBC's Jennifer Pak in Kuala Lumpur says that it has been a shaky peace process and that the deal is a verbal agreement - nothing has been signed.

Our correspondent says that the worry is that the negotiators representing rebel groups do not have full command of their troops.

But the peace talks are different from previous attempts because this is the first time that the Thai state has recognised the insurgents and is allowing their demands to be heard and discussed.

Thai negotiators have suggested the possibility of creating some form of locally-elected administration in the region, but full autonomy for the south remains off the agenda because the Thai constitution stipulates that the Buddhist-majority kingdom must not be divided.-British Broadcasting Corporation

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Most wanted Indonesian militant urges jihad in video

Indonesia's most wanted Islamic militant has appeared in a video posted on the Internet delivering a tirade against the country's anti-terror police and urging "jihad", police said Wednesday.

Santoso is the leader of a group called the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen that hides out in the jungles around Poso on Sulawesi island, an area considered a hotbed of terrorism.

In the six-minute video posted on YouTube, a man calling himself Syaikh Abu Wardah Santoso describes Detachment 88 -- the elite police anti-terror squad -- as "a real enemy, a real satan".

"My brothers in Poso, I have felt how cruel Detachment 88 is to these people," he said in the video that was posted on the Internet at the weekend.

"Today, God almighty has decided that jihad will continue until judgement day."

Police said the man was the terror suspect commonly known as Santoso. The video has now been removed from YouTube.

"We saw the six-minute video and can tell from the circumstances of the video that it is Santoso in his hiding place," Central Sulawesi police spokesman Soemarno, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, told AFP.

The call to jihad came after raids across the country in May which in part targeted militants believed to be raising funds for Santoso's group. More than 20 suspected militants were killed or captured in the raids.

Terror expert Noor Huda Ismail told AFP his information was that the video was of Santoso. He said it was a "wake-up call" for militants to continue fighting and gathering funds for Santoso's group.

The militants around Poso are thought to be among the few that remain a real threat in Indonesia, which fought a decade-long battle against terror groups after attacks on Western targets, including the 2002 Bali bombings.

They regularly launch attacks but these tend to target Indonesian security forces and be low-impact. Last month a suicide bomber attacked a police station in Poso but no one was hurt apart from the attacker.

Detachment 88 was set up in the wake of the Bali bombings, which killed 202 people including many foreign tourists.-Channel News Asia

Obama invites Vietnam president for rare trip

President Barack Obama has invited his Vietnamese counterpart to visit the United States this month, sources said Wednesday, looking to boost cooperation on security and trade despite concerns over the communist state's rights record.

President Truong Tan Sang's visit would be only the second by a Vietnamese head of state to Washington since the former war adversaries normalised relations and comes as both governments see growing common interests.

Two people familiar with the trip plans, who were not allowed to be quoted by name, told AFP that Obama has invited Sang to the White House during the last week of July.

The White House and Vietnamese embassy declined immediate comment.

Vietnam has been eager to expand military cooperation with the United States as Southeast Asian nations accuse a rising China of increasingly aggressive tactics to exert territorial disputes.

While tensions remain high between China and the Philippines, friction has appeared to ease between Beijing and Hanoi in the run-up to Obama's decision to invite Sang.

The Vietnamese president visited Beijing last month to discuss disputes. Chinese state media said that the historic rivals agreed to establish a hotline to resolve incidents involving fishing boats in the hotly contested South China Sea.

But the growing US relationship with Vietnam has faced sustained criticism on Capitol Hill, which accuse the administration of paying only lip service to calls on Vietnam to improve human rights.

Representative Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia, charged that the Obama administration has been "incredibly weak" in promoting human rights in Vietnam and elsewhere.

"If you voted for Obama and you thought that he was going to be an advocate for human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam, you have been cheated," Wolf told AFP.

"He is the worst president we have ever had on this issue," he said.

Administration officials who testified before Congress last month said that Vietnam's human rights record was deteriorating, with the country holding more than 120 political prisoners and stepping up curbs on the Internet.

The stance of Congress comes in part because of appeals from Vietnamese American constituents, many of whom fled communist rule.

Duy Hoang, a spokesman for Viet Tan, a US-based advocacy group banned by Hanoi, said that Obama should press Sang to institute "true political freedom" and to free prisoners including the prominent Catholic dissident lawyer Le Quoc Quan.

Obama has made Southeast Asia a priority, seeing an opportunity to build relations with a region that has posted high economic growth rates and is mostly friendly to the United States.

Since the start of his second term, Obama has met at the White House with the leaders of Singapore, Brunei and -- in a visit that would have been unthinkable before recent democratic reforms -- Myanmar.

The United States has also been expanding commercial relations with Vietnam, which is one of a dozen nations negotiating the US-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The Obama administration has envisioned the pact as the basis for a new order, which would set rules for the Asia-Pacific region at a time of rapid change marked by China's rise.

Presidents Bill Clinton normalised relations with Vietnam and paid a landmark visit of reconciliation in 2000. President George W. Bush also visited in 2007 for an Asia-Pacific summit.

The only previous Vietnamese president since the war to visit the White House was Nguyen Minh Triet in 2007 at Bush's invitation. Protesters trailed his six-day US visit.

Sang visited Hawaii last year for an Asia-Pacific summit and Vietnamese prime ministers have visited Washington several times since 2005.

Secretary of State John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran who was active in normalisation of relations, has said that he plans to visit Hanoi soon.-Channel News Asia

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Philippine Defense Department to buy 8 new attack helicopters for P3.4 B

Eight brand new attack helicopters capable of navigating safely in bad weather will be acquired for P3.4 billion for the Air Force.

A bid bulletin of the Department of National Defense (DND) shows that the project would involve the purchase of eight helicopters with full night operation capability, complete weapons system and integrated logistics support package.

“These helicopters shall be capable of performing close air support during day and night,” read the bulletin.

The deadline for the submission of bids has been slated tentatively on July 24, but it can be moved if prospective bidders request for an extension.

The DND said: “The guiding principles for this project shall be based on affordability and sustainability while conforming to the requirements of our Air Force in furtherance of accomplishing its mission.”

A prospective bidder,  to be qualified, must have completed within 10 years from the date of submission of bids a contract similar to the project.

Bids that are higher than the approved budget contract of P3.4 billion will be rejected at the outset.

The helicopters must be delivered within 540 calendar days from the opening of the letter of credit, which serves as an assurance that the government would pay the winning bidder.

The Air Force’s inventory has been depleted due to recent accidents that killed some of its pilots.-The Philippine Star

Japan says it faces increasing threats from China, NKorea

Japan faces increasingly serious threats to its security from an assertive China and an unpredictable North Korea, a defense ministry report said on Tuesday, as ruling politicians call for the military to beef up its ability to respond to such threats.

The report, the first since hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office vowing to boost Japan's defenses, was likely to prompt a sharp response from Beijing, whose ties with Tokyo are strained by a territorial row.

China is also upset by remarks from Abe suggesting he wants to cast Tokyo's wartime history in a less apologetic tone.

"There are various issues and destabilising factors in the security environment surrounding Japan, some of which are becoming increasingly tangible, acute and serious," the annual defence white paper said.

"China has attempted to change the status quo by force based on its own assertion, which is incompatible with the existing order of international law," the report said, echoing recent comments by Abe and his cabinet.

"China should accept and stick to the international norms."

A Sino-Japanese dispute over rival claims to tiny East China Sea islets flared up last September after Japan nationalized the isles, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.

Japan has been gradually ratcheting up its expressions of concern about Beijing's military expansion. Last year's defence white paper, issued before the islands flare-up, flagged the risks of the army's role in shaping Chinese foreign policy.

Patrol ships from both countries routinely shadow each other near the islands, raising concerns that an unintended collision or other incident could lead to a broader clash.

"Some of China's activities involve its intrusion into Japan's territorial waters, its violation of Japan's territorial airspace and even dangerous actions that could cause a contingency, and are extremely regrettable," the paper said.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said in February that a Chinese naval vessel had locked its fire control radar on a Japanese destroyer. Directing such radar at a target can be considered a step away from actual firing.

China denied the warship had locked its radar on the Japanese vessel. But the white paper said Beijing's assertion was "inconsistent with the facts."

Abe returned to power for a rare second term after his ruling bloc won a general election late last year, promising to revive the economy and strengthen Japan's defenses. He also wants to revise the post-World War Two pacifist constitution to legitimize the military, although winning support for contentious revisions is likely to take time.

Balance of power

Japan is already bolstering defence of the disputed islands and this year raised its defense budget for the first time in 11 years.

The military is conducting joint drills with the United States, its main security ally, and fortifying defences against missile attacks, while the government is reviewing its mid-term defense policy.

Japan plans to draw up a new defense plan by December, and Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) submitted recommendations to the government last month that included looking into acquiring the capability to attack enemy targets.

Japan has long maintained that it has the right to strike enemy targets when an intention to attack Japan is clear, the threat is imminent and there are no other options.

But any sign that Japan is moving to obtain such capabilities could upset China and South Korea, where resentment against Japan's wartime aggression and colonisation runs deep.

The LDP also recommended that, in order to boost the defense of remote islands, the military should set up an amphibious Marines division equipped with tilt-rotor aircraft like the V-22 Osprey.

"The balance of power will be lost if we don't start considering striking back when attacked," said Osaka University professor Kazuya Sakamoto, who sits on a panel advising Abe on security policies.

"If we don't have weapons that reach an enemy, Japan cannot defend itself. It cannot maintain deterrence."

Such moves, Sakamoto added, should not unnerve China, with its arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Abe, whose LDP is expected to cement its grip on power in this month's upper house election, also wants to revise an interpretation of the constitution that bans using the right of collective self-defense, or aiding an ally under attack.

A panel set up during Abe's first 2006-7 term recommended that the ban be lifted in certain cases, such as intercepting ballistic missiles bound for the United States. A new committee of advisers is expected to reach similar conclusions.

North Korea launched a missile in December, stepping up the threat that the isolated, impoverished state poses to rivals. In February, it conducted a third nuclear test, which moved Pyongyang closer to developing long-range nuclear missiles.

"The launch of a missile ... showed that North Korea has advanced its technologies to extend the range and improve the accuracy of ballistic missiles," the white paper said. -GMA News

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Thai cabdriver accused of killing American in fare dispute

A taxi driver in Thailand has been charged with murder after allegedly stabbing an American with a machete during a fare dispute.

Police said they arrested Cherdchai Utamacha in Bangkok over the weekend, hours after closed-circuit television footage showed him attacking Troy Lee Pilkington, an American citizen who had lived in Thailand for three years.

Authorities allege that Cherdchai told police he was infuriated after Pilkington accused him of cheating and threw coffee in his face as the two argued over how much the American owed for a taxi ride.

The fare was 51 Thai baht (about $1.60), according to police, who interrogated the driver.

Security camera footage helped police track down the suspect quickly, Col. Thawatkiet Jindakuansanong said.

"When we traced the man to a house in Bangkok, we still saw blood stains on his shirt (and) shoes," he said.

Police said the driver smacked and stabbed Pilkington multiple times. They have not released a cause of death pending autopsy results.-Cable News Network

Singapore inquest finds U.S. engineer committed suicide

Shane Todd's family and his former girlfriend (far R) are pictured in Singapore on May 14.

A coroner in Singapore has reaffirmed that American engineer Shane Todd committed suicide -- a ruling that caps a two-month investigation and is at odds with his family's contention that Todd was killed because of his work.

Soon after Todd was found hanging from the bathroom door in his Singapore apartment on June 24, 2012, Singapore's medical examiner concluded he had killed himself.

But Todd's parents disagreed and hired a pathologist in the United States who -- based on Singapore's autopsy report and photographs of the body -- suggested there was evidence that his death was a homicide.

The latest ruling by the coroner sides with the medical examiner's assessment.

'Everything points to murder'

"The cause of the deceased's death was asphyxia due to hanging," the coroner's report said.

"There was no foul play involved in the deceased's death. The deceased had committed suicide by hanging himself."

In the report, released Monday, state Coroner Chay Yuen Fatt extended his condolences to Todd's family.

"I hope that the family will be able to find closure and I wish them all the best," the coroner said.
Murdered for his work?

The report is the end result of a 10-day hearing into the death last month.

In it, Chay said Todd had "entertained suicidal ideations of overall increasing severity" in the months leading up to his death.
The United States Embassy in Singapore said the inquiry was "comprehensive, fair, and transparent."

"The coroner heard testimony from a wide range of witnesses in open court and received evidence in the form of written statements and records," it said in a statement Monday.

The decision is unlikely to appease Todd's family. CNN was unable to reach them for a reaction early Monday morning.

Singaporean lawyers hired by the Todd family have suggested Singapore's police work was sloppy and that an assumption of suicide led police to neglect other evidence.

During inquiry proceedings last month, the Todds' lawyers asserted a possible crime scene was altered: Todd's hanging body was cut down and laid on the floor and a nearby chair moved before a forensics team and photographer arrived. Police maintain this follows standard procedure.

The 31-year-old Todd had been working for a year and a half at the Singapore government's Institute of Microelectronics (IME) when he decided to quit his job and return home to the United States.

He was part of a team researching uses of Gallium Nitride (GaN), a semiconductor that can operate at extremely high temperatures.
Documents found on Todd's laptop after his death reportedly indicate IME may have had plans with Chinese telecom giant Huawei to co-develop an amplifier using GaN. Such a device could have both military as well as civilian uses.

Todd's parents believe their son may have been murdered over his knowledge of such a sensitive project. They say their son had warned them his life was in danger.

Both IME and Huawei deny that any joint GaN project ever went forward.

'Burden to those around me'

On the night of June 24, 2012, Todd's girlfriend Shirley Sarmiento, a nurse, discovered his body. She had gone to the apartment after he didn't answer calls or texts.

During the court proceedings, Sarmiento testified she didn't know the details of Todd's work but said Todd told her "how much he hated" it.

On one occasion he told her he was "working on something that could get him into trouble with the American government" and that "heavy hands" were coming after him, though he didn't elaborate.

But Todd had also confided in his girlfriend that he had been depressed since October 2011. But she said he "did not display any suicidal tendencies."

On his laptop, authorities found a two-page suicide note.

"I am so sorry it has come to this but I feel I am just a burden to those around me. I have tried to get jobs in the U.S. but I know I am not capable of fulfilling the duties required of me," he said in one.

What led to death?

In his report, the coroner says Todd did not possess confidential information from his work at IME and the GaN project did not materialize.

"At the time of his death, the major stressor in the deceased's mind was unlikely to be his workload," the coroner said.
Todd had already put in his 60-day notice to leave his job and his workload had decreased,

"Why then would the deceased commit suicide before he was due to return to the US?" Chay posed in the report.

He then hazards some guesses.

Todd was concerned he won't be able to get Defense Department clearance for a new job "because of his perceived involvement in violating US security, the possibility," and about his psychiatric condition, Chay wrote.

"These concerns in all likelihood caused him to feel that his deep sense of failure (which was magnified by his psychiatric anxiety) would follow him back to the US," the coroner concluded. "In the deceased's mind, all these factors eventually outweighed the happy prospects of reuniting with his family in the US and culminated in his ultimate decision to take his own life."-Cable News Network