Masaya, a city battling at the front lines of Nicaragua's heated anti-government protests, once again became the scene of fierce street battles that a rights group said saw one man die of a bullet wound to the heart. Firearm bursts rang out on Saturday in the city home to 100,000 people, where riots that started midday grew increasingly violent as masked demonstrators wielding homemade mortars and slingshots fought to fend off armed security forces. Alvaro Leiva, head of the Nicaraguan Association for the Protection of Human Rights (ANPDH), said at least one sexagenarian had died after a bullet struck his heart. Leiva said the gunman was a sniper -- implying a member of Ortega's security forces or government-backed vigilantes. The mortal wound came hours after the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) had raised to 137 the death toll in the Central American country, where demonstrations demanding President Daniel Ortega's ouster have raged since April 18. At least two people had died in violent protests overnight, the CENIDH told AFP, one in the northern city of Jinotega and another in Managua. Leiva said conditions were growing increasingly grave ‘because we are talking about crossfire, not tear gas or rubber bullets.’ ‘The situation in this moment in Nicaragua is a crisis,’ he said. ‘We are asking the world to pay attention to Masaya.’ The city just outside of the capital -- known before for its tree-lined streets, traditional crafts and nearby volcano of the same name -- has taken on the appearance of a war zone. Demonstrators, many of them young men, huddled Saturday behind barricades constructed from cobblestones, felled trees and sheet metal, the ground littered with broken glass and spikes to further guarantee no cars would pass. ‘We are fighting here because of the massacre of many people, the death of many children,’ one protestor told AFP, saying he's been actively demonstrating in Masaya for 15 days. ‘We can say that between the government and the police, the police are supposed to protect the people,’ he said. ‘They're the ones who are shooting bullets at us.’ - No political will - The young man who died in Jinotega was killed during an armed attack on protesters who were guarding a road barricade intended to keep security forces back, according to student organizers. ‘Paramilitaries linked to the government gunned down boys who were fighting in the streets for liberty and democracy,’ said a statement from the city's student movement, calling it ‘a night of terror.’ In Managua, a young motorcyclist died from a bullet to the neck after two armed men aboard motorcycles chased and shot him, according to local press. Demonstrators continued to block roads throughout Nicaragua as part of the mass protests demanding the removal of Ortega, a former guerrilla who has held office for 11 years but who faces increasing opposition, even from onetime allies. ‘Unfortunately they still aren't showing political will -- they continue to kill people,’ one student leader, Victor Cuadras, told journalists upon landing in Managua after a trip to Washington. ‘They shed blood yesterday and early today,’ he said of Ortega's ruling Sandinista party. - At 'war' - The crackdown was triggered by relatively minor demonstrations against pension cuts that mushroomed into mass protests against Ortega, who first came to power in 1979 as the head of a communist junta following the overthrow of dictator Anastasio Somoza. A major force in Nicaraguan politics over the past four decades, Ortega slipped out of power in 1990 but retook the presidency in 2006. Now in his third consecutive term, he is expected to remain as the country's leader until 2022. A key demand of protestors is to expedite that election. The country's influential Catholic bishops met Thursday with Ortega to discuss a plan to reboot talks aimed at quelling the crisis, presenting to the leftist leader ‘the pain and anguish of people who have suffered in recent weeks.’ Silvio Jose Baez, the auxiliary bishop of Managua, said Ortega ‘asked us for a period of reflection to give us an answer, which we asked he give us in writing’ -- after which they will consider the feasibility of reviving negotiations. But amid that administrative back-and-forth the situation continues to spiral out of control, activists and rights groups say. For young people fighting in Masaya, the conflict will not end until Ortega is gone. ‘We are in a war with the government,’ a protestor there said, a black T-shirt veiling his face and leaving his eyes barely visible beneath a black cap. ‘We will be free,’ he said. ‘This government will go.’
At least a dozen people were detained in Vietnam's capital on Sunday, according to an AFP correspondent on the scene, as anger mounts over a proposal to grant companies lengthy land leases. The draft law at the centre of the furore would allow 99-year concessions in planned special economic zones, which some view as sweetheart deals for foreign and specifically Chinese firms. Though Hanoi and Beijing routinely trade barbs over contested territory in the South China Sea, Vietnam often breaks up protests aimed at China. In response to growing criticism over the bill, the communist government said on Saturday that it would ask parliament to delay approving it until the end of the year. But that did not tamp down frustrations, as around 40 to 50 protesters gathered at Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake on Sunday holding signs opposing the legislation that said ‘Protest against the draft law on special economic zones’ and ‘Protest against leasing land to China’. An AFP correspondent saw plainclothes police drag around 20 people away and move them into nearby buses. Authorities could not be reached for comment. The incident followed the arrests of two people on Saturday in a southern part of the country for spreading leaflets calling for protests against the legislation, state media reported. Images on social media also showed demonstrations in Ho Chi Minh City and other parts of Vietnam, as calls for action spread on Facebook earlier this week. Public shows of dissent are rare in the one-party state, where a conservative leadership in place since 2016 has taken a more aggressive stance against activists. A Vietnamese environmental activist was jailed for 14 years in February over protests against a toxic waste dump that killed tonnes of fish in 2016, an incident that sparked nationwide demonstrations.
The owner of a Hanoi noodle shop where Anthony Bourdain slurped down ‘bun cha’ with former US president Barack Obama expressed her shock and sorrow yesterday over the death of the globetrotting American celebrity chef. Bun Cha Huong Lien restaurant in the Vietnamese capital’s leafy Old Quarter soared to fame after the 2016 sit-down between Obama and Bourdain for his CNN show. The pair shared a simple meal of non-veg noodles and fried spring rolls - each dish worth around $3 - and photos of the casual dinner quickly went viral. Bourdain died by suicide while in France filming an episode of his Emmy-winning CNN food and travel programme Parts Unknown, the network said on Friday. He was 61. “I was surprised and sad when I heard about (Bourdain’s) death,” Nguyen Thi Nga, co-owner of Bun Cha Huong Lien restaurant said. “(Bourdain) was a nice, friendly and folksy person... He praised our bun cha dish and its fish-sauce broth. He loved Vietnamese food,” Nga said. Obama posted a tribute on Twitter to Bourdain on Friday, sharing a picture of the pair drinking beer during the meal which took place during his state visit to Hanoi. Bourdain came to Vietnam several times throughout his life, making several TV programmes about his fascination with the country’s food. Inside the restaurant, as hungry customers poured in for lunch yesterday, diners gave extra attention to the glass box in which the table and chairs used by Bourdain and Obama are preserved. “I came here to share the grief of the loss of such a talented chef... he was a such a special person because he had such a great passion for Vietnamese food,” customer Nguyen Quan said.
It already boasts the digital loyalty of more than 40mn Thais, but now Asia’s ubiquitous social media messaging app Line is breaking into the real world with a Bangkok theme park. By turns colourful, creative and ever-so-slightly creepy, the 1,500sq m (16,000sq ft) “Line Village” in Bangkok’s commercial heart immerses visitors in the internal world of the app with cut-outs, projections and life-size models of its cutesie ‘sticker’ characters. Bears “Brown” and “Choco” sit in rooms painstakingly adorned with details of the siblings’ ‘lives’ and passions - sport for the former and social media and fashion for the latter. Mirrors and interactive screens add to the sensory blast of bright colours as each character gets a full treatment, gifting selfie backdrops for superfans of the Japan-made app. “The concept of Line Village is to actually bring Line characters into reality,” Rupop Shinawatra, the theme park’s executive adviser said, adding the concept is a Thai “first”. “Like... Brown, you go to into his bedroom, there’s the forest area, there’s a lot of activities, both digital and physical experiences.” The target market is Thai - nearly two-thirds of Thailand’s 68mn people use Line, as well as Asian tourists to Bangkok and curious westerners to whom the app may be less familiar. “Thai people are very social media savvy... Line connects groups, it’s constant communication. We are hoping people will bring that here,” Rupop added.
In a dusty workshop on the outskirts of Hanoi, workers busily mould, set and spray hundreds of replica World Cup trophies as orders flood in ahead of next week’s tournament. Demand in football-mad Vietnam is soaring for the hand-made plaster models of the real 18-carat gold trophy that will go to the winners of the month-long World Cup hosted by Russia that starts next Thursday. Craftsman Vuong Hong Nhat has been making the foot-tall replicas since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, perfecting his hand-carved design over several months to give as gifts. “Initially I didn’t want to sell the trophies, I was just trying to feed my passion for football and give them to friends and family,” said the 57-year-old Manchester United fan. But they proved so popular he now sells them and expects to receive 3,000 orders this year - triple the number he made in 2014. With just three assistants in his small workshop he’s struggling to keep up with demand. “I work all day to fill the orders, but it’s not enough. I have to work until midnight,” said Nhat, exhausted, as workers pour plaster nearby. His spray-painted gold versions of the coveted trophy sell for just $3.50 - a steal compared to the estimated $150,000 price tag on the real number designed by the late Italian sculptor Silvio Gazzaniga. That version, the FIFA World Cup Trophy, has been in play since 1974 when it replaced the original Jules Rimet Trophy given to Brazil in 1970 after it clinched its third World Cup win. The original Jules Rimet Trophy was stolen in Brazil when the back wall of its case was removed by thieves in 1983 and has never been recovered. For Nhat’s customers, the replicas add a sprinkling of glory before the World Cup. “Holding the trophy I feel like Zidane (when he) won the World Cup in 1998”, France national team supporter Dang Viet Duy said. It’s a small consolation for football fans like Nhat who have little hope of seeing Vietnam - a lowly 102nd in FIFA’s official rankings - compete in the World Cup any time soon. “If they do, I’ll give my trophies away for free,” said Nhat.
The Maldives has set the date for its next presidential election with incumbent Abdulla Yameen in a commanding position -- and his two main rivals either in jail or exiled abroad. Voters in the Indian Ocean archipelago will go to the polls on September 23, officials said late on Thursday, with election authorities to accept candidate nominations next month. But Yameen has moved against potential rivals since winning a controversial runoff vote against then-president Mohamed Nasheed in 2013, launching a crackdown on dissent that has seen two of the country's former leaders put behind bars. Nasheed was convicted on a terrorism charge in 2015 and handed a 13-year jail sentence. He was allowed to go to London in 2016 for medical treatment and has remained there in exile since. Meanwhile Yameen's half brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a former strongman who ruled the country for 30 years until 2008, is in prison facing terrorism charges for his alleged role in a February Supreme Court ruling that could have led to Yameen's impeachment. The court had also paved the way for Nasheed's return to the Maldives after ruling to quash criminal convictions against high profile opposition politicians. But its powers were curtailed after Yameen declared a state of emergency in February and arrested two of the court's judges. Nasheed plans to contest the presidency with the endorsement of his Maldivian Democratic Party, but election laws prevent anyone with a criminal conviction from contesting. However, the MDP said Nasheed will submit his nomination papers to challenge Yameen, who has ignored UN Human Rights Committee calls to quash Nasheed's conviction. Colombo-based MDP official Omar Razak said Nasheed will campaign through social media as he cannot return home. "The authorities have said he cannot contest because of the conviction, but we will go ahead and submit the nominations on his behalf in July," Razak told AFP. In 2013, the Supreme Court annulled the results of the first round of voting when Nasheed was leading and twice postponed votes, giving Yameen more time to organise an electoral pact and narrowly win the run-off.
Dozens of organisations including rights groups and pro-democracy activists have urged the European Union to reject a proposed free trade agreement with Vietnam, accusing the one-party state of being among the “worst enemies” of human rights. In a letter yesterday, 90 organisations called on the EU to pull out of the agreement and accused the communist country of waging a crackdown on critics. “It would be a disgrace if European countries were to ratify free trade with a country that is one of the world’s worst enemies of freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of association,” said the open letter addressed to the EU Council and the European Parliament.
Explosions boomed from Guatemala's fearsome Fuego volcano Wednesday, unleashing fresh torrents of molten mud and ash down slopes where officials said 75 people had been killed and 200 were still missing. Fears of a fresh blowup of the 3,763-meter (12,346-foot) volcano have stalked rescue workers since Sunday's eruption buried entire villages on its southern flank. Officials said the known number of dead was 75, though that toll was expected to rise. ‘We already have data with names and locations where there are missing persons and that number is 192,’ Sergio Cabanas, head of Guatemala's disaster management agency, told reporters. Among the latest of the 75 fatalities reported by the National Institute of Forensic Sciences was a 42-year-old woman who died in hospital having lost both legs and an arm in the eruption. Experts said the volcano recorded several weak explosions on Wednesday, generating a fresh 4,700 meter (15,500 feet) high column of gray ash. ‘The explosions are generating moderate avalanches that have an approximate distance of 800 to 1,000 meters and on their trajectory they are carrying fine material to a height of around 100 meters,’ the Volcanology Institute said. ‘There is persistent ash in the environment.’ Emergency workers had to temporarily suspend their search late Tuesday after a new eruption triggered a landslide. Hundreds of people were evacuated from seven communities in the Escuintla area near the summit, as panicked locals rushed to their cars to escape, causing chaotic traffic. An AFP photographer saw a large plume of ash rise into the sky, prompting an evacuation of everyone authorities could find before the police, the military and rescuers were ordered to stand down. - Ongoing search - Hundreds of rescue workers, including firefighters, police and the military, were battling adverse conditions to search for remains in the tangled morass of rubble, dust and earth left behind by the landslides. Firefighters hosed down their smoking boots, which had sunk into molten volcanic material just below the ash surface. Everything in the search area was covered in a thick blanket of dust. In the murk created by the dust, police were using red ink to mark homes that had already been searched for bodies. More than 12,000 people have been evacuated from their homes, the disaster management agency said, more than 3,000 of them housed in temporary shelters. On the slopes Wednesday, local volunteers distributed food to rescue workers. ‘We come in support of the people who are really risking their lives for the people who are there,’ said Gladys Vian, a 56-year-old member of the Catholic parish of Escuintla. - Strongest in decades- The killer eruption was the Central American country's strongest in four decades. It sent huge clouds of ash barrelling over the surrounding area, blanketing roads, cars and people in thick gray dust as a river of molten mud carved a path down the mountain, sweeping away entire villages. Officials said the speed and ferocity of the eruption took mountain communities by surprise, with many of the dead found in or around their homes. Despite offers of international help from the United States, Mexico and several Latin American neighbors, Guatemalan authorities have not made a request for foreign aid. The foreign ministry said disaster management agency CONRED would help determine any such request. ‘We are ready when CONRED as the governing body of emergency management authorize us to make an appeal,’ the ministry said in a statement. President Jimmy Morales has been criticized on social media for passively waiting to react to offers of international aid. The head of the international Red Cross Francesco Rocca is due to visit the country on Thursday, the Geneva-based agency said.
A whale has died in southern Thailand after swallowing more than 80 plastic bags, officials said, ending an attempted rescue that failed to nurse the mammal back to health. Thailand is one of the world’s largest consumers of plastic bags, which kill hundreds of marine creatures living near the country’s popular beaches each year. The small male pilot whale became the latest victim after it was found barely alive in a canal near the border with Malaysia, the department of marine and coastal resources said on their Facebook page yesterday. A veterinary team tried “to help stabilise its illness but finally the whale died” on Friday afternoon, the post said. An autopsy revealed 80 plastic bags weighing up to 8kg (18lb) in the creature’s stomach, the department added. Photos accompanying the post showed a group of people using buoys to keep the whale afloat after it was first spotted on Monday and an umbrella to shield it from the scorching sun. The whale vomitted up five bags during the rescue attempt before it died, the department said. Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a marine biologist and lecturer at Kasetsart University, said the bags had made it impossible for the whale to eat any nutritional food. “If you have 80 plastic bags in your stomach, you die,” he said. At least 300 marine animals including pilot whales, sea turtles and dolphins perish each year in Thai waters after ingesting plastic, Thon said. “It’s a huge problem,” he said. “We use a lot of plastic.” The pilot whale’s plight generated sympathy and anger among Thai netizens. “I feel sorry for the animal that didn’t do anything wrong but has to bear the brunt of human actions,” one Twitter user wrote in Thai.
Vietnam’s “street knights”, hurtling through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, are not your typical medieval warriors. Their stallions are scooters. They wear rubber flip-flops, not metal boots. And their shining armour is a tracksuit jacket billowing like a cape. The band of bike-riding unpaid vigilantes chases down petty criminals in Vietnam’s largest city and the neighbouring province of Binh Duong, where residents grumble about rising crime and ineffectual policing. “Whenever there’s a call I show up,” said one of them, Nguyen Thanh Hai, who gets 50 to 100 calls for help every day about robberies, drugs, and even kidnappings. “Even at midnight, when I can barely keep my eyes open.” Hai, 47, keeps a notebook recording details of the roughly 4,000 criminals he has helped catch and turn over to police during 21 years as a part-time crime fighter, though he gets no monetary reward. “You don’t think about money when you do this,” he added. He is among a group of about 30 men in Ho Chi Minh City, and 1,500 in the province, who have modified their bikes with police-like sirens and upgraded engines that can reach speeds of more than 170kph (106 mph). Videos of their high-speed chases have gone viral on social media. One shows thieves weaving between trucks and cars along a twisting, suburban highway, with the group in hot pursuit. “My little son gets so excited when he sees me on YouTube,” said Pham Tan Thanh, a 31-year-old Binh Duong taxi driver who becomes a street knight in his spare time. “He always asks me when I’m going to go out again.” The men don’t see themselves as heroes, they said, but they do appreciate the occasional gesture of thanks. Crime is low in Communist-ruled Vietnam, but petty theft and similar minor crimes are a growing problem in urban areas like Ho Chi Minh City, home to 8.6mn people. Last year, the former Saigon ranked as the third least-safe city worldwide, after Caracas and Karachi, on the Safe Cities Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit, which rates personal security in 60 cities. Some crime victims, hoping for a faster response, turn to the vigilantes before the police. “Police have so many jobs, we just can’t blame them,” said one of them, Nguyen Viet Sin, whose father is a policeman. “If everyone shares the effort, society will be much better.” Police in Ho Chi Minh City are underfunded and lacked training, the US government said in a report on crime and safety last year. The city’s police department did not immediately comment when contacted by Reuters, but some vigilantes say they work closely with officers. Barred by law from carrying weapons, many have received police training on legal issues and use martial arts for self-defence, since their work can be dangerous. Last month, two were stabbed to death in Ho Chi Minh City and three badly injured in clashes with thieves. Sin described a fight with a suspected thief who cut himself and rubbed his blood into Sin’s wound. After learning that the suspect had HIV, Sin worried he could have been infected. “I wanted to quit, but after I recovered and could still see clips of robberies on social media, I hit the road again,” he said. “My passion didn’t die.” After the two deaths, worried families begged some of the vigilantes to stop. “My fiancée asked me to quit, and I agreed,” said Mai Truong Xuan Huy, a 44-year-old Vietnamese-American who works as a security guard in California. Huy, who left Vietnam in the 1990s, returns to spend his summers fighting crime with the street knights. “I feel so proud every time I help someone, but it’s also very tiring,” he said at a Binh Duong coffee shop that is an unofficial group headquarters. “I’ve been peppersprayed and had my head smashed,” he said. “It’s very dangerous and the thieves have more weapons now. It’s no fun.” His ruminations on leaving the group were interrupted by two people asking for help. Huy and his friends jumped on their bikes. “I can’t help it,” he said as he sped off. “It’s in my blood.”
Myanmar is willing to take back all 700,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees who have fled to Bangladesh if they volunteer to return, the country’s National Security Adviser Thaung Tun said yesterday. He was speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a regional security conference in Singapore, where he was asked if the situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where most Rohingya live, could trigger use of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) framework of the United Nations. The so-called R2P framework was adopted at the 2005 UN World Summit in which nations agreed to protect their own populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and accepted a collective responsibility to encourage and help each other uphold this commitment. “If you can send back 700,000 on a voluntary basis, we are willing to receive them,” Thaung Tun said. “Can this be called ethnic cleansing? “There is no war going on, so it’s not war crimes. Crimes against humanity, that could be a consideration, but we need clear evidence. These serious charges should be proved and they should not be bandied about lightly.” Since August 2017, about 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled a military crackdown in mainly Buddhist Myanmar, many reporting killings, rape and arson on a large scale, UN and other aid organisations have said. The United Nations and aid agencies have described the crackdown on the Rohingya as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, an accusation Myanmar rejects. Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed in January to complete the voluntary repatriation of the refugees within two years. Myanmar signed an agreement with the United Nations on Thursday aimed at eventually allowing the Rohingya sheltering in Bangladesh to return safely and by choice. It also said it would set up an independent commission to investigate “the violation of human rights and related issues” in Rakhine State following the army operation there in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents on security posts. Thaung Tun said that the narrative of what happened in Rakhine was “incomplete and misleading”. “Myanmar does not deny that what is unfolding in northern Rakhine is a humanitarian crisis,” he said. “There is no denying that the Muslim community in Rakhine has suffered. The Buddhist Rakhine, Hindu and other ethnic minorities have suffered no less.” He said that while the military had the right to defend the country, if investigations showed they had acted illegally, action would be taken.
Anti-war protesters in Myanmar yesterday urged government leader Aung San Suu Kyi to take action against police who this month broke up a peace rally and arrested them, and raised new concern about freedom of speech. Riot police in the main city of Yangon used batons on May 12 to break up a rally called to show support for victims of fighting in northern Myanmar, arresting 17 organisers for disturbing the public and holding a protest without permission. The scuffles between baton-wielding police and protesters have sparked an outcry among activists and lawmakers over what they see as risks to free expression under the government of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi. In a letter sent to top government officials including Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, eight of the rally organisers said action should be taken against the police, which come under the control of Myanmar’s powerful military. “Police came, arrested us and beat us for no reason, and that’s why we are demanding action to be taken against police who violently handled the peaceful protest,” the eight organisers said in their letter. “The lawless action by the authorities should be investigated for our loss of citizens’ rights,” they said. Government spokesman Zaw Htay was not immediately available for comment. Police spokesman Myo Thu Soe said he was not aware of the letter and declined to comment. A movement of mostly young anti-war activists has in recent months spread to various parts of the country, exposing frustration with Suu Kyi’s struggle to fulfil a promise to end decades of war by autonomy-seeking ethnic minority guerrillas. The military, which ruled the country for decades, oversees internal security even though a civilian-led government has been in power since 2016, after Suu Kyi’s party swept an election. More than 6,000 people have fled their homes in recent weeks since the army launched a new offensive against the Kachin Independence Army insurgent group in Myanmar’s north. Fighting has also intensified in other ethnic minority areas. A freedom of speech monitoring group, Athan, has said more than 42 activists across the country have been charged in May for participating in rallies protesting against the conflict. The 17 organisers of the May 12 rally, who were detained but later released, face a month in prison and fines.
Nguyen Truong Chinh proudly holds up intricately crafted animals, flowers and hearts – secret gifts made from plastic bags by a son on Vietnam’s death row. The palm-sized creations that his son and other inmates have furtively made and smuggled out of their solitary cells offer a rare glimpse of prison life in Vietnam. They’re also an emotional lifeline for desperate parents fighting to free the children they say have been wrongly convicted. “Any time we receive the gifts from my son I feel like he’s here with me, like he’s come back home,” Chinh said, clenching his jaw to hold back tears. His 35-year-old son Nguyen Van Chuong, convicted of murdering a police officer a decade ago, is one of a handful of prisoners known to have made the artwork that is officially banned on death row. The families suspect they made the pieces with discarded plastic bags passed on by fellow prisoners, shredded and woven into figurines. They were once smuggled out by prisoners released after serving their terms but relatives stopped receiving them a few years ago, leading Chinh and other parents to fear guards have cracked down on the forbidden prison pastime. They’re too scared to ask about the practice during brief monthly visits closely monitored by prison staff. But Chinh says the art still drives his decade-long fight to free his son, who he insists was nowhere near the scene of the crime he was convicted of. “When I see the animals, I know somehow that my son is stable enough to create these things, that he is mentally strong,” said Chinh, sitting with a bag full of documents on his son’s case. “They motivate our fight for justice.” Little is known about Vietnam’s prison system, but in a rare report last year the ministry of public security said 429 people were executed between August 2013 and June 2016. That is an average of 147 per year – putting Vietnam among the world’s top executioners along with China and Iran. The law requires death row inmates to be held in solitary confinement and monitored around the clock. Prisoners deemed “dangerous” have one foot shackled for most of the day, released only for 15 minutes to bathe inside their cell, where they also eat and use the toilet. “In many cases, acts of torture, coupled with the denial of medical care, have resulted in deaths in custody that are almost never investigated by the authorities,” Andrea Giorgetta from International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said. The MPS report said 36 death row inmates died behind bars between 2011 and 2016, without saying how. In letters to his family, Chuong said he was tortured in custody: hung upside down and naked with a dirty sock in his mouth and beaten during interrogation. Police electrocuted his genitals and prodded him with needles until he confessed under duress, he wrote. Vietnam’s foreign ministry rejected allegations of torture as “false information” in a statement to AFP and said it does not do anything to harm the “honour and dignity” of inmates. Relatives of the death row artists say their work offers a necessary diversion from constant fear of execution. Prisoners are given little notice before their execution, which since 2010 has been carried out by lethal injection. Before then, inmates were awakened before dawn, given a final meal and a cigarette, tied to a post and shot by five officers, with one final “humane shot” to the head, according to a 2016 report by the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights. Today locally manufactured drugs are used to kill prisoners, though advocates complained of inhumane deaths after a man reportedly took two hours to die in 2011. It’s an unimaginable end for the families who refuse to give up hope their sons will one day be freed. Nguyen Thi Loan has sent more than 1,500 letters to the government proclaiming the innocence of her son Ho Duy Hai, 32, and gave up her land, home and job as a vendor to fight for his release. “I’m determined to seek justice and fairness for Ho Duy Hai until my last breath,” she said of her son who was jailed over the murder of two women in 2008. His scheduled execution was called off at the 11th hour in 2014 by the president, raising hopes his case could be reopened. In his earlier years in prison, Hai sent shrimp, fish and miniature horses as gifts to his lawyers, former teachers and relatives. But she hasn’t received one in years and fears jailers have banned the practice. “Making those gifts didn’t harm anyone. Why won’t they let my son do it?” she told AFP in tears. Supporters hope to raise awareness about Hai’s case through his artwork, which was put on display alongside Chuong’s pieces earlier this year at an underground show by activist artist Thinh Nguyen. He started collecting the pieces from families years ago after he met them outside government offices calling for their sons’ release. “When I put these animals on show, their stories are known,” Thinh said. “I look at these and I see a lot of hope.”
Up to 150,000 New Zealand cattle will be culled as the government attempts to eradicate the disease Mycoplasma bovis. ‘This is a tough call - no-one ever wants to see mass culls,’ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a statement on Monday. The alternative was to risk the spread of the disease across the national herd of over 10 million cattle in more than 20,000 dairy and beef farms, she added. The cull of around 126,000 cattle in 192 properties, in addition to cull of 26,000 already underway, will take place over the next 24 months. The full cost of eradication over 10 years is projected at 886 million New Zealand dollars (615 million dollars). All farming lobby groups are supporting the decision. There was no doubt the decision to attempt to eradicate Mycoplasma bovis from New Zealand was going to cause pain and anguish for more farmers, Federated Farmers president Katie Milne said. ‘But industry has always, from the beginning of this, been committed to working with the government to eradicate, if the science said it was feasible,’ she said. The disease was first discovered in July on a farm on the South Island and has since spread to 37 farms around the country. Some 260 farms are suspected to harbour the disease as well. An investigation into how the disease got into the country is still underway. It is unclear if it arrived through imported live cattle, frozen semen, embryos, veterinary medicines and biological products, feed, used farm equipment, or other imported live animals. Farmers who have animals culled or their farm operations restricted will be eligible for compensation. Mycoplasma bovis is a difficult disease to diagnose and to control, Agriculture and Biosecurity Minister Damien O'Connor said. For this reason, it was possible that at some stage the government may have to let the fight go and learn to manage it in New Zealand herds, O'Connor said. Mycoplasma bovis is a bacterium that causes diseases in cattle including udder infections, abortion, pneumonia and arthritis. Humans are not at risk of infection. No country has managed to eradicate the disease so far. Until July New Zealand was one of only two major OECD dairying countries that were free of M. Bovis. Norway is now the only one.
A firebrand Buddhist monk has been disrobed after being charged over the sale of amulets with fake royal seals, Thai police said yesterday, a dramatic fall from grace for a cleric who helped lead protests that toppled the former government. The junta that seized power in 2014 after those protests has in recent months taken a strong line with Thailand’s powerful Buddhist clergy after several major financial scandals. But the arrest of Luang Pu Buddha Issara, who ran a key Bangkok protest camp in the months before the coup, has surprised a public used to the monk’s pro-junta diatribes. He was charged with faking endorsements by revered late King Bhumibol of sacred amulets he was selling online, according to Major General Maitri Chimcherd, the commander of the Crime Suppression Division. “The court denied his bail request,” Maitri said, adding that he was defrocked. The complaint emerged after a collector of amulets, highly prized as lucky charms in Thailand, found the monk’s website was selling items purporting to have palace support. “When I checked on the website there was no evidence of official permission to use royal initials,” Vichai Prasertsudsiri said. Misappropriating the palace name is a dangerous game in Thailand, where the monarchy is shielded by one of the world’s strictest lese majeste laws. Issara avoided the royal defamation charge, but still could face a maximum 20 years in jail under the forgery allegation. Monks are formally outlawed from political roles but for several years Issara straddled the religious and the secular sphere as a hardline critic of the former government of Yingluck Shinawatra. He played a key galvanising role in the raucous and deadly street protests four years ago that the military used to justify taking power. He was also charged over the alleged torture of two undercover police officers who had infiltrated his protest site. His arrest came amid a sweep of several other senior monks in a multi-million-dollar embezzlement probe.
Thailand’s Maya Bay, made famous by the film The Beach, will close to visitors for four months from June to allow its coral reefs to recover from rising temperatures and the environmental impact of thousands of visitors each day. The bay, on Phi Phi Leh island in the Andaman Sea, was the main location of the 2000 film starring Leonardo Di Caprio, which revealed to viewers the stunning beauty of Thailand’s turquoise seas and white-powder beaches, spurring many to visit. Up to 5,000 visitors go to the beach every day, says Thailand’s tourism agency, travelling by speedboat and ferries to Maya Bay, which is sheltered by 100m high cliffs. The closure from June 1 is a bid to salvage the area’s coral reefs, which have been damaged by warmer temperatures and growing numbers of tourists. “This is one way to try to preserve our natural heritage, which is a vital part of our important tourism industry,” said Kanokkittika Kritwutikon, director, Tourism Authority of Thailand’s office in Phuket. No boats will be allowed to moor in the bay, said a tour operator, Maya Bay Tours. “We have been advised that Maya Bay will close from June 1 to September 30 to allow some recovery time for the bay,” it said on its website. “No boats will be allowed to moor in Maya Bay, but we will run past the bay.” Tourism receipts make up about 12% of Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, but there has been increasing concern about Thailand’s ability to manage its rapidly growing number of visitors and the environmental impact of mass tourism. This year the country banned smoking and littering at 24 beachside locations over environmental concerns. Thailand is among the world’s biggest contributors of ocean waste, posing a serious threat to wildlife, the magazine Science said in a report in 2015. Some in the tourism industry said Maya Bay’s closure would have little impact, however. “There are other places to visit which are equally interesting,” said Geng, 35, a hotel receptionist on Phi Phi Island, who gave only one name. “June to September is not high season. I can take tourists to other beaches, like Monkey Beach and Bamboo Island.” General view of Maya Bay seen in the Andaman Sea at Krabi province of Thailand yesterday.
Thai police detained leaders of an anti-junta protest yesterday who had tried to mark the fourth anniversary of a coup by marching to Government House, one of the largest acts of dissent since the army grabbed power. Protest leaders flashed a three finger salute as they were led into a police van - a resistance symbol borrowed by Thailand’s anti-coup movement from the Hollywood movie The Hunger Games. Disquiet with the junta is simmering in Thailand, despite a ban on political gatherings since a coup toppled the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra on May 22, 2014. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who as army chief booted Yingluck’s administration from power, has suggested elections will be held in February next year. But the timetable for a return to democracy has repeatedly slipped and patience with his junta is wearing thin among many sections of Thai society. Starting at sunrise, hundreds of student activists and middle-aged “Red Shirt” supporters of the toppled civilian government gathered to march from a university where they had camped overnight to the seat of government. Wielding banners, Thai flags and fans with a cartoon of the premier mocked-up as “Pinocchio”, they were stopped by police lines blocking their route. “It is the four-year anniversary of the coup and I think now is the time to change,” said Rangsiman Rome, one of the protest organisers. Hours later after five of his co-leaders were detained by police, he and two other core organisers said they would surrender to face charges linked to violating the ban on political protest. “I am well aware of your disappointment but it’s the only way to avoid violence,” he told a crowd that had held on for an hours-long standoff that included tense scuffles with police. The protest dispersed after the detentions. Addressing reporters, Thailand’s gruff premier Prayut was unmoved by the noisy show of discontent with his rule. “If you ask me, am I in a good mood? I am,” he said. “Today is May 22nd and we review what he have done since 2014... there are many things. It is better to give us support.” Yet Thailand remains divided. Large sections of society - including the Bangkok middle class - have wearied of rule by a conservative military that has intruded into the lives of ordinary Thais whilst overseeing a widening of the kingdom’s rich-poor wealth gap. “We want elections. Nothing is being done to guarantee they happen in February,” protester Anuthee Dejthevaporn, 30, said. Prayut, who draws backing from an arch-royalist Bangkok elite, says he was forced to seize power to heal the kingdom’s caustic politics and reboot an economy cramped by corruption and protest. But critics say he has done nothing to heal the country’s bitter divides, with his regime banning political gatherings of five or more people while silencing criticism with legal charges and tight monitoring of prominent activists. In between, a junta-appointed national assembly has signed off on a new constitution that ties future elected governments to a 20-year plan for the country. The charter also creates an appointed upper house and other checks on the power of future civilian governments, in what analysts say is a brazen assault on the political base of the Shinawatras. Yingluck, her older brother Thaksin or their proxies have won all Thai general elections since 2001. But their governments were hit by two coups and endless legal cases that have seen the siblings flee abroad to avoid jail.
Three politicians from the party ousted by Thailand’s generals were charged yesterday with sedition for holding a press conference, as dissent grows before the fourth anniversary of the junta’s 2014 coup. The military filed a case after senior Pheu Thai figures railed against the coup organisers at their party’s headquarters last week, blasting the generals for breaking repeated promises to restore democracy. The party supports former premiers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, whose elected governments were both toppled by coups but who remain popular among many rural Thais despite both being in self-exile. The military now says it will allow elections in February but has refused to lift its ban on politics or on gatherings of more than five people. But critics are increasingly testing the limits of the ban, which they say is intended to give the generals time to build a political coalition before the vote without any public debate. Yesterday, Pheu Thai’s Watana Muangsook, Chaturon Chaisang and Chusak Sirinil were all charged with sedition for speaking at the press conference, while five other party leaders were charged with violating the ban on gatherings for attending. “They were summoned to hear charges that were filed by the (junta) on Thursday,” said deputy national police chief Srivara Rangsibhramanakul. The Pheu Thai veterans kept up their criticism of the military as they cut through a crowd gathered outside the police office and shouting “Fight, fight!” in support. “This government abuses the laws. They use laws to prevent people from investigating (them),” said Pheu Thai’s secretary-general Phumtham Wechayachai. The regime is taking a harder line as it gears up for protests on the coup’s fourth anniversary today, with activists vowing to march on Government House in the morning. Police have warned they will enforce a “restricted area” around the building. The pro-democracy movement, which is led by a dedicated cohort of student activists, said they have come under increasing surveillance before their planned march. In a statement the activists said their sound technician was taken to a military camp on Sunday night. He was released yesterday, according to a group of human rights lawyers, who say more than 50 people have been visited, called or monitored by security officers since May 17. A junta spokesman could not be reached for comment. Titipol Phakdeewanich, a politics professor based in Thailand’s rural northeast, said officers had been visiting local activists in the region, a Pheu Thai stronghold. “They are also using their network in local areas as well... having some of their military going into villages and asking people not to go (to the Bangkok demonstration),” Titipol said, adding that he himself received a phone call from the military asking if he planned to attend the march.
Clare Rewcastle Brown was harassed and vilified for years for waging a quixotic campaign to expose Malaysian corruption that helped topple the country’s long-ruling regime. The British investigative journalist is now back in the country of her birth after being blacklisted for years, and being treated as a celebrity in a sign of the whirlwind changes since historic May 9 elections. No one is more stunned than Rewcastle, who said she expects to see further startling revelations of corruption and misrule emerge as a reformist administration cleans house. “There is so much that’s going to come tumbling out now,” she said during an interview in Kuala Lumpur. “Everyone is gob-smacked as they see these things happening. There are going to be more amazing scenes to come.” Rewcastle, now 58, has been a thorn in the side of Malaysia’s ruling elite for years, working from abroad to expose larceny and misrule centring mostly on the rainforested state of Sarawak where she was born and spent her early years. But her biggest bombshell may have been the 2015 revelation by her website Sarawak Report that nearly $700mn was funnelled into the bank account of ex-premier Najib Razak. That helped super-charge allegations that Najib and his entourage plundered billions from sovereign wealth fund 1MDB, in a scandal that led to his electoral defeat, ending six decades under an increasingly corrupt government. He is now under investigation and expected to be charged. Rewcastle’s work over the years triggered Malaysian arrest warrants, lawsuits, threats, and a sustained campaign of online vilification that she suspects was orchestrated by Najib’s government using western PR firms. The sister-in-law of former British prime minister Gordon Brown, Rewcastle was still recently being approached by shadowy characters offering pay-offs if she’d publish juicy “revelations” for them — ham-fisted attempts to entrap and discredit her, she says. “Millions have gone into trying to destroy my reputation, which could have been spent on something useful,” she said. “But all they did was help make me famous, the stupid idiots.” Never welcome, and officially barred from Malaysia in 2015, Rewcastle has gone almost overnight from persona non grata to welcome guest. She met AFP following an interview with a state-aligned newspaper that formerly maligned her but gave her glowing front-page treatment yesterday. She was halted repeatedly by ordinary Malaysians who recognised her distinctive ginger locks, stopping to thank her and snap selfies. Many more have praised Rewcastle on social media after learning of her arrival. “It’s extremely gratifying,” she said. Few foreigners were as feared by Malaysia’s government. Born in Sarawak when it was a British crown colony, she spent several years there, often following her mother – a midwife for indigenous people – on jungle jaunts to remote clinics. She later worked for the BBC and others in London in investigative journalism before devoting herself to publicising Sarawak corruption, deforestation, and eviction of native peoples from traditional lands. “I did this partly because I was mad, and partly because I thought there was a slim chance something could be done,” she said of the state, which environmentalists believe has lost nearly all of its original rainforest. “In 2010, she started Sarawak Report and short-wave broadcaster Radio Free Sarawak — operated in secret from London, and later Bali, Brunei and Sarawak itself. Rewcastle drew on a network of contacts in Malaysia to repeatedly expose Sarawak corruption. Najib’s regime eventually blocked the website — a move the new government has reversed — and radio signals were jammed. With Malaysia on a reform path, Rewcastle expects to wind down her anti-graft work, which she said has been a “hand-to-mouth” operation reliant on family funds and the odd donation from supporters. But she pledged to “do my darnedest” to continuing advocating for Sarawak. That includes pushing for investigations into its former chief minister, Abdul Taib Mahmud. The retired 82-year-old, who was loosely aligned with Najib’s regime, is accused by indigenous activists of ruling Sarawak like a family fiefdom for 33 years, plundering its timber and building ecologically harmful dams. Sarawak Report, along with the Bruno Manser Fund, a Swiss NGO, has documented huge investments around the world by Taib’s circle. “Taib needs to be taken by the ankles and shook, so the money falls out,” Rewcastle said. “There’s still a lot to be done. But we’re in a terrific position now to really campaign for what this was originally about.”