Huge crowds trekked to the remote rice terraces of northern Vietnam on Saturday to see a “crystal cloud” installation featuring 58,000 shimmering beads aimed at boosting tourism in a region better known for agriculture than bling-inspired public art. Local farmers mingled with curious tourists to capture photos of the netting decorated with Swarovski crystals and draped over towering bamboo and steel poles on the top of the terraced hill in Yen Bai province. Some were in awe of the unexpected display in the far-flung rice field. “This is very unique, I’ve never seen any outdoor exhibit like this,” said tourist Vu Chi Bao. “When the sun shines and reflects on the crystals... it looks wonderful.” Farmer Lu Thi Ly was amazed at the growing crowds coming to the site. “We can’t believe this many people know about these rice terraces now, these crystals have made them more popular,” he said. But not all were dazzled. Several people took to social media to complain about the flashy installation, saying it tarnished the area’s natural landscape. “I don’t know what is beautiful about it, the original nature is already a masterpiece. It’s just going to ruin it,” Facebook user Luu Bich posted. Vietnam is racing to develop its tourism sector in a bid to boost its economy and catch up with more popular Asian destinations like Thailand and Malaysia. But it has also come under fire for forging ahead with controversial tourism projects. A cable car to the country’s highest mountain in northern Sapa sparked outrage from some locals when it opened in 2016, and a similar project proposed in a remote cave in central Vietnam has drawn scorn in recent months. Organisers said they hope to tick up tourist visits to Yen Bai and “open dialogue to create arts in public spaces”, according to the event’s official Facebook page. Some 500,000 tourists visited the northern province last year, compared to 6.9mn to better-known Halong Bay and 2.5mn people to Sapa, according to official statistics. The figures include domestic tourism, which is fast-growing in Vietnam as officials try to draw visitors to sites like Yen Bai on the road less travelled. The crystal cloud display is open until the beginning of harvest season in October.
Seng Moon grabbed her day-old baby and fled into the thick jungle, joining thousands of villagers escaping fighting between ethnic Kachin rebels and Myanmar’s army, now reinforced by a unit notorious for its brutal “clearance” operations. The insurgency in Myanmar’s remote northeast has festered for six decades, but unlike the Rohingya crisis in the far west of the country, it has garnered few global headlines. Fighting has surged dramatically this year, displacing 20,000 people since January, adding to the legions already uprooted by one of the world’s longest-running civil wars. Often called the “forgotten war”, the Kachin conflict is a messy struggle over autonomy, ethnic identity, drugs, jade and other natural resources between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Myanmar state. On April 11, with the sound of gunfire and fighter jets closing in, the residents of Danai township sought refuge in their paddy fields. Three days later shells started falling on their village and leaders took the decision for the 2,000 inhabitants to flee. Seng Moon, 22, had given birth to her daughter only the day before. “I was still bleeding (from the birth) and I felt like I was dying,” she said at a camp in Danai town. “It was so difficult and we had to cross a river.” For the group that included many young children, as well as the sick and elderly, progress through the arduous jungle terrain was slow. But they were lucky to encounter local elephant handlers – known as mahouts – who helped ferry the most vulnerable across a chest-deep river to a displacement camp in the grounds of a small, wooden church. Ethnic Kachin are mainly Christians in a nation that is overwhelmingly Buddhist. International focus has been on the crisis in Rakhine state, from where some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have been driven into Bangladesh by a relentless military campaign the UN says amounted to “ethnic cleansing”. An army unit accused of atrocities against the Rohingya – the 33rd Light Infantry Division – has now been redeployed to Kachin. While the scale of violence in Kachin does not match operations against the Rohingya, experts say the deployment of the unit is an ominous sign for civilians. “Yes, they are here,” Kachin state minister for security and border affairs, Colonel Thura Myo Tin, said without giving any further details about their mission. Human Rights Watch accuses the unit of “multiple massacres” in northern Rakhine while Amnesty International has recorded “violations” against civilians on previous missions to Kachin. “Kachin civilians... have little hope of divisions like these changing their behaviour,” HRW Myanmar researcher Rich Weir said. The insurgency in the northeast is one of two dozen ethnic minority rebellions that have plagued Myanmar since independence from British colonial rule in 1948. Civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi said forging nationwide peace was her main priority after her government assumed power two years ago, ending decades of military domination. But the army still retains control over security issues. The Kachin conflict reignited in 2011 after a 17-year ceasefire collapsed. Clashes have intensified since 2016, displacing more than 100,000 in Kachin and the north of neighbouring Shan state. Independent analyst David Mathieson said the military appears to be taking advantage of the focus on the Rohingya to attack the KIA and bring it “to the peace negotiation table”. The military is also “targeting the KIA’s sources of income” in amber and jade mining areas, he added. Myanmar’s army accuses the KIA of involvement in an attack at the weekend on security posts and a casino in Shan that left at least 19 dead. The military says it is protecting the country’s sovereignty and borders. But the KIA’s political wing has a different view. “They are invaders. We are defenders,” said Dau Hka, a spokesman for the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). “The fighting will stop immediately” once the military halts its offensive, he added.
New Zealand's "first bloke" Clarke Gayford revealed on Thursday how he fought off an angry shark with a pole while diving off Auckland. Gayford, the partner of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, tweeted a picture of himself keeping the predator at bay while a dolphin swims in the background. However, instead of launching a Flipper-style rescue to chase off the shark, Gayford said the dolphin was content to watch the underwater drama unfold from a distance. "So it turns out that not only do dolphins not help, they actually quite like watching," he tweeted. "A childhood myth is ruined." Gayford, who hosts a television fishing show, said he was helping a camera operator shoot footage for the educational show Young Ocean Explorers when the incident occurred. He said he was "swimming safety", or keeping watch so the cameraman could concentrate on filming bottle-nosed dolphins and false killer whales off Great Barrier Island near Auckland. "They were feeding on kingfish and had been tearing some large ones in half and putting blood in the water, which attracted several large bronze whaler sharks," Gayford told AFP. "I got in the water and they turned their attention on me, I had to fend the large one pictured off with a pole several times, as it was getting quite agitated. "We got out not long after." It is not Gayford's only recent encounter with a shark. In March, he tweeted a picture of himself with "an overly amorous whale shark" that he said accidentally pinned him against a boat. Gayford will soon swap his deep-sea adventures for the role of stay-at-home dad when Ardern gives birth to the couple's first child, due on June 17. Ardern plans to take six weeks maternity leave then resume running the country.
A Myanmar policeman told a court yesterday he met two Reuters reporters on the night of their arrest in December, but denied giving them secret documents to incriminate them. His testimony contradicted a previous witness who last week said police had “set up” the pair. “During my meeting with Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, I didn’t take anything from them and I didn’t give anything to them,” police lance corporal Naing Lin told Judge Ye Lwin, overseeing the hearing at a court in Yangon. “I went and met with Wa Lone because he called me and requested a meeting. I didn’t call Wa Lone and ask him to come meet me,” said Naing Lin, who said he met the Reuters reporters over dinner and was not accompanied by any other policeman. A previous witness, Police Captain Moe Yan Naing, has told the court a police chief ordered Naing Lin and another policeman to give “secret” documents to Wa Lone in an operation to entrap him. The court in Yangon has been holding hearings since January to decide whether Wa Lone 32, and his Reuters colleague Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, will be charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison, for allegedly obtaining confidential documents. At the time of their arrest, the reporters had been working on an investigation into the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys in a village in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The killings took place during an army crackdown that UN agencies say sent nearly 700,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh. The reporters have told relatives they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some rolled up papers at a restaurant in northern Yangon by two policemen they had not met before, having been invited to meet the officers for dinner. Naing Lin said Wa Lone called him in December and introduced himself as a Reuters reporter, requesting an interview about his experiences in Rakhine, where Naing Lin’s Police Security Battalion 8 was stationed between April and November last year. During the dinner, Wa Lone asked Naing Lin about the 10 murdered Rohingya, Naing Lin said. During cross-examination, defence lawyer Than Zaw Aung said phone records show Naing Lin calling Wa Lone three times in the afternoon and the evening of December 12, the day the pair were arrested. Naing Lin said several times he did not call Wa Lone, and insisted it was the reporter who called and initiated the meeting. The previous witness, Captain Moe Yan Naing, has told the court that hours before the reporters were arrested, he was taken to the Battalion 8 compound with five other officers who had previously been contacted by Wa Lone, where they were interrogated by the police Special Branch. When the officer in charge, Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko, found out that one of the six, Naing Lin, had been in contact with Wa Lone but had not met him in person, he ordered Naing Lin to use his phone to arrange a meeting with Wa Lone that evening, according to Moe Yan Naing. He said Tin Ko Ko instructed Naing Lin to give Wa Lone documents related to Battalion 8 activities in Rakhine “in order to have him arrested”. Since first giving testimony in April, Moe Yan Naing, 47, has been sentenced to a year in jail for violating police discipline. Police have said the sentence was not related to the account he gave in court. At a news conference on Tuesday, Police Director General Aung Win Oo dismissed Moe Yan Naing’s testimony, saying Tin Ko Ko did not know the two reporters and that he did not order them to be set up. Reuters has been unable to contact Tin Ko Ko for comment. At the end of yesterday’s hearing Police Captain Myo Lwin said Sergeant Khin Maung Lin, who was due to testify next week, had been fired from the police and his whereabouts were unknown. He did not elaborate further.
The net tightened on toppled Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak as the new government yesterday placed on leave a controversial figure seen as his protector in a multi-billion-dollar graft scandal. Najib’s Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition last week suffered a shock defeat to an alliance of parties headed by the elderly Mahathir Mohamad, ending the regime’s six decades in power. Voters turned out en masse to oust Najib, angered at rising living costs, divisive racial politics in the Muslim-majority country and allegations of endemic graft among the country’s ruling elite. The 92-year-old Mahathir — who ruled Malaysia for two decades until 2003, and came out of retirement to take on Najib — is now the world’s oldest state leader. He officially got down to work as prime minister, holding meetings with top civil servants and receiving his first official visitor, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. Najib became a hugely unpopular figure over his alleged involvement in plundering huge sums from Malaysian sovereign fund 1MDB in a sophisticated fraud that is now being investigated in several countries. The US State Department alleges that at least $4.5bn dollars were looted from the fund, and funnelled to the United States where it was used to buy everything from artwork to high-end real estate and a luxury yacht. Both Najib and 1MDB deny any wrongdoing. A total of $681mn also mysteriously appeared in Najib’s personal bank accounts in 2013 just ahead of a hotly-contested election. He was later cleared by Attorney-General Mohamed Apandi Ali, who said the money was a personal donation from the Saudi royal family, and ordered the closure of domestic probes into the scandal. Mahathir, however, said in a press conference that the attorney-general was taking leave. “There have been lots of complaints against the attorney-general. On that basis we gave him a holiday,” he said. “When he is on leave, the solicitor-general will cover his job as the attorney general.” He added that once an investigation had been carried out, Apandi could be suspended and banned from leaving the country. Apandi – who has ties to the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the main party in the BN coalition – came to office after Najib sacked the previous attorney general, who was believed to be aggressively investigating the matter. Mahathir has vowed that “heads must fall” in government bodies suspected of colluding in corruption, and yesterday the head of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission — which had targeted critics of Najib — resigned. A former intelligence and investigations director from the commission also lodged a report with the body, accusing Najib of seeking to prevent investigations into 1MDB. Markets opened yesterday for the first time since last week’s polls but did not fall as heavily as had been anticipated after Mahathir sought in a weekend speech to calm investors. Stocks initially lost 2.7% but quickly won back ground and closed 0.2% higher. Local currency the ringgit was steady against the dollar. But it has not been all smooth sailing since the historic win, with concerns over the slow formation of the cabinet as different parties in the winning alliance jostle for positions. Mahathir appointed three ministers at the weekend despite previously having said he would name 10 cabinet members. Jailed politician Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir’s nemesis-turned-ally, issued a statement insisting his People’s Justice Party (PKR) still supported the new premier after a senior figure from the group said the cabinet appointments were made without their consultation.
A family of five, including a child, carried out the suicide bombing of a police headquarters in Indonesia’s second city Surabaya yesterday, police said, a day after a deadly wave of attacks on churches staged by another family. The spate of bombings has rocked Indonesia, with the Islamic State group claiming the church attacks and raising fears about its influence in Southeast Asia as its dreams of a Middle Eastern caliphate fade. Indonesia, which is set to host the Asian Games in just three months, has long struggled with militancy, including the 2002 Bali bombings that killed over 200 people — mostly foreign tourists — in the country’s worst-ever terror attack. Security forces have arrested hundreds of militants during a sustained crackdown that smashed some networks, and most recent attacks have been low-level and targeted domestic security forces. But that changed Sunday as a family of six — including girls aged nine and 12 – staged suicide bombings of three churches during morning services in Surabaya, killing 18 including the bombers. Yesterday members of another family blew themselves up at a police station in the city, wounding 10. “There were five people on two motorbikes. One of them was a little kid,” national police chief Tito Karnavian said. “This is one family.” An eight-year-old girl from the family survived the attack and was taken to hospital, while her mother, father and two brothers died in the blast, he said. The children were likely led to their deaths without a full awareness of their fate, said Ade Banani, of the University of Indonesia’s research centre of police science and terrorism studies. If a family believed in traditional roles, the father “has the power, so everyone has to obey”, Banani said. “The children probably don’t know what’s going on or don’t understand.” The father of the church suicide bombers was a local leader in extremist network Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) which supports IS, and the second family was also linked to JAD. “It ordered and gave instructions for its cells to make a move,” Karnavian said of the Islamic State’s role in the church attacks. He added that the bombings may have also been motivated by the arrest of JAD leaders, including jailed radical Aman Abdurrahman, and were linked to a deadly prison riot staged by prisoners at a high-security jail near Jakarta last week. Abdurrahman has been connected to several deadly incidents, including a 2016 gun and suicide attack in the capital Jakarta that left four attackers and four civilians dead. Despite their apparent allegiance to IS, the church-bombing family were not returnees from Syria, police said yesterday, correcting their earlier statements. However, hundreds of Indonesians have flocked in recent years to fight alongside IS there. Its ambitions have been reined in after losing most of the land it once occupied in Iraq and Syria, and there are concerns that militants will now turn their focus on establishing a base in Southeast Asia. On Sunday evening, just hours after the church bombings, a further three people in another family were killed and two wounded when another bomb exploded at an apartment complex about 30km from Surabaya. That explosion appeared to have been an accidental detonation that killed a mother and her 17-year-old child who was not identified. The woman’s husband – a confidante of the husband behind the church bombings, Dita Oepriyanto – was badly injured in the explosion. Police said they arrived after the explosion and shot dead the injured man, Anton Febrianto, as he held a bomb detonator in his hand. “When we searched the flat we found pipe bombs, similar to pipe bombs we found near the churches,” said Karnavian. Police said they also shot dead four suspects,including the second-ranking member of the JAD cell in Surabaya, in raids on houses and offices yesterday while nine others were arrested. Indonesian police have foiled numerous terror plots, but the co-ordinated nature of Sunday’s church bombings and the subsequent blasts point to more sophisticated planning than in the past, analysts said. “There is definitely a growing technical proficiency,” said Zachary Abuza, Southeast Asian security expert at the National War College in Washington. “To pull off three near-simultaneous bombings is the hallmark of a group that is thinking.” Abuza questioned the police suggestion that the attacks were ordered by the IS leadership abroad, but said it would likely boost its presence in Southeast Asia as it fades elsewhere. “(They’re) going to continue to benefit from operating transnationally in Southeast Asia,” he said.
A Hawaii volcano that has been oozing lava and burping steam for days may be gearing up for a huge eruption, scientists have warned, prompting the closure of Volcanoes National Park on Friday. It is the newest threat from the Kilauea volcano, which began erupting last Thursday on the US state's Big Island, the National Park Service said. Scientists say lava levels in the crater are going down, meaning it might be clogging and building up for a mighty blast. Movement of the molten rock opened space for lava at the summit to drain underground, reducing the height of a lava lake at the summit, US Geological Survey geophysicist Ingrid Johanson told the Los Angeles Times. But as the lava lake levels fall below the groundwater table, water can start interacting with the magma, heating it up and creating steam, said USGS scientist Donald Swanson. And if rocks fall from the walls surrounding the magma in the volcano, the rocks can form a dam. And then, if the steam builds pressure, ‘it can eventually burst out in an explosion,’ Swanson said. Scientists estimate that the lava could interact with the groundwater by the middle of this month. Kilauea is one of the most active volcanos in the world and one of five on the island. A magnitude 5 earthquake under its south flank preceded an initial eruption last week and several severe aftershocks followed. A quake last Friday was measured at magnitude 6.9, the most powerful to hit the islands since 1975. No one has died, but the flowing lava has destroyed dozens of structures in an area called Leilani Estates. Hundreds of people have been forced to evacuate their homes because of the lava and the threat of toxic fumes.
With a day to go for Malaysia’s general election, politicians are battling for the crucial ethnic Malay vote that Prime Minister Najib Razak is counting on to hold off a late surge from the opposition and win another term. The opposition is led by Mahathir Mohamad, a 92-year-old former prime minister who was once Najib’s mentor but turned against him and quit the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party. The Barisan Nasional (BN) ruling coalition, which is dominated by UMNO, and Mahathir’s alliance are both vying for the votes of Malay Muslims, who account for about 60% of the population in the Southeast Asian nation. An Islamic group, Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), is also chasing these votes and — unlike the last election — it is not standing with the opposition alliance. Najib and his deputy have taken their campaign to the Malay rural heartland in recent days, playing up BN’s role in protecting Islam and promoting Malay interests. “If we look at the behaviour of one or two people (in the opposition), we cannot be confident that they will look after our interests, especially the people in the rural areas, the interests of Islam and the interests of the Malays,” Najib told a rally on Sunday, according to state news agency Bernama. Historically, Malays have largely been in favour of UMNO and BN because of the decades of policies favouring them in business, education and housing. Many in the ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian minorities favour the opposition. But a recent survey by independent pollster Merdeka Center said BN’s support among Malays has dropped by 8% in peninsular Malaysia since the 2013 general election. Peninsular Malaysia is home to three-fourths of the country’s electoral districts while the rest are in Malaysia’s part of Borneo island. The fall in BN’s support varied across states, it said. In Johor, one of Malaysia’s most populous states, it had fallen as much as 21%, it said. “There will definitely be significant movement of Malay voters across the (political) divide. I expect the margin of victory to be fine,” said Rashaad Ali, an analyst with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Najib is widely expected to retain power, thanks to a first-past-the-post-system that doesn’t require winning the popular vote, and support in rural areas, despite worries about the rising cost of living and a financial scandal at state fund 1MDB. The opposition has accused BN of playing “dirty” tricks to win the election, including the recent redrawing of electoral boundaries that they say favours Najib’s coalition. BN denies the accusations. Najib’s press secretary yesterday urged Malays to stay loyal to BN, and said the largely-Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP), which holds a vast majority of seats in the opposition coalition, was using Mahathir to divide them. “DAP are using the nonagenarian as camouflage to split the Malay vote. Should they win, they will never let Mahathir become prime minister — they know him too well,” Tengku Sariffuddin said in a statement. Swinging the Malay vote away from UMNO, however, will not be easy, especially in areas of “Felda settlers”, Malays who work for the national palm plantation operator Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) and have been a rock-solid votebank for the ruling coalition. At Gedangsa, a Felda settlement about 100km north of Kuala Lumpur, a campaign rally by local opposition leaders on Friday struggled to attract more than 70 residents. “Even without thinking, they will vote for UMNO,” said Zainal Amri, a 63-year-old settler. “Voting UMNO is a tradition for Malays.” Still, corruption scandals, allegations of mismanagement and delays in payments to settlers by Felda have prompted some to switch to the opposition, a few people at the rally told Reuters. Felda Chairman Shahrir Abdul Samad, who is also an UMNO division chief in Johor, said the government-run agency has offered grants and will restructure debt to reduce the financial burden for settlers. He said the opposition’s hopes of unleashing a “Malay tsunami” by “attacking prominent Malay institutions” would not succeed.
Armenia's political crisis deepened Wednesday as opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan called for protesters to block key transport links after lawmakers rejected his bid to become prime minister. Pashinyan supporters have pledged to ramp up pressure on authorities to force the ruling Republican Party, which withheld support for the protest leader despite tens of thousands massing in the streets, to quit power. ‘From 8:15 am tomorrow all roads should be blocked, I announce a general strike,’ Pashinyan told supporters gathered in the capital Yerevan's Republic Square late Tuesday. ‘A revolution of love and tolerance is continuing,’ he said, also urging people to block an airport and turn out for a huge rally Wednesday evening as the crowds chanted ‘Nikol! Nikol!’. Parliament had voted 45 in favour to 55 against Pashinyan, with the Republican Party headed by ousted former prime minister Serzh Sarkisian rejecting his candidacy after hours of deliberation during a day-long special session. ‘The political force which declared a war against its own people has destroyed itself,’ Pashinyan said in parliament after the vote. ‘No one will be able to take victory away from the people.’ Pashinyan previously warned that the lawmakers' unwillingness to back him could lead to a ‘political tsunami’. Armenia has been in the grip of a severe political crisis in recent weeks, with observers and the international community expressing concern that the turmoil could destabilise the small south Caucasus country. Pashinyan, who spearheaded the mass protests that led to the resignation of veteran leader Sarkisian last month, has insisted that only he can rid the poor ex-Soviet nation of corruption and poverty and conduct free and fair elections. He had been thought to be just a handful of votes short of a majority in parliament. Ahead of the vote lawmakers from the Republican Party grilled Pashinyan on a number of technical issues in an apparent effort to make him appear incompetent. ‘The entire country is united in its demand that the Republicans' rule must end,’ said Laura Shahverdyan, a 22-year-old student. Anait Tolmasyan, a 63-year-old pensioner, added: ‘We all only have one demand: the Republicans must go. Nikol is the true leader of the Armenian people.’ - Political dead end - Eduard Sharmazanov, vice speaker of parliament and the Republicans' spokesman, excoriated the 42-year-old former newspaper editor, implying he was unpredictable. ‘Mr Pashinyan, I don't see you at the post of prime minister, I don't see you at the post of commander-in-chief.’ A lawmaker from the Elk coalition that nominated Pashinyan, Edmon Marukyan, accused the Republicans of leading the country into a ‘dead end’. A source familiar with negotiations told AFP earlier this week that the Republican Party leadership was clinging to power and opposed Pashinyan's election. The source said Pashinyan and the Republicans had struck a backdoor deal several days ago, but it appears that the ruling party backed out at the last minute. Pashinyan had secured the backing of two other key parties including Prosperous Armenia. But ahead of the ballot he was at least seven votes short of the 53 he needed from the 105-seat legislature, where the Republican Party has a majority. - Arch-enemy watches closely - Armenia is dependent on Russia economically and militarily and Pashinyan had said his premiership would not threaten traditionally tight ties with Moscow. Armenia has for decades been locked in a bitter dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh, a breakaway statelet with an Armenian ethnic majority that is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has closely watched the political crisis, with analysts warning Armenia's arch-foe could use the turmoil to its advantage. One Azerbaijani lawmaker, Gudrat Gasanguliyev, called on Tuesday for a special session of parliament, citing the prospect of ‘civil war’ in Armenia.
Armenian opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan on Monday was formally nominated for the post of prime minister by his supporters, inching closer to victory after two weeks of protests that transformed the country's political landscape. Pashinyan has called a halt to protests in order to hold high-stakes talks with all political forces ahead of a crucial vote on Tuesday and swapped his trademark khaki-coloured T-shirt for a smart business suit. ‘We are facing the task of resolving the political crisis in the country,’ he told reporters in parliament, announcing the nomination by his Elk coalition. ‘If a prime minister is not elected tomorrow, this crisis will not disappear.’ The leader of the protest movement that ousted the country's veteran leader Serzh Sarkisian last week, Pashinyan is the only candidate in the running for the premiership and insists that only he can rid Armenia of corruption and poverty and conduct free and fair parliamentary elections. However the 42-year-old former newspaper editor still needs a handful of votes from the ruling Republican Party -- which has a majority of seats in parliament -- to seal his victory in a vote by lawmakers on Tuesday. The party headed by ousted prime minister Sarkisian has yet to announce its official stance on the vote, even though a senior lawmaker, Vahram Baghdasaryan, has said it would not stand in the way of Pashinyan's candidacy. The protest leader said he would not beg the Republicans for votes. ‘I don't have to and will not coax them,’ he said. - 'Political consensus' - Many political observers said it was highly likely that Pashinyan would be elected prime minister, in a whirlwind development that was unimaginable just two weeks ago in the poor South Caucasus country of 2.9 million people. ‘I see practically no obstacles to Pashinyan becoming a prime minister tomorrow,’ political analyst Hakob Badalyan told AFP. ‘There is political consensus including among the Republicans that the settling of the crisis in this way would serve the interests of the country.’ Another analyst, Ervand Bozoyan, said Pashinyan made everyday Armenians believe that they matter and have the right to determine the future of their country themselves. ‘Beginning from the 1990s people did not believe that change is possible in this country. Now they see that it's possible. People are surprised,’ he told AFP. ‘Nikol has become a hero.’ Observers have expressed fears that the turmoil could destabilise the Moscow-allied nation which has been locked in a territorial dispute with Azerbaijan for decades. The European Union expressed its support to Armenia in ‘its efforts to build a prosperous and democratic society.’ ‘It remains crucial that all parties involved, including the law enforcement agencies and those exercising their right of freedom of assembly and expression, show restraint and responsibility,’ said a statement by the Delegation of the European Union. Russia has urged compromise while the United States has called for ‘a resolution that reflects the interests of all Armenians.’ - 'Revolution of love' - Tens of thousands of opposition supporters rallied in the capital Yerevan on Sunday, hoping that a massive show of strength would propel their leader to power. ‘Looking into your eyes, I can say that yes, I am ready -- with a great sense of responsibility -- to assume the prime ministerial duties,’ Pashinyan told the ecstatic crowd Sunday evening. On Saturday, after days of frantic negotiations, two major parties including the Prosperous Armenia -- which has 31 seats in parliament -- said they would back Pashinyan. Pashinyan is still six votes short of the 53 he needs from the 105-seat legislature. Last week, Sarkisian resigned from his new post of prime minister after serving as president for a decade in the face of peaceful protests some dubbed a ‘revolution of love.’ The protest movement had accused him of a power grab, saying he had failed to tackle a litany of problems like corruption, poverty and the influence of oligarchs. Observers said that Sarkisian's resignation sounded the death knell for the seemingly unshakable rule of the Republican Party which dominated the ex-Soviet republic's politics for over a decade, unchallenged by weak and divided opposition forces.
Tourism Fiji has apologised after an advertisement featuring indigenous terms mixed up the words for "church" and "toilet", causing outrage in the deeply religious Pacific nation. The advertisement, intended as a primer in the iTaukei (Fijian) language for international visitors, translated "vale ni lotu" as toilet. It actually means house of worship, or church, and the mistake angered many, including opposition leader Ro Teimumu Kepa. "Outraged and disgusted that an organisation like Tourism Fiji would allow the release of a promotional video on their social media platforms without proper vetting or proof reading," she tweeted. "A gross insult and humiliation to the first settlers of this country and the people of Fiji." It was unclear why the words were muddled up in the video. Tourism Fiji withdrew the advertisement and issued an apology, blaming the error on a production mistake. "The mistake was due to a mismatch of graphic design and the post was removed as soon as we became aware of it," it said in a statement. "We take full responsibility for the error and sincerely regret any offence."
Armenia's Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian resigned on Monday after mass protests against his election, seen as a blatant power grab by the opposition. ‘I am leaving the post of the country's leader,’ Sarkisian was quoted as saying in a statement by his press service, just days after he took office. ‘Nikol Pashinyan was right,’ he said referring to the leader of the protests. ‘I was wrong.’ After serving for a decade as president, Sarkisian was last week elected prime minister by lawmakers in a move the opposition said was designed to extend his rule under a new parliamentary system of government. Constitutional amendments approved in 2015 transferred power from the presidency to the premiership. Sarkisian, a shrewd former military officer, was first elected president of the impoverished, Moscow-allied country in 2008. After the 2008 vote, 10 people died in clashes between police and supporters of the defeated opposition candidate. He was re-elected in 2013, with his second and final term ending April 9. - Opposition toast victory - Earlier Monday, protest leader Pashinyan was freed after police detained him Sunday following failed talks with Sarkisian. ‘So has everyone now understood that we have won?’ Pashinyan told supporters shortly after his release in the capital Yerevan and before Sarkisian resigned. Flag-waving supporters cheered the 42-year-old opposition MP and some kissed and hugged him. An AFP reporter saw people opening a champagne bottle and handing Pashinyan a glass on the 11th day of demonstrations in the country of 2.9 million people. Prosecutors had said that Pashinyan and two other opposition politicians ‘were detained as they were committing socially dangerous acts’. Protesters had denounced Sarkisian and called on the 63-year-old to stand down. Sarkisian had earlier refused to go and on Sunday stormed out of televised talks with Pashinyan, accusing him of ‘blackmail’. Earlier Monday, groups of young men briefly blocked roads in Yerevan and hundreds of students marched arm-in-arm holding Armenian flags. A group of serving soldiers joined the protests while the country's defence ministry threatened to take ‘serious measures’ against them. ‘We condemn the participation of a group of servicemen from the peacekeeping brigade of the Armenian armed forces who, violating the law, took part in an organised rally,’ the defence ministry said. A number of uniformed former soldiers and veterans who fought in Nagorny Karabakh -- a breakaway region seized by Armenian separatists at the end of the Soviet era -- also marched with the protesters. Tens of thousands had rallied in Yerevan over the weekend against pro-Kremlin Sarkisian. - Kremlin 'observing' - In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said Russia was carefully watching events in Armenia, which has retained close ties to its former Soviet master. ‘We are very attentively observing what is happening in Armenia,’ Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists, calling the South Caucasus country ‘extremely important’ for Russia. Peskov dismissed a question on whether Russia would interfere in the crisis, which he called ‘exclusively an internal affair’, as ‘absolutely inappropriate.’ Armenian Defence Minister Vigen Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh Sarkisian) warned that his country's foe Azerbaijan was gaining from the unrest. ‘The enemy is looking at events in our country. Instability inside our country opens a road for them to take action. We need to tell society about this,’ the minister told reporters. He added the army could only become involved in the crisis if a state of emergency was declared, which he hopes will not happen ‘for years to come’. ‘I think we have not crossed any red lines yet and dialogue can continue,’ he said. ‘Dialogue is better than any tension. I am opposed to Armenians coming out against Armenians.’ Pashinyan, the leader of the Civil Contract Party, last week called for the ‘start of a peaceful velvet revolution.’ Hundreds of people were detained at protest rallies across Yerevan on Sunday. Earlier Monday, Armenia's Investigative Committee said 26 had been detained on suspicion of ‘hooliganism’ and use of violence against police.
Nguyen was nine when he boarded a boat alone to escape the communist regime in Vietnam for the United States. Some 40 years later, he returned in shackles, deported from the only country he really knows to one he can scarcely remember. With conspiracy and fraud convictions under his belt, he was expelled in line with a Trump administration push to remove immigrants with criminal records for convictions ranging from traffic offenses to drug-related crimes and murder. Nguyen left his four grown kids and second wife Annie behind in Boston, and now spends his days aimlessly cruising the web because he cannot find work, or battling bureaucracy to obtain identity papers. ‘I still don't believe it,’ Nguyen told AFP in Ho Chi Minh City this week, using only his last name for safety. ‘I really want to go back there because I lived there for more of my life there than here,’ said Nguyen, who's not yet used to the city's sweltering heat and complains of dry fried chicken at the local KFC. The former construction worker was sent to immigration detention with orders of removal after his prison release last year, joining some 8,600 Vietnamese nationals tagged for deportation, most with criminal records. In the 2017 fiscal year, 71 Vietnamese nationals were deported from the US -- double the 2016 figure -- and 76 have been sent so far since October 2017 according to data from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) which does not track refugees' date of arrival to the country when compiling removal data. The move comes as immigration officials ramp up raids and removals of aliens from Mexico, Cambodia, Myanmar and elsewhere who Trump has vowed to crack down on. Advocates argue that the expulsion of Vietnamese nationals violates a 2008 deal that says Vietnam refugees who arrived in the US before the normalisation of ties between the former war foes in 1995 should not be deported. Four refugees have filed a class action lawsuit over months-long pre-deportation detentions. But ICE says their birth nations are obligated to take them back and that it does not target immigrants ‘indiscriminately’. ‘ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security,’ spokesman Brendan Raedy told AFP. - 'Very risky' - Nguyen and nearly 30 others landed in Ho Chi Minh City in December after a 24-hour flight during which his hands and feet were shackled, and he has spent the last few months uneasily settling into a city he still calls by its former name Saigon. He says his father was shot dead by communist authorities in 1979, soon after Nguyen left his mother behind for the US where he was taken in by American sponsors for a few years. Since his return, his elderly mother has been visited by plainclothes police asking about her son and he fears further harassment because of his family's past work with the US military. ‘It's very, very risky,’ Nguyen said. Others agree. Former US ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius said in an essay this month he resigned last year in opposition to the ‘repulsive’ plan. ‘I think fundamentally this is racist policy,’ he told AFP from Ho Chi Minh City, where he is now vice president of Fulbright University. Since many refugees sided with the US-backed South he fears they could ‘end up being human rights cases’ in the country with a tarnished reputation for jailing critics -- including those who still pledge allegiance to the former regime. That's what Vu Ha fears. Immigration officials in California issued his removal orders last year after he served time for burglary and he spent nearly a year in ICE custody until his recent release. Vietnam still has not agreed to have him back, locking him in limbo between two governments that do not accept him. ‘I'm just stuck right in the middle,’ Vu, 37, told AFP after checking in with immigration officials in Los Angeles. He's not been back since he left at age nine and is terrified about a communist government he doesn't side with. ‘There's nothing good to say about Vietnam. The government is attacking the civilians, they don't have any kind of rights as far as freedom of speech or anything,’ said Vu, who has a daughter about to graduate from high school. - 'American blood' - Some who have already been deported like Bui Hung have an American parent. Hung, who served six years in an American jail for beating his wife after catching her in bed with another man, said his American serviceman father was killed in the war and he fled with his family to the United States in 1993. He says he now lives in fear of police in Vietnam. ‘I am still American, my dad is American, my blood is American,’ said Hung, who speaks with a Vietnamese accent using slang like ‘homeboy’. There is little recourse for refugees like him and Nguyen to return to the US, though some are hopeful they may get back after Trump -- a man he says ‘has no heart’ -- is out of office. Until then, Nguyen will learn to ride a motorbike, the transportation of choice in his new city, and keep in touch with his wife who bid him a tearful goodbye in Ho Chi Minh City Friday after a brief visit. ‘He left Vietnam as a little boy,’ she told AFP. ‘Now he doesn't know what to do.’
Police in the Armenian capital Yerevan detained dozens of anti-government demonstrators on Thursday -- the seventh day of large-scale protests against ex-president Serzh Sarkisian's election as prime minister. Led by firebrand opposition MP Nikol Pashinyan, hundreds of protesters attempted to blockade the entrance to government headquarters in central Yerevan, before riot police intervened, arresting dozens of people and taking them to a local police station, an AFP journalist reported from the scene. Protesters have held rallies over recent days to denounce Sarkisian's efforts to remain in power as prime minister under a new parliamentary system of government. Controversial constitutional amendments approved in 2015 have transferred governing powers from the presidency to the premier. On Wednesday evening, more than 16,000 rallied in central Yerevan's Republic Square, vowing to mount a nationwide campaign of ‘civil disobedience’ in opposition to the Kremlin-backed Sarkisian who was on Tuesday elected by parliament to the post of prime minister after a decade serving as president. Pashinyan -- who earlier announced the ‘start of a peaceful velvet revolution’ -- told Wednesday's rally that the protest movement's objective was to ‘change power’ in Armenia through a nationwide campaign of ‘civil disobedience’ and permanent sit-in protests inside government buildings. The number of demonstrators dwindled on Wednesday, compared with Tuesday's rally of some 40,000 -- the largest Armenia has seen in years. Protests began in Yerevan on Friday and have since spread to the country's second and third largest cities, Gyumri and Vanadzor. On Monday police used stun grenades against protesters who tried to break through a barbed wire cordon to get to the parliament building. Authorities said 46 people, including six police and opposition leader Pashinyan, sought medical help. The country's new president, Armen Sarkisian, was sworn in last week but his powers will be weaker under the new system of government. The two men are not related. A former military officer, Serzh Sarkisian, 63, has been in charge of the landlocked South Caucasus nation of 2.9 million people for a decade. He also held the office of prime minister from 2007 to 2008. After he was first elected in 2008, 10 people died and hundreds were injured in bloody clashes between police and supporters of the defeated opposition candidate.
A court in Cambodia on Thursday declined to grant bail to two journalists who have been charged with espionage for filing news reports to a US-funded radio station. The case of the two, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, has compounded concern about a crackdown on criticism and dissent by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who aims to extend his rule of more than three decades in a general election in July. ‘The court denied our appeal,’ Keo Vanny, a lawyer for the pair, told reporters after the hearing. ‘They upheld the Phnom Penh court decision which continues the pre-trial detention.’ The two used to work for the Washington-based Radio Free Asia (RFA), which broadcasts in the Khmer language, and which the government critised for being biased towards the opposition. RFA shut down its Phonom Penh office in September complaining of a ‘relentless crackdown on independent voices’, which made it impossible for it to guarantee ‘the integrity of RFA’s journalistic mission’. The two journalists have been in pre-trial detention since their arrest in November. They were charged with ‘providing information that is destructive to national defense to a foreign state’ after they were caught filing stories to RFA. Both men deny the charge against them which carries a prison term of up to 15 years. ‘It is very unjust. They intend for us to suffer,’ a handcuffed Yeang Sothearin told reporters as police took him away after the hearing. ‘The government took revenge on us because we broadcasted the real situation about Cambodia.’ A government spokesman, Phay Siphan, rejected any suggestion the government was taking revenge on the pair, saying: ‘We cannot accept what he said.’ The reporters were arrested days before the Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party after it was accused of plotting to take power with the help of the United States. The party and the United States denied the accusation. Hun Sen and his government reject accusation of human rights violations.
Azerbaijanis voted on Wednesday in a snap presidential election boycotted by the main opposition parties and set to extend the autocratic rule of President Ilham Aliyev. Polls opened at 0400 GMT in the energy-rich ex-Soviet Caspian state where the downtrodden opposition has been unable to mount a serious challenge to Aliyev. The president, in power for 15 years, has also seen his position boosted by the steady influx of petrodollars into his government's coffers. Opposition parties in the tightly-controlled Caucasus nation say the conditions to hold a democratic election are not in place and accused authorities of preparing to rig the vote. They have also condemned Aliyev's surprise -- and unexplained -- decision to hold the election six months ahead of schedule as aimed at shortening the campaign period and hampering the opposition's efforts to prevent vote rigging. ‘All previous elections in Azerbaijan were falsified and held with blatant violations of the electoral law. These elections will be no exception,’ said the executive secretary of the opposition Republican Alternative Movement, Natig Jafarli. The authorities rejected the opposition's criticism, insisting the vote will be free and fair. ‘Azerbaijan is on a firm and irreversible path of democratic development. A free, open and transparent environment has been created in Azerbaijan for the presidential elections,’ foreign ministry spokesman, Hikmet Hajiyev, told AFP. ‘All the candidates enjoy equal rights and opportunities,’ he added. - 'Unprecedented' powers - Poised to secure a fourth consecutive term, Aliyev, 56, was first elected in 2003, after the death of his father Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB officer and communist-era leader who had ruled Azerbaijan with an iron fist since 1993. He was re-elected in 2008 and 2013 in polls that were denounced by opposition parties as fraudulent. In 2009, Aliyev amended the country's constitution so he could run for an unlimited number of presidential terms, in a move criticised by rights advocates. In 2016, Azerbaijan adopted fresh controversial constitutional amendments, extending the president's term in office to seven years from five. The changes drew criticism from Council of Europe constitutional law experts as ‘severely upsetting the balance of powers’ and giving the president ‘unprecedented’ authority. Cementing his family's decades-long grip on power, the president last year appointed his wife Mehriban Aliyeva as first vice president. Apart from the incumbent president, seven candidates are running in the poll -- all low-profile figures who have barely carried out any campaigning. ‘The climax of the tragicomedy was that some of the candidates called on people to vote for Aliyev,’ independent analyst, Bahtiyar Hajiev, told AFP. Opposition leaders say these ‘dummy candidates’ were hand-picked by the authorities so the vote looks competitive. ‘Only the candidates endorsed by Aliyev were allowed to run in the elections,’ the leader of the opposition Popular Front party, Ali Kerimli, told AFP. - 'Hidden wealth' - Supporters have praised the Aliyevs for turning a republic once thought of as a ex-Soviet backwater into a flourishing energy supplier to Europe. But critics argue they have crushed the opposition and used their power to fund a lavish lifestyle for the president and his family. ‘For decades, the Aliyevs have been appropriating Azerbaijan's national riches, they have amassed immense hidden wealth,’ Khadija Ismayilova, an anti-corruption crusader, told AFP. ‘They cling on to power to continue looting the country's resources,’ said the award-winning journalist who spent 17 months in jail in 2014-2016 after she exposed official graft. Aliyev has denied accusations of rights abuses and corruption. Monitored by international observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the polls will close at 1500 GMT. Some 5.2 million people are registered to vote. The Central Election Commission is to begin releasing results late Wednesday.
Migrant workers can now rate their recruiters and warn others of potential abuses on a global portal aimed at stamping out modern slavery that mirrors reviews on the travel website TripAdvisor. From domestic workers to construction labourers, about 25 million people were trapped in forced labour in 2016, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the charity Walk Free Foundation. Desperate to escape poverty at home, many migrant workers pay fees to recruitment agencies to secure a job abroad, but campaigners say they can end up trapped in bonded labour. Inspired by the travel website, the ‘Recruitment Advisor’ that was launched this month in four languages allows migrant workers to review their experiences in a bid to help others to avoid unscrupulous recruiters. ‘One can choose a recruitment agency with good ratings,’ said Ira Rachmawati from the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which runs the portal. ‘We want to promote fair recruitment. If the agency is doing fair recruitments, they could contribute to helping migrant workers making an informed decision,’ the project officer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Tuesday. Available in English, Indonesian, Tagalog and Nepali in the first phase, the ITUC - which represents 207 million workers globally - said the website empowers workers to learn about their rights through the peer-to-peer reviews. It has over 10,000 recruitment agencies listed on its website, and workers will be asked to review areas ranging from recruitment fees, to employment contract and working conditions. The website is one of the latest initiatives seeking to tap technologies from blockchain to mobile apps to combat slavery and human trafficking, which generate profits of $150 billion per year globally according to UN figures. A website similar to Recruitment Advisor was started in 2014 for Mexican migrants working in the United States, but the ITUC said its initiative has a global target. Alex Ong from advocacy group Migrant Care, however, warned that the industry needs an overhaul and recruiters should be cut out from the system entirely to prevent exploitation. ‘(Recruiters) have an ultimate motive of making profits from migrant workers,’ Ong, whose group supports Indonesian migrant workers, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A trumpet fills the air as two “elephants” charge, scattering Rohingya refugee actors at a training session in a camp which cuts deep into Bangladeshi forest once reserved for the protected species. Part awareness raising, part pantomime, the scenario uses life-size puppets of elephants made from bamboo and old clothing and expertly propelled by volunteers. Each charge – and exaggerated counter by bands of Rohingya villagers – draws squeals of delight from the children crowded around a dusty paddy field. But the purpose of the training day is sobering – a dozen Rohingya have been killed in the last year by wild elephants whose habitat has been consumed by Kutupalong refugee camp. With hundreds of thousands of new refugees driven over the border since last August by violence in Myanmar, the camp now seeps deeper into the forest. Refugees are stripping trees for firewood and building settlements on the bare hillocks. As a result, man and beast are increasingly coming into conflict. Training days are now being held to kindle harmony between the refugees and the estimated 35 to 45 elephants who are now their neighbours. “Elephants take the same migratory route, it’s in their genetic memory. Now more than 600,000 Rohingya are in the middle of that route,” Raquibul Amin, country director for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) told AFP on Saturday at Kutupalong camp. “The aim is to demystify the elephant as an enemy... and to try to train people to deal with elephants when they encounter them,” he said, of a training event held in conjunction with the UNHCR. Rohingya volunteers show how to safely corral an elephant that strays into settled areas and use whistles and human chains to drive them away. The mock-up elephants are covered by a ‘skin’ made from old clothing donated and stitched by Rohingya women – part of efforts to bond the new community with their older forest neighbour. The drama plays out under a scorching sun, bringing a rare community event to people whose villages lie in ruins across the border. Delighted by the break in the humdrum camp life, children jump up and down in real elephant prints, hardened into the abandoned paddy. Rina Aktar, 10, recalls her alarming encounter with a ‘Hati’ (elephant), her arms at full stretch to indicate its enormity. “I was collecting firewood in the forest when I saw it... it was so big, I just ran away.” Her fears are valid. The last death happened in late March when a bull elephant followed a path up a hillside crammed with Rohingya homes. It adds to the tension and stress of a Muslim minority unwanted in Myanmar and forced from their homes by last year’s army campaign. With repatriation for now appearing a pipe dream, Rohingya communities nearest the forest are preparing for more unwelcome run-ins with elephants. But at least now some of the refugees are equipped to deal with them. “I have handled elephants three times already since I have been here,” said UNHCR elephant volunteer Nabi Hussein. “I didn’t panic.”
Japan signed a grant and loan agreement with Cambodia on Sunday totaling over $90 million, despite concerns from the international community over Prime Minister Hun Sen's crackdown on government critics ahead of a July general election. Japan's Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Kono and Cambodia's Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn signed the $4.6 million grant and $86 million loan, for economic and electricity transmission projects, in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh. The main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was dissolved in November at the request of the government, prompting some Western countries to condemn the crackdown, cut aid, and impose visa bans on some ruling party members. Rights groups and members of the opposition have urged Tokyo to take a stronger stance against Hun Sen, but Japan has said it would continue to provide election support and would not interfere in what it said were Cambodia's internal affairs. Hun Sen praised Japan for its financial assistance on Sunday, but lashed out at critics. ‘While Japan, a friend, is providing assistance to Cambodia, some bad people can poison the news as bad as they did,’ Hun Sen said on his Facebook page. During a meeting with Hun Sen on Sunday, foreign minister Kono said Japan would help Cambodia to become an upper middle income country by 2030, said Hun Sen's aide Eang Sophalleth. In a recent statement to Reuters, Kentaro Sonoura, advisor to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, urged Cambodia's political rivals to hold talks to end the political crisis.