Archive for December 14, 2014

Singapore (AFP)

April 16, 2014

Singapore on Wednesday welcomed an apology from Indonesia’s military chief over the naming of a warship after two marines who staged a deadly bombing in the city-state in 1965.

Singapore reacted furiously in February when the refurbished frigate was named “KRI Usman Harun”, lodging a diplomatic complaint with Jakarta and banning the vessel from its ports and naval bases.

Tensions escalated last month after the Indonesian navy dressed two marines as the executed bombers at a defense exhibition in Jakarta.

“Once again I apologize. We have no ill intent whatsoever to stir emotions. Not at all,” military chief General Moeldoko, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, said in an interview with Singapore broadcaster Channel NewsAsia that was aired on Tuesday.

Moeldoko, however, said that the ship will not be renamed.

Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen welcomed the apology on Wednesday, saying it was a “constructive gesture to improve bilateral defense ties”.

This will “strengthen the mutual understanding and friendship that has been built up over many decades,” he said in a statement.

Usman Haji Mohamed Ali and Harun Said were executed in Singapore for their roles in the March 1965 blast at a downtown office complex which killed three people and injured 33.

Indonesia considers the two men to be national heroes. Their attack was part of an effort by then Indonesian president Sukarno to stage an armed confrontation against the newly formed federation of Malaysia, which included Singapore.

In his Channel NewsAsia interview, Moeldoko said: “Indonesia didn’t think that ‘Usman Harun’ would eventually turn into a polemic such as this.”

“It is my responsibility as the commander-in-chief of the (Indonesian armed forces) to offer a clarification and to take steps to ensure that the situation does not escalate,” he added.

Indonesia is Singapore’s third largest trading partner, with total trade between the Southeast Asian neighbors reaching Sg$79.4 billion ($62.6 billion) in 2012.

Relations hit a low point in the late 1990s after the fall of former dictator Suharto, and his successor B.J. Habibie famously referred to the tiny city-state as a “little red dot” on the map.

Bilateral ties have improved considerably in recent years.

Source: Space War.


October 25, 2014

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — A growing sense of desperation is fueling a mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims from western Myanmar, with the number fleeing by boat since communal violence broke out two years ago now topping 100,000, a leading expert said Saturday.

Chris Lewa, director of the nonprofit advocacy group Arakan Project, said there has been a huge surge since Oct. 15, with an average of 900 people per day piling into cargo ships parked off Rakhine state.

That’s nearly 10,000 in less than two weeks, one of the biggest upticks yet. Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 50 million that only recently emerged from half a century of military rule, has an estimated 1.3 million Rohingya. Though many of their families arrived from neighboring Bangladesh generations ago, almost all have been denied citizenship. In the last two years, attacks by Buddhist mobs have left hundreds dead and 140,000 trapped in camps, where they live without access to adequate health care, education or jobs.

Lewa said some Rohingya families have been told new ships have started arriving in neighboring Thailand, where passengers often are brought to jungle camps, facing extortion and beatings until relatives come up with enough money to win their release.

From there they usually travel to Malaysia or other countries, but, still stateless, their futures remain bleak. In Myanmar, the vast majority live in the northern tip of Rakhine state, where an aggressive campaign by authorities in recent months to register family members and officially categorize them as “Bengalis” — implying they are illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh — has aggravated their situation.

According to villagers contacted by The Associated Press, some were confined to their villages for weeks at a time for refusing to take part in the “verification” process, while others were beaten or arrested.

More recently, dozens of men were detained for having alleged ties to the militant Rohingya Solidarity Organization, or RSO, said Khin Maung Win, a resident from Maungdaw township, adding that several reportedly were beaten or tortured during their arrests or while in detention.

Lewa said three of the men died. “Our team is becoming more and more convinced that this campaign of arbitrary arrests is aimed at triggering departures,” she said. Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing denied any knowledge of arrests or abuse.

“There’s nothing happening up there,” he said. “There are no arrests of suspects of RSO. I haven’t heard anything like that.” Every year, the festival of Eid al-Adha, which was celebrated by Muslims worldwide early this month, marks the beginning of a large exodus of Rohingya, in part due to calmer seas but also because it is a chance to spend time with family and friends.

But there seems to be a growing sense of desperation this year, with numbers nearly double from the same period in 2013. Lewa said a number of Rohingya also were moving overland to Bangladesh and on to India and Nepal.

The United Nations, which has labeled the Rohingya one of the most persecuted religious minorities in the world, earlier this year confirmed figures provided by Lewa about a massive exodus that began after communal violence broke out in June 2012, targeting mainly Rohingya.

With the latest departures, Lewa estimates the number of fleeing Rohingya to be more than 100,000. It was not immediately clear where the newest arrivals were landing.

Associated Press writer Esther Htusan contributed to this report.

October 08, 2014

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Authorities sealed off villages in Myanmar’s only Muslim-majority region and in some cases beat and arrested people who refused to register with immigration officials, residents and activists say, in what may be the most aggressive effort yet to force Rohingya to indicate they are illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

Immigration officials, border guards and members of the illegal-alien task force in the northern tip of Rakhine state — home to 90 percent of the country’s 1.3 million Rohingya — said they were simply updating family lists, as they have in the past. But this year, in addition to questions about marriages, deaths and births, people were classified by ethnicity.

The government denies the existence of Rohingya in the country, saying those who claim the ethnicity are actually Bengalis. Residents said those who refused to take part suffered the consequences. “We are trapped,” Khin Maung Win said last week. He said authorities started setting up police checkpoints outside his village, Kyee Kan Pyin, in mid-September, preventing people from leaving even to shop for food in local markets, work in surrounding paddies or take children to school.

“If we don’t have letters and paperwork showing we took part — that we are Bengali — we can’t leave,” he said. Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, which has been advocating on behalf of the Rohingya for more than a decade, said residents reported incidents of violence and abuse in at least 30 village tracts from June to late September. While the weeks-long blockades have since been lifted, arrests continue, with dozens of Rohingya men being rounded up for alleged ties to Islamic militants in the last week.

Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation, surprised the world in 2011 when a half-century of military rule ended and President Thein Sein, a former general, started steering the country toward democracy. Critics, however, say reforms have stalled. Peaceful protesters are again being thrown in jail; journalists increasingly face intimidation or even imprisonment with hard labor.

Most worrying to many, the government has largely stood by as Buddhist extremists have targeted Rohingya, sometimes with machetes and bamboo clubs, saying they pose a threat to the country’s culture and traditions.

Denied citizenship by national law, even though many of their families arrived in Myanmar from Bangladesh generations ago, members of the religious minority are effectively stateless, wanted by neither country. They feel they are being systematically erased.

Almost all Rohingya were excluded from a U.N.-funded nationwide census earlier this year, the first in three decades, because they did not want to register as Bengalis. And Thein Sein is considering a “Rakhine Action Plan” that would make people who identify themselves as Rohingya not only ineligible for citizenship but candidates for detainment and possible deportation.

Most Rohingya have lived under apartheid-like conditions in northern Rakhine for decades, with limited access to adequate health care, education and jobs, as well as restrictions on travel and the right to practice their faith.

In 2012, Buddhist extremists killed up to 280 people and displaced tens of thousands of others. About 140,000 people of those forced from their homes continue to languish in crowded displacement camps further south, outside Sittwe, the Rakhine state capital.

Tensions surrounding the family registration campaign in northern Rakhine rose steadily after it began four months ago, with most of the resistance felt in Maungdaw township. Many villages were placed under lockdown, with police checkpoints set up to make sure only those who have cooperated could leave, more than a dozen residents confirmed in telephone interviews with The Associated Press.

In other villages, the names of influential residents were posted on community boards with verbal warnings that they face up to two years in jail if they fail to convince others to take part in the registration process, Lewa said. Other Rohingya say officials forced them to sign the papers at gunpoint, or threatened that they would end up in camps like those outside Sittwe if they didn’t comply, she said. In some cases residents say authorities have shown up after midnight and broken down doors to catch residents by surprise and pressure them to hand over family lists.

Villagers also have been kicked and beaten with clubs and arrested for refusing to take part, according to Lewa and residents interviewed by the AP. Lewa said that when authorities ended the blockades, they also stopped the registration campaign.

Rohingya said they didn’t want to register family members because they worry the information might be used to deny them citizenship. As international pressure mounts to end abuses against Rohingya, the government has agreed to provide citizenship to anyone who qualifies. But many Rohingya say they cannot meet the requirements, which include submitting documents proving that their families have been in Myanmar for at least three generations. And under the plan Thein Sein is considering, even that would not be enough for people who insist on calling themselves Rohingya rather than Bengali.

Myanmar Information Minister Ye Htut did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Win Myaing, a spokesman for Rakhine state government, said authorities’ effort to update family lists had an added sense of urgency because of concerns that Islamic extremists could try to slip across the border from neighboring Bangladesh.

It was unclear whether there was a specific threat from a new regional al-Qaida wing or Rohingya Solidarity Organization militants. “We have to know who’s who,” Myaing said. “We want to know who are strangers and who are not.”

He did not comment on the allegations of abuses. As to why the government insists on calling the villagers Bengali, Myaing said, “Because they are Bengali. What else should we call them?” Soe Myint Tun, the director of the immigration office of Kyee Kan Pyin, agreed.

“We are only checking the villagers’ family household lists and their identification cards. That’s all,” he said. “There are no ‘Rohingya’ in this country and the government has said that as well. We are just doing what we have to do.”

Associated Press writer Esther Htusan in Yangon contributed to this report.

December 05, 2014

KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) — When Ruqayya Parveen’s husband dumped a jug of acid on her and her children as they slept, she awoke to a life of pain and disfigurement — one that many in conservative Pakistan believe she brought upon herself.

The police have shown little interest in tracking down her husband in the 18 months since the attack, and she says many in her community shun her, not only because of her appearance but because they assume she did something to provoke the attack.

Last year, at least 1,000 Pakistani women were murdered in so-called “honor killings” carried out by husbands or male relatives over suspicions of adultery or other illicit sexual behavior, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a private organization. It said another 7,000 survived similar assaults, including acid attacks, amputations, and immolation.

The commission only compiles reported cases, meaning the true statistics are likely much higher, as cases are often covered up by families. Last month, a Pakistani court sentenced to death four men who had beaten a pregnant woman to death in front of a Lahore courthouse for marrying against the family’s wishes. One of the men was her father; the others were male relatives.

That verdict came after the killing sparked widespread outrage. But women’s rights groups say justice in such cases is often elusive, with police and prosecutors having little interest in getting involved in what many in the conservative, Muslim-majority Pakistan see as private family matters.

Parveen, 26, said her husband, an “alcoholic gambler,” threw acid on her as she slept with three of their four children. “I lost my senses. I was shivering with pain,” she said. She was hospitalized for six months with severe burns on her face, torso, back and arms. She lost vision in her left eyeball, which hangs from the socket, and hearing in her left ear.

When she went to the police she was told they could only apprehend her husband if she told them where he was. “Is this a joke?” she asked. Police investigator Mahmood Khan told The Associated Press that he did not have the intelligence resources to track the husband down. “We’re ready to spend the money. We’re ready to travel,” he said, but only if she tells them where to look.

“In our country, domestic violence is still considered a private matter,” said Zoia Tariq, a women’s rights activist. “Try telling a police officer or a government official that someone is hitting his wife, sister, daughter, you will get a response … ‘What have you got to do with it? It is their personal matter.'”

Parveen says it is the lack of justice, more than the disfigurement, which has “robbed me of the will to live.” She is still in pain from the attack, and stays at home most days to avoid the stares. Her mother works as a housekeeper and her eldest son, an 11-year-old, quit school to work as a gravedigger.

There are shelters in Karachi where she and other abused women can learn skills in order to earn a livelihood. “It is important that these women consider themselves survivors and not victims. It is essential for their rehabilitation and reintegration into society,” said Uzma Noorani, who runs one such shelter.

But it’s hard to see yourself as a survivor when you are treated like a pariah. “Acid attack victims are avoided like the plague, like AIDS,” Tariq, the women’s rights activist, said. “They’re considered someone punished for doing something wrong. People would ask their kids to stay away from such victims, stay away from their influence.”

Rubina Qaimkhani, a Pakistani minister in charge of women’s affairs in Sindh province, acknowledged that the government could do more, but said there was a need to change the mindset of the entire society. “We are making laws and trying to create awareness among women of how they can fight for their rights,” she said.

Laws already on the books bar sexual harassment in the workplace and criminalize acid-throwing. But a bill specifically addressing domestic violence failed to make it out of Pakistan’s upper house because of opposition from hard-line religious parties.

Zohra Yusuf, the chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission, says the legal system does little to protect the rights of people like Parveen, but that society is slowly changing. “You hear of a lot of cases of women marrying of their own will,” she said. “You are seeing a bit of change that, you know, they will not accept patriarchy all their lives.”

Shahzad reported from Islamabad.

December 04, 2014

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — In the dusty badlands along its disputed border with Afghanistan, Pakistan is carving out a massive trench to keep out separatists, smugglers and militants in an attempt to bring order to a lawless, tribal region.

But like the Berlin Wall or Israel’s West Bank barrier, the planned 485-kilometer (300-mile) trench is giving physical form to a border that locals have long seen as artificial, dividing families and crippling trade. And it is adding to simmering tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, U.S. allies which have long accused each other of turning a blind eye to insurgents.

The trench runs along part of the 2,640-kilometer (2,640-mile) Durand Line, named for British diplomat Mortimer Durand, who drew the now internationally recognized border in an agreement with Afghan ruler Abdur Raham Khan in 1893. But the modern Afghan government has never accepted the border, and neither have the mainly tribal communities that straddle it. They are accustomed to moving back and forth freely and in some cases own land on both sides.

The trench is being built in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, where Baluch rebels have been battling Islamabad for decades, demanding greater autonomy and a larger share of the region’s oil, gas, copper and gold. It’s an eye-sore of construction — a massive furrow 10 feet (three meters) wide and 8 feet (2.4 meters) deep that already snakes 180 kilometers (110 miles) across the desert landscape.

Pakistan’s Frontier Corps said in a recent statement that the trench would “not only help in effectively controlling the movement of drug and arms and ammunition smugglers, but also will help in stopping the intrusion of terrorists and illegal immigrants.” Pakistan fears that arms could make their way to any number of insurgent groups, including the Taliban.

But Kabul sees the trench as the latest move in a new incarnation of the colonial-era Great Game, in which Pakistan hopes to destabilize its neighbor to extend its regional influence. It already considers Pakistan as the source of the Taliban insurgency it has been battling with U.S. and NATO support for the past 13 years.

“The people here have never accepted the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in the first place,” said Gen. Abdul Raziq, the police chief of Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, which borders Baluchistan. “Pakistan is not doing anything to stop terrorism. If they want to stop it, they should stop producing it,” said Raziq, who has long had a reputation for ruthlessness in battling the Taliban. “This trench is simply to draw a border with Afghanistan and claim our land as their own,” he said.

Pakistan insists it is committed to fighting extremist groups and points to a massive offensive it launched in the tribal region of North Waziristan along the Afghan border over the summer. But analysts have long said Islamabad differentiates between the Pakistani Taliban, with which it is at war, and the Afghan Taliban, which it quietly tolerates and views as a means of preserving its influence in Kabul.

In that context, the trench is not seen by Afghans as a counterterrorism measure, but as an affront. “This can never be acceptable for the Afghans,” said former Afghan Tribal and Border Affairs Minister Akram Akhbelwak, who was removed from his post this week while President Ashraf Ghani finalizes his new Cabinet.

“The trench and the tribal border are completely illegal. Such actions on the border are creating problems among the tribes and will never be a solution to the problems between the two countries,” he said.

Afghanistan’s Ghani signed security agreements with Washington and NATO immediately after taking office in September, permitting an enduring international military presence after the combat mission formally ends on Dec. 31. The insurgents have meanwhile stepped up their war against his government with a series of high-profile attacks in Kabul.

Along the border, construction is proceeding, to the anger of local residents. “My land is my only asset from my forefathers — now some of it is on the other side and I’m powerless to do anything about it,” said tribal elder Muhammad Ghaffar, who like many people living along the trench took the freedom of movement across the Durand Line for granted.

Raziq said that when work began, some local people made their anger clear and there was some exchange of fire across the line. “But then we got orders from Kabul not to engage with Pakistani forces, so we backed off,” he said.

For polio worker Abdullah Jaanan, the implications of the barrier are potentially devastating, as Pakistan is experiencing a resurgence of the disease and his area of responsibility traverses the trench. Jaanan said that eradication of the disease, which remains endemic only in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, is taken seriously by Afghans.

“But how can I go and visit those homes on the other side of trench?” he said.

Associated Press writers Amir Shah in Kabul and Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Pakistan contributed to this report.

December 13, 2014

BAGHDAD (AP) — Islamic State group militants shot down an Iraqi military helicopter, officials said Saturday, killing the two pilots onboard and raising fresh concerns about the extremists’ ability to attack aircraft amid ongoing U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

The attack happened late Friday in the Shiite holy city of Samarra, about 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad. A senior Defense Ministry official told The Associated Press the Sunni militants used a shoulder-fired rocket launcher to shoot down the EC635 helicopter on the outskirts of the city.

An army official corroborated the information. Both spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to speak to journalists. The EC635, built by Airbus Helicopters, is used for transportation, surveillance and combat.

The militants shot down at least two other Iraqi military helicopters near the city of Beiji in October. Some fear the militants may have captured ground-to-air missiles capable of shooting down airplanes when they overran Iraqi and Syrian army bases this summer.

European airlines including Virgin Atlantic, KLM and Air France, U.S. carrier Delta Air Lines and Dubai-based Emirates changed their commercial flight plans over the summer to avoid Iraqi airspace. The Islamic State group holds about a third of Iraq and neighboring Syria in its self-styled caliphate.

In Syria, meanwhile, an activist group and a jihadi website said the Islamic State group’s police force beheaded four men in the central province of Homs for blasphemy. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the four were beheaded Friday in the province’s east, without elaborating.

A jihadi website said the “Islamic police in the state of Homs” carried out a court sentence against the four in the presences of onlookers. Grisly photos posted on the website showed each of the four blindfolded men kneeling, their hands tied behind their backs, as a masked man in a black uniform hit their necks with a cleaver.

The Islamic State group governs its territory according to its radical, violent interpretation of Shariah law. It has carried out other mass killings and beheadings, often recorded and posted online.

Mroue reported from Beirut.

December 14, 2014

BANJARNEGARA, Indonesia (AP) — Heavy rains in central Indonesia loosened soil and collapsed a hill, setting off a landslide that killed at least 20 villagers and left 88 others missing under piles of mud, officials said Sunday.

Residents of Jemblung village in Central Java province’s Banjarnegara district said they heard a roaring sound followed by the rain of red soil that buried more than 100 houses late Friday. “The landslide looked like it was spinning down. I managed to rescue a pregnant woman, but could not save the other man,” said Subroto, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.

He said one side of the hill collapsed and then another. “In five minutes, there were three (major landslides) and they swept away everything,” he said. By Sunday, 20 bodies have been pulled from the mud and the wreckage of crumpled homes while hopes faded that 88 people still missing will be find alive, said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the spokesman for Indonesia’s Disaster Mitigation Agency.

President Joko Widodo was traveling to Banjarnegara, about 460 kilometers (285 miles) east of the capital, Jakarta, on Sunday to meet with survivors and about 570 residents who were evacuated to temporary shelters. Eleven injured villagers were hospitalized.

Nugroho, a spokesman for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, said Saturday that some rescuers heard what sounded like calls for help coming from the debris, but they didn’t have equipment to dig. “Mud, rugged terrain and bad weather hampered our rescue efforts,” Nugroho said.

Tractors and bulldozers were later brought in. “It was like a nightmare. … We suddenly heard a terrible roar and we were immediately fleeing from the rain of red soil,” said Wahono, a resident who survived with four family members. “Many failed and they were buried in the ground.”

Wahono, who also uses only one name, said he heard people screaming and pleading for help in the heavy rain and darkness. But he said he was unable to do anything other than run with his family to safety.

The landslide was the second in several days on densely populated Java island. Mud and rocks hit Central Java’s Wonosobo district on Thursday, killing at least one villager. Seasonal rains and high tides in recent days have caused dozens of landslides and widespread flooding across much of Indonesia, a chain of 17,000 islands where millions of people live in mountainous areas or near fertile flood-prone plains close to rivers.

Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini in Jakarta contributed to this report.