Emperor’s abdication date confirmed: April 30, 2019

TOKYO — Japan’s Emperor Akihito will step down on April 30, 2019, the country’s prime minister announced on Friday, the first retirement in more than two centuries in the imperial family believed to be the world’s oldest.

"We decided that the implementation (of a special law allowing the emperor to abdicate) should be on April 30, 2019," Shinzo Abe told reporters after meeting the emperor.

Abe said he was "deeply moved" at the "smooth decision" taken after a special meeting of the Imperial Council to decide on the date.

"The government will make utmost efforts to ensure that the Japanese people can celebrate the emperor’s abdication and the succession of the crown prince," added Abe.

Akihito’s eldest son, 57-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito, is expected to ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne the next day.

The popular 83-year-old Akihito shocked the country last year when he signalled his desire to take a back seat after nearly three decades, citing his age and health problems.

There have been abdications in Japan’s long imperial history, but the last one was more than 200 years ago.

The Japanese imperial family is thought to be the world’s oldest, with a myth-filled history that dates back more than 2,600 years.

Akihito is the 125th person to sit on the Chrysanthemum Throne since Emperor Jimmu, said to be a descendant of the legendary sun goddess Amaterasu.

Emperors have played a crucial role in the country’s native Shinto religion, conducting various annual rites and prayers for the prosperity of the nation.

There is no republican movement to speak of in Japan and the emperor and the royal family have the admiration of the vast majority of the country.—AFP

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Venezuela arrests former oil bosses in corruption purge

CARACAS — Venezuela’s military on Thursday arrested the country’s former oil minister and the ex-chief of state oil company PDVSA after both men were sacked as part of an anti-corruption crackdown.

Attorney General Tarek William Saab told journalists that an operation by the Military Counterintelligence Unit "led to the arrests of Eulogio del Pino and Nelson Martinez."

Both former officials were arrested at dawn at their homes, four days after they were axed from their jobs by President Nicolas Maduro.

State television images showed black-clad security forces, their faces covered and armed with rifles, knocking on the door of Del Pino’s apartment.

When he emerged, dressed in shorts and a Venezuela soccer shirt, the powerful former official had to provide a fingerprint sample.

Saab said the arrests were part of an operation "to dismantle the cartel that has been hitting the oil industry."

He said he had ordered the arrests of 16 people as part of the operation, some of whom were "outside the country and we hope they will be delivered to Venezuelan justice."

Del Pino and Martinez are the highest-ranking officials arrested as part of an anti-corruption purge at PDVSA, the state oil giant which accounts for almost all the country’s income.

Oil minister Manuel Quevedo, a former general installed to replace both men, told reporters at an OPEC meeting in Vienna that Venezuela’s oil production was being sabotaged as a preamble to a coup.

"This sabotage plan is aimed at achieving a repeat of 2002-03 when there was an attempted coup against (Hugo) Chavez," the former president, Quevedo said.

Last week, the Venezuelan authorities arrested six executives of PDVSA’s US-based subsidiary, Citgo, for allegedly signing contracts to refinance $4 billion in debt without government approval. The government alleges that a $50 million bribe was paid as part of that deal.

Aggressive push

Thursday’s arrests come amid what analysts say is an aggressive push by Maduro to consolidate power over key institutions and increasingly scarce resources ahead of next year’s election. Key targets in the purge are allies of Venezuela’s UN ambassador Rafael Ramirez, to whom both men arrested Thursday were close.

Ramirez, who led PDVSA for a decade, is himself rumoured to be on borrowed time in his UN post.

"While it may be that Ramirez has yet to be formally notified, he will probably be out in a matter of days," said Eurasia Group analyst, Lisa Grais-Targow.

"The targeting of Ramirez is part of a broader effort by Maduro to consolidate his control over key institutions, including PDVSA, and to ensure that the military is fully bought into his political survival," she said.

At least one-third of the cabinet is made up of active or retired officers, and the military has become a major pillar of support for the widely unpopular socialist leader.

The South American country, teetering on the brink of a full-blown default on its massive debt, has the world’s biggest reserves of oil.

But because of endemic corruption and a chronic lack of investment, the OPEC member’s production is falling sharply.

Annual output is around 1.9 million barrels per day, having slumped more than 23 percent between January 2016 and October this year.—AFP

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Thai leaders mourn passing of statesman Surin

Viet Nam News

BANGKOK - Government leaders, diplomats, top politicians and rights activists yesterday expressed their sorrow over the death of former foreign minister and ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan yesterday.

Surin, 68, succumbed to a massive heart attack.

He collapsed at his residence and was admitted to Ramkhamhaeng Hospital. He was about to leave his residence to preside over the Thailand Halal Assembly 2017 at Bitec Bangna at 2pm when he collapsed, according to a close aide. 

His funeral will be held today at Tha It Mosque in Nonthaburi province. 

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Foreign Ministry, the ASEAN Secretariat, former prime minister Chuan Leekpai, Democrat leader and ex-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, Swedish Ambassador to Thailand Staffan Herrstrom and human rights defender Phil Robertson expressed their condolences to Surin’s family. 

“It is really sad that we have lost a good and efficient politician, who served the country and the people,” Chuan, who Surin considered his mentor, wrote on his Line account.

Born on October 28, 1949 in a Muslim family, Surin is a native of the southern Nakon Si Thammarat province. He spoke proudly of his educational background – his primary education in a pondok Islamic boarding school in his hometown in the South – before moving to the United States for higher education.

“A pondok child from the dusty southern province of Thailand is able to stand here because of the education that gave him the opportunity,” he once said. 

He was awarded the American Field Service (AFS) exchange scholarship and was a high-school exchange student in Minnesota in 1967-1968. Upon his return to Bangkok, he attended Thammasat University for two years before winning a scholarship from Claremont Men’s College, Claremont, California, to complete his BA in Political Science in 1972. He then went on to Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he received his MA and PhD in 1974 and 1982 respectively, in the field of Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies.

He also spent 18 months studying Arabic and conducting research at the American University in Cairo from 1975-1977, while concurrently a fellow at the Higher Institute of Islamic Research in Cairo.

Surin was known for his many roles in using his knowledge to contribute to his home country and region. He was a scholar, columnist, politician and diplomat. He taught at the Faculty of Political Science at Thammasat University from 1978-1986. He also served as an assistant to the Deputy Dean for Academic Affairs during the same period.

Surin was also a regular columnist for The Nation from 1975-1992.

He entered politics in 1986 when he ran for a parliamentary seat in his home province, Nakhon Si Thammarat, and was returned to the lower house eight times. As an elected MP, Surin served as secretary to the then-Speaker of the House of Representatives Chuan Leekpai. He became well known for his work at the Foreign Ministry, as deputy foreign minister from 1992-1995 and as full minister from 1997 to 2001. 

Surin played significant roles in many regional issues, including the political problem in Myanmar. 

One of his achievements was to bring secretive North Korea to sit in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) when he served as chair of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting and the Chair of the ARF in 1999-2000. 

In September 1999, while chairing ASEAN, he led efforts to get Southeast Asian governments to help restore law and order and that joint undertaking, with the support of the United Nations, brought about peace and security in East Timor, after a referendum to separate from Indonesia. 

Surin was regarded as a true ambassador of ASEAN he served as the secretary-general of the group between 2008-2012 – the first five-year term for an ASEAN chief after the charter came into force. He was never lacking in ideas, even after his stint with ASEAN ended. Recently, he proposed that members of ASEAN allocate 10 per cent of their combined $1-trillion reserves to set up a fund for a connectivity plan, rather than relying on money from outside. - THE NATION/ANN

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UN court closes under cloud of war criminal’s suicide

THE HAGUE — It was supposed to be business as usual in the sedate halls of the UN court for the former Yugoslavia, as judges delivered their final verdict after two decades of painstaking, groundbreaking work.

Instead, halfway through Wednesday’s appeals judgement, a tall, determined Bosnian Croat -- known for his past courtroom antics -- wrought chaos on the tribunal, ensuring the last day of its public proceedings will be forever remembered for his shocking suicide.

In full view of the cameras and judges, former military commander Slobodan Praljak, 72, defiantly drank down a noxious liquid to protest the upholding of his 20-year term for war crimes against Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s.

But experts were divided Thursday on how much the dramatic scenes would tarnish the court’s work in the long run.

"The damage to the ICTY legacy and its international justice project is immense," argued Jelena Subotic, a political science professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

Underscoring the importance of the court established by the UN Security Council in 1993, she said it had been "the most visible, however imperfect, mechanism of transitional justice in the region".

As the world looked on impotently at the killings, rapes and destruction tearing Yugoslavia apart, the court was established with the aim of halting the violence by bringing to justice those behind some of the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II.

It was the first war crimes court established by the UN and the first international tribunal since the Nuremberg trials set up to prosecute those behind the Nazi regime.

Its "every step, procedure, formality was under the microscope. It had no room for mistakes," Subotic wrote on the website of the EU-supported Balkan Transitional Justice project.

That Praljak able to smuggle a liquid into the courtroom despite heavy security "truly beggars belief," Subotic wrote.

- ’Heinous crimes’ -

Other observers were quick to urge people not to allow the dramatics of one man -- a former theatre and movie director -- to hijack the court’s legacy or to push aside the victims of his crimes.

While Praljak’s suicide will "go down as part of the ’lore’ of the ICTY, I don’t think it will cast much of a shadow, if any, on its legacy," Mark Kersten, a researcher into international criminal justice, told AFP.

"People are too smart. I believe they will see through Praljak’s antics and remember that he died a convicted war criminal, brought to justice for heinous crimes committed against vulnerable civilians."

A formal high-profile closing ceremony for the court is planned on December 21. And the tribunal, which helped establish the facts of what happened in the conflicts, has itself vaunted that it "irreversibly changed the landscape of international humanitarian law".

Subotic argued that "the most damaging consequence" of Wednesday’s events was how the defendants yet again "make the proceedings only about themselves".

"Instead of talking about what Praljak was convicted of, about his many victims and the horrors they endured, we talk about him," she wrote.

- Weight of history -

Since its establishment, the ICTY has indicted 161 people, all of whom have appeared before the court, and 90 people have been sentenced in cases which have helped write international jurisprudence for prosecuting the world’s worst crimes.

"I do not believe that this detracts from the legacy of the ICTY," said former US ambassador for war crimes issues, Stephen Rapp.

He pointed to Adolf Hitler’s designated successor, Hermann Goering, sentenced to death by hanging in October 1946 at Nuremberg. But Goering escaped what he considered a humiliating end for a soldier by swallowing cyanide just hours before he was set to be executed.

"But the judgement there still stands for all history in establishing the facts and in showing that the perpetrators of atrocities will be held to account," Rapp said.

Significantly, the appeal judges in The Hague upheld the original trial’s finding that all six men, including Praljak, were part of a scheme to ethnically cleanse Bosnian Muslims from the areas claimed by the Bosnian Croats.

The overall verdict "is more important than what happened yesterday," insisted Frederiek de Vlaming, an expert in international law at Amsterdam University.

The finding that the "ultimate purpose" of the criminal enterprise in Bosnia was shared by late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, seen as the "father" of his country, has left a "serious burden for Croatia as a state," political analyst Zarko Puhovski said.—AFP

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Blast at chemical plant in central Japan injures more than 10 people

Black fumes spew from a chemical plant of Arakawa Chemical Industries Ltd. in the city of Fuji in Japan’s Shizuoka Prefecture in this photo taken December 1, 2017 from a Kyodo News helicopter. An explosion occurred earlier in the day, killing at least one man and injuring about 10 people.  Kyodo Photo Viet Nam News.

Blast at chemical plant in central Japan injures more than 10 people

Venezuela’s Maduro to seek 2nd term in 2018: vice president

CARACAS — Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro -- who is battling a crippling economic crisis in his oil-rich, cash-poor nation -- will seek re-election next year, Vice President Tareck El Aissami said Wednesday.

In 2018, "we will have, God willing, people willing, the re-election of our brother Nicolas Maduro as president of the republic," El Aissami told a meeting of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

Next year’s presidential election in the South American country -- a member of OPEC -- is scheduled for December, but some experts believe it could be brought forward to March.

Venezuela’s prolonged crisis has resulted in crippling shortages of food, medicine and industrial inputs, fueling inflation which at 1,000 per cent is the world’s highest.

Ratings agencies have found the country in partial default on massive international loans, estimated at $150 billion.

Maduro was elected in 2013 after the death of then-president Hugo Chavez, who had anointed him as successor.

Analysts see the early declaration of intent as a move to dissuade challengers inside the ruling party who may be encouraged to run by the president’s low popularity rating of around 20 per cent.

"There was an internal race between aspirants and this can be a way of putting down a marker and get ahead," said political analyst Luis Salamanca.

Even if challengers emerge, a Socialist Party primary is unlikely. "It will be resolved internally," said Salamanca.

Maduro’s government is due to begin talks with the main opposition coalition on Friday and Saturday in the Dominican Republic to try to put an end to the political crisis.

"The government isn’t sitting at the table because of political pressure, but because of economic pressure, because it has a brutal crisis and international sanctions that reduce its leeway," said analyst Luis Vicente Leon. — AFP

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Venezuela’s Maduro to seek 2nd term in 2018: vice president

CARACAS — Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro -- who is battling a crippling economic crisis in his oil-rich, cash-poor nation -- will seek re-election next year, Vice President Tareck El Aissami said Wednesday.

In 2018, "we will have, God willing, people willing, the re-election of our brother Nicolas Maduro as president of the republic," El Aissami told a meeting of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

Next year’s presidential election in the South American country -- a member of OPEC -- is scheduled for December, but some experts believe it could be brought forward to March.

Venezuela’s prolonged crisis has resulted in crippling shortages of food, medicine and industrial inputs, fueling inflation which at 1,000 per cent is the world’s highest.

Ratings agencies have found the country in partial default on massive international loans, estimated at $150 billion.

Maduro was elected in 2013 after the death of then-president Hugo Chavez, who had anointed him as successor.

Analysts see the early declaration of intent as a move to dissuade challengers inside the ruling party who may be encouraged to run by the president’s low popularity rating of around 20 per cent.

"There was an internal race between aspirants and this can be a way of putting down a marker and get ahead," said political analyst Luis Salamanca.

Even if challengers emerge, a Socialist Party primary is unlikely. "It will be resolved internally," said Salamanca.

Maduro’s government is due to begin talks with the main opposition coalition on Friday and Saturday in the Dominican Republic to try to put an end to the political crisis.

"The government isn’t sitting at the table because of political pressure, but because of economic pressure, because it has a brutal crisis and international sanctions that reduce its leeway," said analyst Luis Vicente Leon. — AFP

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Europe’s Muslim population to grow strongly, even if migration ends: study

PARIS — Muslims could make up over 11 per cent of Europe’s population in the coming decades, compared with just under 5 per cent currently, if legal migration levels are maintained, a report by a US-based think tank said Thursday.

The Pew Research Center, in a study entitled "Europe’s Growing Muslim Population" issued three projections based on different migration scenarios -- zero arrivals, "medium" flows and "high" migration.

It showed that even if all migration into Europe stopped immediately, the Muslim population of the 28-member European Union plus Norway and Switzerland would rise to 7.4 per cent from 4.9 per cent in 2016.

Europe received more than one million migrants and refugees in 2015, according to figures from the UN’s refugee agency.

Most arrived from Muslim-majority nations and some rightwing political parties have upped their anti-Muslim rhetoric in their wake.

Pew, which based its projections on government data and other studies, explained the rise by saying that fertility rates were higher among Muslims, who are on average 13 years younger than non-Muslims.

The "medium" scenario was based on a return to the levels of migration seen before the refugee influx of 2015/2016.

Under that scenario the proportion of people who self-identify as Muslim was projected to more than double to 11.2 per cent of the population in 2050.

The third model was based on refugees, most of them Muslim, continuing to arrive in the record numbers seen in 2015 and 2016.

Under that scenario Muslims would account for 14 percent of Europe’s population in 2050, which Pew said was "still considerably smaller than the populations of both Christians and people with no religion".

The authors of the report also noted that refugee flows had already begun to decline in line with EU efforts to curb arrivals, suggesting the third outcome was unlikely.

Pew’s projections showed Europe being unevenly affected by migration.

If arrivals halted altogether, France -- which was home to an estimated 5.7 million Muslims (8.8 per cent) in 2016 according to the report -- would continue to have Europe’s largest Muslim community.

Under the "medium" scenario, Britain -- the top destination for non-refugee Muslims migration -- would pass out France while under the "high" scenario the mantle would pass to Germany, which has received over 1.5 million refugees in the past two years.

The report also highlighted the role of migration in stemming population decline in Europe.

In the absence of further migrants the population was projected to shrink from 521 million in 2016 to 482 million in 2050.

Under the "medium" scenario, it would rise to 517 million people, while in the "high" migration scenario would take it to 539 million. — AFP

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US threatens to ’utterly destroy’ N. Korea regime

Viet Nam News

UNITED NATIONS, United States — The United States yesterday warned that North Korea’s leadership will be "utterly destroyed" if war breaks out as it called on countries to cut all diplomatic and trade ties with North Korea -- including Chinese oil shipments to Pyongyang.

Washington urged tough action at an emergency meeting of the Security Council called to respond to North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

US Ambassador Nikki Haley told the council that the North Korean leader had made a choice that brings the world closer to war.

"If war comes, make no mistake: The North Korean regime will be utterly destroyed."

US President Donald Trump threatened "major" new sanctions after Pyongyang tested its third ICBM – which it claimed was capable of striking anywhere in the United States.

The test ended a two-month lull in missile tests that had raised hopes for the opening of diplomatic talks.

North Korean leader Kim said the test of the Hwasong-15 weapons system had helped his country achieve the goal of becoming a full nuclear power, as the international community expressed outrage.

Haley said Trump had called Chinese President Xi Jinping and urged him to "cut off the oil from North Korea", a move that would deal a crippling blow to North Korea’s economy.

Piling pressure on China, Haley said that if Beijing does not act to cut off oil supplies "we can take the oil situation into our own hands."

The United States earlier this year pressed for a full oil embargo on North Korea but dropped that demand in negotiations on a sanctions resolution with China.

’The situation will be handled’

The Security Council met at the request of the United States, Japan and South Korea to consider next steps after three rounds of sanctions adopted in the past year failed to push North Korea to change course.

Earlier, Trump -- who had traded barbs with Kim for months -- had asked Xi to use "all available levers" to press the hermit state.

"Additional major sanctions will be imposed on North Korea today. This situation will be handled!" Trump said on Twitter.

So far Wednesday, no new announcements were forthcoming.

Last week, Trump announced new US unilateral sanctions on Pyongyang and returned it to a US list of state sponsors of terror.

There are concerns in Seoul that Trump might be considering military action against the North that could trigger a full-scale war.

Russia urged the United States to scrap military exercises planned with South Korea in December, arguing they would exacerbate tensions.

"It is essential to take a step back," said Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, who urged Washington "to revise its policy of mutual threats and intimidation."

China once again pressed its proposal that the North stop missile and nuclear tests in exchange for a freeze of US military exercises -- a proposal Washington has repeatedly rejected. — AFP

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Libya allows emergency migrant 'evacuations' after slavery uproar

Viet Nam News

ABIDJAN — Libya agreed Wednesday with key EU and African leaders to allow migrants facing abuse in detention camps to be evacuated within days or weeks, mostly to their home countries, French President Emmanuel Macron said.

The decision was taken after Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara called for "all urgent measures" to end slave trading and other migrant abuses in Libya at an EU-Africa summit in Abidjan.

The leaders of Libya, France, Germany, Chad, Niger and four other countries "decided on an extreme emergency operation to evacuate from Libya those who want to be," Macron told reporters after their emergency talks on the summit sidelines.

The summit comes just two weeks after US network CNN aired footage of black

Africans sold as slaves in Libya, sparking outrage from political leaders and street protests in African and European capitals.

"Libya restated its agreement to identify the camps where barbaric scenes have been identified," Macron said, adding Libya’s UN-backed Prime Minister Fayez "Sarraj gave his agreement that access be assured".

African Union, European Union and United Nations officials at the meeting offered increased support for the International Organisation of Migration "to help with the return of the Africans who want it to their home countries," said the French leader who called the emergency meeting.

"This work will be carried out in the next few days, in line with the countries of origin," he said, adding in some cases they could be given asylum in Europe.

’Wretched drama’

EU sources earlier said UN humanitarian agencies like the IOM had arranged for some 13,000 migrants to return voluntarily to their home countries mainly in sub-Saharan Africa in the last year after a deal with Libya.

The furor over slavery as well as torture and rape of black African migrants in Libya prompted the select group of countries -- which also included Spain, Italy, Morocco and the Congo -- to undertake other measures.

The group also decided to work with a task force, involving the sharing of police and intelligence services, to "dismantle the networks and their financing and detain traffickers," Macron said.

The AU, EU and UN officials also pledged to freeze the assets of identified traffickers while the AU will set up an investigative panel and the UN could take cases before the International Court of Justice, he added.

Opening a European Union-Africa summit that was meant to focus on the continent’s long-term economic development, Ouattara immediately lashed out at slavery as a "wretched drama which recalls the worst hours of human history."

Other African, EU and United Nations leaders also condemned the slavery revelations when they met at the summit in Ivory Coast’s economic capital Abidjan.

"I would like to appeal to our sense of responsibility to take all urgent measures to put an end to that practice, which belongs to another age," he said, opening the gathering of 55 African Union and 28 EU leaders.

African Union and other critics have accused the EU of creating conditions for the slave trade as well as rape and torture of migrants by encouraging Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) to detain migrants and stop them from coming to Europe. — AFP

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Venezuela’s Maduro says he could stop oil sales to US

CARACAS — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro floated the idea Tuesday of cutting off oil sales to the United States, which buys almost half its output.

Never one to shy away from provocative rhetoric, socialist Maduro said that US sanctions against Caracas were over the top, and maybe not worth the trouble.

Venezuela produces 1.9 million barrels per day of which the United States buys 750,000.

"The day that they don’t want us to sell them our oil, we are just picking up our stuff (and) we’ll sell all our oil in Asia. No big deal," Maduro said while formally installing General Manuel Quevedo to lead state oil giant PDVSA.

Maduro maintains the United States is carrying out "financial persecution" against Caracas, which gets most of its budget revenue from oil sales on a soft international market.

PDVSA and Venezuela have been declared in selective default for failing to meet payments on certain bonds in time.

Maduro is keen to renegotiate some of Venezuela’s $150 billion in external debt, 30 percent of it at PDVSA.

But the sanctions from Washington prohibit US individuals and banks from buying new Venezuelan bonds, usually a requirement for any debt resolution.

"Mr President Donald Trump: you decide, dude," Maduro declared.

"If you want us to keep selling oil, we’ll sell oil. But if you start listening to far-right extremists, Venezuela is grabbing its little boats and taking its oil around the world, and we’ll sell it just the very same," Maduro said, drawing whoops and cheers from oil workers.

Maduro on Sunday set increased production as a top priority for PDVSA.

With barely $10 billion in its hard currency reserves, Maduro’s government has been fighting to stay afloat.

The prolonged economic crisis has brought crippling shortages of food, medicine and industrial inputs, fueling inflation which at 1,000 per cent is the world’s highest -- and the International Monetary Fund projects could exceed 2,300 per cent next year.—AFP

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Pope begins landmark mass for Myanmar Catholics

Viet Nam News

YANGON — A sea of worshippers crowded into a football field early Wednesday for an open-air mass by Pope Francis, who is making the first ever papal visit to Myanmar.

Ranks of Myanmar nuns in habits sang in Latin, backed by organ music as Francis began the mass.

Earlier he smiled and waved as he snaked through the estimated 200,000 faithful in his "popemobile", many of the worshippers holding Myanmar flags and wearing colourful clothes from the country’s myriad ethnic groups.

Myanmar’s Catholics number around 700,000, a tiny fraction of the country’s 51 million population -- most of whom are Buddhists.

"I never dreamed I would see him (the pope) in my lifetime," said Meo, an 81-year-old from the Akha minority who travelled from Shan state.

Like many others at the mass she is from one of Myanmar’s conflict-riddled borderlands, and travelled far to reach the commercial capital for the landmark visit.

"This is the most Catholics I have ever seen," added Gregory Than Zaw, 40, an ethnic Karen who made the five-hour bus journey to Yangon with 90 people from his village.

But the visit has so far been dominated by political rather than religious concerns.

Francis has held private talks with both civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the powerful army chief Min Aung Hlaing.

He arrived on Monday in a country on the defensive after outcry from the international community over the plight of its unwanted Rohingya Muslim population, who have been driven out to Bangladesh in huge numbers.

’Respect for rights’

The pope avoided mentioning the crisis -- or the Rohingya -- directly at his only public speech so far in the country’s capital on Tuesday, where he took the stage with Suu Kyi.

He called simply for "respect for rights and justice" while Suu Kyi stated that Myanmar’s aims were "protecting rights, fostering tolerance, ensuring security for all."

A military crackdown has forced more than 620,000 Rohingya over the last three months to flee their homes in northern Rakhine state to what is now the biggest refugee camp in the world in neighbouring Bangladesh.

The army has justified the campaign as a proportionate retaliation for attacks by hardline Rohingya militants in August.

There have been Catholics in Myanmar for over 500 years and they generally enjoy good relations with the Buddhist majority.

In the last three years, the Vatican has canonised Myanmar’s first saint and named its first cardinal before full diplomatic ties were established in May this year.

Pilgrims arriving in Yangon for Wednesday’s mass have been bedding down wherever they can -- even the graveyards of churches have turned into massive dormitories. — AFP

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Victoria becomes first Australia state to legalise euthanasia

MELBOURNE — Victoria has become the first Australian state to legalise voluntary assisted dying, or euthanasia, for the terminally ill, ABC News said in a report on Wednesday.

Following over 100 hours of debate across both houses of parliament and two all-night sittings, lower house MPs ratified the amended bills, giving patients the right to request a lethal drug to end their lives from June 2019.

ABC News said the bill will now go to the governor for royal assent.

The landmark legislation passed the upper house 22 votes to 18 last week after a number of amendments, which had to be approved by the lower house to be enshrined in law.

The changes included halving the timeframe for eligible patients to access the scheme from 12 months to six months to live.

There will be exemptions for sufferers of conditions such as motor neurone disease and multiple sclerosis who have a life expectancy of 12 months. — AFP

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North Korea tests ICBM in fresh challenge to Trump

Viet Nam News

SEOUL — North Korea test fired an intercontinental ballistic missile on Wednesday, in a major challenge to US President Donald Trump after he slapped fresh sanctions on Pyongyang and declared it a state sponsor of terrorism.

It was the nuclear-armed North’s first ballistic test in more than two months and an initial Pentagon assessment said the ICBM flew about 1,000 kilometers before splashing down within Japan’s maritime Economic Exclusion Zone.

At least one expert said its lofted trajectory suggested an actual range of 13,000 kilometres that would bring every city in the continental United States within range.

Trump, who has previously threatened North Korea with "fire and fury," was guarded in his immediate response, as the UN Security Council agreed to convene an emergency session to discuss the latest provocation.

"I will only tell you that we will take care of it," Trump said at the White House. "It is a situation that we will handle," he added, without elaborating.

North Korea’s immediate neighbours were less restrained, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calling the test an intolerable, "violent" act and South Korean President Moon Jae-In condemning Pyongyang’s "reckless" behaviour.

The South Korean military responded by staging a precision-strike missile exercise as it has done following previous North Korean tests.

Prior to Wednesday’s launch, the North’s last missile test was on September 15 and the subsequent pause had prompted some to speculate whether the North might be willing to embrace a negotiated solution to the nuclear standoff.

Diplomatic options

Trump insisted there would be no change to his administration’s "maximum pressure campaign" which has sought to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme with tightened sanctions backed by dire warnings of massive retaliation in the event of any attack.

But his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, also stressed that diplomatic options remained "viable and open."

It was the North’s third successful ICBM test and David Wright, a co-director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the flight parameters pointed to a "significantly longer" range than previous launches.

"Such a missile would have more than enough range to reach Washington DC, and in fact any part of the continental United States," he said.

While Pyongyang has yet to prove its mastery of the re-entry technology required to bring a warhead back through the Earth’s atmosphere, experts say it is on the threshold of developing a working nuclear strike capability against US cities.

Tensions over the North’s weapons programme peaked after Pyongyang conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test in September and then fired an intermediate-range missile over Japan.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Wednesday’s test went higher than ever before and was a step toward North Korea building missiles that can "threaten everywhere in the world, basically."

There was no immediate reaction from China, the North’s sole ally and economic lifeline, which has come under repeated US pressure to do more to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

China has pushed for a "dual track approach" to the crisis which would see the United States freeze its military drills in South Korea while North Korea would halt its weapons programmes.

Washington has rejected that approach, and last week unveiled new sanctions targeting North Korean shipping, as well a number of Chinese companies doing business with the pariah state. — AFP

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Trump faces fraught end to tempestuous year

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump returned to work at a festively decorated White House this week, facing a formidable to-do list that will decide whether his Christmas is filled with political misery or cheer.

After spending much of November in East Asia and Florida, Trump returned to marbled corridors bedecked with garlands and graced by ballerinas but also chilled by the prospect of a daunting few weeks ahead.

December sees deadlines that, if missed, could see the US government hurtle towards a shutdown and even a technical default in the new year.

The debt ceiling and government budget will be on the agenda when Trump meets congressional leaders from both parties on Tuesday.

The meeting comes against the backdrop of a fiercely contested December 12 election in Alabama, which will be a bellwether for Trump’s support and could tilt control of the Senate away from Republicans.

Republican officials admit that controversies may split right wing voters, handing an unlikely victory to Democrats in that deeply Republican state.

Trump has thrown his weight behind party candidate Roy Moore, who has refused to withdraw despite facing a string of allegations that he molested or sexually assaulted teenage girls when he was in his 30s.

The White House says Trump will not campaign with Moore, but he has questioned the allegations and urged voters to oppose Democrat Doug Jones.

But some Republicans plan to vote for a "write-in candidate" whose name is not on the ballot.

Death or taxes

Even before that Trump’s first task will be to pass tax cuts, which Republicans see as absolutely vital to keep voters and donors happy.

"It will be the biggest tax reduction in the history of our country," Trump said, expressing confidence Monday.

"It will bring jobs, it will bring a lot of income coming into the country, buying product, et cetera."

With the party in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, the task should be straightforward. But little is straightforward in Washington these days.

The administration’s chief salesmen, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and top economic aide Gary Cohn -- both multimillionaires -- have struggled to convince the public that the tax cut will help middle class families, as Trump insists.

With the details still being thrashed out, a Harvard-Harris Poll showed a majority of voters opposed, believing it will hurt them financially.

Democrats have been busy trying to portray the proposals as good for big business but bad for ordinary Americans.

The non-partisan Tax Policy Center estimates nine percent of taxpayers would pay more in 2019, rising to 50 percent by 2027.

Half a dozen Republican senators have publicly expressed doubts about the tax cut plan. The House has already passed its own version.

Some are concerned that the proposals would increase the national debt by around $1.4 trillion by 2027, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

The White House argues that the cuts will boost growth and this in turn will increase tax revenue, although most economists disagree.

With the slightest of Senate majorities, Trump cannot lose more than two Republican votes.

Having so far failed to pass health care, immigration or infrastructure reforms, he faces a party revolt if he cannot make tax cuts law.

Top Republican Paul Ryan said the country was at "a generational defining moment."

Trump will travel to Missouri on Wednesday to make the case, and to heap pressure on Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill who faces a tough reelection fight. — AFP

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UN restarts Syria peace talks but Assad regime absent

GENEVA — The United Nations reopens its Syria peace talks on Tuesday but the Damascus government’s last minute announcement that it may not come to Geneva delivered a blow to the already faltering negotiations.

The eighth round of talks were seen as a chance for the UN to revitalise its push to end the six-year war, which has killed more than 340,000 people and left Syria in ruin.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has stressed the urgent need for progress towards a political solution and had been bolstered by the fractured opposition’s decision to form a unified negotiation team for the first time.

But on the eve of the talks reopening, de Mistura told the Security Council that President Bashar al-Assad’s government had not yet committed to show up.

"The government did not yet confirm its participation in Geneva but indicated that we would be hearing from them soon", he said.

Regime negotiators did not travel to Geneva on Monday, all but assuring they will be absent for the opening of the talks.

The UN envoy recalled Assad’s pledge to Russian President Vladimir Putin last week that he was "ready for dialogue."

"Naturally we know and indeed expect that the government will be on its way shortly, particularly in light of President Assad’s commitment to President Putin," he added.

Opposition unites

De Mistura had voiced hope the upcoming round will mark the first "real negotiation" on a possible peace deal.

For that to happen rival sides will need to overcome the hurdle that has derailed past discussions: Assad’s fate.

De Mistura has told the opposition that its longstanding demand for Assad’s ouster may no longer be tenable.

In September, he said the opposition it needed to be "realistic" and realise "they didn’t win the war", a statement supported by facts on the ground.

Backed by Russia’s decisive military support, Assad’s government has regained control of 55 percent of the country, including major cities Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama.

The rest is carved up between rebel factions, jihadists and Kurdish forces.

Same old deadlock?

The decision last week by Syrian opposition groups to send a single delegation to Geneva raised hopes of a possible breakthrough.

The new rebel negotiating team includes members of the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which insists on Assad’s ouster, as well as representatives of groups based in Moscow and Cairo that have a more moderate stance on the president.

Speaking to reporters shortly after landing in Geneva, opposition delegation chief Nasr al-Hariri said his camp was united on the need to put an "inclusive" transitional government in place ahead of elections UN-supervised.

"That means that Bashar Assad will not be in power from the beginning... of the transition", he said, in a sign that the talks may remain deadlocked over the president’s future.

That could spell more trouble for the UN’s peace push, which has been overshadowed by deals spearheaded by Moscow.

Russia, fellow regime ally Iran and rebel-backer Turkey have hosted negotiations in the Kazakh capital that led to the creation of four "de-escalation zones" which produced a drop in violence, though deadly air strikes and battles continue in some areas.

Western powers are concerned that Russia is seeking to take a leading role in the peace process and will carve out a settlement that will largely favour Assad.

"The UN must be front and centre" in the Syrian peace process, said French Ambassador Francois Delattre.

Speaking in London on Monday Turkey’s Prime Minister said their tripartite talks should be seen as complimentary to the UN’s peace process.

"This process is not competing with the Geneva process," Binali Yildirim said during an address at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

He also reiterated Ankara’s determination to see Bashar al-Assad leave power, something Moscow and Tehran remain staunchly opposed to.

"Look how things evolved in Syria, who caused Syria to be in the situation that it is today -- it all happened because of the regime, because of Assad," he said.

He added in the long-term, "Assad cannot possibly survive in Syria, we have to accept this".

De Mistura said he would be meeting with the ambassadors from Security Council permanent representatives -- Britain, France, China, Russia and the United States -- in Geneva on Tuesday to discuss the upcoming talks. — AFP

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Police foil Australia New Year’s Eve ’terror plot’

Viet Nam News

MELBOURNE — An Islamic State sympathiser planned to buy a gun and kill as many revellers as possible on New Year’s Eve in Melbourne’s popular Federation Square, police alleged on Tuesday after foiling the plot.

The 20-year-old, born in Australia to Somali parents, was detained in a raid on a house in the Melbourne suburb of Werribee on Monday. He is expected to be charged over the coming days.

Police claim he accessed a guide book online produced by Al-Qaeda on how to commit terror acts and use firearms, but was arrested before he could purchase an automatic rifle.

"What we will be alleging is that he was intending to use a firearm to shoot and kill as many people as he could in the Federation Square area on New Year’s Eve," said Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton.

"It is a tremendous concern to us that (during) the festive season, when people are out enjoying themselves, that there is a potential plot to commit a terrorist act. That is a huge issue for us but that is why we put the resources in."

He said the arrest meant the threat "has been removed".

Federation Square is in the heart of the city, opposite busy Flinders Street train station and St Paul’s Cathedral. It is one of the most popular places to see in the new year and would be packed on December 31.

The foiled plot comes a year after police prevented another attack in the same area on Christmas Day, arresting several men who planned to use explosives, knives and guns to target the location.

’Quiet guy’

Patton said the man, who lived with his parents, had been on their radar since the beginning of the year, part of a small community of extremists that police have been monitoring.

His behaviour had gradually escalated over time, but police believe he was acting alone.

"The potential of the attack was catastrophic," said Patton, adding that the man was an "Islamic State sympathiser".

Asked if he had been inspired by last year’s Christmas Day plot, Patton said detectives were still investigating how he became radicalised.

"We will be exploring where this person of interest got the idea from," he said.

"Certainly, he becomes particularly energised when he sees other activities in the terrorist arena occurring."

The man worked part-time at a computer repair business, with police raiding the facility.

A person who knows the suspect told the Melbourne Herald Sun: "He is a very quiet guy. This is an absolute shock."

Justice Minister Michael Keenan said the fact that the Christmas/New Year period was being targeted again "reminds us of the depravity of terrorists".

"They seek to strike fear in the community when Australians are enjoying time over the Christmas period with their families and friends," he said, adding that there would be high-profile policing over the holiday period.

Australian officials have grown increasingly concerned over the threat of extremist attacks, raising the national terror alert level to "probable" in September 2014.

Since then, 74 people have been arrested in 347 counter-terror investigations.

Authorities say 14 attacks have now been prevented in the past few years, including an IS-directed attempt to bring down a plane using poisonous gas or a crude bomb disguised as a meat mincer.

Despite this, several attacks have taken place, including a cafe siege in Sydney in 2014 where two hostages were killed. — AFP

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Ash from rumbling volcano forces Bali airport to stay shut

Viet Nam News

KARANGASEM — Plumes of ash from a rumbling volcano forced Indonesian authorities to close Bali’s airport for a second day Tuesday, as a threatened eruption stranded tourists and forced mass evacuations.

Tens of thousands of frightened people have fled their homes near Mount Agung, which looms over the resort island, as experts raised the alert level to maximum and warned it could erupt at any moment.

Towering columns of thick grey smoke have been belching from the volcano since last week, and in the last few days have begun shooting into the sky, forcing all flights to be grounded until at least on Wednesday morning.

"The Volcanic Ash Advisory shows that the plane routes have been covered by volcanic ash, this is dangerous for the flights," Wisnu Darjono from the air traffic agency AirNav official said, referring to a global network of experts that supplies volcano-related information.

Some 40,000 people have abandoned their homes in the danger zone but as many as many as 100,000 will likely be forced to leave, disaster agency officials have said.

"Volcanic ash is still spewing. It’s thick and rising very high -- up to three or four kilometres from the crater," said I Gede Suantika, an official at Indonesia’s volcanology agency.

"Activity at Mount Agung remains very high. It’s still on the highest alert level," he added.

The exclusion zone around Agung, which is 75 kilometres away from the beachside tourist hub of Kuta, has also been widened to 10 kilometres.

As of Tuesday some 443 flights had been cancelled, affecting more than 120,000 passengers in Bali, a top holiday destination that attracts millions of foreign tourists every year.

The airport on nearby Lombok island -- also a popular tourist destination east of Bali -- has opened and closed several times in the past few days. It is currently open but may yet be shuttered again, officials said.

Memories of disaster

Mount Agung last went off in 1963, killing some 1,600 people in one of the deadliest eruptions ever seen in a country with nearly 130 active volcanoes.

Memories of that disaster have helped drive people towards community centres and makeshift camps, including villagers who have to leave precious livestock behind.

"I am very worried because I have experienced this before," 67-year-old Dewa Gede Subagia, who was a teenager when Agung last roared, said from one evacuation centre.

"I hope this time I won’t have to evacuate for too long. In 1963, I left for four months."

Experts said however that Agung’s recent activity matches the build-up to that disaster, which ejected enough debris - about a billion tonnes - to lower global average temperatures by 0.2 - 0.3 degrees Celsius for about a year.

"What we are seeing at the moment are small explosions, throwing out hot gases and fragments of molten rock, or ash," said David Pyle, a volcano expert at Oxford University.

"The probability of a large eruption is high, but this may take some days or weeks to unfold."

Agung rumbled back to life in September, forcing the evacuation of 140,000 people living nearby. Its activity decreased in late October and many returned to their homes.

However, on Saturday the mountain sent smoke up into the air for the second time in a week in what volcanologists call a phreatic eruption - caused by the heating and expansion of groundwater.

Then on Monday so-called cold lava flows appeared - similar to mud flows and often a prelude to the blazing orange lava seen in many volcanic eruptions.

Indonesia is the world’s most active volcanic region. The archipelago nation with over 17,000 islands lies on the Pacific "Ring of Fire" where tectonic plates collide, causing frequent volcanic and seismic activities.

Last year, seven people were killed after Mt. Sinabung on the western island of Sumatra erupted. A 2014 eruption at Sinabung killed 16. — AFP

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Mexico finance minister launches presidential run

Viet Nam News

MEXICO CITY — Mexican finance minister Jose Antonio Meade resigned on Monday to run for president, with what many pundits see as the best chance to beat the current front-runner, the leftist firebrand Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Meade announced he would seek the nomination of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which is desperately looking to hold onto power as President Enrique Pena Nieto winds down his six-year term amid dismal approval ratings.

Meade, an independent until now, is not a member of the PRI and still needs its nomination.

But that outsider status may be just what he and the ruling party need at a time when Mexicans are fed up with politics as usual.

With violent crime soaring, corruption festering and Latin America’s second-biggest economy teetering on the brink of recession, many voters are looking for alternatives to the only two parties that have ruled modern Mexico: the PRI and its conservative rival, the National Action Party (PAN).

Meade, 48, touted his track record as minister, promising a Mexico where "families will always have food on the table, security on the streets, quality housing, health care and education."

A lawyer and economist, he earlier served as foreign and social development minister under Pena Nieto, and was energy and finance minister under Felipe Calderon of the PAN (2006-2012).

In announcing Meade’s resignation, Pena Nieto - who is barred by term limits from standing again - praised him as "a good man, with a vocation for public service and a deep love of Mexico."

Back-room politics

That tacit endorsement appeared to seal what would be the PRI’s first nomination of a non-party member to stand as its candidate for president.

The party changed its rules in August to allow a non-member to be nominated.

The PRI, which ruled Mexico as a one-party state from 1929 to 2000, has traditionally chosen its candidate in a back-room process that ends with the president picking his own successor.

But this time Pena Nieto faced resistance to picking a close ally from within the party: the percentage of Mexicans who approve of his government is currently in the 20s to low 30s, according to recent polls.

Many Mexicans both in and outside the PRI see Meade as the best hope to defeat Lopez Obrador, a populist whose enemies revile him as fervently as his supporters back him.

Two-time presidential runner-up Lopez Obrador - widely known by his initials, AMLO - makes the Mexican establishment nervous with his talk of a new economic model and attacks on free trade, at a time when Mexico is in delicate negotiations with the US and Canada on a new version of the NAFTA trade agreement, a pillar of its economy.

His populist message has generated a swell of support in a country sick of constant corruption scandals and horrific violence unleashed by an all-out war on the country’s multi-billion-dollar drug cartels.

But critics call Lopez Obrador a radical leftist who will steer Mexico down the same path as crisis-torn Venezuela.

With the rest of the opposition deeply divided, many political analysts have suggested Meade could bring the right mix of outsider status and broad appeal.

"Being a party outsider, he may be able to downplay discontent with the PRI. There may be people who will vote for him who wouldn’t vote for a (traditional) PRI candidate," sociologist Jose Antonio Crespo said.

But the Eurasia Group consultancy cautioned that Meade remains "the candidate representing continuity in an election of change."

Meade was replaced as finance minister by Jose Gonzalez Anaya, who previously headed state oil company Pemex. — AFP

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