Thai pro-democracy activists march against government

Thai pro-democracy activists march against government
Many people still revere the monarchy, and the military, a major power in Thai society, considers its defense a key priority. (AFP)
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Updated 24 June 2021

Thai pro-democracy activists march against government

Thai pro-democracy activists march against government
  • The protesters defied a ban on large gatherings instituted to fight a coronavirus surge that shows little sign of abating
  • Several hundred marched to Parliament, which is due to vote on several amendments to the constitution

BANGKOK: Pro-democracy protesters took to the streets of Thailand’s capital on Thursday, marking the anniversary of the overthrow of the country’s absolute monarchy by renewing their demands that the government step down, the constitution be amended and the monarchy become more accountable.
The protesters defied a ban on large gatherings instituted to fight a coronavirus surge that shows little sign of abating. It was their first large protest after a hiatus of about three months caused by the pandemic and the jailing of protest leaders, who have since been released on bail.
The government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is facing widespread criticism that it botched pandemic recovery plans by failing to secure adequate vaccine supplies.
On June 24, 1932, a group of progressive army officers and civil servants proclaimed constitutional rule and the transition to parliamentary democracy, ending Thailand’s absolute monarchy. The anniversary in recent years has become an occasion for pro-democracy rallies.
Protesters gathered early Thursday by Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, a traditional demonstration venue, to light candles and read out the 1932 proclamation of the end of the absolute monarchy.
Several hundred then marched to Parliament, which is due to vote on several amendments to the constitution. The proposed changes, however, fall far short of those sought by the protesters, which include restoring more power to political parties and elected office holders.
“We come out today to insist on the principle that the constitution must come from the people,” said Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, a protest leader also known as Pai Dao Din.
The student-led pro-democracy movement sprung up last year, largely in reaction to the continuing influence of the military in government and hyper-royalist sentiment. The army in 2014 overthrew an elected government, and Prayuth, the coup leader, was named prime minister after a 2019 general election put in power a military-backed political party. Critics say the constitution enacted during military rule skewed election rules to favor the army’s proxy party.
The movement was able to attract crowds of as many as 20,000-30,000 people in Bangkok in 2020 and had followings in major cities and universities. However, a coronavirus surge late last year caused it to temporarily suspend activities and lose momentum.
The movement became controversial as its leaders focused on the monarchy in their speeches and activities. They charged that the king holds power and influence beyond that allowed under the constitution.
Since becoming king in 2016, Maha Vajiralongkorn has gained more direct control over the vast fortune of the royal palace — estimated to exceed $30 billion — as well as command of some key military units in the capital.
During the same time, memorials, statues and other symbols associated with the 1932 revolution have been removed.
The monarchy is widely considered to be an untouchable bedrock element of Thai nationalism. Defaming key royals is punishable under a lese majeste law by up to 15 years in prison per count. Many people still revere the monarchy, and the military, a major power in Thai society, considers its defense a key priority.
The government responded to the protesters’ criticism of the monarchy by charging leaders under the lese majeste law.
Parit Chiwarak, among those jailed, said Thursday the protesters are standing by their original demands but perhaps shifting their focus.
“We still demand the monarchy’s reform. But this year Prayuth must be ousted,” said Parit, who is better known by the nickname Penguin.


Olympic host Tokyo hits record 2,848 COVID-19 cases

Olympic host Tokyo hits record 2,848 COVID-19 cases
Updated 4 min 11 sec ago

Olympic host Tokyo hits record 2,848 COVID-19 cases

Olympic host Tokyo hits record 2,848 COVID-19 cases
  • The rise in cases threatens to further erode support for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga
  • It also spells trouble for the Olympics, as many Japanese fear the influx of athletes and officials for the event could add to the surge
TOKYO: Tokyo’s 2,848 COVID-19 infections on Tuesday were the Olympic host city’s highest since the pandemic began, officials said, as media reported that authorities had asked hospitals to prepare more beds for patients as the Delta variant drives the surge.
The rise in cases threatens to further erode support for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, whose ratings have slid to their lowest level since he took office last September, in large part because of his haphazard handling of the pandemic.
It also spells trouble for the Olympics, as many Japanese fear the influx of athletes and officials for the event could add to the surge. About 31 percent in a survey by the Nikkei daily on Monday said the Games should be canceled or postponed again.
“It’s the Delta variant,” said Kenji Shibuya, a former director of the Institute for Population Health at King’s College London, explaining the swift recent surge.
Shibuya added it was impossible to quantify to what extent the Olympics contributed to the surge but blamed the global sports showpiece as “one of the major driving forces.”
“The government has sent signals that people are supposed to stay home at the same time they celebrate the Games. It’s a totally inconsistent message,” said Shibuya, who is now running the vaccine roll-out in a town in northern Japan.
Japan has avoided the devastating outbreaks suffered by other nations such as India, Indonesia and the United States, but the fifth wave of the pandemic fueled by the Delta variant is piling pressure on Tokyo’s hospitals.
By Sunday, only 20.8 percent of the Japanese capital’s 12,635 COVID-19 patients had been able to obtain hospital treatment, government data showed. A government advisory panel says that if the ratio falls below the threshold of 25 percent, a state of emergency should be triggered.
In anticipation of the surge and considering the tough hospital situation, Tokyo has already declared a fourth state of emergency this month to run until after the Olympics.
In a last-minute change of heart, Japan also made the unprecedented decision to hold the Games, postponed from last year by the pandemic, without spectators to stem the spread of the virus.
As hospitals admit more patients, the city aims to boost the number of beds to 6,406 by early next month from 5,967 now, broadcaster TBS said.
Hospitals should look at pushing back planned surgery and scaling down other treatments, the broadcaster said, citing a notice to medical institutions from city authorities.
Health experts had warned that seasonal factors, increased mobility, and the spread of variants would lead to a rebound in COVID-19 cases this summer.
While vaccinations boost protection for the oldest citizens most likely to need emergency care, just 36 percent of the population has received at least one dose, a Reuters vaccination tracker shows.
The inoculation push has recently ebbed amid logistical snags after having picked up steam last month from a sluggish start.
Voter support for Suga slid nine points to 34 percent, its lowest since he took office last September, a July 23-25 Nikkei business daily survey showed on Monday.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents said the country’s rollout of coronavirus vaccinations was not going well.
Suga’s term as ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president expires in September and his LDP-led coalition faces an election for parliament’s powerful lower house, which must be held by November.
About a third in the Nikkei survey wanted the Games postponed again or canceled, while more than half said Japan’s border steps for incoming Olympics athletes and officials were “inappropriate.”
Despite tight quarantine rules for the Games, 155 cases have emerged involving athletes and others.
A strict “playbook” of rules to avoid contagion requires frequent virus testing, restricted movement and masks worn in most situations.

Explosion at German chemical complex declared extreme threat

Explosion at German chemical complex declared extreme threat
Updated 11 min 9 sec ago

Explosion at German chemical complex declared extreme threat

Explosion at German chemical complex declared extreme threat
  • Police in nearby Cologne said they did not have any information on the cause or size of the explosion

BERLIN: An explosion at an industrial park for chemical companies shook the German city of Leverkusen on Tuesday, sending a large black cloud rising into the air.
Germany’s Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance classified the explosion as “an extreme threat” and asked residents to stay inside and keep windows and doors closed, German news agency dpa reported.
Operators of the Chempark site in Leverkusen, about 20 kilometers (13 miles) north of Cologne on the Rhine river, said the cause of the explosion was unclear.
They said on Twitter that firefighters and pollution detection vans had been deployed.
Police in nearby Cologne said they did not have any information on the cause or size of the explosion and were not aware of any injuries at this point. They asked all residents to stay inside and warned people from outside of Leverkusen to avoid the region.
They also shut down several nearby major highways.
Daily Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger reported that the explosion took place in the Buerrig neigbborhood at a garbage incineration plant of the chemical park.
The paper reported that the smoke cloud was moving in a northwestern direction toward the towns of Burscheid and Leichlingen. It said firefighters from all over the region had been called in to help extinguish the fire.
Leverkusen is home to Bayer, one of Germany’s biggest chemical companies.


US Defense Secretary says committed to stable, constructive relationship with China

US Defense Secretary says committed to stable, constructive relationship with China
Updated 21 min 5 sec ago

US Defense Secretary says committed to stable, constructive relationship with China

US Defense Secretary says committed to stable, constructive relationship with China
  • A top Chinese diplomat took a confrontational tone on Monday in rare high-level talks with the United States

SINGAPORE: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Tuesday he was committed to having a constructive relationship with China and working on common challenges as he laid out his vision for ties with Beijing, which have sunk to their lowest point in decades.
The United States has put countering China at the heart of its national security policy for years and President Joe Biden’s administration has called rivalry with Beijing “the biggest geopolitical test” of this century.
While Austin’s speech in Singapore will touch on the usual list of behavior Washington describes as destabilizing, from Taiwan to the South China Sea, his comments about seeking a stable relationship could provide an opening for the two countries to start to reduce tension.
“We will not flinch when our interests are threatened. Yet we do not seek confrontation,” Austin said, according to excerpts of his speech.
“I am committed to pursuing a constructive, stable relationship with China, including stronger crisis communications with the People’s Liberation Army.”
Austin has been unable to speak with any senior Chinese official despite repeated attempts since starting as defense secretary in January.
Even with the tension and heated rhetoric, US military officials have long sought to keep open lines of communication with their Chinese counterparts, to be able to mitigate potential flare-ups or tackle any accidents.
A top Chinese diplomat took a confrontational tone on Monday in rare high-level talks with the United States, accusing it of creating an “imaginary enemy” to divert attention from domestic problems and suppress China.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the second-ranked US diplomat, had arrived on Sunday for the face-to-face meetings in China’s northern city of Tianjin.
“Big powers need to model transparency and communication,” Austin said.
Austin’s speech, which was postponed by a month because of Singapore’s COVID-19 outbreak, is being closely watched by regional nations concerned about China’s increasingly assertive behavior but heavily reliant on access to its large markets.
He is set to visit Vietnam and the Philippines later this week to emphasize the importance of alliances.


NATO chief urges ‘negotiated settlement’ in Afghanistan

NATO chief urges ‘negotiated settlement’ in Afghanistan
Updated 16 min 24 sec ago

NATO chief urges ‘negotiated settlement’ in Afghanistan

NATO chief urges ‘negotiated settlement’ in Afghanistan
  • Country faces a ‘deeply challenging’ security situation as foreign troops leave

BRUSSELS: NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg on Tuesday reiterated calls for a “negotiated settlement” with the Taliban in Afghanistan, admitting the country faced a “deeply challenging” security situation as foreign troops leave.
“The security situation in Afghanistan remains deeply challenging, and requires a negotiated settlement. NATO will continue to support Afghanistan, including with funding; civilian presence; and out-of-country training,” Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter after speaking to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.


Guilty verdict in first trial under Hong Kong security law

Guilty verdict in first trial under Hong Kong security law
Updated 27 July 2021

Guilty verdict in first trial under Hong Kong security law

Guilty verdict in first trial under Hong Kong security law
  • Verdict closely watched for indications as to how similar cases will be dealt with in future
  • Defense lawyer: Impossible to prove that Tong Ying-kit was inciting secession merely by having used the slogan

HONG KONG: The first person to be tried under Hong Kong’s sweeping national security law was found guilty of secessionism and terrorism on Tuesday.

The Hong Kong High Court handed down the verdict in the case of Tong Ying-kit, age 24. He’s accused of driving his motorcycle into a group of police officers while carrying a flag bearing the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” on July 1 last year, a day after Beijing imposed sweeping national security legislation on Hong Kong following months of anti-government protests in 2019.

The verdict was closely watched for indications as to how similar cases will be dealt with in future. More than 100 people have been arrested under the security legislation.

Tong pleaded not guilty to charges of inciting secession, terrorism and an alternative charge of dangerous driving. He faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if found guilty.

The trial, which ended July 20, was held in the High Court with no jury, under rules allowing this exception from Hong Kong’s common law system if state secrets need to be protected, foreign forces are involved or if the personal safety of jurors needs to be protected. Trials are presided over by judges handpicked by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam.

Tong’s defense lawyer has said it’s impossible to prove that Tong was inciting secession merely by having used the slogan.

The defense also said there is no evidence that Tong committed the act deliberately, that he avoided crashing into officers and that his actions couldn’t be considered terrorism since there was no serious violence or harm to society.

While Hong Kong has its own Legislative Council, Beijing’s ceremonial legislature imposed the national security law on the semiautonomous city after it determined the body was unable to pass the legislation itself because of political opposition.

That followed the increasingly violent 2019 protests against China’s growing influence over the city’s affairs, despite commitments to allow the city to maintain its own system for 50 years after the 1997 handover from British rule.

China’s legislature has mandated changes to the makeup of the city’s Legislative Council to ensure an overwhelming pro-Beijing majority, and required that only those it determines “patriots” can hold office.

Authorities have banned the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” stating that it has secessionist connotations. Library books and school curricula have also been investigated for alleged secessionist messages.

Hong Kong’s last remaining pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, was forced out of business last month and a court denied bail for four editors and journalists held on charges of endangering national security as part of the widening crackdown.

Beijing has dismissed criticisms, saying it is merely restoring order to the city and instituting they same type of national security protections found in other countries.