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Australian Aid Worker Released in Afghanistan

An Australian aid worker, kidnapped in Afghanistan in November, has been released.


Najib Danish, the deputy spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Interior, confirmed that the woman was released in Kabul Monday.


Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade issued a statement confirming the release. “We thank the authorities in Afghanistan for their support and assistance,” the statement said.


“Her family welcomes her safe return and asks that the media respect their privacy at this time,” it added.


The woman was kidnapped at gunpoint in one of Kabul’s upscale neighborhoods.


Neither the Australian embassy, nor anyone in the Afghan government has provided any information on how and why the woman was released.


Kidnappings, mostly for ransom, are considered one of the biggest risks for foreigners working in the country. Criminal gangs often kidnap people and sometimes sell them to insurgent groups like the Taliban.


Another Australian, a professor at the American University of Afghanistan, remains a hostage, along with an American colleague. Both were seized last August in Kabul.


In January, the two appeared in a video begging the American government to negotiate with their captors. The video was the first sign that the two were alive.


Another Australian aid worker was rescued last August by Afghan special forces.  


Similarly, an Indian aid worker from the Aga Khan Foundation was kidnapped in Kabul last June.


While foreigners are a prime target, wealthy Afghans also face the risk of kidnapping. The Afghan Taliban also sometimes kidnap people using illegal check points.

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Trump’s Planned Reduction in Refugees May Hit Myanmar Worst

Tin, her husband and five children have cleared years of refugee hurdles to come to the U.S.: blood tests, interviews, DNA and fingerprints, background checks. She has her one must-bring possession within reach, a well-worn Bible, and keeps their phone charged for the U.S. Embassy to call.


But the odds of that happening dropped precipitously.

President Donald Trump’s 16-page travel ban “to keep the bad dudes out” bars new visas for people from six Muslim-majority countries and shuts down America’s refugee program through mid-July. His executive order had been set to take effect Thursday, but a federal judge put it on hold hours before it was to take effect.

The order also includes a 55 percent reduction in refugee visas overall, from a planned 110,000 to 50,000 this year. This means, in some of the most desperate places in the world, 60,000 refugee visas are not going to be issued after all.


Who are the 60,000 people who may have lost their chance to resettle in the U.S. by September? An Associated Press analysis of 10 years of refugee data suggests that their most common country of origin is not any of the six nations in the travel ban, but Myanmar, also known as Burma. Thousands, like Tin and her family, are Christians who were persecuted in their native country.


They expected to resettle before September in the U.S., a place they consider home. More than 160,000 Burmese have resettled in the U.S. in the past decade, more than any other group. They account for nearly 25 percent of new U.S. refugees since 2007.


“America is really our fatherland in terms of religion,” said Tin, 38. “They sent their missionaries to our country and taught us to be Christians. And now we had to escape. All we want is to be safe.”

Christians face religious and political discrimination in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. Its nascent democracy is heavily influenced by a military that ruled for half a century and remains at war with several ethnic groups, some of which are majority Christian.

Tin and her community fled Chin state, where Human Rights Watch says more than 90 percent of the residents were adhering to the tenets the American Baptist Church by 2009, pitting them against a military campaign to elevate Buddhism over all other religions.


Tin and others said that when they gathered for family prayers, people threw rocks at them. Soldiers busted into church services. They hid their precious Bibles for fear of attack.


School teacher Sang, 29, a Burmese refugee who learned English as a theology student, meticulously read through a copy of Trump’s executive order last week and then looked up, nodding.

He said that while he agreed with the need to keep terrorists out of the U.S., “We are not terrorists, we are Christians. We will never be a problem in the United States. We will get educations, we will work hard. We only seek safety.”

Tin and Sang are among more than 100,000 Christian Burmese refugees forced to flee in recent years. They live out of suitcases in abject poverty in Malaysia. Their kids can’t go to school, and they risk deportation or detention if they try to report a crime.

And it’s not just Christians. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have also been forced to escape the country of 51 million, where soldiers torched homes, raped women and killed them in a crackdown that began in October.


Trump’s “Executive Order Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States,” says lowering the cap is necessary to U.S. interests. But the swift reduction in refugee visas interrupts work underway by federal law enforcement agencies and nonprofits around the world to vet 110,000 people in 2017, the highest number in decades. It was an attempt to put a small dent in the record 65 million refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons worldwide.


Nearly 38,000 have been admitted so far. Another 72,000 were preparing to arrive before the fiscal year ends in September. Instead, under Trump’s order just 12,000 more will be allowed in. Exceptions can be made if the secretaries of State and Homeland Security agree.

“The safety and security of the American people is our highest priority,” said a State Department official who provided a statement on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk on the record about it.


The U.S. defines refugees as people of “special humanitarian concern” who have been persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.


An AP analysis found that nearly half the refugees who have arrived in fiscal year 2017 came from the seven majority Muslim countries named in an earlier executive order. Refugees from Syria, in particular, have arrived in greater numbers in the past twelve months. Burma’s share has dropped from 26 percent of all spots in 2015 to just 8 percent of the refugee caseload so far this fiscal year.


The AP also found refugees from Bhutan and Afghanistan make up a smaller proportion admitted in 2017 than in previous years.

About 210,000 refugees, largely Vietnamese and Cambodians, came to the U.S. in 1980, the most in any year. Refugee arrivals dropped to less than 30,000 after 9/11 prompted strict new immigration rules. But they have increased fairly steadily since 2004, and overall refugee admissions reached 85,000 last year.

The journeys of Burmese refugees begin in some of the poorest places on Earth: remote villages in strife-ridden regions. They pay smugglers upward of $500 for the harrowing two-week journey. Some end up in Thailand, where an estimated 100,000 live in refugee camps, known locally as “temporary shelters.” Thai officials did not allow AP to visit.


In Malaysia there are about 130,000 Burmese refugees awaiting resettlement. They live in Kuala Lumpur’s poorest neighborhoods, their makeshift plywood walls dividing ordinary two-bedroom apartment into a half dozen stifling family units, a stark contrast to city’s glimmering skyscrapers. They can stay for years, their belongings packed in baggage, so they can be near the United Nations and U.S. Embassy if called to get stamps on documents or meet with officials.

Earlier this week, Tin — the mother waiting for the Embassy to call — dropped off her youngest son at a volunteer-run school. A teacher wrote words on the board, and asked students for three descriptive phrases.

 Bauri Ram, 11, stared at his word, President.


“Donald Trump,” someone had written. “Help other people.”

Bauri Ram took up the blue marker: “They help refugees.”


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Asia Increasingly Looking to China to Drive Regional Growth

With uncertainty over economic policy direction in the United States, Southeast Asian economies appear less reliant on U.S. monetary decisions, with analysts saying China’s influence is likely to keep growing in the region.

On Thursday, a sign of the region’s greater financial independence came as most regional markets failed to follow a .25 basis point rise in interests rates set by the U.S. Federal Reserve. But China, Hong Kong and Singapore did raise interest rates.

London based analysts at Capital Economics said for most emerging economies in Asia, local factors rather than the actions of the U.S. central bank will determine interest rate policy.

Beijing’s growing influence has come as Asian economies have stepped up trade with China, whose growing presence was highlighted after the U.S. withdrawal earlier this year by U.S. President Donald Trump from the 12 nation Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The TPP had been a key policy platform under former President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia to extend U.S. influence in the region.

Thai economist Somphob Manarangsan said China’s One Belt One Road’ policy to boost links with China’s growing economy will increase the momentum of regional economic integration.

“From now on China may move more actively to this region [Southeast Asia]. China is the real sector based economy [of manufacturing] as you know, so they have to have greater integration of the supply chain and value chain, and it can replace the greater uncertainty of the U.S. market,” Somphob told VOA.

Growing regional influence

As China’s economy becomes more influential economically in the region, the country’s social and political influence will also increase, he said.

Uncertainty over U.S. economic policy towards the Asia region, and especially in trade, followed election campaign comments by President Trump, to adopt a tougher stance on trade with China, accusing Beijing of acting as a “currency manipulator.”

Somphob said protectionist U.S. economic policy would result in countries in Asia facing a “tough struggle” with any major fallout in bilateral relations with China having a significant impact across the region.

“It will be relatively serious. As we know that China is one of the major regional supply [chains]. So that means that directly or indirectly it’s going to affect the ASEAN economy considerably,” he said, with the impact also on Japan and South Korea.

Southeast Asia’s trade ties with China have been growing over the past decade, especially intermediate goods to China that are then exported to major international markets, such as the U.S.

In a commentary, Asian Development Bank (ADB) senior economist, Cyn-Young Park, says the growth of emerging East Asian economies’ has been “underpinned by dynamic growth in China.”

Regional impact

A shift in the U.S. market’s role has been evident as Southeast Asia’s exports to the U.S. have fallen from 50 percent of total exports in the 1990s to around less than 29 percent today.

But Park also warned any global shock would have a major impact on the region’s economies.

“Emerging East Asia has become more, not less, integrated with the global economy and as a result the impact of a global shock, whether related to trade or financial markets, has become greater,” he said.

Pavida Pananond, a professor of business studies at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, said steady economic growth over recent decades has strengthened economies due to a growing middle class.

“And that’s why the shifting focus of the regional integration in Asia, or its regional focus, is not solely because of the Trump policies but it is the changing dynamics in the economic power that has been taking place over a few decades,” Pavida said.

“The rising power of the consumer in Asia is becoming more important. China is growing. China is now the major trade and investment destination to and from ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations],” she said.

Protectionism gaining ground

The World Bank, in a report, warned the region’s economies of “heightened policy uncertainty in advanced economies,” especially Europe and the U.S. amid growing support for trade protection.

“Rising political opposition to trade has contributed to a post [2008] crisis high in new trade restrictions in the past year,” the Bank said.

“The imposition of trade barriers by major trading partners would disproportionately affect the relatively more open economies of East Asia and Pacific,” it said.

The bank added that a “faster than expected slowdown in China would have sizable regional spillovers.”

But Capital Economics analysts say the U.S. administration appears less confrontational on the issue of trade relations with China than feared.

“The threat to label China a currency manipulator on [President Trump’s] first day in office failed to materialize, talk of an across the broad tariffs have been dropped, while growing question marks over a proposed border-adjusted corporate tax,” Capital Economics’ Gareth Leather said.

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Vietnam Urges Firms to Stop YouTube, Facebook Ads in Protest Over ‘Fake Content’

Vietnam on Thursday called on all companies doing business there to stop advertising on YouTube, Facebook and other social media until they find a way to halt the publication of “toxic” anti-government information.

At a meeting with the information and communication minister, companies including the local operations of Unilever, Ford and Yamaha Motor all committed to obey the call to suspend YouTube advertising.

Last month, the communist country began putting pressure on advertisers to try to get YouTube owner Google and other companies to remove content from foreign-based dissidents.

But Information and Communication Minister Truong Minh Tuan said the response had not yet been good enough. Although there were 8,000 anti-government videos on YouTube, Google had only blocked 42 and hadn’t removed them completely, the ministry said.

“Today we call on all Vietnamese firms that are advertising not to abet them to take advertising money from firms to use against the Vietnamese government,” Tuan told companies at a meeting in Hanoi.

“We also call on all internet users to raise their voice to Google and Facebook to prevent toxic, fake content violating Vietnamese law in the online environment.”

YouTube reiterated its global policy of thoroughly reviewing government requests to block content they believe is illegal and restricting it where appropriate. Facebook gave no immediate response.

The Asia Internet Coalition, an industry association which includes both companies, said Vietnam and its businesses benefited greatly from the internet.

“It is critical for the Vietnamese government to protect the open nature of the internet, and put in place the right conditions that incentivize investment and nurture innovation,” said Jeff Paine, the group’s managing director.

For governments to complain to Google and Facebook about content published online is not new, but industry officials said there was less precedent for a state to try to put pressure on them through their advertisers.

Vietnam’s state-owned Vinamilk, and flag carrier Vietnam Airlines suspended YouTube ads last month after the government told them their ads had appeared alongside inappropriate content.

Because of the computer-directed processes that pair ads with their targeted audiences on social media, companies are not always aware of or have direct control over which specific videos an ad has been placed alongside.

Vietnam has come under fire from Western countries and human rights groups for its Decree 72 on social media – which bans information that it deems anti-government, damaging to national security or destroying national unity.

Despite the restrictions, content that ostensibly breaches the code’s standards is still prolific.

While Vietnam makes up a very small part of the business operations of companies like Google and Facebook, it is one of Asia’s fastest growing economies and a hot investment target for global consumer brands.

Within Vietnam itself, YouTube and Facebook account for two-thirds of digital media market share in Vietnam, according to Nguyen Khoa Hong Thanh, Operations Director at digital marketing agency Isobar Vietnam.

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China Means Business in Economic Challenge Over THAAD

As anti-Korean sentiment in China grows stronger, Seoul appears to have few options at the moment to try and limit the impact on trade relations.

Tension flared early this month after South Korea began deploying components of a U.S. anti-missile system to the Korean Peninsula. China is strongly opposed to the missile battery and has been trying to block its deployment, seemingly through economic retaliation.

Park Sung-hoon, a professor of economics at Korea University, said he’s concerned about the future of economic relations, which have been solid for decades.

“The backlash [from China] is kind of dismantling what we have achieved so far,” he said. “We have no reliable sources on how long China will continue these measures.”

It’s unclear if Beijing is acting deliberately, which makes it much harder for South Korea to counter the growing economic unease.

Chang Do-hwan, a director with South Korea’s Ministry of Strategy and Finance, told VOA South Korea is prepared to deal with unfair trade measures. But for now, Seoul is unable to take “legal or official” action because Beijing has yet to acknowledge it’s taken any official action to pressure South Korea.

THAAD backlash

South Korea and the U.S. maintain the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is solely to protect against North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons threat.

But China believes THAAD’s powerful radar will be used to spy on its military.

Park said he hopes China comes around.

“We hope China sees the necessity and inevitability of Korea’s alliance with the U.S., in defending the nation against the possible invasion from North Korea,” he said.

The South Korean corporation Lotte Group has become a main target of angry Chinese sentiment. The company, which declined an interview, sold the Korean government a golf course where the defense battery is expected to be stationed, possibly in the next few months.

Shoppers in China are boycotting some Lotte stores, and other have been shut down after failing safety inspections.

“We don’t know if it was provoked by the [Chinese] government or not, but a lot of people have been taking voluntarily action against Korean products,” said Ahn Duk-geun, a professor of international trade law and policy at Seoul National University.

Korea’s tourism sector is taking a hit as well.

This week, an estimated 3,000 Chinese tourists took a stand against THAAD by staying on board a cruise ship that docked at South Korea’s Jeju Island, a popular tourist destination for Chinese.

Chang with the Finance Ministry said the government is closely monitoring Korean companies facing financial risks because of the pressure from China. He said a relief fund would be available for small and medium-sized firms.

Sending a message

Beijing has a history of punching back economically when angered.

There was the so-called garlic war in 2000. Seoul jacked up import tariffs on Chinese garlic to protect local farmers, and China responded by banning South Korean exports of cellphones and polyethylene. Whether or not Seoul’s policy was flawed, China’s response was viewed widely as excessive.

However, the current retaliation against South Korea appears to be non-tariff related. China has experience there, too.

In 2012, Japan felt China’s wrath over a sovereignty dispute involving a group of islands in the East China Sea. The Chinese public responded to Tokyo’s actions to further assert control over the islands by smashing Japanese cars and boycotting Japanese products.

Limited options

South Korea sold goods and services were worth roughly $124 billion to China last year, about 25 percent of the country’s total exports.

Some local analysts have suggested businesses begin scouting new markets, as THAAD poses a formidable barrier to resolving the trade dispute.

In the meantime, Ahn suggested Seoul use a mediation provision in its FTA with China. It’s essentially a channel, he said, to discuss non-tariff issues when it’s unclear if the problem is intentional.

But Ahn is not hopeful about resolution.

“I think the situation will become worse,” he said.

He said it’s likely THAAD will be fully deployed and China will eventually formalize its economic sanctions against South Korea.

But even if China backs off its pressure, Ahn said, it’s inevitable that South Korean companies will expand into other markets because of growing competition in China, as well as increased labor costs and standards. “That’s an unavoidable direction.”

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Tillerson: Different Approach Required With Nuclear North Korea

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says “it is clear that a different approach is required” after 20 years of failed diplomatic efforts to prevent North Korea from having nuclear weapons.

Speaking Thursday in Tokyo on the opening leg of his first trip to Asia as the top U.S. diplomat, Tillerson said part of the reason he is in the region is to exchange views with Japan, South Korea and China on other ways forward.

“North Korea and its people need not fear the United States or their neighbors in the region who seek only to live in peace with North Korea,” Tillerson said at a joint news conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. “With this in mind, the United States calls on North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and refrain from any further provocations.”

He further pledged the U.S. commitment to defending Japan and other allies “is unwavering.”

On to South Korea, China

Tillerson goes Friday to South Korea and then to his final stop in China, where his agenda includes a meeting with President Xi Jinping.

The secretary of state said Thursday China plays a very important role in efforts to encourage North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, and he encouraged China to fully implement U.N. sanctions meant to pressure the North Korean government.

“We will be having discussions with China as to further actions we believe they might consider taking that would be helpful to bringing North Korea to a different attitude about its future need for nuclear weapons,” Tillerson said.

Japan and South Korea, which host U.S. troops and are within range of North Korean missiles, support U.S. efforts to increase diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea. A statement by the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet said the three allies were conducting drills Wednesday in seas east of the divided Korean Peninsula and north of Japan to promote interoperability.

Groundwork for Florida talks

Tillerson’s talks with Xi will also lay the groundwork for a summit between Xi and U.S. President Donald Trump, which is expected to take place in early April in Florida.

One reporter is traveling with Tillerson, instead of the usual, larger group from news organizations that traditionally have gone with the secretary of state.

Erin McPike of the conservative leaning website the Independent Journal Review, was chosen to travel with Tillerson on this trip. Under intense questioning from beat reporters Wednesday, acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner said McPike was selected by a group of decision makers in an attempt “to look at outside-the-box approaches to how we handle coverage of the secretary.”

Toner tried to reassure inquiring reporters the media will “have broad access” to Tillerson. He said 23 journalists, including 17 from the U.S., will have access during media availabilities.

But when asked if McPike will have access to Tillerson when other reporters will not, Toner could not respond definitively.

“I can’t speak to what additional access may be provided to this reporter,” he said.

The State Department originally said Tillerson would not take journalists with him because the plane he was traveling on was too small. He ended up taking a Boeing 737, which could have accommodated some of the regular agency reporters, each of whom is required to cover his or her own costs.


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Author Examines Adoption, Mother-Daughter Ties in Latest Novel

Expanding ties between China and the United States form the backdrop of Lisa See’s latest novel, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, a book about China’s growing prosperity, cross-cultural adoption and, the author says, the enduring bond between mothers and daughters.

See chronicled the Chinese experience in California in a 1995 book, On Gold Mountain, and she says the West Coast state remains a cultural crossroads. It is also the source of ideas for fictional stories like that in her new novel.

“My husband and I were walking to the movies,” See said, “and we saw ahead of us an older white couple with their teenaged Chinese adopted daughter walking between them.”

The image of a carefree family, with the daughter’s long pony tail swaying back and forth, would lead to a tale of inter-cultural adoption amid growing commercial ties between the United States and China.

See is the author of such best-selling novels as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls.

Precise research

Her books are all based on on-the-ground research. A tea-tasting demonstration in the United States would inspire her to visit Yunnan Province, China, a tea-growing region near the Burmese border, which also led to the writing of this novel.

“They have more varieties of plant life in that one province of China than all together in the rest of the northern hemisphere,” she said. “They have more species of animals in that one province of China, which is only 4 percent of China’s overall land mass.”

The biodiversity also applies to human beings: Yunnan is home of half of China’s 55 ethnic minorities, and includes a tea-growing hill tribe called the Akha. See met an Akha family whose daughter collected stories from village elders, and the writer was fascinated.

“She just told us these unbelievable stories about her family, about the neighbors, about her own experience,” See said. By the end of one day, she knew that she wanted to write about the Akha.

Not ‘precious enough’

See’s novel concerns an Akha woman named Li-yan who gives birth to a daughter out of wedlock. Defying a local custom that calls for the child’s death, she takes the infant to an orphanage, and the girl, renamed Haley, is adopted and raised by an American family. Over time, Haley questions her identity, as do the real-life adoptees that See met in her research.

“There was one girl who summed it up for me when she said, ‘I know I’m lucky and I know my parents love me and I know I’m the most precious person in our family, but I wasn’t precious enough for my birth parents to keep.’”

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane explores this tension as the story unfolds in both America and China, where Haley’s birth mother rides a wave of prosperity when Chinese products, including a rare local tea, find a worldwide market.

The separate paths of mother and daughter bring both to Los Angeles, where See says she is inspired in her writing by her own family connections and her partial Chinese background.

“I have red hair and freckles,” she said, “but I actually grew up in a very large Chinese American family here in Los Angeles. I have about 400 relatives here,” she said, “about a dozen that look like me. The majority are still full Chinese.”

See’s books tell the stories of Chinese and Chinese Americans, and her fiction focuses on women. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane follows these themes as it looks at changes that prosperity has brought to one ethnic community in China.

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US Senators Call for More Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators Wednesday introduced legislation which calls for an increase in the number of visas available to Afghans who helped U.S. forces in positions such as interpreters.

The bill calls for an extra 2,500 Special Immigrant Visas specifically for Afghans who assisted the U.S. military, often risking their lives.

“This legislation would ensure the continuation of this vital Special Immigrant Visa program, and send a clear message that America will not turn its back on those who at great personal risk stand with us in the fight against terror,” Senator John McCain said in a statement.


McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, introduced the measure alongside fellow Republican Thom Tillis, Jack Reed, the committee’s top Democrat, and another Democrat, Jeanne Shaheen.

Faced with a shrinking pool of visas, the U.S. embassy in Kabul has started turning away Afghan military interpreters and other Afghan nationals seeking to immigrate to the United States through the decade-old special visa program.

A State Department official said Friday the embassy stopped scheduling new special immigrant visa interviews for Afghans on March 1 after concluding that it had enough unused visas only for those who are already in the final stages of the application process.

The Special Immigrant Visa program was created by Congress in 2008 for Afghan military translators, but was later expanded to cover any Afghan who could demonstrate “at least one year of faithful and valuable service” to or on behalf of the U.S. government.

With tens of thousands of U.S. forces serving in Afghanistan, the program long enjoyed bipartisan support, with Congress extending it annually and authorizing 7,000 visas in 2015 and 2016.

As the U.S. combat mission is winding down and anti-immigrant sentiment sparked during the recent presidential campaign continues to rise, opposition to the program has grown.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a longtime critic of the program, led an effort last year against increasing the number of Special Immigrant Visas to Afghans.