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Defiant New Thai Party Resumes Collecting Donations

A new Thai political party says it will resume accepting political donations despite being ordered to stop by election officials after it racked up more than half a million dollars on the first day of its launch.

Future Forward, led by young, charismatic billionaire entrepreneur Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, is emerging as a powerful new party ahead of overdue elections expected next year.

More than $615,000 went to the party in the form of donations, membership fees and merchandise sales after it was officially launched at the start of this month on a platform of grassroots democratization and progressive values, it said. 

Future Forward had to halt some fundraising, though, after Thailand’s election commission reportedly said the party could not accept donations without approval from the ruling military junta, which has yet to fully lift a ban on political activities.

Future Forward spokesperson Pannika Wanich told VOA Wednesday her party was on the verge of announcing it would defy any order from the junta that bans direct fundraising. The junta is officially named the National Council for Peace and Order, or NCPO.

“So, just yesterday, we had an executive committee meeting discussing this issue. And we decided what we’ll do according to the normal law, not the NCPO order, and we’ll continue all fundraising activities,” she said.

“We are fully aware that the NCPO can do anything, actually, to us. But if we don’t push for normality in politics and doing political campaigns — it is four months before elections — if you still ban political activities except [to] recruit new members, that is nonsense,” she said.

Last month, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who seized power in a 2014 military coup, enacted laws that effectively set a deadline for long-demanded elections no later than May 2019 and as early as February.

The 2014 coup brought down then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of billionaire businessman-cum-politician Thaksin Shinawatra, who himself was ousted in a coup in 2006.

Thai politics has long been dominated by infighting involving Thaksin and his “red shirt” allies, who have won every election since 2001, and his opponents aligned with the pro-monarchy “yellow shirt” movement, who have repeatedly orchestrated their forceful demise.

The emergence of a new party divorced from this acrimonious duopoly has garnered excitement among those weary of the strife.

Prayut has yet to nominate any party that he intends to run with and is technically barred from contesting the election, although there are ways in which he could circumvent that restriction.

Prayut also wields extraordinary executive authority under Section 44 of a new constitution the NCPO promoted after seizing power that effectively allows him to take any action in order to safeguard public order.

In September, Prayut relaxed aspects of a ban on political activities that has been in effect since he took power, though many draconian restrictions remain in place, rights groups say.

It is not clear whether the NCPO will determine that donations breach the ban, and VOA was told Wednesday that all representatives of the government were currently too busy to talk.

The office of Election Commission Secretary-General Jarungvith Phumma has not responded to inquiries from VOA. He reportedly told the Bangkok Post that donations were acceptable, provided the party had the permission of the NCPO. Without the donations, Future Forward said it will refuse to participate in the election.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is an associate professor of international political economy at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science. He said the NCPO could ill afford to use donations as grounds to shut down Future Forward.

“The junta’s treatment of the Future Forward party is consequential. If the Future Forward party is suppressed, manipulated, marginalized in a fashion that is not acceptable to the public, then the election will lose legitimacy,” he said.

“We are seeing that the pro-military parties have substantial latitude to raise money, accept donations, organize activities, whereas the anti-military parties have had a much harder time.”

The rapid flow of public donations to Future Forward was unprecedented in Thai politics, he said

“Normally, political parties are financed by individuals, by some local bosses and so on. But this is a party that is showing some broad-based characteristics,” he said, adding the party had systematically campaigned across most Thai provinces.

The party also has developed a significant social media following, despite an explicit ban forbidding campaigning on such platforms.

For now, that restriction remains in place. Accusations of hypocrisy were leveled at Prayut this week, after he launched a suite of his own social media pages on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, as well as a personal website.

Pannika, though, welcomed the prime minister’s foray into social media, which had attracted a rare outpouring of public criticism on his new pages.

“In social media, he will realize what the people think, what the public think about him,” she said.

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Invictus Games Bring Fighting Spirit to Australia

Britain’s Prince Harry will open the Invictus Games in Australia this weekend.  The competition for injured servicemen and women, along with veterans, will attract 500 athletes from 18 countries.

“Invictus” means unconquered, or undefeated in Latin.  It is the name given to a Paralympic-style event co-founded in 2014 by Britain’s Prince Harry, who served in the Army for ten years, and went on two tours of Afghanistan.

The Prince was inspired after he attended a similar event for wounded veterans in the United States.

There have been three Invictus Games so far; in London in 2014, Orlando in Florida in 2016 and Toronto in Canada in 2017.

The fourth installment starts Saturday in Sydney.

The event will officially be opened by Prince Harry, who has arrived in Australia on a royal tour.

“I am particularly grateful to the Australian government for hosting the Invictus Games, which the whole country has embraced with great enthusiasm.  Thank you so much for all of the support,” said Harry. “Australia is, of course, home to some of the world’s best sporting talent but what you are about to see during these Invictus Games will quite literally astound you; a demonstration of the power of the human spirit, the power of sport to change lives.”

The games bring together hundreds of athletes from 18 countries, who are all military allies, including Afghanistan, France, Iraq, the United Kingdom and the United States.  

Former Australian commando Garry Robinson was in a Black Hawk helicopter when it crashed in 2010 in enemy territory in Afghanistan.

He suffered a severe brain injury and a fractured lower spine.  His left leg was later amputated below the knee.

He is now competing in his fourth Invictus Games.

“I am very honored.  I am very proud.  I have always said to my therapist I cannot wait to the day comes that Invictus does come to Australia,” said Robinson. “So it has saved my life and to be able to be supported and acknowledged by my home countrymen for me would be the pinnacle of my recovery.  You will see me competing in cycling, archery and swimming.”

Many of the events will be hosted at the same venues used for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.  They include athletics, sitting volleyball, wheelchair basketball and powerlifting.

The sailing and road cycling competitions will take place in and around Sydney Harbor.

The Invictus Games run from October 20-27.

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Maldives’ President Says Preparing to Step Down With no Regrets on any Decisions

The president of the Maldives, Abdulla Yameen, said on Wednesday he had no complaints or reservations about any of his decisions while in office, and that he was preparing to step down, despite having challenged his election defeat in court.

In a surprise result, Yameen lost his re-election bid last month and initially conceded defeat. Last week, however, his lawyers went to the Supreme Court, saying his supporters had complained about rigging of votes and fraudulent ballot papers.

In a televised speech on Wednesday, Yameen said all his decisions when in power were made in the interest of the people.

“Even today, as I prepare to take leave from official duties, I would like to say that I have no complaints or reservations about my decisions,” he said.

Yameen is due to hand over power next month, but the opposition has flagged concerns that he could prolong the transition in the Indian Ocean island that has been in upheaval since February, when he imposed a state of emergency.

On Sunday, hundreds of Maldivians demanded Yameen’s arrest as the Supreme Court began hearing his election challenge. It has yet to deliver a verdict.

“I did everything I had to do on behalf of the majority of Maldivians or in the interests of the nation. So, even today, I won’t say I regret it,” Yameen added.

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Vietnamese Dissident Mother Mushroom En Route to US After Release

Vietnamese dissident Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known as “Mother Mushroom”, was released from prison on Wednesday and left Vietnam on a flight to the United States, sources with direct knowledge of the matter said.

Quynh, one of Vietnam’s most prominent dissidents, was serving a 10-year-sentence for anti-state propaganda.

“Mother Mushroom departed Vietnam today for the United States,” one source told Reuters. “She is flying with her children and mother.”

Vietnam’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. Embassy in Vietnam referred Reuters’ questions to the Vietnamese government. Quynh’s mother was not reachable by telephone.

News of the release came shortly after U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis left Vietnam. It was not known if the release had any connection with his visit. Mattis arrived there on Tuesday and left for Singapore on Wednesday.

A Pentagon spokesman did not immediately comment when asked

about the timing of the release.

Despite sweeping economic reform in Vietnam, and increasing openness towards social change, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party does not tolerate criticism that it deems threatens its rule.

A blogger and environmental activist, Quynh was among 13 women to receive an International Women of Courage Award last year. The awards were presented by U.S. First Lady Melania Trump.

She was arrested for posting what police described as anti-state reports, including one about civilians dying in police custody.

Last year, she was jailed for 10 years for publishing propaganda against the state, following a surge in crackdowns on dissidents since 2016, when more conservative leaders cemented their power in top party positions.

Quynh is the second dissident released this year. A prominent human rights lawyer, Nguyen Van Dai, was released from prison in June and went to Germany.

The news should serve as a reminder of Vietnam’s worsening record of jailing anyone who criticises the regime, said Nicholas Bequelin, human rights group Amnesty International’s regional director for east and southeast Asia.

“While Mother Mushroom is no longer imprisoned, the condition for her release was exile,” he added, saying that more than 100 people were languishing in jail because they peacefully spoke their minds, whether in public, on blogs or on Facebook.


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China Expected to Gain in Asian Maritime Dispute after Regional Defense Leaders Meeting

China is likely to come away from a regional meeting of defense leaders this month with tentative new support around Asia, bolstering its expansion in a disputed sea, according to regional analysts. 

Defense ministers from China and up to 10 countries in Southeast Asia – some resentful of Beijing’s maritime ambitions – will meet October 18-20 at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) event. Defense heads from Japan and the United States, both of which have pushed back against Beijing’s expansion, are also scheduled to attend.

Association members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam claim parts of the South China Sea, overlapping tracts controlled by the more militarily powerful China. China calls about 90 percent of the sea its own. The 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea is prized for fisheries, oil, gas and shipping lanes.

Southeast Asian defense heads will go soft on China because they hope to work with it more on maritime safety or economic initiatives such as joint energy exploration, experts say. China in turn gets a tacit go-ahead to keep expanding in the contested waterway, they add.

“We know the two main claimant countries are not in the vibe to criticize China at this time,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington. “Vietnam has its domestic political consolidation and the strengthened political ties with China. The Philippines is not yet finished with its current friendly tide with China.”

Becoming better friends

Vietnam has clashed with China periodically since the 1970s and the two sides now spar over oil tracts in their overlapping claims. In 2012 China took control of a shoal frequented by Filipino fishing boats and located in Manila’s exclusive economic zone. U.S. and Japanese vessels have helped both Southeast Asian countries bolster their defenses.

But at the annual ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting defense ministers will probably seek “open-ended confidence building” opportunities with Beijing, said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

They will try at the meeting in Singapore to push for speeding up talks on a South China Sea code of conduct aimed at avoiding mishaps, analysts believe. The code would avoid touching on anyone’s sovereignty claims. ASEAN and China agreed last year to start those negotiations after years of stalling by Beijing.

“Within ASEAN, when you talk about the South China Sea, the default consideration is always the support for the code of conduct, so I think we’re going to go back to that,” said Herman Kraft, political science professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman in Manila.

“The main issue would be to try to get the discussions on the code of conduct moving forward and trying to find ways in which that could be completed as soon as possible,” he said.

Any statements from the meeting will avoid criticizing China, especially in name, said Carl Thayer, professor emeritus with the University of New South Wales in Australia. Ministers might call just for “restraint” in the sea or for avoiding “escalation of conflict,” he said.

The Philippines is aiming to sign a deal with China to explore part of the sea together for deposits of gas and oil, Kraft noted. Vietnam looks to China as a source of trade, investment and tourism.

Gains for China

China will gain from the event first by avoiding open criticism from Japan and the United States, scholars say. Southeast Asian leaders, particularly China’s staunch ally Cambodia, would mute anything too harsh, Thayer said. 

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is due to visit Beijing, so his government is unlikely to soil the defense meeting, Chong said. He will travel October 25-27.

“I don’t see anything negative or anything that would upset China coming in that,” Thayer said. “It’s all generalities that stays within the wording that ASEAN has already issued. I can’t see that particularly changing.”

Chinese defense officials could technically use the ASEAN event to talk with U.S. counterparts about rekindling cooperation. China blocked a U.S. warship due to visit Hong Kong this month after Washington sanctioned the Chinese military over its purchases of Russian weapons.

Beijing may be able to finish militarizing islands before the code of conduct is signed, Chong suggested. The code, he said, is unlikely to be signed this year.

Over roughly the past decade, China has reclaimed land to build islets in the sea’s Paracel chain and the heavily contested Spratly Islands. This year to date, Beijing has parked missiles, held naval drills and considered floating nuclear power stations in the sea that runs from Hong Kong to the island of Borneo.

“It may have actually consciously planned to complete the militarization of the islands it currently controls, so it could be stalling ASEAN for time,” Chong said.

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Shanghai Airport Automates Check-in with Facial Recognition

It’s now possible to check in automatically at Shanghai’s Hongqiao airport using facial recognition technology, part of an ambitious rollout of facial recognition systems in China that has raised privacy concerns as Beijing pushes to become a global leader in the field. 

Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport unveiled self-service kiosks for flight and baggage check-in, security clearance and boarding powered by facial recognition technology, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China.

Similar efforts are under way at airports in Beijing and Nanyang city, in central China’s Henan province.

Many airports in China already use facial recognition to help speed security checks, but Shanghai’s system, which debuted Monday, is being billed as the first to be fully automated.

“It is the first time in China to achieve self-service for the whole check-in process,” said Zhang Zheng, general manager of the ground services department for Spring Airlines, the first airline to adopt the system at Hongqiao airport. Currently, only Chinese identity card holders can use the technology.

Spring Airlines said Tuesday that passengers had embraced automated check-in, with 87 percent of 5,017 people who took Spring flights on Monday using the self-service kiosks, which can cut down check-in times to less than a minute and a half.

Across greater China, facial recognition is finding its way into daily life. Mainland police have used facial recognition systems to identify people of interest in crowds and nab jaywalkers, and are working to develop an integrated national system of surveillance camera data.

Chinese media are filled with reports of ever-expanding applications: A KFC outlet in Hangzhou, near Shanghai, where it’s possible to pay using facial recognition technology; a school that uses facial recognition cameras to monitor students’ reactions in class; and hundreds of ATMs in Macau equipped with facial recognition devices to curb money laundering.

But increased convenience may come at a cost in a country with few rules on how the government can use biometric data.

“Authorities are using biometric and artificial intelligence to record and track people for social control purposes,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch. “We are concerned about the increasing integration and use of facial recognition technologies throughout the country because it provides more and more data points for the authorities to track people.”

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US to Open Trade Talks With Britain, EU, Japan

The White House has announced plans to negotiate separate trade deals with Britain, the European Union and Japan.

“We are committed to concluding these negotiations with timely and substantive results for American workers, farmers, ranchers and businesses,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said Tuesday.

He added that the White House wanted to “address both tariff and non-tariff barriers and to achieve fairer and more balanced trade.”

As required by law, Lighthizer sent three separate letters to Congress announcing the intention to open trade talks.

He wrote that the negotiations with Britain would begin “as soon as it’s ready” after Britain’s expected exit from the European Union on March 29.

Lighthizer called the economic partnership between the U.S. and EU the “largest and most complex”in the world, noting the U.S. has a $151 billion trade deficit with the EU

Writing about Japan, Lighthizer said it is “an important but still often underperforming market for U.S. exporters of goods,” noting that Washington also has a large trade deficit with Tokyo.

The top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Oregon’s Ron Wyden, cautioned the administration against making what he called “quick, partial deals.” 

“The administration must take the time to tackle trade barriers comprehensively, including using this opportunity to set a high bar in areas like labor rights, environmental protection and digital trade,” he said.

President Donald Trump imposed tariffs on European steel and aluminum exports earlier this year and has threatened more tariffs on cars as a reaction to what he said were unfair deals that put the U.S. at a disadvantage.

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Chinese Diplomat Uses Twitter to Counter Allegations of Xinjiang-Related Rights Abuses

A senior Chinese diplomat in Pakistan has taken to social media to reject as “baseless” Western allegations that China is committing massive human rights abuses in its neighboring northwestern Xinjiang border region.

Beijing is blamed by the U.S. and international rights defenders for reportedly running mass detention centers filled with ethnic Uighur and other Muslims to force them to denounce their religious beliefs.

In a series of tweets in the past few days, Deputy Chief of the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad Lijian Zhao described the charges as “groundless.” Instead, he asserted the Chinese government “protects its citizens’ right to freedom and religious belief and people of all ethnic groups enjoy freedom of religious belief in accordance with law.”

Beijing maintains Xinjiang faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists, who plot attacks and fuel tension between the Uighur community and members of the ethnic Han Chinese majority.

“Since the 1990s, thousands of terrorist incidents happened in Xinjiang. There is zero terrorist attack in 21 months,” Zhao tweeted Tuesday. He went on to insist that sustained Chinese efforts have led to “social stability and a sound momentum” of economic development in the region.

However, it was not possible to independently verify statistics Zhao shared on social media.

Discussions are under way within the U.S. government on possible economic penalties in response to reports of Chinese rights abuses in Xinjiang.

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers recently wrote to the State Department asking for it to impose sanctions on Chinese officials allegedly overseeing the policies in Xinjiang.

Beijing sees the U.S. using Xinjiang-related issues as interference in China’s internal affairs.

Pakistan-based diplomat Zhao uses his Twitter account to disseminate information about progress on China-funded infrastructure projects under construction in Pakistan. He is regarded as a celebrity among Pakistanis because of his daily tweets on topics ranging from Pakistani economic to foreign policy issues.

Zhao swiftly responded to domestic and foreign critics of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor who, among other things, complain the project is burdening Islamabad with expensive Chinese debt. Both Pakistani and Chinese officials maintain CPEC has created more than 70,000 local jobs and contributed to Pakistan’s GDP growth stemming from Chinese grants, direct investment and concessional loans.

Beijing has already invested more than $19 billion in the past four years to help Islamabad build highways, energy plants and ports under the CPEC, that it declared flagship projects of President Xi Jinping’s global Belt and Road Initiative.

The massive cooperation project will ultimately connect Xinjiang with the Chinese-built and operated southern Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, giving Beijing the shortest access to international markets.

The CPEC is expected to bring more than $62 billion in Chinese investment to Pakistan by 2030 to build, among other projects, special economic zones to help improve and expand manufacturing capacity to enable Islamabad to increase exports to bring much-needed foreign exchange to the cash-starved country.

Pakistani citizens and small traders who regularly travel by road to Xinjiang complain of relatively harsh treatment by Chinese border authorities on arrival. Uighur men and women also used to frequently travel to Pakistan in large numbers until recently. But the Uighur travelers to Pakistan have dramatically declined in recent years, allegedly due to an anti-Muslim crackdown in Xinjiang.

Local media reports say some Uighur women married Pakistanis during their prolonged stay in the country, but years later when they went back to Xinjiang to see their parents, Chinese officials allegedly detained them for interrogation and their Pakistani spouses complain they remain uninformed about the whereabouts of their wives. The Chinese government has not responded to complaints reported in Pakistani newspapers.