Why are rich Russians so obsessed with buying up London property?
As more and more well-to-do Russians shift cash into London real estate, Stephen Moss heads to Moscow to investigate …
Stephen Moss in Moscow
theguardian.com, Friday 9 May 2014 11.10 BST
What is it about London that wealthy Russians can't get enough of? Thanks in no small part to the crisis in Ukraine, their takeover of the London property market is growing apace.
According to the Financial Times (£), well-to-do Russians – and Ukrainians too – "are trying to shift more cash into London property ... amid indications that eastern European oligarchs are using the capital’s housing market to conceal their assets from international sanctions". (And this despite a recent "tax crackdown" by George Osborne, apparently.)
Property experts JLL predict that "Russian capital flight could quadruple year-on-year" – and it's not as if the starting point was low: estate agency Knight Frank puts Russians top of the list of foreign buyers of £1m-plus London homes in 2013 (spending somewhere north of £500m). But why London? The only thing for it was to head to Moscow and see for myself – in between a few games of chess.
I wasn't just obsessing about oligarchs. There are reckoned to be almost a hundred Russian billionaires who made their fortune in the political and economic chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, but 100 oligarchs can't buy London. There had to be more to it than that.
Naturally, Moscow was hosting an international property show while I was there, and I found myself in a workshop at which eager would-be sellers of UK property heard from experts steeped in the ways of wealthy Russian buyers. Kim Waddoup, who has lived in Moscow for more than 20 years and runs the property show, had a warning for his audience: "Nothing in Russia is quite as it seems."
This is, he stressed, still a developing country, but one with a rapidly growing middle class that has a lot of disposable income which they are keen to invest abroad. Some Russians may actually want to live abroad – not least to escape those long, bitterly cold winters – but for many, said Waddoup, it is primarily a hedge against the periodic crises that afflict an economy overly dependent on oil and gas. Russians trust bricks and mortar in posh parts of London more than they trust the rouble.
But why London, I asked Waddoup after his presentation. "When Russia was first opening up, suddenly everybody saw the market potential here, and patterns were created which people have followed,” he said. “One example was the French arriving with wine – before that we had really wonderful Georgian wines, and nobody knew about French wine. Then suddenly it was, ‘No, I'm going to have French wine; it's much better than the Georgian stuff.’ Similarly, the UK became a place of class, of style. It was where the spies hung out and did their thing."
According to Waddoup, it started with tourism to the UK, and education – Russians are very keen on English public schools, apparently. And in the past 10 years, this has evolved into property buying. Other countries, notably Spain and Cyprus, offer fast-track residency (and eventual citizenship) to buyers of properties of a certain value – in Cyprus's case, just €300,000 (£245,000) – but even without such sweeteners, the UK is more than holding its own. Odd to think that Kim Philby is doing his bit for the British economy.
Waddoup emphasised it is in fact the Russian middle class, not the much-vaunted oligarchs, who are driving the overseas property market. "It has been relatively easy to create businesses here over the past 20 years. People have worked hard, earned a lot of money and now they want to spend it. Just look at shoe shops and restaurants: when a bill in a restaurant comes to over €200, I'm screaming. But rich Russians buy five bottles of wine and don't even finish them." Their philosophy is, apparently: "We have the money. We use it."
A tax rate of 13% and extremely low utility costs mean this growing middle class have plenty of cash. They don't trust Russian banks, so a lot of business is done in cash; one insider said he’d heard of flats being bought on a credit card. The preference for cash also helps with tax evasion: even at 13%, the average Russian thinks paying tax is a crime. And if they can get the money out of the country to a safe haven like the UK, they will. Few rich Russians keep their money in roubles, and the cash flight out of Russia is enormous – alarming even, for an economy that is now stuttering.
Carlo Walther, chief operating officer at Russian property website Idinaidi (it means “go find”), fleshed out these trends for me over breakfast in a friendly, kitschy café filled with Soviet memorabilia in central Moscow. Russians, he said, shouldn't just be thought of as buying in the UK. Many retire to Bulgaria, Spain and France; others opt for New York and Florida. Indeed, the UK is only 10th on Idinaidi's list of the most popular places to buy – however, it is the key destination for what Walther calls the upper-middle class.
"Something like 30% of Russians buying in the UK are doing it to educate their children," he told me, explaining that they will have a holiday home in Spain or France as well as a base in London and a flat in Moscow. "To some extent it's about showing off, but they also see it as their pension. In the 90s here, pensions collapsed and people lost all their savings, so there's still the culture that, if you can take money out of the country, do it just in case."
Walther said Russian buyers are much shrewder than they are portrayed in the media. Oligarchs paying silly money for trophy properties does not reflect the reality of most of the Russians buying million-pound properties in London. "Your average Russian will bargain hard. They have money, but they won't overpay."
When the Soviet Union collapsed, it wasn't just the oligarchs who made money. Everyone who lived in a state flat was able to buy the property very cheaply, creating a property-owning class overnight – a remarkable 81% of Russians are owner-occupiers (though judging by the condition of many of the old Soviet tower blocks, they're yet to band together to maintain them).
In central Moscow, the property that people were able to buy is now worth a great deal of money – at least, the land on which it stands is. Many are selling up and either moving into the country around Moscow or retiring to a resort abroad. The old blocks are being knocked down and rebuilt as luxury flats for the emerging middle class.
Opposite the restaurant where we talked, a block of million-euro flats was being erected. Three-quarters of properties, Walther told me, are bought with cash here. The mortgage market is still in its infancy and interest rates are prohibitive, with banks only slowly becoming more competitive.
Most foreign observers focus on Moscow and St Petersburg, but economic growth in the regions has been considerable. Walther takes the number of Ikeas as a barometer: three stores in Moscow, but another 14 across Russia. On his website, 15% of transactions are in the capital – a big slice of the total, but still only part of the story. "The regions are not one place," he said. "Some are stagnating, but others are powering ahead. There are five or 10 cities, like Yekaterinburg, Kazan, Vladivostok and Magadan, which are growing fast."
The pace of house-building in Russia makes the UK look sclerotic. According to Walther, 2 million new homes were built last year, and half of all transactions are on new properties. Cities are expanding and suburbanising. Expensive new blocks are sprouting in the most desirable central locations, while in the countryside, old wooden dachas are giving way to more imposing properties.
Forget the oligarchs. It is the growing middle class – wealthy and mobile – that is transforming Russian cities and driving the international property boom. Their financial clout and presence in places such as London explains why western governments have turned to financial sanctions in the conflict over Ukraine. But that clout is also the reason why truly biting sanctions are unlikely to be introduced: London, and other major cities, needs the Russians – and their cash – too much.
Anti-FGM campaign at UK airports seeks to stop mutilation of girls
Border Force and Met 'week of action' over illegal procedure intercepts families at Heathrow flying to or from African countries
theguardian.com, Friday 9 May 2014 08.00 BST
Police and UK border officials have been runnning a campaign at airports nationwide to intercept families who could have taken their children abroad for female genital mutilation.
The campaign, designed to raise awareness and promote a zero-tolerance approach to the crime, has been in operation over the last seven days at various airports, including Heathrow.
Police and border officials have stopped families suspected of possibly going abroad for FGM to be performed on young girls, as well as families returning to the UK after cutting of a child's body might have taken place.
Keith Niven, detective chief superintendent at the Met's command dealing with sexual offences, exploitation and child abuse, said: "FGM is illegal and constitutes child abuse. Many communities are familiar with the practice but not of its health risks, the fact that it is illegal within the UK, or that there is no religious basis to it.
"By holding this week of action we intend to raise awareness within communities where these offences are prevalent, by engaging with passengers travelling to and from countries where FGM is practised.
"We hope to educate and prevent anyone who [might] engage in this practice, as well as highlight the support that is available for victims subjected to this horrific offence."
Officers were briefed on what to look for with families returning from area where FGM is performed; the countries included Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Kenya.
Natalie Reseigh, a detective constable, told officers that young girls could often be identified as victims if dressed as "little divas" having undergone what was seen in their culture as a female initiation ceremony.
FGM is allegedly carried out to safeguard a young woman's virginity and her family's honour, and can involve a festival or celebration as part of the ceremony.
"Their dress will be noticeable," she said, of likely victims. "She looks like a mini diva with heels on her shoes, make-up, and wearing beads. Often they are wearing blue make-up. The beads are very symbolic and are put on after the celebration to show the initiation has taken place.
"These girls will still be sore, they may be withdrawn, distanced from their family."
Often the relatives returning with a girl who had been cut were solely female family members, including the mothers, Reseigh added.
The police worked on Thursday with FGM survivors at Heathrow airport, concentrating on two arrivals – British Airways flights from Abuja in Nigeria, and from Sierra Leone.
Hawa Sesay, an FGM survivor, who runs the charity Hawa Trust, said she was put through the procedure at the age of 13 in her home country of Sierra Leone by her aunt.
"Can you imagine it, one knife is used to cut 15 girls – it can transmit HIV, it can transmit other diseases. After cutting in Sierra Leone a lot of girls are left HIV positive. There are serious health issues for the girls who are coming back and who have been cut.
"I have worked with the police and addressed people boarding flights to Nigeria and Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Cairo, this week. I tell them that I am a victim, and now I am a survivor. I tell them that in this country it is forbidden and you can get 14 years in prison if you go out and get it done to your daughter.
"We try and educate them first. I know that when the women got on to the flight to Sierra Leone this week, after we had spoken to them, they would all have been talking on board about what we said, and maybe it has changed some minds.
"First we try and educate them, but if they come back and it has been done to a child, then action has to be taken."
Sariam Kamara, of Forward UK, who was also working with the Met at Heathrow, said: "This is about safeguarding. You might talk to a family coming in and it might be too late, but it will send a clear message out there because people discuss this in their communities afterwards. I am sure the message is being received. We have to target the people going to those countries where FGM happens.
"Most of them do it not with the knowledge that it's against the law here. They do it out of love because it's been passed on from generation to generation. They believe they are doing the right thing for that child.
"But we have to show there is a zero-tolerance approach here. As survivors we have to speak out and explain how this has affected us as a child and as an individual."
Samantha Rigler, head of the Border Force Heathrow safeguarding and trafficking team, said the UK Border Agency was providing intelligence and doing additional checks on passengers in support of the operation.
"We are clear that FGM is child abuse, it is illegal and there can be no excuse for it," she said. "Through operations like this we will continue to work with the Metropolitan police service to identify and protect victims or potential victims, and stop the perpetrators."
MPs: Snowden files are 'embarrassing indictment' of British spying oversight
All-party committee demands reforms to make security and intelligence services accountable in wake of disclosures
Alan Travis, home affairs editor
The Guardian, Friday 9 May 2014
Edward Snowden's disclosures of the scale of mass surveillance are "an embarrassing indictment" of the weak nature of the oversight and legal accountability of Britain's security and intelligence agencies, MPs have concluded.
A highly critical report by the Commons home affairs select committee published on Friday calls for a radical reform of the current system of oversight of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, arguing that the current system is so ineffective it is undermining the credibility of the intelligence agencies and parliament itself.
The MPs say the current system was designed in a pre-internet age when a person's word was accepted without question. "It is designed to scrutinise the work of George Smiley, not the 21st-century reality of the security and intelligence services," said committee chairman, Keith Vaz. "The agencies are at the cutting edge of sophistication and are owed an equally refined system of democratic scrutiny. It is an embarrassing indictment of our system that some in the media felt compelled to publish leaked information to ensure that matters were heard in parliament."
The cross-party report is the first British parliamentary acknowledgement that Snowden's disclosures of the mass harvesting of personal phone and internet data need to lead to serious improvements in the oversight and accountability of the security services.
The MPs call for radical reform of the system of oversight including the election of the membership of the intelligence and security committee, including its chairman, and an end to their exclusive oversight role. Its chairman should also be a member of the largest opposition party, the MPs say, in direct criticism of its current head, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who is a former Conservative foreign secretary.
Rifkind, however, said he had read the report, and had concluded: "The recommendations regarding the ISC are old hat. For several years, Mr Vaz has been trying to expand the powers of his committee so that they can take evidence from MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. This is what this bit of his report is all about."
Rifkind attempted to head off some of the MPs' conclusions by announcing that the ISC would conduct its own inquiry into personal privacy and state surveillance. He also attacked Snowden and his supporters for their "insidious use of language such as mass surveillance and Orwellian" – which, he argued, "blurs, unforgivably, the distinction between a system that uses the state to protect the people, and one that uses the state to protect itself against the people".
However, a complete overhaul of the "part-time" and under-resourced system of oversight commissioners is recommended by the MPs, as is an end to some of the secrecy surrounding the Investigatory Powers Tribunal – the only body that is able to investigate individual complaints against the security agencies.
A parliamentary inquiry into the principal legal framework that legitimises state communications surveillance, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, should be launched, they say, to bring it up to date with modern technology and improve its oversight safeguards.
The committee also voices strong concerns that a data protection ruling by the European court of justice last month has left the legality of the bulk collection of communications data by the phone and internet companies in serious doubt. "It is essential that the legal position be resolved clearly and promptly," say the MPs, who reveal that the home secretary, Theresa May, has ordered urgent work into the ruling's full implications for the police and security services.
The MPs say they decided to look at the oversight of the intelligence agencies following the theft of a number of National Security Agency documents by Snowden in order to publicise the mass surveillance programmes run by a number of national intelligence agencies.
Their report says Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, responded to criticism of newspapers that decided to publish Snowden's disclosures, including the head of MI6's claim that it was "a gift to terrorists", by saying that the alternative would be that the next Snowden would just "dump the stuff on the internet".
The MPs say: "One of the reasons that Edward Snowden has cited for releasing the documents is that he believes the oversight of security and intelligence agencies is not effective. It is important to note that when we asked British civil servants – the national security adviser and the head of MI5 – to give evidence to us they refused. In contrast, Mr Rusbridger came before us and provided open and transparent evidence."
The report makes clear the intelligence chiefs should drop their boycott of wider parliamentary scrutiny. "Engagement with elected representatives is not, in itself, a danger to national security and to continue to insist so is hyperbole," it says.
But a move by Labour and Lib Dem MPs to congratulate the Guardian and other media outlets for "responsibly reporting" the disclosures – saying they had opened a "wide and international public debate" – was voted down by four Tory MPs.
SYvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said the report showed there was a cross-party consensus behind Labour's proposals, including reform of the commissioners system and an opposition chair of the ISC. "The government should now set out plans for oversight reforms," she said.
Nick Clegg has also outlined proposals for reforming the oversight system.
Cooper added that the select committee had added their voice to the growing number of MPs, who were calling for reform. She said that the police and security services needed to keep up with the challenges of the digital age but stronger safeguards and limits to protect personal privacy and sustain confidence in their vital were also needed: "The oversight and legal frameworks are now out of date," said the shadow home secretary.Emma Carr, of Big Brother Watch, the privacy campaign group, said: "When a senior committee of parliament says that the current oversight of our intelligence agencies is not fit for purpose, ineffective and undermines the credibility of parliament, the government cannot and must not continue to bury its head in the sand."
Last night, a statement by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) and the Terrorism and Allied Matters (TAM) Board – consisting of assistant commissioner Cressida Dick, chief constable Sara Thornton, chief constable Sir Peter Fahy, chief constable Chris Sims, chief constable Mark Gilmore and chief constable Matt Baggott – said they were "concerned" the committee had recommended that responsibility for counter-terrorism policing should be moved to the National Crime Agency.
The statement described it as "a decision that does not appear to supported by the evidence and is based on an apparent misunderstanding of the role played by the Metropolitan Police Service."Counter-terrorism policing is not directed through a single lead force but rather has responsibility vested in nine chief constables across the UK in areas where the threat is considered to be the greatest. These chief constables act collaboratively and effectively on behalf of all forces, while at the same time maintaining close and critical links into local policing."
The statement added: "The Home Secretary has previously confirmed that she will conduct a review of counter-terrorism structures. We welcome any such review and look forward to participating fully and constructively in it. "
The Home Office said: "Our security agencies and law enforcement agencies operate within a strict legal and policy framework and under the tightest of controls and oversight mechanisms. This represents one of the strongest systems of checks and balances and democratic accountability for secret intelligence anywhere in the world."
MPs' verdict on spying oversight: a system fit for Smiley, not 21st century
Home affairs committee demands wide reforms to make systems of accountability as 'cutting edge' as security agencies
Alan Travis, home affairs editor
The Guardian, Friday 9 May 2014
Regulation of Britain's intelligence agencies is so weak and ineffective that it undermines their credibility and that of parliament, the all-party Commons home affairs committee has concluded.
The MPs say the security and intelligence agencies are operating at the cutting edge of sophistication, but their systems of accountability belong to a pre-internet age when a person's word was accepted without question.
The current system makes scrutiny of the work of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ the exclusive preserve of parliament's intelligence and security committee, which takes nearly all its evidence in secret. It includes a network of oversight commissioners, a tribunal to deal with complaints and a legal framework set out in the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa).
The committee says the current ISC, which is chaired by the former Tory foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind with its membership nominated by the prime minister, is ineffective, and that oversight of the intelligence agencies should no longer be its exclusive preserve. Its members, including its chair, they say, should be MPs and elected by all MPs, like other select committees. In a direct criticism of Rifkind, they say the chair should also always be a member of the largest opposition party.
The intelligence chiefs refused to give evidence in public to the home affairs committee and while the MPs recognise the importance of limiting access to confidential documents, they say: "We ought to be able to take oral evidence from the head of the security service. Engagement with elected representatives is not, in itself, a danger to national security and to continue to insist so is hyperbole."
They add: "One of the reasons that Edward Snowden has cited for releasing the documents is that he believes that the oversight of security and intelligence agencies is not effective. It is important to note that when we asked British civil servants – the national security adviser and the head of MI5 – to give evidence to us they refused. In contrast, Alan Rusbridger [editor of the Guardian] came before us and provided open and transparent evidence."
The MPs voice serious concern that Sir Mark Waller, the intelligence services commissioner, appeared to confine his "thorough" investigation into the Snowden allegations and whether GCHQ had been acting illegally to a single conversation with the second-in-command of GCHQ. They reprint their exchange with him:
"Chair: How did you satisfy yourself? It seems, from your comment, that what you did was you had a discussion with them, you heard what they had to say and you have accepted what they had to say.
Sir Mark Waller: Certainly.
Chair: Is that it?
Chair: Just a discussion?
Chair: Nothing else?
Waller failed to clarify the point that his verdict was based on a single conversation when given a second chance but later wrote to the MPs to say he had seen other GCHQ officials, including the head of GCHQ, Sir Iain Lobban.
The MPs also say it is "unacceptable that there is so much confusion around the work of the intelligence services commissioner and the interception-of-communications commissioner". They raise concerns that the various commissioners are part-time; that one of them only has a personal assistant as his staff; and that fewer than 10% of phone-tapping warrants are examined.
Investigatory powers tribunal
This is the only body that can investigate individual complaints against the intelligence services. The MPs say it should be required at least to publish an annual report that includes the number of cases it has received, their outcome and which agencies were involved.
Legality of data retention
The committee's report highlights a recent data protection judgment by the European court of justice on 8 April which the MPs say leaves in doubt whether telephone and internet companies can still legally store communications data – details of everyone's phone and internet use – for up to two years, and whether the Home Office can continue to pay them to do so. This capability is a crucial part of the current system of surveillance."The security and intelligence agencies are staffed by brave men and women who in many cases risk their lives to protect this country," say the MPs. "The best way to honour them is by ensuring there are no questions about their integrity and in order to prove this, there must be adequate scrutiny of their actions."
The MPs say the legislation that covers surveillance is in need of review, and that a joint committee of both houses of parliament should hold an inquiry into how it should be updated. They say the legislation is unclear, over-complex, does not cover all data collection, and needs updating with modern technology and improved oversight.
US versus UK
The committee highlights the advantages of the US system. "It is obvious that the latitude afforded to congressional committees to examine intelligence matters by the executive is perhaps the key difference between the US system and the UK system where the government consistently refuses to allow committees other than the ISC to ask questions on the work of the security and intelligence agencies.
"Given that a number of important issues have been raised and debated as part of the work of the judiciary committees, it is perhaps telling that the debate has been more charged in the US where representatives are able to scrutinise the work of such agencies."
India admits Delhi matches Beijing for air pollution threatening public health
World Health Organisation study finds Indian capital had dirtiest atmosphere of 1,600 cities around the world for PM2.5 particles
AFP in Delhi
theguardian.com, Thursday 8 May 2014 15.50 BST
India's state air monitoring centre has admitted that pollution in Delhi is comparable to that of Beijing, but disputed a World Health Organisation (WHO) finding that the Indian capital had the dirtiest atmosphere in the world.
A study of 1,600 cities across 91 countries released on Wednesday by the WHO showed Delhi had the world's highest annual average concentration of small airborne particles (known as PM2.5) of 153.
These extremely fine particles of less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter are linked with increased rates of chronic bronchitis, lung cancer and heart disease as they penetrate deep into the lungs and can pass into the bloodstream.
Indian officials in the past have bristled at research showing the capital as being worse than Beijing where thick smog has triggered public health warnings and public concern that are mostly absent in Delhi.
"If we compare yearly averages for each year from 2011-2014 then both cities [Delhi and Beijing] are almost comparable," Gufran Beig from India's state-run System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) acknowledged in an email sent to AFP.
He disputed the figure cited by the WHO for PM2.5 in Delhi, however, saying it should have been in the range of 110-120 micrograms per cubic metre instead of 153.
Beijing's was underestimated at 56, he said, and should have been double this, according to an analysis of readings given out by the US embassy in the city.
"Delhi's air quality is better than Beijing in summer and much better in monsoon season," he added. "It is winter pollution in Delhi and sudden spikes – which is quite high as compared to Beijing – triggered by meteorology."
Beig maintained that the WHO figures contained in a searchable database released on Wednesday were biased and misleading.
But even with an annual average PM2.5 reading of 110-120, Delhi would still be among the world's most polluted cities, if not the outright worst.
Rivals would be the Pakistani city of Karachi with an annual reading of 117, while the regional Indian cities of Gwalior, Patna and Raipur reported 144, 149 and 134 respectively.
By comparison, London had an annual PM2.5 reading of 16.
"The latest urban air-quality database released by the World Health Organisation reconfirms that most Indian cities are becoming death traps because of very high air pollution levels," said an Indian campaign group, the Centre for Science and Environment.
The centre said that 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world were in India.
The small particles blighting the air of Delhi and other leading developing cities around the world are often dust from construction sites, pollution from diesel engines or industrial emissions.
The Indian capital also suffers from atmospheric dust blown in from the deserts of the western state of Rajasthan, as well as pollution from open fires lit by the urban poor to keep warm in winter or to cook food.
While Delhi ranked as worst on the PM2.5 scale in the WTO data, measurements of larger PM10 particles showed others as far more polluted.
Peshawar and Rawalpindi in neighbouring Pakistan trumped all other cities with readings of 540 and 448 respectively. WHO says concentrations of PM10 particles should remain below 20 micrograms per cubic metre, averaged out over the year.
Delhi has had its air quality under scrutiny for some time now with research by Yale University scientists in January this year also suggesting that it was worse than Beijing.
A World Bank report last year that surveyed 132 countries ranked India 126th for environmental performance and worst for air pollution.
The WHO stressed that its new air pollution database, which relies mainly on data gathered by the cities themselves, did not aim to rank cities, pointing out that "some of the worst ones ... are not collecting data regularly."
Thai Protesters Launch 'Final Fight' as Government Clings on
by Naharnet Newsdesk
09 May 2014, 07:06
Thai protesters vowed Friday to besiege television stations and police positions as they launched a launched a "final fight" to topple a government that is on the ropes after its leader was dismissed.
Several thousand protesters left their main encampment in a park in the city's commercial district as their firebrand leader Suthep Thaugsuban issued a rallying cry for them to establish a parallel government.
"We will regain our sovereign power and set up a people's government and a people's legislative council," Suthep said before leading a march to Government House, which has been targeted by protesters for months.
"We will march on all television stations... we ask city residents to surround police cars and police headquarters to stop them from hurting our people," he added.
Suthep is known for his hyperbolic statements and, with the government weakened but still standing, the call for a unilateral administration appears to lack any legal ground.
Although buffeted by the removal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Wednesday by the Constitutional Court on abuse of power charges, the current Puea Thai administration has staggered on.
It has appointed Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan as its new premier and won a reprieve on Thursday as the kingdom's anti-graft panel stepped back from hauling more cabinet members into a separate indictment against Yingluck over a costly rice subsidy scheme.
There were fears the agency could have moved against the remainder of the government to complete a "judicial coup" and create a power vacuum that could have been filled by an appointed leader.
Hundreds of police were deployed to manage Friday's protests, as fears simmered of street clashes between rival groups. Police said some 4,500 anti-government protesters were marching from their encampment at Bangkok's Lumpini Park.
Thailand's pro-government "Red Shirts" are set to rally Saturday in a Bangkok suburb, raising the risky prospect of the two protest groups being on the city's streets at the same time.
At least 25 people have died and hundreds more have been wounded in gun and grenade attacks linked to six months of anti-government protests.
Both sides have armed hardcore supporters and Thailand's recent history has been scarred by bouts of political violence.
Scores of people died in a military crackdown on "Red Shirts" occupying Bangkok's commercial centre in 2010.
Thailand has been bitterly divided since 2006 when Yingluck's billionaire brother Thaksin was ousted in a a military coup.
Three Thaksin-aligned premiers have since been removed by the nations' courts, sparking accusations that the judiciary is in cahoots with the anti-government protesters, who are drawn from the Bangkok establishment and royalist south.
They hate the Shinawatras who they accuse of fostering massive corruption and draining the kingdom's coffers to sweeten Thaksin's rural electoral base in the poor but populous north and northeast.
The opposition also accuse Thaksin of undermining the nation's beloved but ailing king.
Thaksin lives overseas to avoid jail for corruption convictions he contends were politically motivated, but still draws loyalty from his rural heartlands who have voted his parties into power in every election since 2001.
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
India Election Digest: May 9
By SUHASINI RAJ
May 8, 2014, 11:43 pm
What you need to know on Friday about India’s elections: You can’t escape talk of politics in Varanasi, the Bharatiya Janata Party leaders are accusing the Election Commission of bias, and the leaders of the two main national parties mention alliance possibilities.
News and analysis on the world’s largest election.
Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party allege that the Election Commission is biased for the current Congress-led administration. (Business Standard)
It’s all politics, all the time in Varanasi, where both Mr. Modi and Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party are contesting. (Scroll.in)
Mr. Modi and Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress party are both leaving the door open for possible alliance partners. (The Indian Express)
The number of super-rich candidates has more than tripled in this election compared with 2009. (Business Standard)
The residents of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s home village in Bihar are upbeat as they anticipate a comeback by the Rashtriya Janata Dal party leader. (The Indian Express)
The Bahujan Samaj Party’s uncharacteristically quiet campaign in Uttar Pradesh is by design, party leaders said.
The battle between the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh appears to be helping the B.J.P. (Hindustan Times)
If Mr. Modi becomes the next prime minister, his estranged, reclusive wife will be entitled to special protection. (The Times of India)
Can there be a “Modi wave” in the Indian stock market if the market is doing worse than its emerging-economy peers? (Mint)
Is China losing faith in North Korea?
Beijing's contingency plans for the fall of Kim Jong-un have apparently been leaked to the media. What does this mean for Pyongyang's relations with its only major ally?
North Korea network expert panel
theguardian.com, Friday 9 May 2014 11.07 BST
When Japanese media reported that it had been leaked copies of China's contingency plans for the collapse of North Korea, some more excitable reports suggested that it could soon be "all over" for Kim Jong-un's regime. We asked a panel of North Korean experts whether they thought the documents were genuine and, if so, what could be concluded from a leak of this sort.
One aspect of the leaked Chinese contingency plan is monumental – if it were true. But it is so implausible it suggests this report must be bogus.
We have heard only vague details about the plan. Apparently it envisions a scenario in which North Korea’s government collapses after foreign military forces enter the country. As the Guardian reported: “The possible causes of upheaval in the North include an attack by an unnamed foreign force that triggers the collapse of the regime, sending civilians and soldiers across the border with China.”
The plan then apparently goes on to discuss various Chinese responses, such as setting up refugee camps, detaining North Korean elites, and preventing armed members of the North Korean military from entering China.
Take a step back and think about the scenario on which this plan is based. It suggests that if foreign military forces (presumably the United States and South Korea) invaded North Korea, China would not react by coming to the defence of North Korea (as it is obliged to do as Pyongyang’s ally) but would allow the regime to be conquered and/or collapse. Only after this collapse would China act – not on North Korea’s behalf, but to ensure that instability does not spread into China.
If this were true – that China would not act in defence of North Korea at the time of an invasion – this is momentous news. But there are two reasons why this makes no sense
If this were true – that China would not act in defence of North Korea at the time of an invasion – this is momentous news indeed. But there are two reasons why this makes no sense, thus suggesting that the report is bogus.
First, if China did decide to abandon its military alliance with North Korea, it would not announce this through a leak in this odd way. Putting aside whether or not China might actually do this (which is a whole other issue), the way in which Beijing would go about this momentous policy change would be to convey it very privately to US and South Korean leaders.
Secondly, the United States and South Korea have long urged China to pressure the North Korean government, to punish or deter it from engaging in destabilising behaviour (missile and nuclear tests, the use of force, and so forth). A Chinese abrogation of its alliance with North Korea would be quite welcome news to those countries – and thus presumably Beijing would never do it without negotiating significant concessions from Seoul and Washington.
China would never, in other words, give this away for free. Thus the sheer improbability of what would constitute a truly monumental policy change – let alone the way the change was communicated – casts doubt on the veracity of the leaked report.
Here’s what we know for sure. North Korea has limped by despite its poverty and weakness, and may continue to do so for decades to come. Or it might collapse next week.
Here’s what we know for sure. North Korea has limped by despite its poverty and weakness, and may continue to do so for decades to come. Or it might collapse next week. If the government does collapse, the Korean peninsula could erupt in a humanitarian, political and military crisis that threatens the broader stability of East Asia.
Bruce W Bennett, of the thinktank Rand, and I modelled the military missions that countries might perform in the event of North Korean collapse. We calculated that stabilising the peninsula could require hundreds of thousands of troops. Drawing up contingency plans (as the United States, South Korea and, yes, also China have all been doing) is therefore vital. But even more importantly, those countries need to have a dialogue about this contingency, to mitigate the dangers that it might create in East Asian international relations.
The leaked news that Beijing has drawn up significant contingency plans in the event of a regime collapse in North Korea (DPRK) reflects just how little Kim Jong-un has managed to reassure the Chinese authorities that he is securely in power. Clearly China believes his hold on power to be fragile.
We’ve been here before. Ramping up of contingency plans for a crisis on China’s border with the DPRK has occurred previously when Beijing’s analysts have felt collapse may be imminent. In 2003, in the wake of a failed economic reform programme, initiated by Kim Jong-il, and a growing nuclear crisis, a large contingent of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops were moved into the border region of Yanbian in China’s south-eastern Jilin Province. High voltage fences were erected along portions of the rather porous border to prevent an escalation in defections across the Yalu River.
Clearly China believes Kim Jong-un's hold on power to be fragile.
China’s plans come hot on the heels of a flurry of renewed interest in the North from Seoul and are, in part, probably a reaction to it.
The South Korean president, Park Chung-hee, recently formed a "committee to prepare for reunification" – really just a polite way of saying South Korea needs to prepare for the worst scenario of forced regime change and ensuing chaos.
Beijing clearly worries about a massive influx of refugees and an ousted Kim3 trying to re-establish his power base from Chinese soil; Seoul knows it would face a humanitarian disaster that would cost multiples of German reunification and perilously threaten the South’s economy.
The presence of 30,000 or so American GIs in the South moving up to China’s borders obviously alarms the PLA, while Seoul wonders what it would do with the DPRK’s 1.2m-man army and the possibility of “last ditch” attacks on its territory.
The fact is though that now is a time to plan for collapse.
The fact is, though, that now is a time to plan for collapse. Kim Jong-un has not achieved the status of his father and grandfather as yet. His purging of senior cadres has led to nervousness among the higher echelons of power in Pyongyang and not consolidation. His half-hearted economic reforms (the so-called “6.28 Policy” of handing more control to agricultural co-operatives and a “Quality of Life” initiative to more widely distribute consumer goods) have both failed. The North remains mired in poverty, food insecurity and with an uncertain leadership.
That China should be heightening its preparations for a collapse across the Yalu, and directly warning the North to avoid "chaos", is important.
It reveals that Beijing believes the economic and political situation to be worsening and that elements on the North’s ruling Korean Workers’ Party that have been urging more wholesale economic reform (known loosely in Beijing as the Chrysanthemum Group) are distinctly on the back foot, if not now almost wholly purged.
It also indicates that Beijing now believes that any return to the economic reform programme of 2002, instigated by Kim Jong-il, is now off the cards. Those reforms, which ultimately failed, did include the seeds of a Chinese style "reform and opening up" policy but went nowhere near far enough. Kim Jong-un has little to offer in the way of policy except more of the same "Arduous march” North Koreans have had to endure since 1993.
This leak of documents outlining how the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) would respond to a collapse in North Korea does not necessarily mean that China thinks that such a collapse is now more likely. It is more probable that the leak's timing was determined by internal Chinese debates.
In late 2013, China was showing signs of greater openness in discussing what to do if North Korea collapsed. But in early spring 2014 this changed, and Chinese officials have since then been very reluctant to discuss the possibility that North Korea might collapse, let alone contingencies for such an event. (Perhaps this was because of rising tensions with Japan and a consequent Chinese reluctance to risk irritating North Korea, its only ally, by discussing that country's possible demise).
Whatever the reasons for this leak it will infuriate North Korea, whose ties with China are already strained.
This change must have been very frustrating to the PLA, who would have to deal in the first instance with the fallout of any North Korean collapse, and who therefore need clear direction from the civilian political leadership on what they should do.
So perhaps the PLA leaked these documents so as to force the civilian leadership into a proper debate on these difficult issues. (The sharp response to the leak by the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs, which has no love for the PLA, supports this view. Its Asia directorate has been strongly against allowing even an internal debate on a North Korean collapse, let alone a discussion with foreigners).
I suspect that the PLA's move will be welcomed in both Washington and Seoul, both of whom have been pressing the Chinese to share thoughts on contingencies so as to avoid possibly dangerous misunderstandings in the inevitable confusion of such a collapse.
The document is significant too for what it does not say. On several occasions South Korea has worried aloud that, should North Korea collapse, Chinese troops might enter North Korea to maintain stability there. As far as I can tell without seeing the full document (which has not been published), these plans envisage no such move. It is possible therefore that the PLA leaked them in part so as to reassure South Korea, a country with which China now enjoys very good relations and with whose president senior Chinese leaders seem to have a warm personal rapport.
Whatever the reasons for this leak it will infuriate North Korea, whose ties with China are already strained. There have been reports of a placard in North Korea's main military academy reading “The Chinese are traitors and are our enemies” and Chinese attempts to disown the leaked documents are unlikely to persuade North Koreans to change this view.
Sadly this leak may well increase the chances that North Korea does go ahead with a fourth nuclear test.
The Pentagon recently noted what appear to be the final preparations for a detonation at North Korea's nuclear test site and, sadly, this leak – which will reinforce North Korea's belief that it is isolated and needs to be strong in a hostile world – may well increase the chances that North Korea does go ahead with a fourth nuclear test.
Kyodo’s report about leaked Chinese military documents outlining what to do in the case of a North Korean collapse raises more questions than it answers.
In the age of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, readers expect maximum transparency. As a leading news agency, if Kyodo really obtained Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) planning documents for what to do in case of North Korean collapse, they should post them online.
Barring that, one would naturally expect their news report to quote extensively from the original documents. To my great disappointment, bordering on disbelief, quotation marks are merited only twice in referring to the plans, and for relatively trivial phrases.
However much Kyodo saw of these documents, the next critical question is who showed it to them and why? But the report is frustratingly ambiguous as to how Kyodo learned about the contents of China’s plan. There is one reference to "Chinese military sources say…" – suggesting this was the manner in which the documents were obtained. But this is insinuated rather than explicit.
This is an absolutely critical point. If a Chinese military officer (at what level? Aacting on what authority?) purposefully leaked information, then the story here is that the PLA – or certain elements within the PLA – wants to send a message to Pyongyang. This is a rather indirect means of communication, but not inconceivable as a way to send an ally the unpleasant message that our patience is running thin, so don’t push us too far.
The PLA would be reinforcing recent Chinese foreign ministry warnings against North Korea conducting a fourth nuclear test and “causing turmoil at China’s doorstep” – but in a way that the foreign ministry can still vociferously deny the existence of such documents. Given the recent demotion of Choe Ryong-hae, who acted as Kim Jong-un’s personal envoy to China last year, and the dramatic execution of previous China envoy Jang Song-taek, such circuitous signalling might also be related to Chinese frustration at the lack of direct channels to Pyongyang.
But what if Kyodo’s report is not based on a PLA leak? Then we have to ask where they got what purports to be highly classified information. The most nearby source of course would be Japanese; South Korean or American origin would also be logical, and the purpose would probably be to sow doubt about North Korean stability (even their ally, the Chinese, are preparing for imminent collapse!) and/or destabilise the China-North Korea relationship. The Chinese foreign ministry suggested as much when asked about the Kyodo report.
It would be woefully irresponsible of the PLA not to have drafted contingency plans for numerous scenarios on their northeast border
On the one hand, Beijing’s denial of such plans is hard to believe – it would be woefully irresponsible of the PLA not to have drafted and periodically revise contingency plans for numerous scenarios on their north-east border (North Korean collapse being just one of those scenarios). On the other hand, the foreign ministry’s contention that the story was planted "for ulterior motives" could very well be true.
By revealing so little of the supposed documents and obfuscating the facts of their acquisition, the Kyodo report in the end tells us very little about Chinese assessments of North Korea’s stability or its planning process for how to deal with various destabilising scenarios that could occur along their 800 mile border.
The sparse details mentioned in the report about setting up refugee camps, dispatching reconnaissance teams, and offering safe haven to exiled North Korean leaders are too vague to be of much edification. Does Kyodo actually have these documents in hand? Did a PLA source leak them as a warning to Pyongyang? Or did a third party disclose a few details from "documents" for their own reasons? Without more extensive reporting from Kyodo, there is no way to tell.
And until then, there is not much to learn here, except another reminder that just about every catchy North Korea headline should add a warning – Caution: Contents May Have Shifted During Flight.
One of the things you quickly realise from travelling along the full length of the Chinese border with North Korea is just how much of North Korea there is. China’s boundary stretches along four northern frontier provinces of the DPRK, stretching for hundreds of kilometres along the Yalu and Tumen rivers. Along those tributaries, there are at least five good-sized North Korean cities (Sinuiju, Manpo, Hyesan, Musan, and Hoeryong) which could easily absorb China’s attention during a crisis.
Whilst we tend to imagine a wholesale collapse scenario where chaos radiates outward from Pyongyang, we might better examine the possibility of chaos farther from the bright and labyrinthine capital city – and far closer to China. For instance, we might see a chemical accident in Sinuiju, “terrorism” directed at Kimist monuments in Hyesan, the forcible expropriation of Chinese mining concerns within the DPRK, a nuclear accident or even a volcanic eruption.
China is of course planning to handle such problems, but not for the first time.
China is of course planning to handle such problems, but not for the first time. Documents in the Chinese Foreign Ministry Archive describe China’s intensive interactions with the DPRK during the last full-scale collapse scenario in 1950. China was able to absorb about 10,000 North Korean refugees on either end of the border, and the DPRK was pressing to set up consulates up and down the frontier so that they could themselves keep track of the outflow. At that time, North Korean military units moved into Chinese territory to escape bombing by US planes – such as happened in Hyesan.
The North Koreans have hardly forgotten the war or China’s massive aid and stationing of troops until 1958, but the recent warming between Seoul and Beijing is clearly troubling; Kim Jong-un’s level of trust in Chinese comrades is as limited as his contact with them. The international community needs to understand that North Korea doesn’t simply fear American nuclear missiles, nuclear submarines, and nuclear-capable bombers; the country’s leadership also is concerned about falling unwillingly into the embrace of its huge northern neighbour.
Travels to the frontier region, and conversations with China’s own North Korea experts, help to contextualise that the real struggle along that frontier is likely to be above all economic and cultural. But China does need to be ready for a catastrophe; appearing helpless before its own population in the face of the North Korean equivalent of Fukushima is not a scenario the Chinese Communist Party wants to face.
Adam Cathcart is a lecturer in Chinese History at University of Leeds, and Editor-in-Chief of SinoNK.com
How can China not be preparing for the possible collapse of the North Korean regime?
Especially now, when things are so different compared to how they were under Kim Jong-il. The Pyongyang power structures have changed so much, and China knows this more than any other country. Kim Jong-un does not have the same level of control as his father did. It is like North Korea is wearing full-frontal Kevlar riot gear, but at the back it is naked. All the world focuses on the Kevlar, and does not seem to see the extreme weakness.
I believe that within the next five years we will see major changes in North Korea, and how China responds to this in particular will have great bearing on North Korea’s future. The borders [between the two countries] are already more porous - of course China must prepare for the what the regime’s collapse could bring. In the meantime, the international community should be focussing on the human rights situation within North Korea, and trying to understand the country better. This is key to bringing real change to the people.
Jang Jin-Sung was a propaganda poet for Kim Jong-il's regime before he defected in 2004. He is now director of the North Korean news outlet New Focus and author of Dear Leader, published by Rider
Chinese experts 'in discussions' over building high-speed Beijing-US railway
'China-Russia-Canada-America line' would run for 13,000km across Siberia and pass under Bering Strait through 200km tunnel
Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing
The Guardian, Thursday 8 May 2014 20.00 BST
China is considering plans to build a high-speed railway line to the US, the country's official media reported on Thursday.
The proposed line would begin in north-east China and run up through Siberia, pass through a tunnel underneath the Pacific Ocean then cut through Alaska and Canada to reach the continental US, according to a report in the state-run Beijing Times newspaper.
Crossing the Bering Strait in between Russia and Alaska would require about 200km (125 miles) of undersea tunnel, the paper said, citing Wang Mengshu, a railway expert at the Chinese Academy of Engineering.
"Right now we're already in discussions. Russia has already been thinking about this for many years," Wang said.
The project – nicknamed the "China-Russia-Canada-America" line – would run for 13,000km, about 3,000km further than the Trans-Siberian Railway. The entire trip would take two days, with the train travelling at an average of 350km/h (220mph).
The reported plans leave ample room for skepticism. No other Chinese railway experts have come out in support of the proposed project. Whether the government has consulted Russia, the US or Canada is also unclear. The Bering Strait tunnel alone would require an unprecedented feat of engineering – it would be the world's longest undersea tunnel – four times the length of the Channel Tunnel.
According to the state-run China Daily, the tunnel technology is "already in place" and will be used to build a high-speed railway between the south-east province of Fujian and Taiwan. "The project will be funded and constructed by China," it said. "The details of this project are yet to be finalised."
The Beijing Times listed the China-US line as one of four international high-speed rail projects currently in the works. The first is a line that would run from London via Paris, Berlin, Warsaw, Kiev and Moscow, where it would split into two routes, one of which would run to China through Kazakhstan and the other through eastern Siberia. The second line would begin in the far-western Chinese city of Urumqi and then run through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey to Germany. The third would begin in the south-western city of Kunming and end in Singapore. The routes are under various stages of planning and development, the paper said.
Wang was not immediately available for comment. A man who picked up the phone at his office said he was traveling and would not respond to interview requests."
• This article was amended on Friday 9 May 2014. The project is nicknamed the "China-Russia-Canada-America" line, not the "China-Russia plus America line" as we said first. This has been corrected.
China Flexes Its Muscles in Dispute With Vietnam
By JANE PERLEZ and RICK GLADSTONE
MAY 8, 2014
BEIJING — China’s escalating dispute with Vietnam over contested waters in the South China Sea sent new shudders through Asia on Thursday as China demanded the withdrawal of Vietnamese ships near a giant Chinese drilling rig and for the first time acknowledged its vessels had blasted the Vietnamese flotilla with water cannons in recent days.
While China characterized the use of water cannons as a form of restraint, it punctuated the increasingly muscular stance by the Chinese toward a growing number of Asian neighbors who fear they are vulnerable to bullying by China and its increasingly powerful military. The latest back-and-forth in the dispute with Vietnam — the most serious in the South China Sea in years — sent the Vietnamese stock market plunging on Thursday and elicited concern from a top American diplomat who was visiting Hanoi.
Political and economic historians said the China-Vietnam tensions signaled a hardening position by the Chinese over what they regard as their “core interest” in claiming sovereignty over a vastly widened swath of coastal waters that stretch from the Philippines and Indonesia north to Japan. In Chinese parlance, they say, “core interest” means there is no room for compromise.
“I find it quite alarming, because it was not so many years ago that there was a relatively tranquil relationship between China and its neighbors,” said Orville Schell, a China scholar who is the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York.
“Now we have a picture that’s slowly pixelating, from Indonesia, to Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Japan, up the neighborhood,” Mr. Schell said in a telephone interview. “We begin to get a picture of stress and strain. This is not exactly the peaceful rise of China that we were advertised.”
While Mr. Schell said he did not necessarily foresee an armed conflict — a view echoed by others — he said the Chinese had “created a climate where it will be very hard for China to exist in this state of fraternal relations with its neighbors.”
The tensions with Vietnam began last week when a state-owned Chinese energy company moved the drilling rig into position in waters that Vietnam claims, and intensified this week as ships sent by both countries faced off.
On Thursday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official said that Vietnamese ships had rammed Chinese vessels as many as 171 times over four days. The announcement followed accusations by Vietnam on Wednesday that Chinese ships had rammed its vessels early this week.
The Chinese say Vietnam has dispatched 35 ships to the area, while the Vietnamese say China has deployed about 80 vessels.
The movement of the drilling rig, analysts said, was among the most assertive steps China has taken to solidify claims over both the South China Sea, one of the world’s major trading routes, and the East China Sea.
In November, Beijing declared an air defense zone over a band of the East China Sea, including islands that both China and Japan claim, and demanded that other countries notify the Chinese authorities before their planes pass through the airspace. Although the United States military and Japanese aircraft flouted the demands, analysts have suggested the air defense zone helps China build a case for gaining control over the disputed islands, which Japan administers.
China also appears to have tightened its hold over a reef called Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, which the Philippines claims.
The disputes have raised concerns in Washington, which has been trying to calibrate its response to the various territorial claims. The Obama administration has courted countries in Southeast Asia as a counterbalance to China’s power, but it has also been trying not to antagonize the Chinese.
On Thursday, the American assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Daniel R. Russel, who was on a trip to Hanoi, said that the latest dispute had been a major topic of his discussions there.
“We oppose any act of intimidation by vessels, particularly in disputed areas,” he said. The United States did not take a position on the competing claims of sovereignty, he added, but the disputes need to be “dealt with diplomatically and must be dealt with in accordance to international laws.”
The conflicts center in part on a competition for natural resources, including what some believe are substantial deposits of oil and gas beneath the seabed. China has been particularly eager to find energy reserves to feed its growing industrial needs.
The oil rig in the South China Sea was stationed there by China National Offshore Oil Corporation, or Cnooc, 120 nautical miles off Vietnam.
Yi Xianliang, deputy director general of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs of China’s Foreign Ministry, who acknowledged Thursday that China had used water cannons, said, “They are the most gentle measure we can take when trying to keep the other side out.”
But he added that China’s oil drilling operations were legal because they were in “China’s inherent territory.”
China is prepared to negotiate with Vietnam to solve the dispute, Mr. Yi said, but first Vietnam must end its “disruption” and remove its vessels from the area near the rig. There have been 14 “rounds of communication” between the two sides in the past few days, Mr. Yi added.
In the past, Vietnam and China have resolved some disputes by holding talks, and Mr. Yi said that relations between the two countries had improved in recent years. But the latest conflict has unsettled Vietnam and contributed on Thursday to a 5.9 percent drop in the country’s key stock market index, its biggest one-day decline in 13 years.
The oil rig is about 17 nautical miles from disputed islands known in the West as the Paracels, in Vietnam as the Hoang Sa and in China as the Xisha. Dennis C. McCornac, a professor at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, said China’s assertiveness was partly aimed at a domestic audience, and that Beijing’s leaders were not interested in fighting with Vietnam.
“I think China and Vietnam have a lot of economic interests that are tied to each other,” he said. “I can’t see a war. That doesn’t make sense for anyone.
Ugly Words From North Korea
By CHOE SANG-HUN
MAY 8, 2014
SEOUL, South Korea — After President Obama and South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, warned North Korea of harsher sanctions if it continued pursuing nuclear weapons, the North has responded with harsh invective against both leaders.
Last week, the state-run Korean Central News Agency posted a racist rant against Mr. Obama, saying a steel mill worker had made the slurs and quoting him at length.
But in the North, no ordinary citizen quoted in the state media says anything that deviates from the official line, and what are presented as interviews with people on the street are often used to propagate the government’s message. The release of the dispatch was reported on the website of The Washington Post. It contained comments from three other people aside from the steel worker and released last Friday, and unlike one from the same day that insulted Ms. Park, it had no matching English translation on the news agency’s website.
At an April 25 meeting, Mr. Obama and Ms. Park appeared to reaffirm that they would not engage North Korea with dialogue or other incentives unless it took steps toward abandoning its nuclear weapons development.
Pyongyang’s tone turned markedly uglier after that. On April 27, a North Korean government agency called Ms. Park a “dirty prostitute” in thrall to the “pimp” Obama.
U.S., Philippine Marines Hold Drills on Flashpoint South China Sea
by Naharnet Newsdesk
09 May 2014, 12:25
Scores of U.S. and Filipino marines launched mock assaults on a South China Sea beach in the Philippines Friday, as a row escalates between Beijing and its smaller neighbors over the strategic waters.
The drills, part of annual war games between the two countries, came after Vietnam said its vessels were rammed by Chinese ships protecting a deep-sea oil rig in disputed waters off Vietnam's coast.
The flare-up -- which saw counter-accusations from Beijing which said its own vessels had been repeatedly attacked -- sparked concern from Japan, the United States, and the European Union about deteriorating security in the region.
The U.S.-Philippine exercises -- involving about 5,500 troops -- included Friday's drills on a beach about 220 kilometers (135 miles) from Scarborough Shoal, which China took control of two years ago after a stand-off with the much-weaker Philippine forces.
Three U.S. rubber raiding craft and two small-unit Filipino riverine boats practiced stealth landings from before dawn at the desolate beach inside a northern Philippines navy base.
The teams of about 40 U.S. and 80 Filipino marines scrambled up the sloping shore with assault rifles to surround a mocked-up enemy tent before running back to their boats.
Two Filipino navy ships served as launch pads for the amphibious units.
"There was no specific scenario," U.S. Marines spokesman Captain Jeremy Scheier said when asked if they had an enemy target in mind for the drills.
Filipino Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said last week that the joint maneuvers were designed to help the hosts boost their "maritime capability" to address "challenges" in the South China Sea.
China claims sovereignty over almost the whole of the South China Sea, which is also claimed in part by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia, and is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.
The latest flashpoint has been China's unilateral decision to move the rig into waters off Vietnam, triggering a serious confrontation between the two countries which fought a brief border war in 1979.
"We can expect a few more months of high tension between the two countries, and things could get out of hand and shots could be exchanged," said Ian Storey, a security expert at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Neither country was expected to back down, he said, though Vietnam was expected to be "on its own" in the confrontation.
"In incidents like this, the U.S. has very limited options on how to respond," he added.
Storey said the fracas was part of a "pattern of behavior we have seen over the last few years in which China has been trying to enforce its jurisdictional claims" over large chunks of the South China Sea.
The annual war games began on May 5, shortly after U.S. President Barack Obama's tour of Asian allies -- Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.
When in Manila, he warned China against using force in territorial disputes, and said Washington would support the Philippines in the event of an attack.
While the United States has said its defense commitments with Japan include islands in the East China Sea administered by Tokyo but claimed by China, it takes no position in the other territorial disputes involving its Asian allies.
The Philippines asked a United Nations tribunal in March to declare China's claims over most of the sea as illegal. Beijing has rejected arbitration.
On Tuesday, Filipino police detained a Chinese-flagged fishing vessel and its 11 crew members near Half Moon Shoal, 106 kilometers west of the large western Philippine island of Palawan, which is claimed by both countries.
Manila has ignored a Chinese demand to free the vessel and crew.
Nigerian president: kidnapping will mark beginning of the end of terror
Goodluck Jonathan says he believes international assistance will help resolve crisis as details emerge of new Boko Haram atrocity
Monica Mark in Abuja, Sam Jones and agencies
The Guardian, Thursday 8 May 2014 16.35 BST
Nigeria's president has insisted that the internationally decried kidnapping of 286 girls by Boko Haram will mark the "beginning of the end of terror" in the country, as further details emerged of the latest rebel atrocity, which saw scores of people shot and burned alive in a north-eastern market town on Monday.
The president, Goodluck Jonathan – whose efforts to contain Boko Haram's bloody five-year uprising have frequently been criticised – told delegates in Abuja for a meeting of the World Economic Forum that he believed assistance from the US and UK governments would help "resolve this crisis".
Boko Haram is holding 276 girls from a raid on a school in Chibok on 15 April and a further eight, aged between eight and 15, who were snatched from a village on Monday, also in its stronghold in north-eastern Borno state. Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the group's main faction, has threatened to sell the schoolgirls as slaves.
Addressing dignitaries including the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, and the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, Jonathan said: "Thank you for accepting to come even at a time we're facing attacks by terrorists. Your presence helps us in the war against terror. By God's grace, we'll defeat the terrorists. I believe the kidnap of these girls will be the beginning of the end of terrorism in Nigeria."
Jonathan's comments on Thursday echoed those earlier in the week of the US president, Barack Obama, who said the Chibok kidnappings "may be the event that helps to mobilise the entire international community to finally do something against this horrendous organisation that has perpetrated such a terrible crime".
On Wednesday, the British government announced that it would send a small group of experts to Nigeria to assist with the hunt for the missing girls. The team is expected work alongside US military and law enforcement officers who are providing technical help to the Nigerian authorities. France has offered a specialist team, while China said it would make available "any useful information acquired by its satellites and intelligence services".
Around 6,000 troops have been drafted in to protect the meeting, which had been intended to highlight Nigeria's financial progress and its recent emergence as Africa's top economy. The budget for the two-day event is twice that of the Federal Initiative for the North East – the plan aimed at boosting security in the region.
Nigeria has typically resisted security cooperation with the west, which analysts say has hampered efforts against the militants, who have killed thousands since 2009.
American officials have acknowledged that the US military has relatively weak ties with Nigeria and unlike many other African states, the government in Abuja has shown little interest in major training programmes.
"In the past, the Nigerians have been reluctant to accept US assistance, particularly in areas having to do with security," said John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria.
"Whatever assistance we might provide and might be welcomed by the Nigerian side is likely to be essentially technical," he said.
Johnson's speech came three days after Islamist rebels carried out another massacre near the north-eastern border with Cameroon.
After storming Gamboru Ngala in armoured vehicles after midday on Monday, the gunmen burned traders alive in their stalls and murdered entire families.
"We have been collecting bodies from all over the town, on the streets and in burnt homes," said a local resident, Musa Abba. "Nine members of a family were burned alive in their home."
The area senator Ahmed Zanna, who put the death toll at 300, said the town had been left unguarded because soldiers based there had been redeployed north towards Lake Chad in an effort to rescue the schoolgirls. Other estimates put the number of dead at between 100 and 150.
Nigeria's military has been repeatedly accused of leaving unarmed civilians to fend for themselves during the uprising, which Boko Haram says is aimed at creating an Islamic state in mainly Muslim northern Nigeria.
"Some bodies are burnt beyond recognition," said Babagana Goni, another resident. "Some of the bodies were shot while others had their throats slit, which made me sick. I couldn't continue the count."
Boko Haram Leader Shekau Made Group More Ruthless
by Naharnet Newsdesk
08 May 2014, 20:58
The insurgency waged by Boko Haram's leader Abubakar Muhammad Shekau, who claimed the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls, has grown so ruthless that even former Islamist allies have cut ties.
Born in a village in Nigeria's northeastern Yobe state on the border with Niger, Shekau had a traditional Islamic education in neighboring Borno state, where Boko Haram was founded more than a decade ago by the cleric Mohammed Yusuf.
After meeting Yusuf, Shekau joined his movement made up largely of radical youths who believed that the prevalence of Western education and values were to blame for many of Nigeria's problems, including egregious corruption and crippling poverty.
Boko Haram, which loosely translates as "Western education is forbidden", is a nickname that the Islamists have disowned, referring to themselves as Jama'tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad).
Awareness and condemnation of Shekau spread across the globe this week after he released a video boasting about the April 14 mass abduction in Chibok, Borno state, in which he threatened to sell the hostages as "slaves".
But for Nigerians, the chilling video was consistent with an Islamist leader who is believed to have masterminded waves of horrific attacks since he took charge of Boko Haram several months after Yusuf was killed by Nigerian police in 2009.
"With Shekau at the helm," the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a report last month, "Boko Haram has grown more ruthless, violent and destructive."
Shekau's extremism is perhaps best highlighted by the decision of Ansaru -- a Boko Haram offshoot which has kidnapped foreigners and published their execution online -- to cut ties.
Ansaru "distanced itself from the rest of Boko Haram because it disapproved of its indiscriminate killings and Shekau's lack of tact," the ICG report said, citing security sources and people with close ties to both militant groups.
There were significant outbursts of violence under Yusuf but the group was nominally committed to spreading sharia (Islamic law) across northern Nigeria, a goal some in the deeply conservative region support.
Yusuf's ideology and anti-corruption preachings have been largely buried by Shekau's repeated attacks on defenseless civilians, including mass kidnappings and the slaughter of scores of students in their sleep, analysts say.
Even before Yusuf's death, Shekau had accused him of "being too soft", according to the ICG, and Shekau signaled the new direction he meant to take Boko Haram roughly a year after taking charge.
Major attacks in Nigeria's capital Abuja in 2012, including a bombing at the United Nations headquarters that killed scores, raised concern that Boko Haram's new leaders had received jihadist training abroad, perhaps in Algeria or Somalia.
The specific details of those foreign links have been much debated by experts but little has been confirmed.
Since 2011, the Islamists have attacked churches, mosques, politicians, police and the military, among various other targets.
The United States has declared Shekau a global terrorist and put a $7 million (5.3 million euros) bounty on his head.
The U.S. Justice Department lists 1965, 1969 and 1975 as possible years of the birth.
And Shekau's videos have become the primary channel through which the insurgents speak.
At times he makes threats against specific Nigerian targets.
At others he seems completely disconnected from current events, threatening world leaders who are dead, like recent warnings against ex-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and the late pope John Paul II.
A quote from one his first video, released in 2012, has been cited by experts as perhaps providing a window into his character.
"I enjoy killing anyone that God commands me to kill the way I enjoy killing chickens and rams," Shekau said.
#BringBackOurGirls. And bring back our country, President Jonathan
Occupy Nigeria taught us the power of social media – maybe the Chibok schoolgirl abductions will shame politicians into serving Nigerians
The Guardian, Wednesday 7 May 2014 15.11 BST
I watched the first lady of my country, Nigeria, shed tears for the abducted Chibok girls over two weeks after they went missing. I didn't actually see the tears fall: she covered her face with a large tissue.
Her husband, President Goodluck Jonathan, went on a political rally in the northern city of Kano two days after the girls were abducted. The 2015 elections are, after all, only a year away. Issues such as addressing the nation over the schoolgirl abductions, and the bomb blast in Abuja days later, which killed 70 people, are obviously less pressing in nature.
Yet on national television last Sunday, the president promised Nigeria: "Wherever these girls are, we'll surely get them out." It's amazing what a little international scrutiny will do. We have discovered the power of the hashtag over the last week. The simple, emphatic demand #BringBackOurGirls has moved across the Twitter timelines of the famous and the unknown, uniting Nigerian housewives and the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Protests have spread from Abuja to Lagos, London and Washington; CNN, the BBC, al-Jazeera and other international media organisations have flocked to the protest sites, building momentum. And now Barack Obama has called for the world to act against Boko Haram, the terror organisation that kidnapped the girls.
And yet, as elated as I am over the overdue coverage this issue is finally receiving, I cannot help but wonder what comes next. When the girls are released, will they be returned to a country where they are not at risk of being abducted again? Will they be released to families that are safe from the threat of Boko Haram attacks? Will they come home to a Nigeria where the money meant for their education, their health and their future is not siphoned off into accounts around the globe?
Viewing the events surrounding the Chibok abductions, I am reminded of the Occupy Nigeria protest of January 2012, when thousands demonstrated over the sudden removal of a national petrol subsidy, causing fuel prices to double overnight. Like the #BringBackOurGirls movement, Occupy Nigeria migrated from Twitter through street protests to international coverage. The government was forced to the negotiation table. As the world looked on, causing our leaders to squirm, it was the time for us to call for the Nigeria we wanted, to demand transparency, education and better infrastructure.
But the negotiators were blinkered. They could ask for only one thing: a restoration of the subsidy. And when the petrol pump price was reduced, although not to former levels, it was as if a small victory had been won.
What victory, when our legislators were still the highest paid in the world? When our children were still some of the most illiterate in the world? When our youths suffered one of the highest levels of unemployment in the world? None of these issues had been addressed, not even when the world was watching and our government, unembarrassed by the plight of its citizens, was shamed under the vast lens of the international media.
We cannot let this opportunity pass a second time, for who knows what even greater tragedy will cause the world's attention to return to Nigeria? Now is the time for us to widen our protest; now is the time to ask what country these girls will be returned to.
What happened to the trial of Senator Ali Ndume, alleged sponsor of Boko Haram insurgents? Why, despite the billions allocated to defence, are the insurgents reportedly better equipped than our soldiers? Why do Nigerian girls remain among the most uneducated in the world? Why has polio not been eradicated in Nigeria? Where is the $20bn that our central bank governor discovered was missing from our treasury this year? And, of course: where are our girls?
This Friday I will join hundreds of people in front of the Nigerian high commission in London to protest at the abduction of our girls and the abduction of our country. Mr President, it's not too late for you to become the leader we elected you to be. Take your eyes off the 2015 elections and focus on the matter at hand. Bring back our girls. Bring back our money. Bring back our country.
ANC claims 'overwhelming mandate' in South African elections
With about 95% of ballots counted, the ANC has 62.5% of the popular vote, putting Jacob Zuma on course to retain presidency
Agence France-Presse in Johannesburg
theguardian.com, Friday 9 May 2014 09.14 BST
South Africans have voted resoundingly to extend the ANC's 20-year rule, ignoring leadership scandals and economic malaise in a wholesale display of loyalty to the party once led by Nelson Mandela.
Final results were expected on Friday, but with about 95% of the ballots counted the ANC had 62.5% of the popular vote, signalling a parliamentary majority big enough to hand President Jacob Zuma a second five-year term.
The party looks set to fall short of the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution, and its share of the vote will have fallen for second consecutive election, down from 66% at the last poll, in 2009.
The ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said the 102-year-old party – which has held power since helping to end apartheid in 1994 – would receive "an overwhelming mandate" from voters.
The main opposition party, the centrist Democratic Alliance, had 22% of the vote, up from 17% last time, and looked set to top the polls in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Julius Malema's populist Economic Freedom Fighters had 6.1%, less than a year after the party was formed.
The ANC's status as the party of liberation was drilled home by the recent 20th anniversary of democracy in South Africa and the outpouring of emotion that accompanied Mandela's death in December.
Democratic Alliance and EFF support has been bolstered by a series of scandals surrounding Zuma and frustration at rampant poverty and poor public services.
Syria rebels blow up Aleppo hotel used as barracks by government forces
Bomb under hotel signals new focus of Syrian rebels, with struggle for city likely to be final showdown
theguardian.com, Thursday 8 May 2014 20.59 BST
Scores of troops were killed on Thursday when insurgents detonated explosives packed into a tunnel they had dug under an Aleppo hotel that the Syrian military were using as a barracks.
The attack was the biggest militants have launched in the western half of Syria's largest city, which is under regime control, underscoring that they are still able to strike well inside government territory despite months of bombing that has obliterated much of the rebel-controlled east.
The insurgents dug a tunnel thought to be at least 400 metres long towards the Carlton Citadel hotel from a frontline in the Old City district that splits Aleppo roughly down the middle.
The hotel stood near the edge of the ancient stone fortress from which it takes its name and has been used as a garrison for the past two years. Several buildings nearby were damaged, but the fortress walls are believed to have escaped unscathed.
The Islamic Front, one of three main opposition groups fighting to remove Bashar al-Assad as Syrian leader, claimed responsibility for the attack. The group posted an online video of the explosion, which sent an enormous plume of brown smoke and ash billowing over the city centre.
Such sights have been common in eastern Aleppo in recent months, with helicopters dropping huge improvised bombs on residential areas on most days since January and levelling entire neighbourhoods. The west of the city, however, has remained largely secure in the hands of the regime and had so far suffered relatively light damage despite more than three years of war.
Unable to penetrate regime lines, rebel groups in the Old City have increasingly resorted to digging tunnels as a means of striking at government forces. A smaller bomb killed several Syrian soldiers close to the frontline in February.
The destruction of the Old City, listed by Unesco as a world heritage site, has been extensive. Once home to one of the Middle East's oldest marketplaces, which wove between buildings that had stood unchanged for more than 800 years, much of the district is now a maze of desolation and death.
Syria's insurgents have signalled in recent weeks that they will refocus their energies on Aleppo, which before the war was the economic powerhouse of the country.
The renewed attention comes as a rebel withdrawal from Homs, 200 miles south, nears an end. Once the so-called capital of the revolution, Homs is now firmly in the grip of Syrian forces that, along with their proxies, gradually wore down remaining rebel groups through bombardment and siege.
Insurgents now control only the Waer district of the city. Negotiations continue to secure their withdrawal, which would give Syrian forces firm control over the vital heartland of the country, a stretch of land from the Golan Heights to Latakia on the north-west coast.
The rebel interest in Aleppo comes as government forces are believed to be focusing their efforts on reclaiming the whole city. Rebels stormed Aleppo in July 2011 at the same time as they tried to take Damascus. After sweeping gains in the early days, they have not been able to advance and have instead been confined to pockets of the east through relentless regime bombing and infighting with jihadis.
The looming showdown in Aleppo is likely to be a decisive battle in the war. Until recently, stalemate or slow mutually assured destruction had been a likely outcome, but increased co-ordination between regime forces and their allies - Iran, Hezbollah, Russia and a large Iraqi militia – has changed the face of the battlefield. By contrast, opposition groups are still fighting as separate militias, one western official said.
"The support the regime gets is effective and strategic and has been deployed under a single plan, with a single leadership," the official said. "Support for the rebels is anything but efficient or strategic. It pursues their backers' own political goals."
Rice Reassures Israel on Iran Nuclear Ambitions
by Naharnet Newsdesk
08 May 2014, 18:45
U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice assured Israel at high-level bilateral talks on Thursday that Washington remained determined to stop Iran developing nuclear arms, the White House said.
"The U.S. delegation reaffirmed our commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," said a White House statement released after talks in Jerusalem between Rice, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior officials from both sides.
"The delegations held thorough consultations on all aspects of the challenge posed by Iran, and pledged to continue the unprecedented coordination between the United States and Israel," it added."
Earlier, Netanyahu said that the best defense against a nuclear Iran was to block it from developing such a weapon in the first place and he referred to a new round of talks between Tehran and world powers due to open next week in Vienna.
"The most important thing is that Iran does not attain the ability to develop a nuclear weapon, and that needs to be and must be the ultimate and most important goal of the current negotiations with Iran," he said.
"That needs to be the object of the talks, that is Israel's position, that needs to be the position of everyone who really wants to prevent the renewed threat of mass destruction by a radical regime," Netanyahu said at a ceremony marking the 69th anniversary of the allied defeat of Nazi Germany.
The White House statement said the Israeli-U.S. talks Thursday also dealt with "other critical regional and bilateral issues," without elaborating.
"The delegations shared views candidly and intensively, in the spirit of the extraordinary and unprecedented security cooperation between our two countries," it said
It was Rice's first trip to Israel since she took office last July and it came shortly after the collapse of U.S.-brokered Middle East peace talks.
The White House is assessing whether to try to salvage its Middle East peace efforts after the collapse in late April of nine months of U.S.-brokered negotiations vigorously promoted by Secretary of State John Kerry.
Rice was due to meet Thursday evening with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
U.S. House Approves Major Africa Power Bid
by Naharnet Newsdesk
09 May 2014, 06:33
The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday approved a plan to bring power to 50 million Africans to boost the continent's development and growth, clearing a key political hurdle.
The Electrify Africa Act -- which accompanies a major initiative for Africa unveiled last year by President Barack Obama -- aims to install 20,000 megawatts of electricity by 2020 in the continent where power shortages have impeded education, health and economic growth.
The House approved the act by 297-117, with 17 lawmakers not voting. Half of the Republican Party, which is the majority, voted against the act with conservatives saying that Africa should not be a priority amid economic concerns at home.
Supporters including the House Republican leadership countered that the plan would not cost U.S. taxpayers and would benefit U.S. exporters. Funding for energy projects would come from the private sector, with US-backed finance institutions including the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) offering credit guarantees.
"With today's passage of the Electrify Africa Act, millions in Africa are closer to having access to electricity in their homes, businesses and hospitals," said Representative Ed Royce, a Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"With this bill we help African people and businesses reach their full potential at no additional cost to the U.S."
The bill still needs approval from the Senate, which is under the control of Obama's Democratic Party. Only one Democrat in the House voted against.
The Electrify Africa Act had been held up for months as industry groups sought to loosen U.S. restrictions that force OPIC to avoid investment in projects with intense greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change.
General Electric, a top U.S. company, said that it supported renewable energy but that it was unrealistic to shun gas and other fossil fuels in Africa.
The move brought vehement objections from environmentalists, who said that the act offered a chance for a new direction and that Africa was especially vulnerable to climate change. In a compromise, the final bill does not address the issue.
Justin Guay of the Sierra Club environmental group voiced concern that industry groups would try again in the Senate version but said he was hopeful over the final outcome.
With some 550 million Africans lacking reliable power, Obama has identified electricity as the latest big U.S. initiative for the continent after former president George W. Bush's efforts to tackle diseases including HIV/AIDS.