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Myanmar junta recruits thousands of soldiers: report

Myanmar’s junta has recruited nearly 4,000 men nationwide in its latest round of conscription as it seeks to reinforce the ranks of its army in the face of battlefield setbacks to insurgents battling to end military rule, a nonprofit group said.  Under the People’s Military Service Law, enacted by the junta in February,  men between the ages of 18 and 45 can be conscripted. The announcement has triggered a wave of killings of administrators enforcing the law and driven thousands of draft dodgers into neighboring Thailand.  A new round of conscriptions was undertaken in mid-April, according to the analysis and data group Burma Affairs and Conflict Study. Training for the nearly 4,000 new recruits began on May 14 in 16 schools across the country, the group said in a release on Wednesday.  One mother was relieved that her two sons were not selected in a raffle system used for the recruitment. She said all families with military aged men had to pay 10,000 kyats (US$ 2) to support the recruits. “I’m so worried that my sons will be picked in the next round,” she told RFA on Friday. The woman declined to be identified. About 5,000 people were recruited in the first round of conscription in early April, which brings the total number to about 9,000, according to the research group.  Spokesmen for the junta were not immediately available for comment on Friday but they said in state-backed media during the first round of recruitment that people were not being forced to join and only volunteers were allowed to begin training.  However, civilians reported mass arrests of young people in the Ayeyarwady and Bago regions, as well as village quotas that included adolescents and threats to burn residents’ houses down if recruits did not come forward. Senior junta official Gen. Maung Maung Aye, who is in charge of the national recruitment drive, said at a meeting in the capital of Naypyidaw on May 20 that the second round of recruitment had begun successfully. Those who failed to attend would  be dealt with according to the law, he said. Translated by RFA Burmese. Edited by Kiana Duncan and Mike Firn.     

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Cambodia’s traditional marble and sandstone sculptors still carve by hand

As they draw closer to Ko Koh commune, drivers and passengers traveling on National Road 6 can spot the thousands of marble and sandstone statues and sculptures set out along the highway in central Cambobia’s Kampong Thom province. The sculptures – mostly of Buddha, various animals and the Angkor-era’s King Jayavarman VII – come from the area’s numerous hand-carving businesses. The traditional art dates back centuries.  About 50 families in Ko Koh commune’s Samnak village are engaged in the local industry, which also provides employment opportunities to about 200 people from other nearby villages, commune chief Chap Thin told Radio Free Asia. Statues of the Buddha. (RFA) Stone sculptor Tep Thean said apprentices can earn from 600,000 (US$146) to 800,000 (US$195) riel a month, while skilled craftsmen are paid up to 100,000 riel (US$24) per day.  But the craft is less popular these days, he said.  “Carving is very difficult. It affects our health. Sometimes it breaks,” he said. “It is very dangerous if we are not careful.” For years, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has sent trainers to the area to help local sculptors hone their skills and to follow certain practices that make the works uniquely Cambodian, he said. Four steps by hand One has to go through four stages of stone processing. During the first stage, the sculptor trims a stone down into the desired shape of the sculpture, with outlines of the shoulders, arms, legs and face. The second step is to create six corners on the stone, and the third step is to sketch out the face of the sculpture. During the last stage, the sculptor polishes the face and cleans the sculpture before putting it out for sale.  A major selling point for the sculptures is that they are produced by hand, Chap Thin said. “Those who love Khmer sculptures will differentiate those made by hands and machines,” he said. “They won’t value those made by machines.” Undated video screenshot of Stone sculptor Em Ri Phon. (RFA) The sculptures are sold in Cambodia and in areas of southern Vietnam where ethnic Khmers live – often referred to as Kampuchea Krom. They are also shipped abroad to the United States, Canada and Australia.  Although Cambodian sculptors are skilled and meticulous, they can’t carve stone surfaces as smoothly as those made by computer-guided machines. Some of the sculptors in Ko Koh commune are worried that machine-operated stone carvings from Chinese and Vietnamese-owned companies could tarnish the reputation of Cambodian stone carvings. Master stone carver Em Ri Phon said his family is earning 50 percent less from orders than they did a year ago. “This artistic work – I want to promote our art culture as well as Khmer sculpture,” he said. “We want to preserve this culture for a long time.” Translated by Yun Samean. Edited by Matt Reed.

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Mass arrest in Myanmar’s Rakhine State ends in interrogations, beatings

Myanmar’s junta detained hundreds of villagers in Rakhine State, including children, over suspected links to ethnic minority insurgents and beat at least three people to death, residents told Radio Free Asia on Thursday. The security sweep appeared aimed at preventing the Arakan Army insurgent force making more advances after a string of recent gains and stopping them from closing in on the state capital of Sittwe, residents said.  “The junta soldiers ordered all villagers to gather and they’ve been detained all day since yesterday,” said one resident of Byian Phu village, which is several kilometers north of Sittwe. “Now, the men have been taken in military vehicles. The women and children were gathered in the cemetery,” said the villager, who declined to be identified in fear of reprisals. Another villager said three people were beaten to death while junta soldiers interrogated them RFA could not verify the villagers’ accounts and telephone calls to Rakhine State’s junta spokesperson, Hla Thein, to seek information went unanswered.  The Arakan Army has seized junta bases in Rakhine and Chin states since a ceasefire between the junta and one of Myanmar’s most powerful insurgent groups ended in November. Residents have accused junta troops of carrying out indiscriminate attacks on civilians, recruiting members of the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority and detaining  civilians hostage on suspicion of supporting groups fighting  the junta that seized power more than three years ago.  As the Arakan Army gets closer to Sittwe, residents said the junta has increased security, arresting and interrogating more people. About 100 junta soldiers conducted the raid on Byain Pyu  at noon on Wednesday, iand checked lists that households are meant to keep of overnight visitors, a monitoring system made stricter since the army seized power again in a 2021 coup. Soldiers also went from house to house to search for anyone hiding from them, residents said. Some people were beaten and taken away, along with valuables discovered in their houses, residents said.  Another villager, who also declined to be identified for safety reasons, told RFA that at least three men were beaten to death by the junta soldiers. “Men were being interrogated near the tea shop at the market. They were beaten and interrogated one after another. One of my relatives died there,” the Byain Phyu resident said. “It is said that two or three more people died. The bodies have not been returned.” In northern Rakhine State, the Arakan Army captured Rathedaung and Ponnagyun townships in March and Pauktaw in January, leaving only Sittwe and Maungdaw, near the border of Bangladesh, under junta control.  While insurgent forces in several parts of the country have made significant gains since late last year, seizing numerous junta camps, villages and towns, no group has captured a state capital. The junta has arrested 425 civilians in Rakhine State  since November, the Arakan Army said in a statement on Monday. Fighting in the state had killed 268 civilians and wounded 640, it said.  Translated by RFA Burmese. Edited by Kiana Duncan and Mike Firn. 

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Police probe singer for video showing South Vietnamese flag

Vietnamese police are investigating a famous singer after a viral video showing her playing with her children in an American house with a tiny version of the banned flag of South Vietnam in the background.  The flag, which features a yellow field and three horizontal red stripes in the center, was used by South Vietnam until the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. However, South Vietnamese who fled the country and now live in the United States or other countries still display the flag as a symbol of pride and identity. On Monday, a video of singer Ngoc Mai, also known as O Sen, and her husband, circus artist Quoc Nghiep, playing with their children in an American house with small U.S. and South Vietnam flags – sitting on a bed headboard – spread quickly on social media. Despite quickly removing the video from her Facebook page, Mai received harsh criticism on social media, especially from government-backed accounts. Vietnamese singer Ngoc Mai performs on Sept. 21, 2018. (DRD Vietnam via Wikimedia) One netizen said Mai “burned the bridge” after crossing it —  a reference to being ungrateful to the communist one-party state.  Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism told the media that it was verifying the video. Ho Chi Minh City police are working with the city’s Conservatory of Music on the case, media reports said. Mai used to be a music lecturer there but left in 2019.  The singer had been admitted to the Communist Party of Vietnam when she worked for the conservatory, but her party membership was later revoked because she did not regularly participate in related activities, according to a report by the Ho Chi Minh City Law Newspaper, citing artist Ta Minh Tam, a former deputy president and party chief of the academy.  Family vacation Her husband, Quoc Nghiep, said on Facebook that their family was on vacation in the United States and participating in charity concerts to raise funds for disabled children.  “To raise as much as possible for the children at Huong Duong House, the tour participants always used transportation and accommodations provided by volunteers,” he wrote.  The family members were playing in one of the rooms but did not pay attention to the surroundings or control what was recorded in the video, Nghiep said.  “[We] have learned a great lesson from this incident and will not let similar things happen,” he wrote.  A screenshot from the video posted on Facebook by singer Ngoc Mai with the flags of the United States and South Vietnam on the headboard. (RFA screenshot/Chuyện nước Mỹ của Tí via Youtube)   Radio Free Asia could not reach the Vietnamese Culture and Science Association, the organization in Houston, Texas, that organized the charity concerts, for comment.  On his Facebook account, Hanoi-based lawyer Bui Quang Thang wrote that it would not be unlawful for the flag of South Vietnam to appear in a place in Vietnam because existing law doesn’t ban it. Nevertheless, many people in Vietnam still view the flag as a symbol of hostility toward the current Vietnamese government, said writer Nguyen Vien who lives in Ho Chi Minh City. “It has been 49 years since the war ended,” he said. “We should only view that flag as a symbol of a lost nation. In reality, it is just nostalgia, and we should respect that nostalgia. It is a part of history, and we cannot deny it.” Translated by Anna Vu for RFA Vietnamese. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

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Clashes displace 15,000 civilians in western Myanmar

Fighting in western Myanmar has forced thousands of people to flee from their homes, left parts of a town in smoldering ruins and killed three civilians, residents told Radio Free Asia, as opponents of military rule try to defeat the junta that seized power in 2021. The clashes between junta troops and insurgent groups in Chin State, which is on the border with India, displaced 15,000 people in two days and led to the destruction of parts of Tedim town, they said.  Anti-junta insurgents from Chin State control 10 towns in the state, while another ethnic minority rebel group, the Arakan Army, controls two others. A battle broke out on Sunday night and continued into the next day, said a resident who declined to be identified for security reasons. Two people fleeing by motorcycle from Tedim on Monday morning were hit by artillery fire. A 40-year-old woman was killed  while her male cousin was wounded. “She was taken to a nearby house after she was injured. That’s when she died. She was cremated in Tedim on Tuesday morning,” he said. “Her cousin, who was also hurt, has a broken leg and is now being treated at a hospital in Kale town.” On Sunday, the junta’s air force bombed nearby camps occupied by the Zoland People’s Defense Force, a Chin group opposed to the junta, residents said. Junta aircraft also bombed two villages controlled by the rebel group, killing two civilians. RFA called Chin State’s junta spokesperson, Aung Cho, to ask for information about the clashes, but the calls went unanswered. Most of the displaced people are taking shelter in Kale, a town in the neighboring Sagaing region, about 80 km (50 miles) away, said another resident who also asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. Others are sheltering in nearby forests.  “Most of the residents fled,” the second resident told RFA  “Most of them fled to Kale town. There are some who could afford to go to Champhai,” he said, referring to a town in India. At around noon on Monday, junta soldiers burned about 30 houses in Tedim, one of the residents said. “The burnt houses were the ones near the clock tower in Myoma neighborhood and down by the telecommunication office,” he said, asking to remain anonymous given security worries. “All the houses near the local administration office were also set on fire.” Dr Sasa, a senior official in a shadow civilian government, said the destruction in Tedim was a crime against humanity and the international community should help. “Tedim town in Chin State has been burned down by the brutal forces of Myanmar’s military junta … It is imperative to help Myanmar end this reign of terror and build peace,” Sasa, who goes by one name, said on the social media platform, X.  An official from Zoland People’s Defense Force, which occupies territory in Tedim township, told RFA that the allied Chin defense forces captured nine junta soldiers, as well as several military camps. “There are three places [we captured], including the junta’s Electric Power Corporation office,” he told RFA on Tuesday, declining to be identified for security reasons. “Some junta soldiers were killed during the battle, but those captured alive will be treated according to the law.”  One member of the anti-junta Chin force was killed and three were wounded, he said.  Translated by RFA Burmese. Edited by Kiana Duncan and Mike Firn.         

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China cracks down on Tibetans during holy month

Chinese authorities have instructed Tibetan students, government workers and retirees to refrain from engaging in religious activities in Tibet’s capital Lhasa during the Buddhist holy month of Saga Dawa, four sources said. The Saga Dawa festival occurs during the fourth month of the Tibetan lunar calendar and runs from May 9 to June 6 this year.  For Tibetan Buddhists, it marks the period of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and parinirvana — the state entered after death by someone who has attained nirvana during their lifetime. During the holy month, thousands of religious pilgrims visit temples and walk sacred kora routes around Lingkhor and Barkhor streets in Lhasa, encircling the revered Jokhang Temple.  The ritual kora — making a circumambulation around sacred sites or objects as part of a pilgrimage — holds immense significance for Tibetan Buddhists who believe that virtuous deeds performed during Saga Dawa are magnified based on their location. A video obtained by Radio Free Asia showed heavy police presence surrounding the Barkhor area — the heart of the capital with its famed pilgrimage circuit — on May 22, the eve of the 15th day of the fourth month of the Tibetan Lunar calendar, considered one of the holiest days during Saga Dawa.  Since the start of Saga Dawa, Chinese police have tightened security around key religious sites, including Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, and the Barkhor area, the sources told RFA. The measures illustrate the deterioration of religious freedom in Tibet under the Chinese government’s suppression and Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism — a policy that seeks to bring the religion under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. Police everywhere While devotees were seen on pilgrimage on the other days of Saga Dawa, the 15th day on May 23 saw heightened restrictions, with police stationed along the pathways leading to the Sera, Gandhen and Drepung monasteries, said the sources who declined to be named out of fear of retribution by authorities. “There isn’t any place where you don’t see police and interrogation stations,” one of the sources told RFA.  Tibetans line up to offer prayers as they mark the day of Buddha’s birth, death and enlightenment at the Tsuklakhang temple complex in Dharamshala, India, May 23, 2024. (Ashwini Bhatia/AP) The Chinese government has increased the number of police checkpoints in and around Lhasa, and authorities have been interrogating Tibetans spontaneously, the person said.  Individuals who do not have a shenfenzhang, or Chinese resident identity card, are prohibited from visiting temples, leading to the heightened restrictions now in effect, said a second source.  “During our visits to circumambulate the holy sites, Chinese police regularly inspect everyone’s identity cards and engage in arguments,” said a third source.  “Having to engage in disputes with the Chinese police takes an emotional toll on us, and this is one of the reasons why many are afraid of engaging in religious activities as often as they’d like,” he said. A Nepalese monk lights a butter lamp during Saga Dawa at Swayambhunath, one of the holiest Buddhist stupas in Nepal, in Kathmandu, May 24, 2013. (Prakash Mathema/AFP) Facial recognition technology is pervasive at key pilgrimage sites and authorities regularly frisk Tibetans making pilgrimages, said a fourth source. Flag-raising festival Additionally, during the Ngari Flag Raising Festival in Purang county, called Pulan in Chinese, of Ngari Prefecture in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, ​​Chinese authorities increased security  as people gathered on May 23 for the annual ceremony, and banned the use of drones during the event, according to the sources.  The annual tradition of hoisting a large central prayer flag pole in front of Mount Kailash in Tibet began in 1681 during the time of the 5th Dalai Lama. Buddhist monks and Hindu holy men sit by a roadside expecting alms as Tibetans mark the day of Buddha’s birth, death and enlightenment in Dharamsala, India, May 23, 2024. (Ashwini Bhatia/AP) In a government notice dated May 16, the Pulan County Public Security Bureau in Talqin said the use of drones and other aircraft during the Saga Dawa flag raising festival was prohibited and that violators would be punished.  Tibetans who attended the event were subjected to extensive questioning and coerced into agreeing to uphold social order and refraining from causing discord, said one of the sources. Police instructed people not to share photos or videos of the festival on social media, he said. Translated by Tenzin Dickyi for RFA Tibetan. Edited by Tenzin Pema for RFA Tibetan and by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

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Myanmar’s junta kills 4 villagers following mass arrest

Junta troops and members of an affiliated militia killed four civilians in central Myanmar shortly after they and 19 other people were rounded up in a sweep as troops hunted for insurgents battling to end military rule, residents told Radio Free Asia on Tuesday. The villagers were detained and taken away for questioning in the Sagaing region’s Pale township as they headed to nearby farms on Friday.  The group of men and women, mostly residents of Ywar Thit village, were taken to In Ma Htee village about 3 km (2 miles) away and tortured, said one Pale resident, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals. Witnesses reported that four of the detainees were killed.  The villager identified one of the dead as Tun Naing from In Ma Htee, who was in his thirties. “He had been on the run for a long time because he did not want to join the Pyu Saw Htee,” the villager said, referring to a pro-junta militia made up of supporters of the military, Buddhist nationalists, and army veterans that is frequently accused of terrorizing villages.  “But now, he’s been arrested and killed. Those who were freed also had injuries from the beatings and are now being treated.” Nineteen people were released on Monday, he added. He identified the other dead men as Thint Zaw Oo, 25, Tun Naing Linn, 24, and Kyaw Khaing, who was in his fifties. The bodies had not been returned to their families, he said. RFA phoned the Sagaing region’s junta spokesperson, Nyunt Win Aung, for more information on why villagers were arrested but he did not return the call by the time of publication. The military has faced unprecedented opposition in Myanmar’s central heartlands, which are dominated by members of the majority Burman community, since seizing power from an elected government in early 2021. While ethnic minority groups have battled for autonomy in border hills for decades, central areas like Sagaing had been peaceful until the coup triggered outrage and an insurgency waged by pro-democracy activists in league with the ethnic minority rebels.  Junta troops have cracked down harshly on communities in response to the uprising, aiming to root out supporters of the activists’ People’s Defense Forces. According to a tally compiled by the independent media outlet Burma News International and its Myanmar Peace Monitor, junta forces have killed 1,446 civilians in the past two years in massacres, which the group defines as five or more people killed at the same time. Thousands of people were killed when the security forces crushed mass protests against the 2021 coup and thousands have been killed in fighting across the country since then. The Sagaing region has faced more attacks by the military than any other region or state, the monitoring group said in a statement on Monday. Translated by RFA Burmese. Edited by Kiana Duncan and Mike Firn.   

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Dozens of Taiwanese celebrities endorse Beijing’s claim on island

Dozens of artists and actors from Taiwan have been lining up on social media to endorse Beijing’s territorial claim on the island by retweeting a Chinese state media post in support of eventual “unification.” More than 70 artists and celebrities including journalist Patty Hou, singer and actress Nana Ouyang and TV host and actress Dee Hsu reposted a statement from Chinese state broadcaster CCTV on the Weibo social media platform which said that independence for Taiwan, which has never been ruled by Beijing, was “a dead end.” “The unification of Taiwan with China cannot be stopped,” said the May 22 statement, local media reported, citing a social media spreadsheet. CCTV’s post was in response to the inauguration speech of Taiwan’s elected President Lai Ching-te, who called on Beijing to stop threatening his country, and respect the will of its 23 million people, the majority of whom have no wish to be ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. “Taiwan has never been a country and will never become one,” the post said, adding “Taiwanese independence is a dead end. Unification with the motherland is unstoppable! China will eventually achieve complete unification.”  Other artists appeared to be offering their support less directly, by claiming a “Chinese” identity, a view that isn’t shared by most of their compatriots. Lead singer Ashin of the Taiwanese band Mayday told fans at a concert at Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium on Saturday that “We Chinese, when we come to Beijing, must eat roast duck! What else should we eat?” in a statement similar to the saying, “When in Rome.” And singer Jolin Tsai, who has had an LGBTQ+-themed song deleted from her concerts by Chinese censors, told concert-goers that residents of “our Chinese city of Nanchang” were the most passionate fans. Ashin of Taiwanese band Mayday performs in Kuala Lumpur in 2013. (Lai Seng Sin/AP) One fan commented on Nana Ouyang’s re-post that they were unhappy about her support for Beijing. “I’ve been your fan for a long time, but I love Taiwan more,” the fan wrote in comments reported by the Taiwan News. Another told Ouyang to go live in China: “Don’t come back to Taiwan.” Some Hong Kong artists also followed suit, including martial arts star Donnie Yen, who sparked controversy when he was a presenter at last year’s Oscars despite protests over his pro-Beijing stance on the Hong Kong protests of 2019. Resisting pressure Not everyone piled onto the bandwagon, however. Taiwanese actor Yang Hsiu-hui told reporters on Sunday that she identifies as Taiwanese, and doesn’t want to make money from China. “Some people told me I would lose access to the market in mainland China,” Yang said, adding that she had turned down jobs in China for political reasons. “I gave up on that market a long time ago,” she said. Taiwanese singer Jolin Tsai is pictured in Milan in 2017. (Marco Bertolrello/AFP) President Lai expressed empathy for the artists in a statement on Sunday, saying he could understand how much pressure they were under “in another person’s house,” and that they may privately feel very differently. Ruling Democratic Progressive Party Mayor of Kaohsiung Chen Chi-mai said China should honor freedom of speech rather than coercing Taiwanese entertainers into taking a political stance, while the Kuomintang, the largest party in Taiwan’s parliament, said putting pressure on Taiwan’s artist doesn’t “build goodwill across the Taiwan Strait,” local media reported. The island’s Ministry of Culture said the artists were forced into taking a position by “unavoidable circumstances,” and that such coercion would never happen in democratic Taiwan. Taiwan President Lai Ching-te wears a hat given to him by Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, in Taipei on May 27, 2024. (Taiwan Presidential Office via AP) “To the artists taking a public stance under unavoidable circumstances, we extend our understanding,” the ministry said in a statement on Sunday. “Taiwan … will never ask anyone to take a public stance, nor will anyone be punished for taking, or not taking, such a stance.” “The lack of political coercion is the most valuable thing about a free Taiwan,” the ministry said. ‘Divide and conquer’ Chinese dissident Gong Yujian, who now lives permanently in Taiwan, told RFA Mandarin that the artists’ statements are part of a campaign to wage “cognitive warfare” on Taiwan. “I am certain, and can say without hesitation, that this is a case of the Chinese Communist Party’s divide-and-rule tactics and cognitive warfare being waged against Taiwan,” Gong said. “The aim is to split supporters of independence, with the ultimate aim of benefiting the Chinese Communist Party and its ‘fifth column’ in Taiwan,” he said. Kang Kai, chairman of the Taiwan Performing Arts Union, told RFA that he had no problem with President Lai’s approach.  “Everyone has their own opinion,” Kang said. “The most important thing is that they work hard to support their families and do a good job.” “I don’t like to see artists getting involved in politics. Neither side wants a war,” he said.  Chinese dissident Gong Yujian poses for a photo in New Taipei City in 2015. (Pichi Chuang/Reuters) A spokesperson for a foundation run by former Kuomintang President Ma Ying-jeou, who recently met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on a trip to Beijing, told RFA Mandarin that “bullying” can work both ways. “It seems that you are expected to say you’re Taiwanese and not Chinese, if you want to be respected … in Taiwan,” Ma Ying-jeou Foundation CEO Hsiao Hsu-tsen said. “That’s just another form of suppression and coercion.” But Taipei Mayor Chiang Wanan said there would be no repercussions for the Taiwanese artists who supported Beijing’s claim on the island. “We are a free and democratic country, and Taipei is a diverse and open city, so how can we stop them from performing?” Chiang said. Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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China ‘can claim the South China Sea’: former Malaysian PM

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said that China can claim the South China Sea, but that doesn’t mean that other countries with overlapping claims should accept it, a view that differs from the Malaysian government’s official line.  Beijing has drawn a so-called nine-dash line to demarcate its “historic claim” of 90% of the disputed waters. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also hold conflicting claims over smaller parts of the South China Sea. “OK, you can claim,” said Mahathir at the annual Future of Asia conference hosted by Nikkei Inc. in Tokyo at the weekend. “We don’t accept your claim but we don’t have to go to war against you because of your claim.” “Maybe one day you will realize that the claim means nothing,” the 98-year-old former leader said. He did not elaborate. Mahathir’s statement appears to differ from the Malaysian government’s official line. Most recently in 2023, Malaysia, together with the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, rejected China’s map that depicts its sovereignty in the South China Sea. “They claim that the South China Sea’s belonging to them, but they have not stopped ships from passing through,” he said, adding that Kuala Lumpur has been producing oil and gas in the sea but “so far they have not done anything.”  “As long as there is no stoppage of the passage of ships through the South China Sea then it’s good enough.” The former leader argued that priorities should be given to maintaining peace and fostering economic development. The 10-member Southeast Asian bloc, ASEAN, has been peaceful “compared to other regional groupings,” he said, “Until now there’s no major wars between ASEAN countries.” ASEAN could serve as “a good model” for the world where there are different ideologies but “we don’t go to war with each other.” Malaysia will hold the grouping’s rotating chair in 2025, taking over from Laos. Not taking sides When asked about China-U.S. rivalry, the veteran leader urged regional countries to stay neutral as “if we take sides, we are going to lose either the American market or the Chinese market.” He noted that China did appear to be aggressive but it was the biggest trading partner for ASEAN countries and “we cannot lose that market.”  He also warned against taking sides in the Taiwan issue, saying that there was “no necessity” to see a confrontation between China and Taiwan. Beijing considers democratically governed Taiwan a Chinese province that should be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary.  Last week, China conducted a two-day “punishment” military exercise around Taiwan, believed to be in response to the inauguration of the new Taiwanese president, Lai Ching-te. Mahathir said that  China’s leader, Xi Jinping, “seems to be more ambitious and aggressive,” but China’s policies may change in  future because of changes at the top. “Leaders don’t live forever so policies may change when leadership changes,” he said.  Mahathir Mohamad, who will be 99 in July, served as prime minister from 1981 to 2003 and again from 2018 to 2020.  Incumbent Malaysian prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was also present at the Future of Asia 2024 forum and delivered a speech. In an interview with Nikkei Asia on the forum’s sidelines, Anwar said that his focus “will be the economy.” Malaysia’s position remains that disputes should be settled via engagement and the way forward is to seek peaceful resolution through negotiations, according to Anwar. Future of Asia, held by Japan’s Nikkei annually since 1995, is “an international gathering where political, economic, and academic leaders from the Asia-Pacific region offer their opinions frankly and freely on regional issues and the role of Asia in the world,” according to the company. Edited by Taejun Kang and Mike Firn.

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Malaysian fishermen want govt to crack down on Vietnamese encroachers

Syed Mohd Nawawi and fellow Malaysian fishermen are fed up. They say they want local authorities to do more to crack down on foreign fishing boats – particularly from Vietnam – that have been encroaching into Malaysia’s territorial waters for years to trawl for squid.  Malaysia has laws with stiff penalties to guard against illegal fishing. It also signed an MoU with Vietnam three years ago to deal with this issue. But that hasn’t deterred foreign fishermen from trawling in Malaysian waters without permits or paying off local skippers to lend them their fishing licenses, Malaysian fishermen allege.  The local squid stock is becoming depleted because the Vietnamese boats use big nets that can damage the sea floor, Syed said.  “Fishermen on the east coast of Malaysia really don’t want this,” he told BenarNews. Syed is based in Kuala Terengganu, a port on the eastern shores of Peninsular Malaysia.   “They use ‘pukat gading’ [large fishing nets] … equipment that can damage the ecosystem. [W]hatever is under the sea is depleted because they use rollers,” he said of the Vietnamese boats, adding that when the nets come upon reefs “they’ll kill all the coral and everything.” As a result of illegal fishing by foreigners, Malaysia lost US$172 million (823 million ringgit) in fisheries through 428 incursions by non-Malaysian boats between 2020 and 2023, according to Mohamad Sabu, Malaysia’s minister of Agriculture and Food Security. Of the 19 foreign boats intercepted and seized by Malaysian authorities during that period, 18 were from Vietnam, officials said.    Persistent problem Vietnamese fishing boats have been encroaching in Malaysian waters in the South China Sea for almost two decades, residents, officials and experts say. But despite a memorandum of understanding signed between the two countries’ maritime agencies in 2021, the problem persists. “In 2022, there was an oil spill in the Gulf of Thailand and this led to a decline in fish species in nearby areas. Indirectly, this has caused many foreign fishermen from Vietnam and Thailand to trawl in Malaysian waters,” said one expert, Syuhaida Ismail. “Most Vietnamese fishing vessels would fish in their own area, but then came to Malaysian waters after their sonar technology detected more catches in Malaysia. The catches are known to be more rewarding compared to catches in Vietnam,” Syuhaida, research director at the Maritime Institute of Malaysia, told BenarNews.  A catch of squid is displayed at the market in Pasar Payang, Kuala Terengganu, Malaysia, April 13, 2024. [Syahrin Abdul Aziz/BenarNews] Under Malaysia’s fisheries law, foreign fishing boats and foreign nationals are subject to a fine not exceeding 6 million ringgit ($1.25 million) each in the case of the owner or master, and 600,000 ringgit (US$125,000) in the case of every member of the crew, if found guilty of fishing illegally in Malaysian waters.  During intercepts at sea by Malaysia’s coast guard, some tense and violent standoffs with Vietnamese fishermen have occurred. In 2020, a Vietnamese sailor was shot dead by members of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, after crews of Vietnam-flagged vessels rammed and attacked an MMEA boat with Molotov cocktails and hard objects during a patrol 81 nautical miles (150 km) off Tok Bali in Kelantan state, coast guard officials said at the time. And last July, one MMEA member was attacked and seriously injured to the head while inspecting a Vietnamese fishing boat off the coast of Kuala Terengganu. According to one Vietnamese fisherman, desperation drove him to fish in Malaysian waters. For safety reasons, he requested that he remain anonymous. “There are difficulties. For example, at that time, in Vietnam, our fishing grounds did not have enough squid. But in their waters, they have more. So we have to enter their waters,” the fisherman said during an interview with RFA Vietnamese at Radio Free Asia. BenarNews is an online news agency affiliated with Radio Free Asia.

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