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More than 130 journalists arrested in Myanmar, media group says

A total of 135 journalists have been arrested in Myanmar since the Feb. 1, 2021, military coup that overthrew civilian rule in that country, according to a local press freedoms group. Among those arrested, 109 were men and 26 were women, while three other journalists were killed in the course of their work, said Han Zaw, a spokesman for Detained Journalists Information Myanmar, speaking to RFA. “Right now, 55 journalists — 42 men and 13 women — are being held in detention, 22 of whom have now been convicted, and another six were given jail sentences in March,” Han Zaw said. The detentions and arrests of journalists in Myanmar are still ongoing, he added. Jailed in March were Han Thar Nyein, managing editor of Kamaryut Media; Than Htkine Aung, editor of Mizzima News; Neyin Chan Wai, a correspondent for the Bago Weekly Journal; Aung Zaw Zaw, editor-in-chief of the Mandalay Free Press; Ye Yint Tun, a correspondent for the Myanmar Herald; and freelance journalist Naung Yoe. All were charged with defamation and obstruction of the country’s military and were given sentences ranging from one-and-a-half years to 11 years in jail, with Han Thar Thein also charged with violations of Myanmar’s Electronic Communications Act. Conditions in Myanmar are now unsafe for journalists working for independent media groups, said veteran reporter Myint Kyaw, speaking to RFA from Myanmar’s commercial center and former capital Yangon. “There have been cases of torture,” Myint Kyaw said. “Not for everyone arrested, but there have been victims, and Myanmar has the second highest number of arrests after China, which means the second largest number of journalists arrested around the world,” he said. “It’s dangerous now to work for independent media, and it’s dangerous to report on any of the incidents now happening in the ongoing conflict,” he said. Veteran lawyer Khin Maung Myint told RFA that journalists arrested before June 2021 were charged only with defamation. But since June 30, charges under anti-terrorism and explosives statutes that allow for as long as 20 years have also been added, he said. And though most of the journalists arrested were able to prove in court that they were simply carrying out their professional work when detained, none were released following their conviction at trial, he said. ‘Enemies of the country’ Speaking to RFA, junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun said however that no journalists were arrested in Myanmar for doing their work but only for instigating violence. “On Armed Forces Day [March 27], more than 40 local media outlets and 26 local reporters working for overseas media attended the event, and they were able to work and write freely. Even RFA has reporters in Myanmar,” Zaw Min Tun said. “If a journalist is doing the work of a journalist, we have no reason to arrest him. But if a journalist commits crimes and incites others to violence, we will arrest him not as a journalist but as a supporter of terrorism and a source of false news,” he said. Also speaking to RFA, Aung Kyaw — a senior correspondent for the Democratic Voice of Burma who was arrested and released in March last year — said that Myanmar’s military members hate the journalists held in interrogation camps and treat them as enemies of the country. “While I was being questioned, they would read news reports, and if they found something they didn’t like, they’d hit me and torture me, even though those reports were published by other media,” he said. “I told them that we were not a foreign news agency, that our news agency was officially registered in Myanmar, that we paid taxes to the country, and that we were paid only in kyats, not in dollars. But they wouldn’t listen.” Soe Ya, editor-in-chief of the Delta News Agency, said that journalists are now fleeing Myanmar due to junta suppression, causing a loss of human resources in the country’s media. “Many journalists are leaving and moving to other countries to pursue their livelihood and because of the lack of security in Myanmar,” he said. “Our media world is now suffering a big loss because experienced people have to leave, as they cannot continue to survive in the present situation.” Translated by Khin Maung Nyane for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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Philippine, Chinese foreign ministers hold talks amid South China Sea tensions

The top diplomats of the Philippines and China met over the weekend in a Chinese district and exchanged views on the South China Sea, Beijing said, amid fresh accusations from Manila over alleged Chinese aggression in the disputed waterway. Filipino Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and Chinese counterpart Wang Yi held talks on Sunday in Tunxi, Anhui province, days after Manila and Washington launched one of their biggest joint military exercises in years that observers described as a show of force. “On April 3, 2022, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi held talks with visiting Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin in Tunxi, Anhui province,” said a statement on the meeting posted on the Chinese foreign ministry’s website. The two sides believe “that maritime issues should be put in a proper place in bilateral relations,” the statement added, without giving details. Also without naming any nations or parties, Wang said Manila and Beijing “should eliminate interference, and calmly and properly manage differences, so as to prevent the overall China-Philippines relations from being affected.” Wang added that China was willing to fast track key infrastructure projects in the Philippines and continue providing COVID-19 vaccine assistance, the Chinese foreign ministry statement said. Attempts by the RFA-affiliated Benar News service to contact Locsin’s office for comment on the meeting went unanswered Monday. The talks came amid this year’s joint Balikatan military exercises between the Philippines and the United States that involve about 9,000 troops from both sides. The exercises in the Philippines will go till April 8. Wang and Locsin’s meeting comes after the Philippines in late March lodged a new diplomatic protest against China alleging that a Chinese coast guard ship maneuvered dangerously close to a Filipino vessel in the contested Scarborough Shoal earlier last month. China’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, insisted that it was within its rights when its ship allegedly engaged in what the Philippine Coast Guard described as “close distance maneuvering” in South China Sea waters. China’s envoy to Manila, Huang Xilian, did not say whether the issue of the Chinese coast guard ship was discussed at Sunday’s talks, but noted that the meeting of the two nations’ top diplomats produced “fruitful results.” “The talks included China’s reaffirmation of its priority neighborhood diplomacy with the Philippines, the maintenance of amicable policies for continued and stable bilateral relations, and the peaceful and proper resolution of differences,” Huang said. “China also reiterated its readiness to streamline key infrastructure projects’ construction with the Philippines.”

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Myanmar’s Magway region suffers under military’s March offensive

Myanmar’s military killed as many as a dozen civilians and arrested nearly 30 others in restive Magway region in the month of March alone, while junta troops torched more than 700 houses in 18 of the region’s villages over the same period, residents said Friday. Sources in Magway’s Gangaw township told RFA’s Myanmar Service that 10 deaths occurred from Feb. 28 to March 2 as troops raided the villages of Thindaw, Shwebo, Kone and Sann. The military set more than 200 homes alight in Kone and Sann over the three-day period, they said, while a joint squad of some 100 troops and pro-military Pyu Saw Htee militia fighters burned another 200 on March 2 while attacking nearby Pauk township’s Leyar village. A villager who spoke on condition of anonymity called the violence and destruction “unacceptable.” “Our houses are antiques, built by hand according to our traditions. …  Our house was built with five tree trunks as its pillars and the current market price is no less than 7-8 million kyats (U.S. $4,000-4,500),” he said. “They attack and destroy everything indiscriminately. How can they believe that destroying the lives and property of ordinary people is justified?” The resident’s rice mill, which he valued at around 1.5 million kyats (U.S. $850), was also destroyed in the attack, he said. He said that more than 1,300 villagers were forced to flee the raids and have been living in the mountains ever since, unable to tend their farms. Other sources told RFA that junta forces raided Letpan Hla village on March 3 and burned down 50 of the village’s 120 houses. A member of the anti-junta People’s Defense Force (PDF) paramilitary group in Pauk Township said the raid came in response to an attack by his group on the military. “We couldn’t stand it anymore because they were causing so much trouble for the people,” said the PDF member, who also declined to be named. “They captured five of our comrades alive and they set them on fire. Three houses were also burned down.” More than 470 residents of Letpan Hla fled the village during the military attack and have yet to return, he said. In another incident, sources said, troops killed a mother and her son in a March 5 attack on Inn-Nge-Daung village. They said 29 people were arrested, including 12 women and nine children, and all remain in military custody. Family detained Lwin Wai, of Yezagyo township’s Taung Oh village, told RFA that authorities who came looking for him detained his mother and two other family members when they learned he wasn’t there. “I’m worried about my family. My sister is only 14 years old now. She knows nothing about politics. She just likes watching movies and playing games,” he said. “My mother had a surgical operation only about four months ago. We all are suffering under this injustice. I’m so furious that we are being bullied by people with weapons. I just want those who are innocent to be released unharmed.” Lwin Wai said his family members were first detained by the 258th Infantry Regiment and are now being held at the Yezagyo Police Station on charges of “defamation,” with a court appointment set for April 4. He said he is wanted for alleged ties to the PDF because area youth regularly come to his electronics repair shop to use his Wi-Fi connection. But he believes the accusation is retribution by the junta-appointed village administrator, who he once had a dispute with. Other reported incidents included the killing of two villagers during a March 26 military raid on Yezagyo township’s Kutote village, and the burning of more than 250 houses in four Gangaw township villages during joint raids by junta troops and Pyu Saw Htee fighters on March 23 and 24. Blaming the PDF Attempts by RFA to reach junta Deputy Information Minister Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun for comment on the raids in Magway region went unanswered Friday. He has previously attributed arson attacks on civilian homes to the PDF, which the military regime has labeled a terrorist organization. In a recent statement, the military claimed that on March 13 a unit of 20 PDF members had attempted to detain the junta-appointed administrator of Yezagyo township’s Gwaygyo village and burned down 17 homes when they could not locate him. RFA was unable to independently verify the junta claims. Chit Win Maung, a member of the anti-junta Magway People’s War Committee, told RFA the junta intentionally harasses and kills civilians in the region “because they cannot rule us.” “They have no people, no youth, supporting them,” he said. “We can see that they are trying to get rid of anyone who wants to stop their fascist movement. From a human rights point of view, they are oppressing the people.” Magway is one of several regions where the junta has encountered particularly fierce resistance since it seized power in a Feb. 1, 2021, coup and launched a multi-pronged offensive against the PDF and armed ethnic groups in Myanmar’s remote border regions. According to Data For Myanmar, a group that researches the social impact of conflict, junta troops have burned at least 7,248 homes across the country since the coup. At least 1,148 of the homes were in Magway region, the group said. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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Cambodian police deny reports of Thais being held against their will in the country

Cambodian authorities Friday denied media reports that Thai citizens are being held against their will in Cambodia by criminal gangs, but Malaysian police said human trafficking syndicates were running rampant across the entire Southeast Asian region. Chhoun Narin, police chief of the Sihanoukville Police Department, told RFA’s Khmer Service that more than 100 Thais have crossed over the border between the two countries to illegally take jobs in casinos located in Sihanoukville province. “We hear fake stories about detentions and torture,” he said. “There are no illegal detentions.” The denial contradicts reports in the Bangkok Post and other Southeast Asian outlets that there are between 2,800 and 3,000 Thais working illegally in Cambodia who have been tricked by gangs to take positions as scammers, according to Thai police estimates. Despite the denial, Chhoun Narin said the police will cooperate with Thai officials in repatriating Thai citizens. But he declined to comment on whether Cambodia will charge Thais found to be in the country illegally. RFA was unable to reach National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khouen for comment on Friday. After the Cambodian government opened up the company following COVID-19 restrictions, reports of criminal activities in Sihanoukville province flooded the offices of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, Cheap Sotheary, the group’s Sihanoukville province coordinator, told RFA. She urged Cambodian authorities to work with their Thai counterparts to resolve complaints about kidnapping and detentions in Cambodia. “There should be an investigation to see how many separate incidents there are. If Thai delegates come, there should be a cooperation to avoid any misunderstanding,” she said. Police in Malaysia, meanwhile, have information indicating a human trafficking syndicate has trapped Malays as forced labor in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, reported. Since 2021, the Anti-trafficking  unit of Malaysia’s Federal Criminal Investigation Department received six police reports of involving 26 victims — 24 men and two women—in need of rescue from crime syndicates. The police believe that there are still many people in similar situations but have not lodged reports with authorities.  Police say that the victims were duped by job advertisements offering relatively high salaries doing social media work as customer service officers in other countries.  Interested job seekers were encouraged to contact agents via WeChat, WhatsApp or Facebook who then would arrange travel costs for the unsuspecting victims. Once they arrived at the destination, the syndicate would confiscate or destroy travel documents and mobile devices, leaving the migrants with no way to call for help or escape on their own. The victims then would be sent to specific locations such as Preah Sihanouk in Cambodia, Mae Sot in Thailand, Vientiane in Laos and Kayin State in Myanmar and forced to work in scams involving online gambling, fake investments and Bitcoin mining. They would not be allowed to return home if they did not reach the company’s sales targets or they could pay between U.S. $7,125 and $11,875 for their release. The Royal Malaysian Police is working with Interpol and Aseanapol to seek help in tracking and rescuing Malaysian victims.  RFA reported last month that dozens of Thais and hundreds of Lao citizens were duped into working in casinos in Laos’ Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone. If these victims failed to meet sales quotas, they were told they would be sold to employers at different companies, including for positions in the sex trade. Multiple groups of Thais escaped last month back to Thailand or were rescued and repatriated. Translated by RFA’s Khmer Service and BenarNews. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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Cambodian election authority removes opposition candidates from list

Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) has removed more than 100 candidates from the opposition Candlelight Party from the list of those running in the country’s commune elections on June 5, the party’s vice president said Friday. The party, which has threatened to boycott the vote because of political harassment of its members and activists by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), has accused the NEC of abusing election law. Candlelight Party vice president Thach Setha said NEC president Prach Chan on Thursday removed all candidates in Phnom Penh and Pursat and Kampong Cham provinces from the candidate list, and accused election authorities of not complying with the law by failing to call witnesses to be questioned amid complaints filed by CPP against the Candelight Party. “He didn’t make any mistake. It is a violation of the election law,” Thach Setha said. Party officials say they have been falsely accused of using fake names for candidates and putting forward some candidates for election without their permission. CCP complains have accused Candlelight Party candidates of being illiterate and submitting documents without thumbprints or signatures. The NEC decision has left the CPP candidate without main competitors in the capital, Phnom Penh. The NEC also removed the name of the son of Eng Chhai Eang, vice president of the former opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) from the candidate list, Thach Setha said. The Candlelight Party, formerly known as the Sam Rainsy Party and the Khmer Nation Party, was founded in 1995 and merged with other opposition forces to form the CNRP in 2012. In November 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in a move that allowed the CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in a July 2018 election. Election authorities based their binding decision on evidence and hearings after finding irregularities on the candidate lists, while some candidates during the hearing asked the NEC to remove their names from the lists, said NEC spokesman Hang Puthea. “Upon receiving the complaints, we held public hearings,” he said. Sam Kuntheamy, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC), said the NEC failed to present evidence and witnesses during the hearings. He also said the decision by the NEC — a theoretically independent agency that supervises the country’s elections, but is believed to be influenced by the CCP — to remove opposition candidates was an attempt to find weak points to prevent the Candlelight Party as the main threat to the CCP from participating in the elections. “The party that has popularity draws attention,” he said. “I want [the NEC] to comply with the law.” Meanwhile, Phnom Penh authorities arrested four Candlelight Party activists but later released three and sent one to Prey Sar Prison. Yok Neang, former leader of the CNRP’s Women Movement who recently joined the Candlelight Party, was arrested Friday and sent to the jail, her son, Ouch Vannarith, told RFA. She was speaking with other political opposition activists when police arrested them and has been charged with treason over a failed attempt by exiled CNRP leader Sam Rainsy in November 2019 to return to Cambodia to lead nonviolent protests against Hun Sen. At least two other Candlelight Party activists are being detained in Pursat province. Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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Musician fears beloved Burmese bamboo xylophone will be a casualty of COVID, coup

Kyaw Myint, an 83-year-old musician from Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and culture center, fears that among the country’s many losses to from the military coup and covid-19 pandemic will be the pattala, a teak-and-bamboo xylophone that he has played his whole life. Caught between the pandemic and the political turmoil following the February 2021 military coup, pattala artists have lost their jobs, with many forced to take up casual labor.“We aging artists are facing a lot of hardship. For a long time, the theatrical troupes have not had a chance to give any performances,” he said, echoing a lament heard from musicians around the world as gigs dried up during pandemic lockdowns. “Some of them have become vendors in the market because they cannot play their music anymore. Some even have become rickshaw drivers and some are selling vegetables,” Kyaw Myint told RFA’s Myanmar Service. Kyaw Myint studied with a who’s who of top Burmese classical musicians, including Saw Mya Aye Kyi, Ba Lay, and Ohn Maung and made a living playing the pattala for his entire adult life. But as musicians worldwide have been increasingly able to return to performing as the pandemic eases in many countries, the violence, political unrest and outright warfare that has engulfed Myanmar since the military overthrew the country’s elected government have brought nighttime curfews and the suspension of theatrical performances. The political conflict has also undercut the efforts by the poorest country in Southeast Asia to roll out vaccines and other measures to combat the pandemic. The pattala, developed more than 500 years ago for use in court music and chamber ensembles, has a teak resonating chamber shaped like a rowboat, over which 24 bamboo slats are suspended. It is played with padded hardwood mallets and tuned along lines similar the diatonic scale. Southeast Asian neighbors Thailand and Cambodia have similar versions of the ancient instrument. San San Nwe, a 67-year-old retired schoolteacher, is not a musician, but her traditional craft has also been collateral damage from the violence and turmoil. She learned the craft the art of making pattala mallets from her father, Saing Sayar Gyi Sein Tun Kyi, carrying on his tradition for almost 50 years. “In the past, while I worked as a schoolteacher, I would do this job if we had orders. But now we hardly have any orders,” she said. Nyunt Win Tun, 57,  San San Nwe’s brother, hopes pattala performances will return when peace returns to the multi-ethnic country of 54 million people. “We can only hope that these activities will return to normal when there is peace and tranquility. When normalcy returns, we will be able to do our work happily again. It’s been over two and a half years now. Things are not going well at all,” he told RFA. Even before the coup which has claimed thousands of lives and led to the jailing of hundreds of beloved writers, actors and musicians, traditional folk instruments like the hardwood-and-bamboo pattala were swimming against the tide of modern technology. Electronic pianos and organs that can play a variety of sounds are getting more and more popular while traditional instruments like the pattala are now becoming less and less popular among younger Burmese people. Kyaw Mint says there are now very few people in Myanmar who can play the pattala as it should be played, he said. And more ominously for the ancient tradition, there are thought to be only about a dozen people left who make pattalas in Myanmar. “There are a lot of reasons that the traditional music industry is disappearing,” said Kyaw Myint.. I’m trying to keep it alive. But I am saddened that there are very few young people who want to inherit this rare old tradition.” Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Edited by Paul Eckert.

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Family of slain Rohingya leader leaves Bangladesh for Canada

Canada has agreed to give refuge to 11 family members of a Rohingya rights activist who was gunned down at a refugee camp in Bangladesh last September, officials in Dhaka and a human rights group said Friday. Nasima Khatun, the widow of Muhib Ullah, their nine children and the husband of one of their daughters departed the South Asian country on a flight from Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka on Thursday night, human rights advocate Nur Khan Liton confirmed to BenarNews. “They are scheduled to arrive in Canada by Saturday,” Liton said. “They left with the aim of having a safe life.” On Friday, Bangladesh foreign ministry official Miah Md. Mainul Kabir credited the Canadian government for accepting Ullah’s survivors. “The government of Bangladesh gave more importance to the Canadian government’s interest in this regard than the application of Muhib Ullah’s family,” he told BenarNews. “As a shelter-providing country, Canada has done everything needed,” Mainul Kabir said, adding that Canada was the only country offering to shelter the family. Thursday’s flight was out of the ordinary, he said, because groups that large normally are sent to another country in phases. ‘Serious fear for their security’ In October, an immigration and refugee affairs analyst said it was not unusual for Bangladesh to send Rohingya to a third country in the past. More than 900 Rohingya were sent to countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Sweden in 2009 and 2010, said Asif Munir, a former official of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). This transfer is different because Ullah’s family left the country over a “serious fear for their security,” said Liton, general secretary of Ain-O-Salish Kendra (ASK), a local human rights organization. The IOM, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, and Canadian High Commission had arranged the family’s exit from Bangladesh, he said. Gunmen killed Ullah, chairman of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH), in his office at the Kutupalong refugee camp in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district on Sept. 29, 2021.  Last month, Bangladeshi police said four of 15 people arrested over alleged ties to the killing had confessed to their roles in it and that those in custody said they belonged to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya insurgent group. “UNHCR does not comment on individual cases,” Mostafa Mohammad Sazzad Hossain, an official at the U.N. agency’s office in Dhaka, told BenarNews. In addition, IOM and Canadian officials did not immediately respond to separate requests for comment. Before leaving the country, the family asked Bangladesh officials to reopen the recently closed Myanmar curriculum school established by Ullah, Liton said. About 1 million Rohingya, including 740,000 who fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state following a military crackdown in 2017, have settled in refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar, close to the border with Rakhine. Nasima Khatun, the widow of Rohingya activist Muhib Ullah, speaks to reporters at her home in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Sept. 30, 2021. Credit: BenarNews In his role as ARSPH chairman, Ullah had represented the stateless Rohingya community before the United Nations and at the White House in Washington, where he expressed concerns about his fellow refugees to then-President Donald Trump in 2019. Two weeks after Ullah was killed, Bangladesh authorities cited security concerns when they moved his family to an undisclosed location. Police also moved the families of 10 other ARSPH leaders. At the time, Md. Rashid Ullah, ARSPH spokesman and Ullah’s nephew, told BenarNews that those families wanted to leave Bangladesh over their own safety concerns. Millions of dollars for Rohingya Ullah’s family left Bangladesh days after American Ambassador Peter Haas announced on March 29 that the United States was providing U.S. $152 million (13 billion taka) in new humanitarian assistance for the Rohingya and their host communities in Bangladesh. Haas made the announcement after his first visit to Cox’s Bazar earlier in the week, according to a news release from the U.S. Embassy. “This brings the total we’ve provided since August 2017 to $1.7 billion (145.5 billion taka),” Haas said in the news release. “Of this new funding, $125 million (10.7 billion taka) is for programs inside Bangladesh – for Rohingya refugees and affected Bangladeshi communities,” it said. In Fiscal Year 2021 alone, the U.S. government reported spending nearly $302 million (25.9 billion taka) in support of humanitarian assistance programs for Rohingya sheltering in Bangladesh. Also this week, UNHCR launched a 2022 Joint Response Plan to raise more than $881 million (75.7 billion taka) to assist Rohingya. The funding is to support more than 918,000 Rohingya and about 540,000 Bangladeshis in neighboring communities, a UNHCR press release said. BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news service.

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Philippine President Duterte plans to meet with Chinese ‘friend’ Xi on April 8

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said he would meet next week virtually with his “friend,” Chinese leader Xi Jinping, as Filipino and U.S. forces conduct one of their largest joint exercises in years in the Southeast Asian nation bordering the disputed South China Sea. The presidential office in Manila announced the upcoming meeting while troops, during the Balikatan (“shoulder-to-shoulder”) exercise, participated Thursday in a drill simulating an attack response on a remote beach on the northern tip of Luzon Island that fronts China and Taiwan. “China is good,” Duterte said, according to transcripts released to the media on Friday. “April 8. Xi Jinping wants to talk to me. We are friends.” Additional details of the planned meeting were being firmed up on Friday and Duterte’s office had not yet released topics to be discussed by the two leaders. “[T]his meeting is still in the preparatory stage,” Communications Undersecretary Kristian Ablan said. “So what specific issues will be discussed by the world leaders will be known in the coming days.” Although the Xi-Duterte meeting will be virtual, it is customary for a Philippine president to visit allies before leaving office. Duterte’s single six-year term ends on June 30. The 2022 version of Balikatan is the biggest joint exercise involving Philippine and U.S. troops in seven years. About 9,000 troops are involved in the war games, which are schedule to end on April 8, the same day Duterte is to meet with Xi. The exercise began shortly after the Philippine Coast Guard reported a March 2 “close distance maneuvering” incident involving one of its ships and the China Coast Guard near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Philippine officials said the Chinese ship sailed within 21 meters (69 feet) of the Philippine ship and accused Beijing of violating 1972 international regulations on preventing collisions at sea. Balikatan comes two months after the Biden administration in the United States introduced a new strategy to increase security engagements in the Indo-Pacific region amid growing concerns about China. Duterte’s relationships At the beginning of his term in 2016, Duterte drifted away from traditional ally Washington in favor of China and Russia. Instead of enforcing an international court ruling that invalidated China’s expansive claims to the nearly all of the South China Sea, the president pursued friendlier ties with Xi, leading to increased Chinese investments in the Philippines. While admitting in 2021 that the court ruling was binding, Duterte continued to emphasize his friendship with the Chinese leader, noting that Manila was indebted to Beijing for providing COVID-19 vaccines in the early days of the pandemic.  In March 2021, Duterte said he planned to visit China, a country he traveled to six times, to personally thank Xi for the vaccines. Those visits are the most by any Philippine president while in office to a foreign country but Duterte has never visited Washington, according to officials.  Duterte last traveled to China in August 2019 on a five-day official visit when he raised the landmark arbitral ruling for the Philippines on the South China Sea.  China has rejected the ruling and insisted on its historical claims over virtually the entire sea region, which the court ruled as having no basis under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Aside from China and the Philippines, five other Asian governments – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – have territorial claims. While Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone. Manila has grown critical of Beijing’s actions during the past year, including Chinese fishing boats swarming near the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. In early March, the Philippines protested a Chinese navy reconnaissance ship’s “illegal incursion” in the Sulu Sea – a move that Beijing said did not break international law. In a rare move in November 2021, Duterte expressed “grave concern” after a China Coast Guard ship fired water cannon on Filipino supply boats in the disputed waters.  “We abhor the recent event in the Ayungin Shoal and view with grave concern other similar developments,” Duterte said at the time.  BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news service.

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With an eye on China, Japan plans 2 + 2 talks with Philippines, India

Japan plans to hold so-called “two-plus-two” meetings with the Philippines and India to discuss maritime security including in the South China Sea, a move analysts say could send a message to Beijing about Tokyo’s determination to foster ties with like-minded partners. “Two-plus-two” are ministerial-level meetings that involve both foreign and defense ministers of participating countries. Unnamed diplomatic sources were quoted by Kyodo News Agency as saying that arrangements are being made for Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi to meet with their Philippine counterparts in early April, and their Indian counterparts in mid-April in Tokyo. China’s growing maritime assertiveness is expected to be high on the agenda, and ministers are expected to renew their pledge to promote a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region. Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana are expected to travel to Tokyo for the talks. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed to RFA that Japan and the Philippines are considering the launch of a two-plus-two meeting but maintained that “the timing has not been decided yet.” Neither the Philippine nor Indian foreign ministries responded to requests for comment. The talks are being planned amid a complex geopolitical backdrop. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, said Friday that he would meet with his “friend” Chinese leader Xi Jinping to discuss territorial disputes in the South China Sea on April 8. Duterte has had limited success in forging a more cooperative relationship with Beijing during his six-year term which ends in June. China and the Philippines are both claimants in the South China Sea alongside four other parties: Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan. Beijing holds the most expansive claim. While Japan is not a claimant, it is a strategic rival of China, and the two powers have competing claims in the East China Sea. Huynh Tam Sang, an analyst at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Vietnam, said Tokyo’s plans for the two-plus-two talks “could send a nuanced message to Beijing about Japan’s determination to foster security ties with like-minded partners.” “If Japan could bring the Philippines and India on board for maritime deterrence, it will be a big deal,” said Sang. The Philippines filed a diplomatic protest this week over a Chinese Coast Guard vessel’s dangerous “maneuvering” in the South China Sea. Beijing rejected the accusation saying China has “sovereign rights and jurisdiction” over the waters. Japanese and Philippine ministers are expected to discuss arms exports to the Philippines, Kyodo’s sources said. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomes Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida ahead of their meeting at Hyderabad House, in New Delhi, India, March 19, 2022. Credit: Reuters Quad members When Japanese Prime Minister Kishida visited India last month, Japan and India also agreed to hold what would be their second two-plus-two meeting “at an early date.” But the timing of the meeting has not been decided, either, Japan says. Both Japan and India are members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and important players in the Indo-Pacific so “it is only natural for India to also interact with Japan for two-plus-two,” said Sana Hashmi, visiting fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation. “Two-plus-two talks demonstrate the level of engagement and the willingness to strengthen the partnership by both sides,” Hashmi said, adding: “Of course, China’s aggression is a factor in countries’ willingness to advance ties, but India-Japan relations are multifaceted and two-plus-two dialogue is a part of this multifaceted engagement.” Besides the Philippines and India, Japan has held two-plus-two security talks with the United States, Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Indonesia and Russia.

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Upward trend in Myanmar online wildlife trade endangers biodiversity and public health

Upward trend in Myanmar online wildlife trade New research by WWF shows that online illegal wildlife trade in Myanmar increased by 74% from 2020 to 2021. The report, ‘Going viral: Myanmar’s wildlife trade escalates online,’ details 173 different species being advertised for sale online in 2021, up from 143 species the year before. Sales of mammal species – either as live animals or their body parts – rose by 241%. Posts that advertised mammals for sale referenced commercially bred civets, meat of the critically endangered Sunda pangolin for consumption, elephant skin pieces for jewellery and juvenile bears as pets. All these animals are used as an ingredient of Traditional Chinese Medicines (TCMs). “WWF research reveals that online trade in wildlife within Myanmar is escalating,” said Shaun Martin, WWF-Asia Pacific’s Regional Illegal Wildlife Trade Cybercrime Project Lead. “Despite the global importance of Myanmar’s biodiversity and everything we now know about the origins of COVID-19, online trade monitoring has revealed different species being kept in close proximity – sometimes in the same cage, wild meat selling out in minutes with demands for more, sales of soon-to-be extinct animals openly discussed in online groups, and trade occurring across country borders. With Asia’s track record as a breeding ground for many recent zoonotic diseases, this sharp uptick in online trade of wildlife in Myanmar is extremely concerning.”  Similar wildlife deterioration was observed in many African countries in the past decade.    Key findings from new WWF report on online trade in wildlife include More than 11,046 products from 173 species were recorded for sale online in 2021. 96% of posts were for live animals, with 87% advertising that animals had been taken from the wild. Mammal sale posts rose 241% from 2020 to 2021. The largest online trading group had more than 19,000 members and over 30 posts a day. The number of traded species on the IUCN Red List rose 80% from 2020 to 2021. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), swine flu (H1N1), avian flu (H5N1), and COVID–19, all originated in animals and have proliferated in Asia in the last two decades. With scientists estimating that 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals, it is likely that animal to human disease spillover – or zoonoses – would be the trigger for future pandemics. The trade in live wildlife and wildlife parts brings many species and their pathogens together, increasing the potential for spillover to humans. Among the 11,046 wildlife items promoted for sale through social media posts were six species listed as “Critically Endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, indicating an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. A further seven species were marked “Endangered” and 33 marked “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List. Of particular note were posts that advertised the Sunda and Chinese pangolins, both “Critically Endangered” species, with pangolins also identified as carrying SARS-related betacoronaviruses., These posts advertised pangolins as live animals and wild meat, as well as referring to commercial breeding. Similar posts for civets were also seen, with civets identified as the intermediate host of the virus that caused the SARS outbreak in Asia in 2002. “The risk of new pathogen transmission from wild animals to humans – the most common source of new epidemics, and pandemics – is increased by the close contact conditions created by this trade,” said Emiko Matsuda, Group Lead on Biodiversity and Public Sector Partnership, WWF-Japan. “These online sales of live animals and wildlife products need to be disrupted before they escalate any further, endangering Myanmar’s precious wildlife and global public health.”    

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