Voice of America

  • Italy Joining China's New Silk Road Troubles US and EU
    Italy has joined China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious trillion-dollar transcontinental trade and infrastructure project, Saturday. Rome's move to become the first G-7 nation to participate in China's so-called New Silk Road has brought divisions within Europe as the European Union weighs a more defensive strategy on China. As State Department correspondent Nike Ching reports, American officials and analysts are cautioning allies about China's approach to investment.

  • US-Backed SDF: IS 'Caliphate' Eliminated But Challenges Ahead
    For consecutive nights, bombs rained down on the last scraps of Islamic State-held territory, lighting up the night sky over the northeastern Syrian town of Baghuz. By Saturday morning, all that remained was a landscape littered with burnt-out vehicles, abandoned campsites and other provisions the last of the terror group’s fighters and their families left behind. On one of the few buildings that still stood, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces raised their flag and celebrated the death of a self-declared caliphate that inflicted terror and death on the people it tried to rule. “After five years of fighting, we stand here to declare the physical defeat of ISIS and the end of its public challenge over all humanity,” SDF Director General Mazloum Kobani told officials and coalition partners at a ceremony to mark the long-awaited victory, using an acronym for the group. “We announce today the destruction of the so-called Islamic State organization and the end of its ground control in its last pocket in Baghuz region,” he said. Yet in between the applause and the music of a marching band, SDF commanders and coalition official paid tribute to the SDF forces, which paid for the victory in blood and treasure — an estimated 11,000 killed in the campaign to roll back IS, which at its height controlled nearly a third of Syria and almost as much of Iraq. And even until the end, sometime Friday night into Saturday morning, IS put up a vicious defense, using suicide bombers and even children as human shields in an attempt to cling to one last scrap of land over which they could fly their black flag. The exact fate of the last of the IS fighters, perhaps several hundred of the terror group’s most hardened and devoted followers, was not clear Saturday. Observers on the ground said some appeared to have surrendered following the airstrikes that began Thursday night, targeting IS positions along a next to the Euphrates River and another sliver where IS fighters were backed up against a cliff overlooking the town. By early Saturday, the airstrikes seemed to focus solely on the area by the cliff, where SDF and coalition officials said the IS fighters might have access to an extensive system of tunnels that helped to hide tens of thousands of people, the last of whom surrendered earlier in the week. The first indications the fight against IS in Baghuz had ended came early Saturday, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali using Twitter to announce the “total elimination of so-called caliphate.” Only about 12 hours earlier, U.S. President Donald Trump made a similar declaration. Following a briefing from Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Trump told reporters travelling with him aboard Air Force One that IS had been “100 percent defeated.”   But Trump’s announcement was quickly refuted by U.S. defense officials and the SDF. Bali told VOA's Kurdish Service Friday that even as the president was speaking, his forces were still engaged with IS fighters and that additional airstrikes were being carried out.   And even on Saturday, SDF official were careful to point out that while IS’ caliphate had finally brought down, the danger is far from over. Kobani, while praising the victory at Baghuz, warned of numerous IS “sleeper cells, which continue to present a great danger in our region and the wider world." Top U.S. defense and intelligence officials repeatedly have warned the terror group had long been planning for the demise of its caliphate, and that a clandestine insurgency already had taken root. One senior defense official warned IS still has, at minimum, "tens of thousands" of fighters and supporters across Syria and Iraq, and that much of the group's senior leadership, including self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remain at large. There also are concerns that IS has thousands more supporters and sympathizers — including upwards of 60,000 people who have surrendered since the SDF and coalition launched their final assault last month. So, too, there are concerns about more than 1,000 foreign fighters currently being held by the SDF, which has asked repeatedly that they be taken back and prosecuted by their home countries.   “These folks are unrepentant,” the official said. “The seeds for a future caliphate or certainly a persistent clandestine insurgency exist in these large numbers of people who ... are looking to reposition for future perpetuation of ISIS in some form or fashion." Speaking Saturday at the victory ceremony near Baghuz, the U.S. adviser to the coalition pledged Washington would not abandon the SDF or its other partners, even though President Trump has said most of the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria will be leaving. “We will continue to support the coalition’s operations in Syria to ensure this enduring defeat,” William Robak said. “We will do what is necessary in the region, including here in Syria and across the globe to ensure the defeat of this threat.” France and Britain also reaffirmed their commitment, though disagreements with the U.S. over the next steps remain. “The threat remains,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on Twitter. “The fight against terrorist groups must continue.” “We will continue to do what is necessary to protect the British people, our Allies and partners from the threat Daesh poses,” said Prime Minister Theresa May, using an alternate acronym for IS. VOA's Kurdish Service contributed to this report.  

  • Thousands of IS Escapees in Dire Straights at Syrian Camp
    The United Nations reports thousands of people, mainly women and children, are continuing to flee to al-Hol Camp from Baghuz amid reports that U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have seized control of Islamic State’s last stronghold in eastern Syria. According to the U.N., more than 74,000 people, 90 percent of them women and children, now are residing at the al-Hol Camp. Many are family members of IS fighters. Spokesman for the Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Jens Laerke said many of an estimated 2,000 people who recently arrived were in very poor health. “Most of the new arrivals show signs of distress and suffer from malnutrition, fatigue, medical conditions and war injuries, which is caused by months of hostilities and lack of access to food, medical assistance and basic services,” Laerke said. Aid workers report shelters for the camp residents are inadequate to protect them from the cold, windy weather.  Heating is scarce.  Laerke said humanitarian agencies on the ground expect an additional 15,000 people to soon arriving the already crowded camp. “The camp has significantly exceeded its capacity and there is an urgent need for additional plots to accommodate those currently being hosted in communal spaces and big size tents and also to expand the camp for the new arrivals,” Laerke said. The International Committee of the Red Cross is running a relief operation in the camp together with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society.  The ICRC notes that not all of the families in al-Hol are Syrian.  It says a significant number of foreign nationals, also mainly women and children, have taken refuge there. Red Cross officials say these people are in a particularly precarious situation.  They say many want to go home to their countries of origin, but a number of governments do not want them back.  The officials say governments have a responsibility to care for their stranded citizens regardless of the reasons why they left for Syria.  

  • Experts Advise Against Human Genome Editing as Too Risky
    A group of experts meeting for the first time to examine the pros and cons of human genome editing say it would be “irresponsible” to engage in this procedure at this time.   Late last year, a Chinese scientist triggered an international storm when he announced he had created the first gene-edited babies.  He said he had edited the DNA of the twin girls to protect them from HIV. Having met at World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva earlier this week, the 18-person panel warned the procedure is too risky and should not be attempted before a system of strong rules governing this technique are established.  Co-chair of the advisory committee, Margaret Hamburg, said the group has agreed on a set of core principles. She said the panel recommends the WHO create a registry for human genome editing research.  Under this system, she said scientific work in these technologies would be registered in a transparent way. “We think it is very important to establish this registry to get a better sense of the research that is going on around the world, greater transparency about it, and in fact greater accountability in terms of assuring that research meets standards in terms of science and ethics,” Hamburg said. The experts agree this would preclude the kind of secrecy that surrounded the work of the Chinese scientist.  She said the panel would like this transparency to extend to the publication of manuscripts that emerge from important research.  Hamburg said publishers will be asked to ensure the research has been registered with the WHO before it is publicized. Hamburg said developing the guidelines on human genome editing is a process that will take about 18 months to complete, noting that it is a difficult, but urgent task that must be carried out in a thoughtful, comprehensive manner.  

  • Italy, China Sign Pact Deepening Economic Ties
    Italy has signed a memorandum of understanding with China in support of Beijing's “Belt and Road” initiative, which aims to weave a network of ports, bridges and power plants linking China with Africa, Europe and beyond. Premier Giuseppe Conte and Chinese President Xi Jinping shook hands during a ceremony in Rome on Saturday, after 29 separate sections of the memorandum were signed by members of both governments. With the memorandum, Italy becomes the first member of the Group of Seven major economies that includes the United States, to join Belt and Road, following Portugal's embrace of the initiative in December. Italy's involvement gives China a crucial inroad into Western Europe and a symbolic boost in its economic tug-of-war with Washington.  

  • UK's Embattled May Faces Huge Anti-Brexit March
    British Prime Minister Theresa May has told lawmakers she may not seek passage of her troubled Brexit withdrawal plan in Parliament next week. The embattled leader, who faces a major protest march in central London on Saturday, wrote to lawmakers Friday night saying she would bring the European Union withdrawal back to Parliament if there seems to be enough backing for it to pass. “If it appears that there is not sufficient support to bring the deal back next week, or the House rejects it again, we can ask for another extension before 12 April, but that will involve holding European Parliament elections,” she said. May's changing stance reflects the plan's dismal chances in the House of Commons after two prior defeats. She also says she would need the approval of House Speaker John Bercow to bring the plan back for a third time despite his objections. Bercow has said a third vote would violate parliamentary rules unless the plan is altered. May said in her letter to lawmakers that if the deal is approved, Britain will leave the EU on May 22, a date agreed with EU officials. Lawmakers have twice rejected the deal and haven't shown any clear swing toward endorsing it in recent days. Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union on April 12 if no deal is approved. Pro-Brexit forces are also girding for the possible political impact of a planned march in central London in support of holding a second referendum that would give British voters the option of remaining in the EU despite the 2016 vote in favor of leaving. The organizers of the “People's Vote March” predict that one of Britain's largest-ever protest marches will grip central London. More than 4 million people endorsed an electronic petition this week in favor of revoking Article 50, the act that formally triggered the Brexit process. The march will conclude outside Parliament, which remains divided over Brexit. No consensus on a way forward has emerged despite weeks of extensive debate. May told lawmakers in her letter that Britain still has options including an extension that would require taking part in European Parliament elections in May. She also said Britain could revoke Article 50 but characterized that as a betrayal of the Brexit vote in favor of severing EU ties. She also said Britain could leave without a deal. In a conciliatory tone, the prime minister offered to meet with lawmakers to discuss Brexit policy. She had offended many legislators with a speech Thursday night that seemed to blame Parliament for the stalled Brexit process.  

  • 4 Dead, 30 Hurt in Southern Afghanistan Attack
    Officials in southern Afghanistan say at least four people have died and more than 30 were wounded in twin blasts Saturday at an agricultural show, held as part of traditional New Year's celebrations.   The explosions happened in Lashkar Gah, the capital of volatile Helmand province. Witnesses of the attack said that first, a small explosion happened inside a tent in the stadium. People then started to run toward the gates when a second blast hit the crowd. Helmand Governor Mohammad Yasin reportedly was knocked down by the explosion, but suffered only superficial injuries. There has been no immediate claim of responsibility, although the Taliban frequently carries out similar attacks.  

  • Al-Shabab Claims Attacks in Somalia’s Mogadishu
    Somali militant group al-Shabab has launched yet another complex attack in the capital, Mogadishu, witnesses and officials say. A car bomb blast rocked the Shangani district of Mogadishu early Saturday. Witnesses said the explosion targeted a building housing the ministries of Labor and of General Works, Reconstruction and Housing. The Headquarters of Mogadishu regional police are also located in the area. A second explosion was reported minutes later in the same area. Witnesses said the explosion came from another car believed to have been used by armed gunmen. The gunmen stormed the building according to witnesses. Gunfire has been heard at the building housing the two ministries. Pictures taken by local media show some of the workers escaping through the back windows. The al-Shabab militant group claimed responsibility for the attack. Through its affiliate media, al-Shabab also claimed its fighters entered the buildings of Labor, and General Works, Reconstruction & Housing. The Somali government has not immediately commented on the attack. A Somali official who could not be named said security agencies had been expecting a major attack for a week now.  

  • France Tightens Security in 19th Week of Yellow Vest Protests
    The French government vowed to strengthen security as yellow vest protesters stage a 19th round of demonstrations, in an effort to avoid a repeat of last week’s riots in Paris. Authorities banned protests Saturday from the capital’s Champs-Elysees avenue and central areas of several cities including Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille and Nice in the south, and Rouen in western France.   In Paris, some yellow vests protesters were gathering Saturday morning on Trocadero plaza, next to the Eiffel Tower. Others issued calls for a demonstration from the Denfert-Rochereau plaza, in southern Paris, to tourist hotspot Montmartre in the north.   The new Paris police chief, Didier Lallement, who took charge following last week’s protests, said specific police units have been created to react faster to any violence.   About 6,000 police officers are deployed in the capital and two drones are helping to monitor the demonstrations.   Authorities also deployed soldiers to protect sensitive sites and allow police forces to focus on maintaining order during the protests.    President Emmanuel Macron on Friday dismissed criticism from opposition leaders regarding the involvement of the military.    “Those trying to scare people, or to scare themselves, are wrong,” he said in Brussels.   The French government announced new security measures this week and replaced the Paris police chief with Lallement following riots on the Champs-Elysees that left luxury stores ransacked and charred from arson fires.   Last week’s surge in violence came as the 4-month-old anti-government movement has been dwindling.  The protests started in November to oppose fuel tax hikes but have expanded into a broader rejection of Macron’s economic policies, which protesters say favor businesses and the wealthy over ordinary French workers.   The yellow vest movement was named after the fluorescent garments that French motorists must carry in their vehicles for emergencies.

  • New Zealand Mosques Reopen 8 Days After Attacks
    A little more than a week after a terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, the places of worship have re-opened. At the Al Noor mosque Saturday, where 40 of the 50 victims were killed, there was very little physical evidence of the horrific event. Fresh paint and plaster covered up signs of gunshots and new windows replaced the ones smashed by worshippers who tried to escape the siege by a 28-year-old Australian white nationalist. “To feel that this form of violence and cruelty is visited on you, living in this idyllic part of the world, is deeply, deeply moving,” said Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, one among the hundreds who visited Al Noor. Among the mosque visitors Saturday were survivors of the attack and people who knew the victims. “Those who lost their families are of course quite emotional,” said Shagat Khan, the president of the Muslim Association of Canterbury. “And those who were present here during the incident, of course the memories come back. The flashbacks.” March for Love Earlier in Christchurch Saturday, there was a March For Love with people walking mostly in silence. One demonstration sign read: “Muslims welcome, Racists not.” “We feel like hate has brought a lot of darkness at times like this and love is the strongest cure to light the city out of that darkness,” said Manala Butler, 16, one of the student organizers of the march. ​Mass funeral On Friday, there was a mass funeral for 26 of the victims. There was also a Muslim call to prayer Friday in a ceremony in a park near the Al Noor mosque that was broadcast on radio and television, followed by two minutes of silence. Officials say at least two people who were related to victims of the attacks have died. One woman who had arrived from Jordan after her son was killed died over night Saturday. And a police official told the French News Agency (AFP) that another relative had also died, but gave no details. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has received wide praise for her support of the Muslim community following the shootings. Ardern donned a headscarf to visit those affected by the shootings, in the tradition of Muslim women, a move that prompted other New Zealand women to do the same thing. The New Zealand government has imposed a ban on all military-style semi-automatic and automatic assault rifles. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktou, Dubai’s leader, thanked Ardern on Twitter Friday night. He also posted a photo of Ardern imposed on Dubai’s Burj Khalifaword, the world’s tallest building. The photo shows the prime minister hugging a woman with the Arabic word “salam” and the English translation “peace” above them. New Zealand authorities have charged 28-year-old Australian Brenton Harrison Tarrant with murder in connection with the March 15 attacks on the Al Noor and Linwood mosques. The self-proclaimed white nationalist did not enter a plea in his initial court appearance the day after the attack. His next court appearance is April 5.

  • Two Category 4 Cyclones Strike Remote Australian Coast
    A vast and powerful cyclone made landfall Saturday along a remote stretch of the northern Australian coast, bringing fierce winds and heavy rains amid safety fears for a small number of residents who’ve stayed in the area. Cyclone Trevor crossed the Gulf of Carpentaria coast at 9:50 a.m. local time (2250 GMT) in the far east of the Northern Territory, near its border with Queensland state. At the time of landfall it was a category 4 storm, with 5 being the strongest.  Most of the sparsely populated area had been evacuated, with more than 2,000 people put up in temporary accommodation in the Northern Territory capital Darwin, and the nearby town of Katherine. But with the cyclone bringing wind gusts of up to 250 kilometers per hour (155 miles per hour) as it hit the coast, and with flash flooding expected as heavy rains met hard-baked lands recently hit by drought, authorities issued safety warnings for the small number of people who stayed put. Emergency services stretched Northern Territory Emergency Services spokesman Jason Collins said anyone remaining in Trevor’s path needed to have supplies to last at least three days, to take shelter and stay away from waterways. “Turn around, don’t drown. We may not be there to save you,” he said. “Emergency services are stretched.” Those remaining in the area, mostly farm holders, mine workers and local residents who opted not to leave, are believed to number less than a couple of dozen. Moving in a west-southwest direction, Trevor was downgraded to category 3 about three hours after crossing the coast, with winds of up to 205 kph (127 mph). It was expected to weaken to category 2 by late Saturday. Cyclone Veronica Meanwhile Cyclone Veronica, another category 4 system, was expected to cross the northwest Australian coast late Saturday night, bringing wind gusts of up to 230 kph (143 mph). Residents of Western Australia state’s coastal Pilbara region, which is also only lightly populated, have been warned to take cover. Cyclones are frequent in Australia’s tropical north and rarely claim lives. But two such large storms as Cyclones Trevor and Veronica crossing land on the same weekend is rare.

  • Spinoff Trump Cases Will Continue Long After Mueller Report 
    The nearly 2-year-old probe into potential ties between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russian election interference has come to an end. Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Friday submitted his confidential report to U.S. Attorney General William Barr. But will Mueller’s report be the end of the story? Hardly. Prosecutors from outside the special counsel’s office, including the U.S. attorney’s offices in New York, Virginia and Washington, D.C., are all pursuing cases that have spun off from the Mueller investigation. State investigators in New York and Maryland have ongoing Trump-related investigations. And in Congress, the House and Senate intelligence and other committees are actively looking into Trump’s finances, potential Russia-Trump ties and other matters. Besides Mueller, here’s a rundown of who’s investigating what: ​Violations of federal campaign finance law. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York is investigating Trump’s role in silencing former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult-film actress Stormy Daniels with hush payments in August and October 2016, respectively. The two women have previously claimed to have had affairs with President Trump. Inauguration funding. Trump’s inaugural committee received a subpoena in February 2019 from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. Federal prosecutors are looking into where the money raised and spent by the Trump inauguration committee, $107 million, came from and where it went. ​Paul Manafort’s activity. In March, a Manhattan grand jury indicted Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, on 16 counts of mortgage fraud and conspiracy. The state-level indictment came after Manafort was sentenced in federal court in Alexandria and Washington, D.C., to more than seven years in prison for a host of crimes. Trump Super PAC Funding. Federal prosecutors are examining whether foreigners illegally funneled donations to the pro-Trump super PAC “Rebuilding America Now.” U.S. law prohibits foreign nationals from giving to federal campaigns, PACs and inaugural funds. Russian Accountant Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova. The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia indicted Khusyaynova in October 2018 for conspiracy to defraud the United States by interfering in the 2016 presidential elections and 2018 midterm elections. Turkish Influence. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn is cooperating with federal prosecutors in eastern Virginia in a criminal case against two former associates. The two worked on behalf of a Turkish entrepreneur who financed a campaign to discredit Fethullah Gülen, the cleric accused by the Turkish government of helping instigate a failed coup. Flynn pleaded guilty Dec. 1, 2017, to lying to the FBI about his contact with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and his plea agreement includes some details of the Turkish case. Trump Foundation Tax Case. The New York Attorney General’s Office is collaborating with the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance to look into possible criminal charges against the now-defunct Donald J. Trump Foundation for alleged tax evasion and aggressive pursuit of tax breaks. Trump agreed to dissolve the charity in December 2018. ​Emoluments Lawsuit. The state of Maryland and the District of Columbia have sued President Trump for allegedly violating two anti-corruption provisions of the U.S. Constitution. The plaintiffs say Trump has violated the so-called Domestic Emoluments Clause, which prohibits the president from accepting gifts from states and the Foreign Emoluments Clause, which bans him from accepting payments from foreign governments. Roger Stone and WikiLeaks. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia and Mueller’s office are jointly prosecuting the case against Trump’s longtime adviser and confidante, Roger Stone. Stone was charged with witness tampering, obstruction of justice, and making false statements to Congress about Democrats’ emails stolen by Russian hackers and published by the website WikiLeaks before 2016 election. Stone, now under a judge’s gag order, has pleaded not guilty. Masood Farivar contributed to this report.

  • Timeline of the Battle Against IS
  • Political Rock Stars Turn Up Heat Ahead of Thai Elections
    From an upstart entrepreneur to a transgender person hoping to find a political voice for the LGBT community, this Sunday’s Thai election is proving inclusive even if the chances of victory among the smaller parties remain slim. It’s an eclectic mix of candidates with personality politics and single-issue platforms firmly on the agenda. Sports stars and a beauty queen have been enlisted, offering a stark contrast to the establishment faces of Thailand’s military rulers. Among them is transgender filmmaker Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, who decided to run for office with the Future Forward Party after a five-year legal battle resulted in her film,Insects in the Backyard, finally being shown after a nude scene was edited out. “Five years to make a three-second cut,” she said from Future Forward’s Bangkok office.​ WATCH: Thailand Election Provides Many Choices for Undecided Voters She demurred when asked if her sexual orientation had contributed to the ban on a film that dealt with student prostitutes, but she said Future Forward could win and that the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community drove her policies. Future Forward was founded a year ago and has thrived under youthful entrepreneur Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who has capitalized on social media and the potential youth and LGBT vote, upsetting the military junta of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. “I think this election is a great opportunity to give to the Thai people. To run for prime minister, to vote for a group of people who make decisions, run the country (and) go forward,” Tanwarin said. She is not the only transgender in this political race, which hopes to return Thailand to a “democracy” after five years of military rule. The Mahachon Party has up to 20 LGBT candidates contesting the ballot with Pauline Ngarmpring, a former prominent figure in Thai football, among them. Their chances are bolstered by the demographics. In Thailand, the LGBT community boasts numbers of around 7 million, or about 13 percent of the 52 million people expected to vote. “I want to be a person who represents the minority people in Thailand because for me — LGBT people — we have not the right to marry in a same-sex marriage. Legally, by law, we cannot adopt children,” Tanwarin added. Prayut, standing as leader of his Phalang Pracharat, seen as a proxy party for continued military rule, is widely expected to become the next prime minister, which under a new constitution will be elected from a joint sitting of parliament. The 250 members of the Senate will all be appointed by the military, with political parties contesting 500 seats in the House of Representatives. That gives Prayut a substantial head start over his main rival Peu Thai, the party of former Prime Ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra. Thanathorn, however, is proving popular. He has turned himself into a political rock star, winning comparisons with former U.S. President Barack Obama, mounted on policies that include a cut to the arms budget and an end to military conscription. Chart Pattana, known as the sports party, has touted Olympic taekwondo bronze medalist Yaowapa Burapolchai and former Miss Thailand World Melisa Mahapol among its candidates. ​Youth agenda Other parties such as Bhumjaithai are also running a youth agenda, campaigning for the full legalization of marijuana, while favoring services the military finds disagreeable, including car and homesharing services like Grab and Airbnb. Sairam Prakaikis, a leadership trainer with Future Forward, said personalities mattered in this poll, with candidates wanting to establish themselves in an electorate starved of politics and alternative leaders since Yingluck was ousted by the military in 2014. It’s also political play for the youth vote, which at between 7 and 8 million people is comparable in size with the LGBT community. “I think most of the Future Forward Party supporters, they’re tired of the conflict between red and yellow. Tired of the conflict between Pheu Thai and Phachatipat,” Sairam said. He was referring to the years of color-coded protests and turmoil that often erupted before the coup with Thaksin’s red shirts, and Pheu Thai at odds with the yellow shirts and Democrats or Prachatipat. “The second group of people is tired of the dictatorship, tired of the military regime,” he said. “I consider myself in the third group. You can call me an idealist, but I think Thanathorn and his team, our ideology, we can change Thai politics.” Future Forward has even enlisted Taopiphop Limjittrakorn, who found fame after his arrest for brewing homemade beer. A new Thailand Thai historian Chris Baker notes a generational shift between those who grew up during the Cold War and are now running the country and voters younger than 40 who see themselves as part of a “kind of new Thailand.” “The new generation grew up in a very different world, and they think of themselves much more as being modern and cosmopolitan,” he said. “That is the reason why the Future Forward Party seems be doing much better than what people thought.”

  • IS in Syria Defeated, Caliphate Gone, US-Backed SDF Says
    U.S.-backed forces raised their flag over the northeastern Syrian town of Baghuz and said the self-declared caliphate of the Islamic State terror group was finally dead. The long-anticipated announcement Saturday by the Syrian Democratic Forces followed several waves of coalition airstrikes that repeatedly lit up the night sky. The targets were several hundred hardened IS fighters who had been clinging to scraps of land along the Euphrates River and along a mountainous ridge on the outskirts of the town. And by the time the sun began to illuminate littered and broken landscape, their resistance had been broken. “The Bagoz [sic] village has been fully liberated,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali announced on Twitter. “Syrian Democratic Forces declare total elimination of so-called caliphate and %100 [sic] territorial defeat of ISIS." “We congradulate [sic] the world with the elimination of the so called Khalifet [sic]," Bali added. The announcement came almost 12 hours after a similar declaration by U.S. President Donald Trump, who told reporters travelling with him aboard Air Force One that IS had been “100 percent defeated” following a briefing from Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. “The territorial caliphate has been eliminated in Syria,” added White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders. But Trump’s announcement was quickly refuted by U.S. defense officials and the SDF. Bali told VOA's Kurdish Service Friday that even as the president was speaking, his forces were still engaged with IS fighters in Baghuz and that additional airstrikes were being carried out. Until now, SDF officials have been wary of declaring victory over IS in Baghuz, pointing to numerous predications of the terror group’s ultimate demise over the past several months that all proved to be premature. Coalition officials also warned IS was putting up a “hard fight” until the very end, while also resorting to what it described as “gruesome tactics,” including the use of children as human shields. But the very last territory under IS control began to slip through the terror group’s grip for good late Thursday into early Friday, after the U.S.-led coalition launched a new wave of airstrikes targeting the remaining IS-held positions. Observers on the ground said the bombardment convinced perhaps a few hundred more IS fighters to surrender, though the rest seemed intent on fighting to the death. At its height in 2014, IS ruled over large swaths of Syria and Iraq, boasting dual capitals in Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq.   Since then, the U.S.-led international coalition, along with partners on the ground, have rolled back the terror group’s hold.   But U.S. defense and intelligence officials have long warned that the collapse of the Islamic State’s caliphate will not be the end of the fight. A senior U.S. defense official said recently that most of the group's senior leadership, including self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remain at large, commanding at minimum "tens of thousands" of fighters and supporters across Syria and Iraq. And there are also concerns that IS, which has already been engaged in an active insurgency in parts of Syria and Iraq, has thousands more supporters and sympathizers – including upwards of 60,000 people who have surrendered since the SDF and coalition launched their final assault last month. “These folks are unrepentant,” the official said. “The seeds for a future caliphate or certainly a persistent clandestine insurgency exist in these large numbers of people who ... are looking to reposition for future perpetuation of ISIS in some form or fashion." And even in the face of imminent defeat, IS’ true believers remain defiant.   “Those who are bewildered and think that our caliphate is over ... we will say that it’s remaining and expanding,” a fighter from Baghuz, identifying himself as Abu al-Harith al-Ansari, said in a video released Thursday and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.   “The banner has been elevated, and the Ummah, whose sons are racing to martyrdom, does not know defeat,” he said. Fern Robinson and VOA's Kurdish Service contributed to this report.

  • Democratic Hopes in ASEAN Hinge on Thailand, Analysts Say
    Thai voters head to the polls Sunday for the first time in nearly five years, and analysts say the results could have an impact on democracy throughout Southeast Asia. Thailand's military junta took power in May 2014, when then-army chief Prayut Chan-ocha led a coup that toppled the government. Observers see the coming elections as a struggle between democracy and military rule. Prayut, now seeking the premiership, has said that if he wins, voters would be returning his junta-led country to a "democracy."   Thailand is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and pro-democracy advocates within the trading bloc are paying close attention to the vote, despite its policy of noninterference in members' internal affairs.  The ASEAN Post, an independent regional digital media company in Kuala Lumpur, recently noted that freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and press freedom had deteriorated since the junta seized power, initiating the longest period of army rule in modern Thai history.  "Several hundred activists and dissidents have since been called national security threats and faced serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes and lese majeste [insulting the monarchy] for peaceful expression of their views," it noted in a recent opinion piece. The coup — Thailand's 13th since 1932 — ousted then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and caused international outrage. The pending elections, the military hopes, will fix that. Myanmar's experience The election framework echoes the 2015 ballot in neighboring Myanmar, where hopes of democratic freedom were dashed by a military that has maintained an overarching influence on a civilian administration, through its allotted seats in parliament. A more drastic story has unfolded along Thailand's eastern border.  Cambodia was returned to a one-party state last year after the main opposition party was banned from competing at elections, media outlets were closed and political dissidents were jailed, raising the prospect of U.S.- and European-imposed sanctions.  Elections will also be held in Indonesia in April, and midterm polls are to be held a month later in the Philippines, where the separation of powers — a cornerstone in any democracy — has foundered amid the government's war on drugs. Singapore has been ruled by the same party since independence in 1965. Of the remaining non-democratic countries, communist Vietnam and Laos have initiated crackdowns on dissent, while Islamic Brunei has instituted sharia. David Welsh, country director in Southeast Asia for the Solidarity Center, a nonprofit that seeks to help build a global labor movement, said human rights were a major concern ahead of looming elections, and that the strong-arm tactics of militaries favoring big business were affecting workers. "The prospects for business and trade are probably pretty good. The prospects for labor laws and worker protection aren't, although I've been pleasantly surprised by what's happened in Malaysia, so let's see," Welsh  said. Bright spot Malaysia emerged as one the few democratic bright spots among the 10 members of ASEAN after the electorate, which tired of allegations of gross corruption, stunned pollsters and ousted Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is now facing trial.  But observers say the chances of the Thai junta losing power at the ballot box appear remote.  Under a new constitution, the next Thai prime minister will be elected at a joint sitting of parliament. The 250 members of the Senate will all be appointed by the military, with political parties contesting only the 500 seats in the House of Representatives on Sunday. That heavily favors Prayut, who led the coup and is hoping to legitimize his leadership by standing for prime minister. The Southeast Asian Press Alliance has expressed concerns about his leadership, citing a crackdown on press freedoms, while the Asian Network for Free Elections has warned of "inconsistencies and irregularities" in the lead-up to the election. Those inconsistencies were also noted by Laddawan Tantiyitayapitak, vice president of Poll Watch in Thailand. She said vote buying in the poorer provinces had emerged as an issue in campaigning, but that so far the Election Commission of Thailand had failed to act on complaints. "They start from 100 baht, 200 baht, 300 baht to 500 baht. Now it's 1,000 baht (about U.S. $32) that they are saying they are going to give to the people" for their votes, she said. Transportation, food Laddawan said voters were also being organized into large groups to be trucked to the polling booths, where they have been instructed to vote for the same political party en masse and were offered a free lunch.  "The politicians, they do not realize that what they are doing is wrong," she said. "But nowadays, people, they realize, so vote buying may or may not affect the result of the election." Laddawan declined to name the political parties that she said were offering money in return for votes, but said there were "many." The U.S. government has issued an advisory to its citizens, warning that travelers may encounter a heightened police and military presence throughout the country, particularly near polling stations. The U.S. is urging its citizens to abide by Thai laws that prohibit criticism of the monarchy, avoid any election-related large gatherings, and monitor international and Thai media before, during and after the elections. 

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    There is a wide range of diversity in Thailand's election with a mix of prospective candidates. But will the increase in choices benefit a successful exit from military rule? Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.

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  • India Seeks Ways to Clean New Delhi's Dangerous Air Pollution
    Year after year, India's capital New Delhi is among the world's most polluted cities. The high level of pollution and the public outcry has led the government to take preventive measures. In 2018, the city saw a few more days when the Air Quality Index improved from severe to poor or very poor category. The Indian government also has implemented a "Comprehensive Action Plan" to curb air pollution further. But as we hear from Ritul Joshi, the battle to clean Delhi's air will be long and hard.

  • Cyclone Idai Victims Appeal to Zimbabwean Government for Relief
    The Zimbabwean government says it is appealing to the international community for help with medicine, food and infrastructure, as victims of Cyclone Idai push for expedited aid. Better Mungana's father died and his cousin went missing when the cyclone hit Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique last week. Mungana, of the hard-hit city of Chimanimani, wants President Emmerson Mnangagwa's government to assist him and his family. WATCH: Cyclone Idai Victims Appeal for Quick Relief "Since Cyclone Idai, we are struggling to have food, our clothes were washed away, so we are wondering what to do," he said. "The government promised to assist us with shelter, but it seems that help will come even to those who never lost anything. I lost my father, we are still looking for my cousin. It is painful. We have no shelter and no food." The body was recovered and buried late Friday, but food and shelter remain scarce. It is the same for the Dube-Magoso family about 500 meters away. Their 83-year-old father died when their house collapsed during the cyclone; their mother escaped, but suffered several injuries. Their son, Musavengana Dube Magoso, says they want the Zimbabwe government chip in. "The government must look for a better place to resettle us so that we can get some income to ensure the remaining get some source of livelihood," he said. "So far, we have no food — all we have planted to get food was washed away by the rains. We have been reduced to zero." Emergency workers have described the flooding after Cyclone Idai as the region's most destructive in 20 years. Zimbabwe's government says it is having trouble keeping track of the death toll; it says the number is now "over 100." It also cannot meet the demand for medicine, food and other essentials. Visiting the area, July Moyo, Zimbabwe's minister of local government, says the international community can assist in the areas of need. "The commanders are telling me that they are retrieving people being buried everywhere," July said. "We understand that some of them were swept away into Mozambique. We will be checking to see what we can do to retrieve those. We are dropping medicines so that we do not have more [people] dying. We have moved food that is in Mutare [the region's biggest city] to forward places so that we can start moving along roads that are now passable." Mnangagwa has declared Saturday and Sunday days of mourning for the victims of Cyclone Idai.