Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan have begun holding activists and petitioners under tight surveillance and detention ahead of a sensitive political anniversary and a planned protest against a petrochemical plant on Saturday.
Activists had planned to take to the streets on Saturday in protest at a newly built paraxylene (PX) plant in the Pengzhou suburb of the provincial capital Chengdu, using the anniversary of May 4 student demonstrations in 1919 and the fifth anniversary of a local movement against the plant.
The plant, owned by state-run PetroChina, has been halted amid safety concerns in the wake of last week's magnitude-7 earthquake near Sichuan's Ya'an city that left more than 200 people dead or missing and reignited concerns about the plant's potential health hazards.
"They were talking online about a walk-past in Jiuyan Bridge in Chengdu tomorrow, as a protest," said Chengdu-based activist Chen Qian, who was prevented from leaving her home late on Thursday by neighborhood committee officials, who said the house arrest would likely last until Monday.
"As I was leaving the building to go out, they said they weren't to let me leave home, and that's the way it had to be," she said.
"They said it would be two or three days," Chen said. "I think it's because of tomorrow."
Local residents had protested against the chemical plant at the bridge in 2008 on May 4, a date that has been observed as an occasion to call for freedom and social change in the spirit of the 1919 movement when students championed "democracy" and "science" as forces to modernize China.
Following a devastating quake that hit the province later that month, the government of Chengdu, which is home to more than 14 million people, promised to re-assess the environmental impact of the 38.1 billion yuan (U.S. $6 billion) plant, but construction began on the facility in 2011.
In Chengdu's Wenjiang district, activist Jiang Yuqiong said she and her husband had been taken away "on holiday" by officials to Black Dragon Lake near Meishan city.
"[We will be back on] Sunday," Jiang said.
The Chengdu-based rights website Tianwang said that Zhou Wenming, an activist from Sichuan's Shuangliu county, had been taken "on holiday" along with fellow activists Zhao Xianqiong and Yang Fang.
Chengdu activist Xin Wenrong said he was summoned by the local branch of the state security police after a friend forwarded a post protesting the Pengzhou petrochemical plant to him, dating from 2010.
"They used an illegal procedure for the summons," Xin said. "Some petitioners have been 'taken on holiday' today because of the Pengzhou petrochemical plant issue."
Schools remaining open
He said primary school and high school students in Chengdu had been forced to attend class all weekend, in a bid to stop the demonstration going ahead.
"I tried to get onto [Twitter-like services] Sina and Tencent Weibo, to search for information, but Pengzhou petrochemical is already a sensitive word," Xin said.
"If the government is sincere about communicating with the people, they should use methods other than detaining and threatening them, or forbidding print shops to photocopy certain things, and stop pretending there is no such thing as dissent," Xin said.
A 33-year-old woman was arrested on Friday after she called via her microblog account for a protest on May 4 against the plant, the Hong Kong English-language South China Morning Post reported.
"In a post on Thursday on her microblog that has since been deleted, she also said the protest had been approved by authorities," the paper said.
The security clampdown appeared to extend further than Chengdu, however, with online censorship blocking information about the protest, and tight security in Beijing.
Search terms linked to the planned protest were blocked on social media sites on Thursday, including searches in Chinese for "Chengdu PX project," "May 4th+Jiuyan Bridge+take a walk," "Pengzhou+PX," and "Pengzhou+petrochemicals," according to the China Digital Times website, which monitors censorship edicts from Beijing.
Surveillance in Beijing
Authorities in Beijing stepped up surveillance of activists and petitioners, ordinary Chinese who pursue official complaints against the government in the capital, ahead of the sensitive May Fourth Movement anniversary on Saturday.
Liaoning petitioner Zhao Guangjun said Tiananmen Square was basically sealed off on Friday, suggesting that the ruling Chinese Communist Party may have some activities of their own planned there.
"They will be watching the university campuses tomorrow, as well as the embassy district and Tiananmen Square," Zhao said.
"Some people are sure to get arrested tomorrow, or sent back home, or locked up," he said. "All of those things will likely happen."
Jilin petitioner Deng Zhibo said many petitioners still planned to pursue their complaints outside central government offices on Saturday, however.
"The more commemorative or sensitive a day is, the more it will attract petitioners," Deng said. "The petitioners aren't afraid of being sent home or locked up."
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.
As quality and pollution issues with China's supply of drinking water lead more and more people to buy bottled "mineral water," concerns are growing that a lax testing regime could pose a further health threat to consumers.
A recent report in the Beijing News highlighted outdated testing standards for bottled water, saying that while piped tap water had to undergo 106 tests for water quality indicators, the standards for bottled water dated back to the 1950s and only required 20 tests.
It quoted an expert at the Chinese Academy of Science as saying that there are "concerns" over spring water currently on the market.
Consumer safety lawyer Ji Laisong said most people believed that bottled water, which is often sold as "natural" or "spring" water, was held to higher standards than piped tap water.
"I am very concerned about this, because I was very surprised [by the article]," he said. "I knew the [testing regime] was a mess, but I didn't realize how big a mess."
He said standards needed to be raised in the testing of bottled water to meet market standards.
"In fact, it's very simple," Ji said. "But I am very pessimistic about whether they can achieve it."
Public health scandals
Chinese consumers are reeling in the wake of a string of public health scandals affecting foodstuffs and medicines in recent years, including melamine-tainted infant formula milk, used "gutter" cooking oil, and tainted vaccines.
In March, Shanghai's water quality caught headlines after thousands of swollen and rotting dead pigs were found dumped in the Huangpu River, prompting many residents to turn to bottled water in spite of assurances by local officials that supplies were up to standard.
Rapidly worsening air and water pollution, as well as disputes over the effects of heavy metals from mining and industry, have forced may people to become increasingly involved in environmental protection and protest.
Activists and journalists who confront the authorities and vested commercial interests over pollution and product safety are often subject to revenge attacks and government harassment, however.
Public supervision issue
Beijing-based veteran journalist Gao Yu said the gaping hole in the regulation of bottled water was the direct result of the government's restriction of safety and pollution information and its harassment of those who speak out on the topic.
"We already have very serious tap water pollution and now the problem has been shunted off into the private sector," she said. "Those who suffer are the consumers."
She said there had been plenty of talk among officials of the ruling Chinese Communist Party at the annual parliamentary meetings in March, but that it required government leadership to address the problem via a number of different departments.
"The issue of public supervision is the most important one here," Gao said. "But we don't have that right now, and the media is being very tightly controlled."
"This is an issue that has to do with unchecked power."
She said the article had also highlighted the worrying problem of powerful corporate interest groups when it came to setting new standards for bottled water.
"None of the officials in charge of these spring water factories will drink the stuff, because they know what the quality is like," Gao said.
"Officials are so corrupt, and the food industry producers all have ties with these officials," she said. "This means that the supervision [and quality testing] process never leaves this circle of vested interest."
"The whole thing is driven by corruption."
'I don't know what to drink'
Netizens reacted to the Beijing News article with dismay.
"We can't rely on bottled water, and we can't rely on tap water," wrote one microblog user. "I don't know what to drink. They all fail."
A Shanghai resident identified as @shanshishuishang added: "The tap water comes from the Huangpu River and mineral water comes from Qiandao Lake. Perhaps you can get pure water on the Pole Star?"
Recent data from Beijing showed that around 90 percent of groundwater in China is polluted, much of it severely, with activists blaming local governments for protecting polluting enterprises.
In a recent survey of water quality in 118 cities across China, 64 percent of cities had "severely polluted" groundwater, Xinhua news agency quoted experts from the ministry of water resources as saying.
Activists say lack of access to clean ground water has dire consequences for hundreds of millions of rural residents, who rely on such water both for personal use and for watering their crops.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.
Cambodia's election watchdog and human rights groups on Thursday demanded that the national election body post a list of voters for upcoming crucial elections in all villages and involve key political parties in the supervison of the polling process.
The National Election Committee (NEC) has to meet the two basic conditions for "free, fair and legitimate elections," officials of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) and the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC) and human rights groups LICADHO and ADHOC told a joint news conference in Phnom Penh.
They expressed concern over the lack of transparency on preparations for the polls along with what they felt were weak management in the selection of ground election supervisors and "poor quality" of the voters list.
“The two recommendations will help voters to have confidence in the election,' said ADHOC Director Thun Saray. "It will allow for a free and fair election,” he said.
He warned that if their requests were not considered, they would rally the international community to back their demands.
While the NEC has not directly responded to the requests, the panel's secretary-general Tep Nytha had told RFA's Khmer Service that the committee has already complied with all election laws.
Local rights groups have charged that the NEC heavily favors the ruling party, but the NEC maintains that its nine members—who were approved by Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party-dominated parliament last year—are independent and do not need to be changed.
Tep Nytha said the NEC is not influenced by any political parties and cannot accept any electoral reform proposals before the July vote.
"NEC can’t accept any recommendations from NGOs or political parties to reform any of the electoral processes for this election,” he said.
The four election watchdog and rights groups want the NEC to post the validated voters list in every village office immediately so that voters whose name has been omitted from the list have enough time to apply for re-registration.
They also want the NEC to allow observers from all political parties to stand directly behind the secretary of polling stations to ensure that the election procedure is being carried out efficiently.
Observers should also be permitted to verify voters’ data on the voter list against their identity documents to stamp out election fraud resulting from the use of falsified documents, they said.
The four groups also called for the establishment of an adhoc commission to recruit, monitor and accredit commune election panels made up of members of political parties holding seats in parliament and which have registered to contest the 2013 election.
"If these considerations are not resolved before Election Day, we are concerned that the upcoming election will see a loss of trust and legitimacy in the eyes of national and international stakeholders," they said in a joint statement.
Leaders of Cambodia’s main opposition party held mass protests in the capital last week in a push for electoral reforms, but called off a march after the NEC agreed to study demands for changes in election procedures.
The National Rescue Party (NRP), a coalition set to challenge Hun Sen’s ruling party, had earlier threatened to march from Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park to the offices of the NEC, defying warnings by the authorities.
The NRP had also called on the authorities to allow its chief, exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy, to participate in the elections.
Sam Rainsy has been living in self-imposed exile in France since 2009, facing a total of 11 years in prison over a string of convictions that critics contend are politically motivated. The NEC has said that he cannot stand in the coming elections because of his convictions.
The NRP is a merger of the opposition leader's Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and the Human Rights Party (HRP) led by another opposition leader Kem Sokha.
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Ho Vann said Thursday that if the NEC continue to deny the recommendations by the NGOs, the party will hold massive protests to drum up public support.
Hun Sen on Thursday urged the local media to disseminate a recording of speeches by Sam Rainsy and his party's number two Kem Sokha attacking each other, before the merger of their parties.
"All radio stations must broadcast it. They attacked each other. I like listening to [their speeches attacking each other] and I laughed about it,” Hun Sen said.
Reported by Moniroth Morm and Den Ayuthyea for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.
A senior member of parliament from Burma’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party on Thursday dismissed a report that President Thein Sein has vacated the top party post for parliament speaker Shwe Mann.
Lawmaker Hla Swe also said that the powerful USDP will have to consider the country’s best interests when examining any amendment to the constitution that would pave the way for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to contest in the 2015 presidential election.
The USDP’s newly launched Union Daily reported Thursday that Thein Sein had resigned as chairman of the party and been replaced by his main rival Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, the party’s vice chairman.
But Hla Swe, a former colonel and an Upper House MP from Magway division, dismissed the report, saying Thein Sein remains chairman although Shwe Mann has taken over the administrative duties of running the party.
“The person in the party chairman posit remains the same as before, President Thein Sein,” he told RFA’s Burmese Service on the sidelines of the party’s youth conference Thursday.
“But he is unable to handle the responsibilities of the chairman, so the vice chairman has been taking over these duties,” he said.
Thein Sein, a former military general, has spearheaded many long-hoped-for reforms in Burma since taking office in March 2011 after landmark elections the year before.
Under the previous military regime Thein Sein was junior to Shwe Mann, who was the junta’s third-in-command and is now a major campaigner for reforms.
Thein Sein has left open the possibility of serving another term in office after the 2015 elections, in which the USDP will face up against Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
But under Burma’s constitution, written in 2008 under the former military junta, Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from the presidency on the grounds that her sons possess foreign citizenship and her late husband was a foreigner, though her party has sought to revise the charter to let her run.
Asked whether the USDP—which holds a majority in parliament and under the constitution is guaranteed a quarter of the seats—would support amending the constitution to allow her to run if the people wished it, Hla Swe said all members of parliament should consider the issue.
“If it is important for the country, we shouldn’t think about the party’s interest,” he said.
“MPs shouldn’t think about only their own party when they have to think about something for their country. Our vice chairman U [honorific] Shwe Mann has also spoken along these lines.”
The USDP, the successor party to the Burmese military’s Union Solidarity and Development Association, won three quarters of the seats in parliament in the last general election in November 2010, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) boycotted.
But in April by-elections, the NLD won 43 out of 44 seats it contested, making it the largest opposition party in parliament and ushering into office the longtime democracy leader who had spent most of the past two decades under house arrest under the former military junta.
Aung San Suu Kyi has said that she would be willing to lead the country as president and that her party will work to amend laws that block her from leading the government.
Reported by Kyaw Kyaw Aung for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.
Authorities on Thursday placed a suburb of Rangoon under curfew as part of a bid to stop the spread of communal violence that tore through a town and its outlying villages in central Burma earlier this week, according to a local police official.
The police source, who spoke to RFA’s Burmese Service on condition of anonymity, said that three people were arrested Thursday, including a woman believed to have sparked the clashes between Muslims and Buddhists in Oakkan—a town located about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Rangoon.
“Section 188 was invoked in Taikkyi, a suburb of Rangoon division, to prevent further unrest spreading from Oakkan,” the official said, referring to the curfew based on an article in the Burmese Penal Code which carries severe punishment for those "endangering public safety."
He said that calm had been restored in Oakkan and that the three arrests brought to 21 the number of people to be charged over their alleged involvement in Monday’s violence, which was touched off after a Muslim woman bumped into a novice Buddhist monk, knocking over his alms bowl.
At least one of those arrested Thursday was Win Win Sein—the Muslim woman believed by authorities to have started the row in Oakkan.
Agence France-Presse quoted a local police official as saying that Win Win Sein and another unidentified woman would be charged for “religious defamation,” without providing further details. Burma’s constitution protects all faiths from perceived insults.
In an interview on state television, Shin Ponnya, the monk involved in the argument with Win Win Sein, said that he had been offered money to purchase a new alms bowl.
He said that authorities had arrived shortly after the disturbance, but that he had not been offered an apology until both parties were brought to the police station.
Monday’s clashes spread to villages on the outskirts of Oakkan, leaving one dead and 10 injured before order was restored by police firing warning shots over the heads of mobs. Two mosques were partially destroyed and dozens of homes and shops were burnt to the ground.
The police official told RFA that arrests were ongoing, adding that residents from the Sinphyukan and Bandula districts of Oakkan, and Ohnkone and Uyingyi villages on the outskirts of the town had been linked to the violence and were being sought for questioning.
Democracy at risk
The Oakkan incident is just the latest in a string of clashes between Muslims and Buddhists that have threatened to derail national reconciliation, which reformist President Thein Sein sees as central to achieving the country’s goal of democracy.
Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government took power in 2011, freeing the country from decades of military misrule, but rolling back restrictions on rights such as the freedom of expression has allowed some long-hidden prejudices to resurface in Burmese society.
At least 43 people were reported dead and thousands, mostly Muslims, driven from their homes and businesses as violence spread from Meikhtila to other areas north of Rangoon in March.
And last year, clashes between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines broke out twice in Burma's Rakhine state, leaving at least 180 dead and tens of thousands homeless—mostly Rohingyas.
This year’s violence has been linked to radical monks and has triggered international concern. Rights groups have accused the security forces of standing by while some of the attacks, which appeared to be well organized, took place.
Reported by Nay Myo Htun for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
The greater Mekong region in Southeast Asia could lose nearly a third of its forests within the next two decades if governments don’t boost protection, a leading conservation group warned Thursday, saying the region’s freshwater ecosystems are also threatened by planned dams.
Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam have lost nearly one third of their forest cover over the past 35 years, leaving the region with about half of its natural forests, the report by the World Wildlife Fund said of the region centered around the mighty Mekong River.
The forests are being overtaken by farmland and replaced with agricultural plantations growing rice, rubber, sugar, and other commodities for export, the report said.
Other areas are damaged by logging—linked to a rise in demand for timber in China, Thailand, and Vietnam—while mangrove forests have been cleared to make way for rice paddies and shrimp farms.
Using satellite imagery, the WWF’s researchers calculated that between 1973 and 2009, Cambodia lost 22 percent of its forest cover, Burma and Laos each lost 24 percent, and Thailand and Vietnam each lost 43 percent.
The “hotspots” most at risk for further deforestation include the margins of large forest blocks that remain Cambodia, Laos and Burma, the report said, adding that national statistics from Vietnam and China have “masked” overall losses in regional tree cover because they include large monoculture plantations that are gradually replacing natural forests.
'At a crossroads'
The region has retained forests covering a total of some half of its land area, but if current deforestation rates persist, another third could be lost, with devastating consequences for wildlife, the report said.
“The Greater Mekong is at a crossroads,” said Peter Cutter, a WWF land conservation expert.
“One path leads to further declines in biodiversity and livelihoods, but if natural resources are managed responsibly, this region can pursue a course that will secure a healthy and prosperous future for its people,” he said.
The greater Mekong region, which also includes southwestern China’s Yunnan and Guangxi, is a biodiversity hotspot and supports some 70 million people depending directly on its ecosystems for food, water, and their livelihoods.
The region is bound together by the Mekong River, which hosts 13 unique but interconnected freshwater ecosystems, which are threatened by planned dams.
The controversial Xayaburi dam under construction in northern Laos is a “key threat” to the health and productivity to the region, and will block migratory fish and sediment flow with devastating consequences for livelihoods and food security, the WWF warned.
If all 11 planned dams on the main stem of the Mekong River are built, fish supply could be cut by 40 percent, the report said.
But because the region is still rich in natural capital, building greener economies is still “well within reach,” if regional governments coordinate properly, the WWF concluded.
"Given that the majority of the region's biological heritage and supporting ecosystems occur in landscapes that cross borders, regional collaboration is critical," Cutter said.
"Increased and more sustainable investment in maintaining ecosystem integrity must also be a priority at landscape, national, and regional scales."
Chinese authorities in Tibet have released one of the region’s longest-serving political prisoners and sent him home in critical condition following a quarter century of torture and abuse in prison, according to Tibetan sources.
Lobsang Tenzin, who was serving a 25-year term, was released in June 2012, former prison cellmate Penpa Tsemonling told RFA’s Tibetan Service on Thursday, speaking from New York and citing several sources in the region.
News of Tenzin’s release, which sources said came just months before his 25-year sentence was due to expire in April 2013, was apparently withheld by persons close to him to prevent unwanted publicity that might result in his being returned to jail.
“The release was purposely kept secret and I did not tell anybody,” Tsemonling said, adding, “Now, more details are coming out about his release, so I am speaking out to the media.”
Tenzin was likely released because his health conditions had badly deteriorated, Tsemonling said.
“The Chinese have done that many times,” he said. “But prisoners can be put back in jail if their condition improves.”
The Central Tibetan Administration, Tibet’s India-based government in exile, confirmed in a May 1 statement that Lobsang Tenzin "has been sent back to his home,” quoting a “reliable source.”
“Because he had been tortured over a long period in prison, his health has badly deteriorated. And because he suffers from kidney damage and diabetes, he is now almost blind. He has been undergoing medical treatment at home since the end of last year,” the CTA said.
Active in protests
Tenzin had been jailed for his role in anti-China protests in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, in 1988.
He was one of five Tibetans charged in the death of a Chinese police officer who was beaten and thrown from a window after being detected photographing protest participants.
Tenzin’s role in the killing was never clearly established, with one long-time Tibet expert describing the trial in a September 2011 interview as “completely unfair.”
Frequently tortured and beaten during his years in prison, Tenzin was at first sentenced to death following his conviction. The sentence was later commuted to a life term following “strong international pressure on China,” the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy said in an earlier report.
Tenzin remained politically active while incarcerated, organizing a protest in Lhasa’s notorious Drapchi prison and founding a group called Snow Lion Youth for Independence.
In 1991, Tenzin and another prisoner attempted to pass a list containing the names of Tibetan political prisoners to then-U.S. Ambassador to China James Lilley, who was visiting Tibet. The attempt led to further beatings and a term in solitary confinement.
'Committed to his cause'
“Lobsang Tenzin is a person who has no vices, only virtues,” Penpa Tsemonling said. “He is a man committed to his cause.”
Tsemonling said the two had been in prison together for three years.
“I was first jailed in Drapchi, where we shared a cell together. From Drapchi we were transferred to Powo Tramo prison in Kongpo, and we were together there until I was released.”
Tsemonling said that a high-ranking Chinese judicial official once visited Tenzin in prison and asked him if he was not afraid that he would die if he continued his activism.
“'There is no one who does not fear death,'” Tenzin replied, according to Tsemonling.
“'But if I die for my country and my people, I will have no regrets … So do whatever you want to do with my life,'” Tenzin said.
Tibetan dissident Tanak Jigme Zangpo, who was released in 2002 after 32 years in prison, holds the record of being the longest serving Tibetan political prisoner.
Two other long-serving Tibetan prisoners were freed in March.
Activist Jigme Gyatso, 52, was freed after serving 17 years in prison with hard labor for seeking independence for Tibet and calling for the long life of Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Another activist, Dawa Gyaltsen, a former bank accountant and believed to be about 47, was released after 17 years with a limp in one of his legs having worsened due to ill-treatment and torture in prison.
Reported by Yangdon Demo and Nyima Namseling for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Benpa Topgyal and Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Richard Finney.
China's new mental health law is unlikely to offer much protection to people facing incarceration in psychiatric units for political reasons, rights lawyers and former inmates said on Thursday.
The law, which came into effect on May 1, aims to protect citizens from committal to psychiatric institutions, except in extreme cases where the person is at risk of harming themselves or others.
Shenzhen-based rights lawyer Huang Xuetao, the author of a ground-breaking 2010 report into psychiatric incarcerations, said the law did confer greater rights on mental health service users.
"Under the new law, mental health patients have to satisfy the conditions of serious mental illness, to undergo two independent diagnoses, and to have the results reviewed by residential directors and clinical psychiatrists." Huang said.
"This is a big improvement for the process of involuntary committal," she said.
But hose who have already been victims of political incarceration in mental institutions fear that the law will be ignored by local officials, when it suits them.
Rights groups have long campaigned against the aggressive use by the authorities of mental health diagnoses to send for psychiatric treatment people who are regarded as troublemakers because they complain about the government —a practice that has gained common parlance in Chinese media as "being mentally-illed."
"What the authorities do and what they say are two completely different things," said Wuhan petitioner Hu Guohong, who was locked up five times in a psychiatric unit over the course of two decades, and subjected to torture and degrading treatment while inside.
"I have tried to sue them several times over 'being mentally-illed,' but it has just resulted in my being detained," Hu said.
"This problem will never be resolved for as long as those corrupt officials are still in their posts."
Aimed at protecting mental health service users from misdiagnosis and involuntary medical treatment in China's state-run psychiatric hospitals, the mental health law is the first in the country to define the concept and procedures linked to compulsory committal.
Reaction to the new law has been mixed, even among China's tightly controlled state media.
The cutting-edge Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper said this week that the guardians of people allegedly suffering from mental health problems are still given too much power.
The paper said in a commentary that it doubted whether the law would put an end to arbitrary and political diagnoses.
The founder of the U.S.-based group Human Rights in China, Liu Qing, said that the law looked good enough on paper to minimize the use of psychiatric hospitals as private prisons by local governments.
"But what really worries us is that there is a huge problem in China which means that laws exist, but aren't implemented," Liu said.
"The Communist Party interprets and uses all laws according to its own whim," he said. "This means that people will continue to be locked up in psychiatric institutions."
"The new law says that all diagnoses must be proved by a doctor, but the doctors won't stand up to the police, or the prosecution," he said.
"As soon as they issue an order telling the doctor what to write, that's what the doctor will write," Liu added. "Then the police or the procuratorate will be able to say that they have complied with the law."
Rule of law
Xu Wu, a former worker at state-owned Wuhan Iron and Steel who escaped from a psychiatric institution in 2011 after being sent there by the authorities, said the law doesn't go far enough to protect those considered troublemakers by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"This law could only be implemented under a democratic system," Xu said in an interview on Thursday. "Under the Chinese Communist Party, where might is stronger than the law, it will be hard for it to have an effect."
"Corrupt officials use their power to suppress our voices."
Chinese rights groups have campaigned for the release of petitioners—ordinary Chinese who complain about alleged official wrongdoing—from psychiatric hospitals, where they are routinely detained and given forcible "treatment," including electric shocks, in a bid to silence them.
Xu, who was locked up for nearly four years in the Wugang No. 2 Psychiatric Hospital, said he was force-fed medication and tortured while inside.
"My days in the hospital were inhuman," he said. "They force-feed you medications and injections every day, even though there is nothing wrong with you."
"They also tie you to the bed, and if you resist, they beat you up and give you electric shocks...to this day, my memory is pretty poor, and my body is very weak," Xu said.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese Service and by Xi Wang for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.
Authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang have begun keeping registers of religious believers, in a fresh move that appears targeted at the region's population of 9 milllion mostly Muslim Uyghurs, many of whom chafe under Chinese rule.
Photos of such a register from the offices of the Bulaqsu township government near Kashgar city were circulated online this week, showing the assignment of various categories to those on the register, including "strongly religious but holds no religious office," "woman who wears a veil," and "person studying the Quran."
While repeated calls to the Bulaqsu township government offices went unanswered during office hours on Thursday, a Uyghur resident of Bulaqsu confirmed the report.
"Now they do," he said, when asked if religious believers needed to register with the government.
A second Uyghur resident of Bulaqsu also confirmed the reports.
"That's right," she said, when asked about the registration of religious households. "Yes," she replied, when asked if women who wore veils and men who wore traditional Muslim clothing also had to register.
"I don't [wear a veil]," she said.
The photos, posted on the Uyghur Online website, showed registration documents dated 2013, which categorized the people registered according to their beliefs and activities, as well as adding key personal information about them, including their personal circumstances, level of religious knowledge, current attitudes and social connections.
The documents also identified whether a person was a target for "priority surveillance."
An official who answered the phone at the Shufu county government offices near Kashgar declined to comment on the reports, referring enquiries to the religious affairs bureau.
An official at the bureau didn't deny the reports, but declined to comment without permission from local leaders.
While residents of Bulaqsu confirmed independently the existence of registers of religious households in their village, China's special security provision for the whole of Xinjiang means that the practice is likely to be part of a region-wide strategy, observers say.
There are tight security restrictions in Xinjiang that don't necessarily apply in the rest of China. Exile Uyghur groups and residents say it's a separate and highly prioritized security strategy for the region.
The news of the registration comes as Kashgar recovers from deadly clashes last week, the worst single episode of violence since riots between Han Chinese and Uyghurs rocked the Xinjiang capital Urumqi in July 2009. The Urumqi bloodshed prompted a region-wide blackout of the Internet and cell phone coverage that lasted for months.
Meanwhile, a Uyghur resident of Hotan, another city in the south of the region, said the registration books covering religious believers were held by officials in every village, and that local people didn't know what they contained.
"Yes," he said. "They've all got them." But he seemed unwilling to comment further.
A Han Chinese resident of the regional capital of Urumqi, where nearly 200 people were left dead in the 2009 deadly ethnic clashes according to official figures, said the authorities were afraid that a strong interest in religion would encourage anti-Beijing sentiment among local Uyghurs.
"The problems mostly occur among the sort of people who are very religious, because their beliefs unite them, and strengthen their ethnic identity," Wang said.
"I think the government is trying to get everything it can on such people so as to be prepared," he said. "They are afraid there will be an incident."
Acts of 'terrorism'
Last Tuesday, 21 people were killed in clashes in Siriqbuya (in Chinese, Selibuya) township in Kashgar prefecture. Two days later, there were clashes in Hotan's Yengi Awat (Yingawa) village, leaving two people dead.
Police have arrested 19 suspects in connection with the Siriqbuya clashes.
Chinese state media and propaganda officials first said the clashes erupted when community officials were searching Uyghur homes for illegal knives and then said they stumbled upon “terrorists” watching 'jihad' movies.
Later they said some of the Uyghurs confronted by the officials were studying the Quran, the interpretation of which is strictly controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Then, the state media claimed some of the suspects allegedly were making explosives.
While Chinese authorities blamed the violence on Uyghur "terrorists," rights groups and experts familiar with the region say Beijing exaggerates a terrorism threat to take the heat off domestic policies that cause unrest or to justify the authorities' use of force against the Uyghur minority.
The Xinjiang government on Wednesday launched a new crackdown on millions of cell phone users, requiring anyone buying a SIM card for use with a cell phone to provide proof of identity and register the card to their own name.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.
Press freedom took a knock in Hong Kong, Cambodia and Thailand while Burma chalked up the best gains for media reforms in Asia over the past year, says an annual global survey.
Only five percent of Asia's population had access to a "free" media in 2012, while 47 percent lived in "partly free" and 48 percent in "not free" media environments, according to the "Freedom of the Press 2013" survey released Wednesday by Washington-based Freedom House.
It cited a "worrying deterioration" in press freedom in Cambodia as well as in Thailand, which has been downgraded to "not free" from the "partly free" category.
Cambodia's score has worsened "due to an increase in the number of journalists behind bars" and "a significant rise in threats and physical violence against the press, including the first murder of a reporter since 2008," the report said.
It referred to the jailing last year of independent radio station owner Mam Sonando, who was convicted of sedition and sentenced to 20 years in prison for the outlet's coverage of land disputes.
Mam Sonando was convicted in October on charges of instigating insurrection, drawing protests from rights groups who accused Prime Minister Hun Sen of muzzling criticism against his rule.
A Cambodian appeals court in March however quashed that ruling, dropped most of the charges, reduced the sentence to time served and ordered his release.
Freedom House said despite the release, there was a "continuing negative trend" in media freedom in Cambodia ahead of crucial elections in July.
"Media owners continue to face pressure and harassment, which is quite worrisome," Karin Karlekar, Freedom House Project Director for Freedom of the Press, told a press conference.
Thailand has been put back into the "not free" category "due to a trend of aggressive enforcement of lese-majesté laws," Freedom House said.
Critics say the lese-majeste laws are used as a political tool to discredit and silence opponents. Those found guilty of insulting the Thai royal family can serve up to 15 years in jail for each offence.
In a case that was widely denounced by rights groups, an ex-magazine editor was jailed for 10 years in January after he was found guilty of publishing articles defaming King Bhumibol in 2010.
China's special administrative region Hong Kong's score also declined in a reflection of "growing government restrictions on journalists' access to information and several violent and technical attacks against reporters, websites, and media entities," Freedom House said.
In addition, Beijing's efforts to influence media production in the territory intensified and touched on internal Hong Kong politics, marking a departure from past trends in which the targets of Chinese pressure were primarily voices and topics regarded as politically sensitive on the mainland, the report said.
In January, journalists in Hong Kong, a former British colony which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, ran a petition in newspapers urging the city’s Beijing-backed leader to withdraw a proposed law which they said would infringe press freedom.
Local and foreign journalists are opposed to a government plan to restrict access to information about company directors, after such details were used in a series of investigative reports to expose the wealth of Chinese officials.
Hong Kong maintains a semi-autonomous status with guarantees of civil liberties — including press freedom — not seen in mainland China.
Taiwan's media freedom score also declined slightly as regulatory delays in approving a license for a new television station compelled the owner to declare that the project was no longer financially sustainable.
But Burma, where reform-minded President Thein Sein's nominally civilian government has been implementing political and other reforms after five decades of harsh military rule, registered the survey's largest numerical improvement of the year due to "people's increased ability to access information" and the release of imprisoned bloggers and video journalists, among other factors.
Freedom House also cited other "positive" factors such as an end to official prepublication censorship and dissolution of the censorship body, the establishment of several independent journalists' and publishers' associations, fewer cases of harassment and attacks against journalists, improved access for the foreign media, greater access to foreign radio broadcasts and the Internet, and some progress toward a new media law.
However, it cautioned against restrictions maintained on ethnic minority journalists and coverage of ethnic violence between minority Muslim Rohingyas and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in Rakhine state.
It also said that efforts to repeal "restrictive" legislation and reconcile the new media law with international press freedom standards have encountered official resistance.
In China, home to the world's most sophisticated censorship apparatus, Freedom House said the installation of a new Chinese Communist Party leadership did not produce any immediate relaxation of constraints on either traditional media or the Internet.
In fact, it said, the Chinese regime, which boasts the world's most intricate and elaborate system of media repression, stepped up its drive to limit both old and new sources of information through arrests and censorship.
Still, China registered a modest improvement in scores in the Freedom House survey as microblogs and other online tools "enhanced Chinese citizens' ability to share and access uncensored information, particularly regarding breaking news stories."
There were fewer cases of violence against professional journalists and high-profile social media activists reported in China in 2012 than the previous year and several public outcries and online campaigns have been credited with driving the news agenda or forcing government concessions.
North Korea, one of the world’s worst-rated countries, also saw a "slight improvement" in scores as a result of increased attempts to circumvent stringent censorship and the use of technologies such as smuggled DVDs to spread news and information, Freedom House said.
But Karlekar said there was no signs of media reforms under North Korea's new young leader Kim Jong Un although there has been "increased access by citizens to information" via entry of flash drives, video tapes and other material from abroad due to economic opening.
There were little improvements in Asia's other restrictive media environments, such as Laos and Vietnam, Freedom House said.
Asia's regional average score however has improved slightly, "as negative movement in the legal category was outweighed by positive change in both the political and economic categories," Freedom House said.
Hundreds of police and troops moved to restore order in central Burma on Wednesday following clashes between Buddhist and Muslims that left one dead and ten injured.
Police said 18 people have been arrested in the violence, which erupted Tuesday afternoon in Oakkan, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of the former capital Rangoon.
Two mosques were destroyed in the clashes and some 100 houses were burned overnight in Oakkan’s predominantly Muslim Yadanarkone, Panipin, Chautthe, and Thegone villages.
One Muslim man, Zaw Naing, died after being taken to the hospital in Rangoon, where 10 other people are being treated for injuries sustained in the violence, an Oakkan police officer told RFA’s Burmese Service.
The 18 held over the violence were “all from Oakkan” and had been arrested separately “in small groups,” he said, adding that the situation in the area had calmed down.
“The situation today is fine,” he said Wednesday, after some 300 security forces led by Rangoon Division Police Chief Win Naing arrived in Oakkan to contain the riots.
But Oakkan residents said they remained gripped by fear.
“We didn't come out from the house and kept the door closed the whole day because we are afraid,” one local woman said.
State media reported that the clashes erupted at Oakkan’s Myoma market after a young Muslim woman accidentally turned over the alms bowl of a novice Buddhist monk.
The market has been closed and Section 188 of the Burmese Penal Code, which carries severe punishment for those "endangering public safety," has been invoked in Oakkan and the surrounding villages.
The violence in Oakkan is the latest unrest to hit central Burma following a number of attacks by Buddhist mobs on Muslim communities in March.
At least 43 people were reported dead and thousands, mostly Muslims, driven from their homes and businesses as the March violence spread from Meikhtila to other areas north of Rangoon.
Shwe Nya Wa, a well-known Buddhist monk from Rangoon who traveled to Oakkan to help restore calm in the wake of the clashes, urged local people not to be incited to violence.
“If our country has continuous violence like this, it harms all of us,” he told RFA.
“Can our country’s future keep moving forward without weapons like this? We want peace for our country’s future,” he said.
This year’s violence has been linked to radical monks and has triggered international concern. Rights groups have accused the security forces of standing by while some of the attacks, which appeared to be well organized, took place.
The religious unrest has threatened to derail Burma’s plans to rebrand itself as a democracy under reformist President Thein Sein, whose nominally civilian government took power in 2011 following decades of military misrule.
Last year, clashes between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines broke out twice in Burma's Rakhine state, leaving at least 180 dead and tens of thousands homeless, mostly Rohingyas.
Thein Sein, who was criticized for waiting days to speak out during the Meikhtila violence, is set to address the nation on Thursday morning, state media reported late Wednesday.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.
Demanding higher salaries and other benefits, garment workers in Cambodia and Burma held protests Wednesday to mark International Labor Day.
A group of Cambodian garment and footwear factory workers were among 10,000 employees, including teachers and civil servants, who marched from Freedom Park in the capital Phnom Penh to the country’s National Assembly, or parliament, calling on the government to raise their minimum wage.
Cambodian garment and footwear workers, who had their minimum monthly wages raised to U.S. $80 from U.S. $61 at the end of March, are pressing for new wages of at least U.S. $150.
Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Unions president Ath Thon, who led the demonstration and handed out a petition calling for the salary increase to protesters, told RFA’s Khmer Service he hoped the country’s lawmakers would address the workers’ concerns.
“We want the lawmakers to speak in front of us so we can see if they will honor our demands,” Ath Thon said, adding that with national elections in July, the demonstration marked an important chance for candidates to showcase their campaign platforms.
“This is an opportunity for the political parties to convince the workers. If the lawmakers make promises, I will take the promises back to them after they win the election,” he said.
“If they don’t honor their promises when they are reelected, we will protest and they will be shamed.”
Around a half million people work in Cambodia’s garment industry, which earns some U.S. 4.6 billion a year producing goods for Western clothing firms.
A garment factory worker named Chao Sinoun told RFA she was disappointed with her current wages.
“The factory owner is exploiting my labor. They don’t think about our difficult situations,” she said.
“Right now I am facing high rent, utility and food costs, while paying for health care is also expensive,” she said.
Representatives of both the royalist Funcinpec Party and the The National Rescue Party (NRP), a coalition set to challenge Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party in the July elections, met with protesters in front of the National Assembly to listen to their demands.
NRP Deputy President Kem Sokha said his party would honor the workers’ demands and include them in the party’s political platform.
“The National Rescue Party guarantees that the workers will get U.S. $150,” he told the crowd.
“If we can’t honor this pledge, we will resign.”
Cambodian civil servants are demanding an increase of their basic wages to U.S. $250 from between U.S. $60-110.
In addition to demands for higher wages, workers also called for a number of other concessions, including retirement pensions and reduced gasoline prices.
They also demanded that Cambodia’s justice system prosecute for murder former Bavet city governor Chhouk Bandit, who two months ago was charged for causing “unintentional injury” after being accused of shooting three factory workers during a protest in February last year.
In addition, workers called on authorities to arrest the perpetrators of the 2004 assassination of labor activist Chea Vichea, whose killers have never been found.
In Burma, about 100 workers from the Aung Sein Garment Factory and local union members held a strike in Mandalay city Wednesday after they were told to work by their employer on International Labor Day, which is a public holiday in the country.
“We protested today because the factory is not closed on May Day,” strike leader Than Aung told RFA’s Burmese Service, adding that all other factories in the city were closed.
“We demanded five points, which included the closing of the factory on public holidays.”
According to worker representative Shwe La Win, strikers also called on the factory owner to address “several broken promises” from an agreement signed in June last year to make reasonable policy regarding employee leave, and to refrain from forcing workers to sign documents against their will.
He said workers wanted the factory owner to destroy a “secret document” of workplace rules that employees had never been privy to, without providing further details.
“Today is May Day, but the factory was not closed and we were even asked to work overtime without discussing it with anyone in advance. The owner of the factory broke the agreement he signed with workers last year. That is why we protested,” Shwe La Win said.
He said factory management had asked employees to work on several public holidays, but when told to report to duty on International Labor Day, they decided to hold a public protest.
“We had only two days off per month … before we signed [last year’s] agreement and we had to work 10 and half hours a day. The pay was very low,” he said.
“That’s why we protested in 2012 and signed the agreement with the owner. But the owner has broken this bond.”
Around noon during the strike, Shwe La Win said, an administrator from Pyaygyitagon township and officials from the Mandalay division labor department came to negotiate between the protesters and their employer.
After five hours of discussions, the factory owner accepted the list of demands and signed a new agreement with the workers.
Reported by Sonorng Khe for RFA’s Khmer Service, and San Oo and Ei Ei Khaine for the Burmese Service. Translated from Khmer by Samean Yun and from Burmese by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
Family members of jailed Vietnamese prominent dissident Nguyen Van Hai say they are concerned about his wellbeing after being informed by prison officials that he has been transferred to yet another prison camp without any explanation.
Hai, popularly known by his pen name Dieu Cay, is serving a 12-year jail sentence from September for “conducting propaganda against the state” after his online articles slammed one-party communist rule in Vietnam and highlighted alleged abuses by the authorities.
The blogger’s ex-wife Duong Thi Tan and the couple’s son Nguyen Tri Dung learned on Sunday when they went to visit Hai at the Xuyen Moc prison camp in southern Vietnam’s Ba Ria-Vung Tau province that he had been transferred out of the facility on April 26 “without any notification to his family,” Tan said.
Prison officials refused to let them know where Hai, who suffers from health problems, is being held.
Tan and Dung accused the prison authorities of not adhering to basic rules on the treatment of prisoners.
Hai has been held at nine different prison camps since his arrest in 2008 and his case has been adopted by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
Tan and Dung wrote letters this week to prison authorities and the police, complaining about his maltreatment.
They have also issued a desperate statement of appeal to international human rights groups and foreign governments to pressure Hanoi to be transparent about his whereabouts and provide better medical care for his leg and spinal ailments.
“We have no idea about his whereabouts, so we had to send a plea for help to all the embassies and human rights groups,” Tan told RFA’s Vietnamese Service, saying that prison officials were punishing Hai for his criticism against the state.
“What they have done with their powers can be considered revenge,” she said.
In February, they had traveled to the Bo La prison camp in Binh Duong province to visit Hai, only to be informed he had been moved to the Xuyen Moc prison camp a week earlier.
'Disregard for regulations'
Based on recent visits with Hai and dealings with officials at Xuyen Moc prison camp, Tan and Dung submitted three official petition letters to the prison superintendent, the head of Vietnam’s Supreme Procuratorate, and the Minister of Public Security.
He has received medication for his health problems while in prison, but it has had little effect, and officials have not taken him for further treatment, at least not as far as relatives have been informed, they said.
Prison officials have also forced Hai to give up his belongings, kept him from receiving newspapers mailed to him by relatives, and limited the length of their visits with him, they said.
“We lodged complaints about the guards' abuses of power and disregard for legal regulations, and the disregard of human rights committed by the government which are clearly spelled out in the legal codes and the Vietnamese Constitution,” Tan said.
Isolated from other prisoners
Hai was isolated from other prisoners since his arrival at Xuyen Moc on Feb. 1, but when Tan and Dung asked for the legal justification for the move, an official was unable to provide valid reasons, according to a copy of the letter to the authorities.
In another letter on Tuesday, Tan and Dung called on international rights groups to press Vietnam to take action to protect Hai’s rights in prison.
“We insist that governments and international human rights NGOs voice their concerns to demand that the Vietnamese authorities put an end to violations of the law, discrimination, spirit suppression, and restriction of healthcare service concerning Mr Nguyen Van Hai’s imprisonment,” the letter said, according to a copy translated and posted online by another blogger.
Hai, an outspoken blogger who co-founded the “Free Journalists Club Website,” was first detained in October 2008 after participating in anti-China protests ahead of the Beijing Olympics and served 30 months in jail on tax evasion charges critics have said were trumped up.
Upon his scheduled release in 2010, he was immediately rearrested on “antigovernment propaganda” charges for hundreds of articles he had written online along with two other members of the website.
The three were convicted under Article 88 of the country’s criminal code, a controversial provision rights groups say the government has used to silence online dissent.
Hai's case has been raised by U.S. President Barack Obama, who said in May last year "we must not forget [journalists] like blogger Dieu Cay, whose 2008 arrest coincided with a mass crackdown on citizen journalism in Vietnam."
Reported by Gwen Ha for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.
Five years after a devastating earthquake left more than 80,000 people dead and missing in the southwestern province of Sichuan, Chinese rights activists have launched a campaign for the release of a prominent writer jailed for investigating corruption and shoddy construction of school buildings.
An open letter circulating on China's Internet calling for the release of writer Tan Zuoren was signed by a number of prominent rights lawyers and dissidents, including Guo Feixiong and Zheng Enchong, as well as U.S.-based veteran pro-democracy activists Xu Wenli and Wang Ruowang.
Published ahead of the 5th anniversary of the May 12, 2008 quake, the letter called Tan's five-year sentencing for "incitement to subversion of state power" outrageous and asking inhabitants of the affected area to stand up on his behalf, including those hit by last month's magnitude-7 quake in near Ya'an city, which left more than 200 people dead or missing.
While top Chinese officials have called the reconstruction in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake a success, victims—including parents who lost thousands of children in the collapse of school buildings—say they have been harassed, beaten and detained in their fight to be heard.
Tan, along with fellow activist Huang Qi, were both handed jail terms for subversion after they tried to probe the collapse of school buildings in 2008's 8.0 magnitude earthquake.
Since the quake, parents have tried to keep up pressure on Beijing for a full investigation into the deaths of at least 5,300 schoolchildren in the worst-hit areas.
The bereaved families say they want an inquiry into allegations of shoddy construction of "bean curd" school buildings, many of which collapsed while other buildings stayed standing.
But lawyers have been warned off accepting cases linked to Sichuan's child quake victims, on pain of losing their license to practice.
Chen Shuqing, a member of the banned opposition China Democracy Party (CDP), said he had signed the letter to support Tan, who is a good friend.
"Everything he did was in the interests of the country and of society," Chen said. "He is just one among millions of cases of political persecution."
"We would support any cases involving political prisoners, as long as they are released."
Chen said he didn't hold out great hope that the authorities would heed the call for Tan's release, however.
"There have been so many letters like this sent out for every political prisoner oppressed by the Chinese Communist Party," he said. "But even if it has no effect, at least it will make the authorities realize ... that they will have to pay a price for political persecution."
Tan was sentenced by a Sichuan court in May 2009 after being formally accused of defaming the ruling Chinese Communist Party in emailed comments about 1989's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators around Tiananmen Square.
But activists say he was detained because he planned to issue an independent report on the collapse of school buildings during the Sichuan earthquake. Official figures show that 5,335 children died in the quake, although unofficial sources say the number could be as high as 10,000.
Opposition to plant
Prominent rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang said Tan's vocal opposition to a planned paraxylene (PX) petrochemical plant near the provincial capital Chengdu could also have played a role in his sentencing.
"Firstly, this judgement was made by circumventing the law," Pu said. "Secondly, this judgement in itself was a form of oppression."
"The PX plant was approved by [former security chief] Zhou Yongkang when he was provincial Party secretary," he said. "So it probably had something to do with Zhou, and that's why he was charged with incitement to subvert state power."
Zhou stepped down during the leadership transition at the 18th Party Congress last November amid suggestions he had been tainted by his close association with disgraced former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, who is awaiting trial for corruption and for his involvement in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.
Pu added: "It was wrong right from the start to charge and sentence Tan Zuoren, and he is still serving his sentence in prison. Personally I feel that this brings shame on the whole of Chinese society."
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.
China has provided missile-equipped helicopters to Burma’s largest armed ethnic rebel group, a report said this week, in a move that one Burmese military analyst said could hurt bilateral ties.
Monday’s report by U.K.-based intelligence monitor Jane’s Information Group said China had delivered several Mil Mi-17 ‘Hip’ helicopters to the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in late February and early March, citing sources from the Burmese government and an ethnic minority military.
The UWSA, which numbers some 30,000 full-and part-time fighters and controls towns along the Chinese and Thai borders in northeastern Burma’s Shan state, is in a fragile ceasefire with the Burmese military.
The helicopters, armed with TY-90 air-to-air missiles, were sent to the UWSA-administered area by way of Laos, instead of coming directly from China, the report said.
The ethnic minority military source said the UWSA had procured five helicopters, while the Burmese military source could only confirm two had been delivered, according to the report.
The helicopters are the UWSA’s first acquisition of rotary-wing capability and could provide a “serious deterrent” to the Burmese military, it said.
'Could damage relations'
While Jane’s did not say whether Beijing had sold the armed helicopters or provided them at no cost, analyst Aung Kyaw Zaw, who is based on the Burma-China border, said he personally felt it was “possible” that China sold them to the UWSA, rather than “giving them away for free.”
It was difficult to say which groups or countries sell weapons to Burmese armed ethnic groups, he said, adding that the sale to the UWSA “could damage the relationship between China and Burma.”
The Wa army “needs something to protect themselves” following the Burmese military’s advances on other ethnic rebel groups in the past year, he said.
He said the Burmese military is eyeing areas controlled by Kachin and Shan rebels in order to eventually prepare an offensive against the UWSA.
“The government has weapons that they could fire from Lwelan [in Shan state] to the UWSA headquarters at Panshang,” he said.
Aung Kyaw Zaw said that, aside from the helicopters, there were also reports that China had sent a large number of armaments and military-use vehicles to the China-Burma border in Sept. 2012, and that new weapons had recently appeared in the area.
“New weapons that we hadn’t ever seen before were seen at an anniversary celebration of an armed group that is based in the China-Burma border area,” he said, without naming the group.
The Wa military has about 30,000 soldiers and some of their equipment is more advanced than that of the Burmese military, he said.
The UWSA, formed of members of the Chinese-speaking Wa ethnic group, were one of several ethnic militias founded after the 1989 breakup of the Burmese Communist Party.
Despite its professed policy of non-interference, military analysts say China has, albeit unofficially, long been the largest supplier of weapons to the Wa.
Burma and the United States have long said the UWSA funds its activities through heroin and methamphetamine production and the group is considered the biggest narcotics organization in Southeast Asia.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.
Ten people were injured and dozens of shops and homes destroyed in central Burma Tuesday during fresh clashes between Muslims and Buddhists that also led to the destruction of an area mosque, state media reported.
The latest religious violence to hit Burma erupted in the town of Oakkan, located about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Rangoon, after a young Muslim woman accidentally turned over the alms bowl of a novice Buddhist monk, a state television broadcast said.
Police were forced to fire warning shots over the heads of a mob that had congregated to attack a mosque and were looting local stores, in the first clashes reported since late March when Buddhist mobs attacked Muslims in the town of Meikhtila and several villages, killing at least 43 people.
Security forces opened fire as a crowd pelted stones at a religious building and destroyed and looted shops, according to reports which said 10 people were injured.
It is unclear whether anyone had been arrested in connection with the violence but security has been beefed up.
An RFA Burmese Service reporter who had traveled to Oakkan to cover the riots said that as many as 50 shops and homes were destroyed on Tuesday.
The destroyed mosque had been surrounded by authorities and several police cars could be seen driving around the town.
Around 200 police officers, as well as several military personnel and officers had converged on Oakkan following the unrest.
Several houses and shops in the downtown area were lying in ruins and around 200 people were searching through the rubble.
Residents said that the clash had begun when “a Buddhist novice and a Muslim woman bumped into each other accidently in Oakkan Market” early in the morning. They said angry crowds had begun attacking buildings in the area around noon.
Shwe Nya Wa, a well-known Buddhist monk from Rangoon, has traveled to the area to help restore calm, as well as members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party from nearby Hmawbe township and members of the 88 Generation Students civil society group.
After security forces had quelled the violence, the Oakkan township administrator invoked Section 188 of the Burmese Penal Code, which carries severe punishment for acts of disobedience which endanger public safety.
Security forces from Rangoon, led by Rangoon division police chief Win Naing, were collaborating with local security forces to ensure regional stability.
The violence in Oakkan is the latest unrest to hit central Burma, following a number of attacks by Buddhist mobs on Muslim communities in March.
At least 43 people were reported dead and thousands, mostly Muslims, driven from their homes and businesses as the latest violence spread through central Burma last month.
The recent violence has been linked to radical monks and triggered international concerns. Rights groups accused the security forces of standing by while the attacks, which appeared to be well organized, took place.
Religious unrest has threatened to derail Burma’s plans to rebrand itself as a democracy under reformist President Thein Sein, whose nominally civilian government took power in 2011 following decades of military misrule.
Last year, clashes between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines broke out twice in Burma's Rakhine state, leaving at least 180 dead and tens of thousands homeless. Rights groups said Rohingyas bore the brunt of the violence.
Around 800,000 Muslim Rohingyas live in Rakhine state but most of them, according to rights groups, have been denied citizenship as they are considered by most Burmese and the government to be illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
The stateless Rohingyas have been described by the U.N. as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.
A long-awaited official report on last year’s violence in Rakhine state recommended earlier this week that security forces be doubled in the area and given better resources, while navy patrols should be bolstered and a maritime police force established to deter immigrants arriving by boat.
The report also recommended that more aid be channeled to help Rohingyas displaced in the clashes and called for a process to examine their citizenship status, though it did not hint at any major reforms that would embrace them as citizens.
The government-appointed commission’s recommendations follow a report last week from Human Rights Watch accusing security forces of complicity in “ethnic cleansing" against the Rohingya—a claim the government denies.
Reported by Kyaw Zaw Win and Thuza for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
A court in Cambodia on Tuesday ordered a renewed probe into the murder of a journalist who had exposed corruption among local elites, saying an earlier investigation had neglected important evidence that could shed new light on the case.
Presiding judge Y Sovann told the Ratanakiri provincial court that several sources of information had been overlooked during the investigation into the killing of Hang Serei Oudom, who was found beaten to death in the trunk of his car last September.
The court had been due to deliver a verdict on Tuesday for the two suspects charged with his murder, Cambodian military officer An Bunheng and his wife, known by her nickname “Vy,” who have both denied the charges.
“The investigating judge must examine additional evidence in the case of Hang Serei Oudom,” Y Sovann said, adding that the former investigating judge Luch Lao had failed to perform his duties and would be replaced on the case.
“The [new] investigating judge must look into the cell phone records of the deceased from [telecommunication companies] Mobitel and Mfone before the murder took place, and interview additional witnesses to the crime scene.”
Y Sovann said the judge should also ask additional questions of An Bunheng and his wife, as well as other military police officers in the area that may have additional details about the incident.
He ordered that the accused couple remain in detention until further evidence came to light in the case, adding that there would not be a time limit placed on the new investigation.
Deputy prosecutor Chea Sopheak, who originally brought charges against An Bunheng and his wife in September last year, told RFA’s Khmer Service that he “supports the additional investigation.”
Hang Serei Oudom’s wife Im Chanthy told RFA that she welcomed the court’s decision to open an additional investigation and order the continued detention of the two suspects.
“I hope the judge will provide justice for our family and provide us with compensation for this wrongful death,” she said.
Heng Sotheara, the lawyer representing the accused couple, said the court decision could prove disadvantageous for his clients, but added that he “supports a further investigation which could provide justice to parties on both sides of the case.”
Hang Serei Odom, journalist for the Vorakchun Khmer newspaper, was looking into claims of illegal logging and extortion when he went missing on Sept. 10 last year. His battered body was found two days later in the trunk of his car.
An Bunheng and his wife were taken into custody the next day after police and a court prosecutor said they had found evidence linking them to the crime at the couple’s restaurant in Cambodia’s northeastern Ratanakiri province.
Rights groups called for a thorough investigation into Hang Serei Oudom’s death, noting that the journalist had written about influential people, including businessmen and provincial officials involved in the trafficking of luxury wood, and that his colleagues had told him “they were concerned for his safety” in the days before he disappeared.
In October, Cambodia-based rights group ADHOC said Hang Serei Oudom was among at least a dozen journalists who had been killed in Cambodia in the nearly two decades since U.N.-backed elections were held following decades of civil war.
ADHOC said 17 journalists received death threats and an additional 12 were imprisoned over the same period. Another reporter was seriously wounded in an attack, the group said.
In April last year, environmental activist Chut Wutty was shot and killed while he accompanied two reporters from the Cambodia Daily to investigate illegal logging claims in a protected forest region.
Court proceedings on Chut Wutty’s case—the highest-profile death of a Cambodian activist in years—ended in October last year after a court in Koh Kong convicted a logging company’s security chief for the killing of a military officer accused of murdering Chut Wutty.
But last week, on the one-year anniversary of his death, Chut Wutty’s family called for the reopening of investigations into his murder and urged authorities to find his “true killer.”
Reported by Ratha Visak for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
North Korea has assigned workers withdrawn from the Kaesong Industrial Complex to new jobs, indicating that Pyongyang wants the joint project with South Korea to be shuttered and had planned its closure way in advance, according to a North Korean source in China.
Another North Korean in China confirmed the deployment of the North Korean workers elsewhere but said it could be a temporary measure.
Fears of a permanent end to the rare joint venture project between the two Koreas intensified Tuesday as Pyongyang ignored a plea by South Korean businessmen to visit the complex for talks on its future.
There has also been speculation that North Korea wanted to end the venture as a ploy to use it again as a manufacturing center of its own.
Operations at the industrial complex, located just north of the heavily fortified border, ground to a halt earlier this month after Pyongyang said it was “temporarily suspending” the project and pulling out its 53,000 workers at the complex following weeks of threats of war against South Korea and the U.S.
'Bent' on closing
One North Korean source in China said he had heard that most of the workers had been sent to assignments in other locations.
“I heard from a high-ranking official that two thirds of the North Korean workers at Kaesong were reassigned to rural areas and the others were relocated to sewing factories in North Korea,” he told RFA’s Korean Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The North Korean government reassigned them quickly, so I suspect that North Korea was bent on closing the Kaesong Industrial Complex,” he said.
A second source in China said he too had heard that the workers had been relocated, but added that the new assignments could be short-term ones.
“It is too early to conclude that North Korea had a plan to close the complex,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The North Korean government might think this conflict won’t wrap up in a short term, so they could have reassigned the workers temporarily.”
South Korean workers
All but seven of the 800 South Korean employees who managed the North Korean workers at Kaesong have left the zone since Pyongyang’s April 8 announcement that it was suspending the project.
Forty-three South Koreans who had remained at the facility returned home on Tuesday, leaving the seven supervisors behind to negotiate unpaid wages, South Korean officials said.
Seoul had announced Friday that it was ordering the workers home after Pyongyang blocked access to the site and refused to open talks on restarting the stalled operations.
About 10 leaders of the group of South Korean firms with factories at the complex had sought to visit North Korea on Tuesday for talks aimed at avoiding a permanent closure to the project, which is a key currency earner for cash-strapped North Korea.
But North Korea did not respond to their request, making the trip impossible, Agence France-Presse reported.
'Window for dialogue'
On Monday, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told a forum in Seoul that "the window for dialogue is still open" on keeping the project open, according to Yonhap News Agency.
The Kaesong complex had remained in operation through previous crises in intra-Korean relations in its nine-year history, including the sinking of a South Korean warship by North Korea and its shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010.
One Pyongyang resident said the withdrawal of workers from the zone could be part of a plan by North Korea to take over the industrial complex’s facilities, in the same way it took over the Mount Kumgang resort started by a South Korean company.
“It seems to be a North Korean government’s trick,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity while on a trip to China.
“They want to take ownership of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, using the same trick as the one they used with Mt. Kumgang to get the facilities.”
The Mount Kumgang resort, which offered sightseeing for South Korean tourists, was shut down after a South Korean housewife was shot dead by a North Korean soldier near the hotel in 2008.
In 2010, North Korea seized assets owned by the South Korean government in the project and sent home South Koreans who had stayed to look after the resort’s hotels and restaurants, later starting up tours for international tourists at the site on its own.
North Korea has been stepping up threats of nuclear war since the United Nations imposed sanctions in response to Pyongyang's defiant third nuclear test in February.
The North said South Korean authorities and “military warmongers” had sought to turn the Kaesong complex into a “hotbed of confrontation.”
Reported by Joon Ho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Goeun Yu. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.
China came under pressure from rights groups Tuesday to give urgent medical treatment to the jailed nephew of blind activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng, saying he is languishing from “a life-threatening” case of appendicitis.
In a letter, U.S.-based Freedom Now, which monitors the rights of political prisoners, called on the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez to appeal to Beijing for the immediate transfer of Chen Kegui from his cell in Linyi Prison to a hospital for treatment.
“In addition to the severe beatings suffered by Mr. Kegui, the government continues to subject him to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment that may amount to torture through the denial of urgently needed medical treatment,” Freedom Now founder Jared Genser wrote.
“In light of the life-threatening nature of Chen Kegui’s illness, the denial of adequate medical treatment in this case presents an urgent threat to his wellbeing.”
Genser said that Chen Kegui, 33, was suffering from “severe pain,” had been denied access to a doctor, and had not been taken to a hospital despite reports that his appendix had begun to rupture.
Chen Kegui is serving a 39-month prison term after he tried to defend his family in an attack following his uncle Chen Guangcheng's flight from house arrest to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing a year ago. Chen Guangcheng is currently studying law in the U.S.
Prison officials rejected Chen Kegui's recent request for medical parole from his jail sentence after he developed complications from the illness.
Chen Kegui’s father Chen Guangfu has said his son suffered physical abuse in detention at the hands of authorities, who told him that his sentence would be extended to life in prison if he tried to appeal the conviction.
Chen’s denial of medical treatment also drew concern from other U.S.-based groups, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House.
In a statement Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said Chen Kegui is receiving only antibiotics for appendicitis, which could lead to a “life-threatening result.”
“Failure to provide prisoners access to adequate medical care is cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment that may rise to the level of torture, and violates the right to health and the Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners,” the group said.
“Chen Kegui’s life and health are now in the hands of the same authorities who have authorized or tolerated other abuses against him in prison and his family in their village,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “To deny him appropriate treatment reflects at best incompetence and at worst a twisted effort to torment the Chen family.”
Freedom House called on Chinese authorities to “immediately allow” Chen Kegui access to hospitalization and visits from his family, and urged the U.S. and the broader international community “to pressure the Chinese government to do so.”
Freedom House said that the abuse and imprisonment of Chen Kegui is believed to be in retaliation for his uncle’s escape to the U.S. Embassy last year and his ongoing public advocacy for human rights in China from the U.S.
The group added that prison officials were denying Chen Kegui medical care at a time when the family has been suffering increased harassment by Chinese officials, “an increasingly common tactic employed by the Chinese authorities to pressure human rights defenders to abandon their activism.”
A U.S. bipartisan commission proposed Tuesday that Vietnam be returned to a State Department list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedoms and that Burma, despite ongoing political reforms, be maintained on the blacklist.
Vietnam, under one-party communist rule, “continues to expand control over all religious activities [and] severely restrict independent religious practice,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedoms (USCIRF) said in an annual report.
Though religious activity has grown in Vietnam in recent years, the government continues to “repress individuals and religious groups it views as challenging its authority,” it said.
The State Department included Vietnam on its list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) in 2004 but removed it from the blacklist two years later and has since ignored repeated calls by the commission to reinstate the country’s designation.
For the 2013 report, USCIRF recommended that Secretary of State John Kerry maintain eight countries on the CPC list: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.
USCIRF also urged that in addition to Vietnam, six other countries receive CPC designation: Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
Speaking in an interview, USCIRF chair Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett expressed hope that Vietnam would this year be returned to the list.
“We’re hopeful that our report will make the case,” Swett told RFA.
“The Vietnamese government is still using vague national security laws to suppress independent Buddhists, Protestants, Hoa Hao, and Cao Dai activities,” Swett said.
“And they are definitely working to stop the growth of ethnic minority Protestantism and Catholicism through discrimination, instances of violence, and repeated episodes of forced denunciations of faith.”
“It’s still a very concerning situation, and one that we believe does merit CPC designation,” Swett said.
Though Burma took important steps during the last year to advance political reforms in the formerly military-ruled country, “these reforms have not yet improved religious freedom conditions,” USCIRF said, adding that Burma should again be named a CPC.
Treatment of the country’s Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority has been especially troubling, Swett said.
The report said that in sectarian violence over the period between June and October 2012, more than 1,000 Rohingyas were killed—a number more than five times higher than the official total death toll of 192 dead.
“Their villages and religious structures were destroyed [and] large numbers of women were raped,” Swett said.
“And so despite multiple political reforms and progress in a positive direction in the overall political situation in Burma, the religious freedom situation remains grave enough to merit CPC status."
Violence between Muslims and Buddhists continued to occur in Burma in 2013 with U.S.-based Human Rights Watch charging last week that Burmese authorities have committed crimes against humanity in a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against Muslim Rohingyas.
The USCIRF report said that though cases of the forced conversion of ethnic minority Christians to Buddhism were noted in Burma, abuses also targeted clergy of the country’s majority Buddhist faith.
“The government closely monitors monasteries viewed as focal points of anti-government activity and has restricted usual religious practices in these areas,” USCIRF said, adding that monks identified as protest organizers have been charged under “vague national security provisions.”
“Sadly, these abuses appear to be occurring with impunity,” said Swett.
In China, religious freedom conditions “have deteriorated quite significantly—particularly, of course, in Tibet and for Tibetan Buddhists, and for Uyghur Muslims as well,” Swett said, adding that “China again absolutely merits CPC designation.”
“The restriction of religious activity causes deep resentment in Tibetan and Uyghur communities,” USCIRF noted in its report.
The Chinese government has “intensified efforts to discredit religious leaders, issued new measures to increase government oversight of monasteries and mosques, and implemented new ‘education’ programs to ensure the loyalty of Buddhist monks and ‘weaken the religious consciousness’ of Uyghur Muslims.”
“There are hundreds of Tibetans and Uyghurs in prison for their religious activity or religious freedom advocacy,” USCIRF said.
Meanwhile, Protestants who refuse to join state-approved religious organizations face harassment and fines, detentions, and in some instances imprisonment, added Swett.
“Their ‘house church’ activity is considered to be illegal, and our evidence is that 900 Protestants were detained in the past year for simply conducting public worship activities. And we believe that there are seven significant Protestant leaders who were imprisoned for terms longer than a year.”
“The government has issued a directive to eradicate these groups,” Swett said, adding, “A similar situation faces the independent or unregistered Catholic community.”
China’s “most brutal” measures of religious suppression are aimed at eradicating the Falun Gong spiritual movement, though, Swett said.
“Practitioners continue to face arbitrary arrest, forced renunciations of their faith, torture, and psychiatric experiments.”
“And there has been some evidence of organ harvesting, particularly targeting the Falun Gong.”
“That community continues to be on the receiving end of the most harsh and brutal tactics used by the Chinese government when it comes to suppressing religious freedom,” said Swett.
North Korea, meanwhile, “remains one of the world’s most repressive regimes, with a deplorable human rights and religious freedom record,” USCIRF noted in its report.
And because North Korea’s government promotes a cult of personality surrounding the Kim dynasty of North Korean leaders, USCIRF said, “Any activity perceived to challenge [present leader] Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy, including clandestine religious activity, continues to be viewed as a security threat.”
“People caught transporting Bibles or engaged in any sort of missionary activity … face torture and execution and imprisonment,” said Swett.
“The repression of all unapproved religious activities can only be described as incredibly brutal.”
“North Korea clearly is a CPC, and I think there’s wide agreement on that,” Swett said.
Laos remains on USCIRF’s Tier 2 “Watch List” for continuing “serious religious freedom abuses,” USCIRF said in its report.
Countries on the Tier 2 Watch List are “on the threshold of CPC status, meaning that the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are particularly severe,” the commission says.
“The Lao legal code restricts religious practice, and the government is either unable or unwilling to curtail ongoing religious freedom abuses in some provincial areas,” according to the USCIRF report.
Though religious freedom conditions have improved over the last five years for majority Buddhist groups and other religious communities in urban areas, “our concern and our problems lie primarily with provincial officials and the status of communities in the provinces,” said Swett.
“There we see continued violations of religious freedom for ethnic minority Protestants, who face detention, surveillance, harassment, property confiscation, and in some instances forced renunciations of faith.”
This is a situation that has varied by region and by religious group, Swett said.
“[But] the improvements have not been sufficient in our view to warrant moving Laos entirely off of that Tier 2 status.”