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The Star Online: Metro: South & East

Thai protesters block voting in chaotic election

Posted: 02 Feb 2014 03:52 AM PST

BANGKOK: Opposition protesters blocked voting at thousands of polling stations in Thailand on Sunday, triggering angry scenes in the capital over an election that plunged the strife-racked kingdom into political limbo.

Despite weeks of mass street demonstrations aimed at forcing her from office, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was widely expected to extend her billionaire family's decade-long winning streak at the ballot box.

But widespread disruption to voting meant that the results are not expected for weeks at least. And few believe the polls will end the political turmoil that has plagued the kingdom since her elder brother Thaksin was ousted as premier in a military coup in 2006.

Yingluck's opponents say she is a mere puppet for the ousted leader, a hugely controversial figure who lives in Dubai to avoid prison for a corruption conviction.

The main opposition Democrat Party, which boycotted the vote, said it was gathering legal evidence to seek an annulment of the election.

About 10,000 out of nearly 94,000 polling stations were unable to open, according to the Election Commission, affecting millions of people, although it was unclear how many had planned to vote.

An angry crowd gathered outside one voting centre in the Bangkok district of Din Daeng, holding their ID cards in the air and chanting "Vote! Vote!", before storming inside. They later filed complaints with police about the blockade.

"I came to vote, but they have denied my rights," said Praneet Tabtimtong, 57, clutching a large wooden club. "I am begging them to let me vote."

The disruption means that even if Yingluck wins she will remain in a caretaker role with limited power over government policy until elections are held in the troubled areas, because there will not be enough MPs to convene parliament.

"Normally even if one polling station is blocked we cannot announce the result," said Election Commission member Somchai Srisutthiyakorn.

"As long as there are protests and no negotiation, then parliament cannot open."

Experts say a protracted period of political uncertainty and possible street violence could set the scene for a military or judicial coup. The army chief has repeatedly refused to rule out seizing power, while Yingluck is under investigation by an anti-corruption panel.

At least 10 people have been killed and hundreds injured in clashes, grenade attacks and drive-by shootings since the opposition rallies began, with victims on both sides.

Tensions were running high after a dramatic gun battle between rival protesters on the streets of the capital on the eve of the election that left at least seven people wounded, but there were no reports of serious violence on election day by the time polls closed.

'Thuggery and intimidation'

The demonstrators want Yingluck to step down and make way for an unelected "people's council" to oversee reforms to tackle corruption and alleged vote-buying.

In many parts of the south, a stronghold of the anti-government movement, protesters stopped post offices from distributing ballot sheets and boxes.

Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch, accused the demonstrators of "thuggery and intimidation".

But in the government's heartland in north and northeast Thailand, as well as some areas of the capital, voting went ahead without major disruption in a boost to Yingluck's hopes of re-election.

"I did my duty today as I came to vote - it's my right," said Pui, 43, who cast his ballot at a polling station in Bangkok's historic district where a handful of police watched over voters.

Authorities said roughly 130,000 police were deployed around the country for the vote, but with tens of thousands of polling stations, many had only a light security presence.

The backdrop to the unrest is a long-running political struggle pitting Thailand's royalist establishment - backed by the courts and the military - against Thaksin.

The protests were initially triggered by a failed amnesty bill that could have allowed the fugitive former premier to return without going to jail.

The recent violence is the worst political bloodshed in the kingdom since 2010 when protests by pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts" left more than 90 dead and nearly 1,900 injured in clashes and a military crackdown.

The elite-backed opposition Democrat Party - which has not won an elected majority in around two decades - refused to take part in the vote, throwing its support behind the anti-government protests.

The party said Sunday that it was preparing to mount a legal challenge to the vote.

"We are compiling evidence and information to ask the court to nullify this election," said deputy leader Ongart Klampaiboon.

The protesters have vowed to keep up their fight to topple Yingluck, whatever the outcome of the polls.

"The winners will not represent the Thai people," rally leader Suthep Thaugsuban, an opposition heavyweight, told supporters Sunday. "The winners must be Thaksin slaves." -AFP

Related stories:
Voting ends in tense Thailand election
Thailand set for chaotic polls after protest bloodshed
Q & A on Thai political crisis

Fears death toll could rise in Indonesia volcano eruption

Posted: 01 Feb 2014 11:52 PM PST

KARO, Indonesia: Indonesian officials searched through thick ash for bodies Sunday after Mount Sinabung volcano erupted, killing at least 15 people, with the only sign of life an ownerless mobile phone ringing inside an abandoned bag.

Scorching clouds engulfed victims during the eruption on Saturday, leaving rescuers with little hope of finding survivors as they searched through ash up to 30 centimetres (12 inches) thick.

About 170 people, including from the military and police, armed with chainsaws and oxygen apparatus spread out through apocalyptic-like destruction in Sukameriah village, officials said.

Sukameriah, just 2.7 kilometres (1.7 miles) from Sinabung's crater, is located in the "red zone" around the volcano, where human activities are strictly banned, disaster official Tri Budiarto said. Residents had been evacuated.

"It's very dangerous and completely out of bounds. But many of the tourists still secretly went to the area to take photographs," Budiarto added.

Indonesian villagers carry a body of a mounth Sinabung eruption victim on a motorbike shortly after an eruption in Karo, North Sumatra, Indonesia, February 1, 2014. -EPA

The first team to enter the village Sunday morning emerged 15 minutes later empty-handed, an AFP correspondent there said.

"There's no sign of human life. All the crops were gone. Many houses were damaged and those still standing were covered in thick white ash. It was hard to walk in ash which nearly reached my calves," Gito, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, told AFP.

"We didn't find bodies but we picked up a bag belonging to one of the victims. The cellphone was ringing," he added.

Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency, was unable to put a figure to the number of people still missing, but said there was a "chance" that the death toll might rise.

"A body was spotted near a tree, but we have yet to evacuate (it)," he said.

Officials said finding survivors was unlikely.

"I doubt it would be possible for anyone to survive the heat clouds yesterday. So far, we have not found any more bodies," said Lieutenant Colonel Asep Sukarna, who led the search operation.

The volcano on the western island of Sumatra started erupting in September, but on Saturday spewed hot rocks and ash 2,000 metres (16,00 feet) into the air, blanketing the surrounding countryside with grey dust.

Fourteen people - mainly local tourists, including four high school students on a sightseeing trip - were killed by lethal heat clouds which cascaded down the volcano.

A 24-year-old man who was accompanying his father to pay respects at the graves of their relatives died from his injuries early Sunday, raising the death toll to 15, Nugroho said.

Two other people are being treated for serious burns at a local hospital.

Officials warned that the threat of more searing heat clouds and weather conditions may affect search operations.

"It's cloudy today so we worry that it might rain," Karo district spokesman Robert Peranginangin said. "If it rains, the area will be muddy and hard to walk, so we will have to stop search and rescue."

Officials are also putting up more signs to warn people not to enter the area, officials said.

Mount Sinabung is one of 129 active volcanoes in Indonesia that straddle major tectonic fault lines, known as the Pacific Ring of Fire.

The country's most active volcano, Mount Merapi in central Java, killed more than 350 people in a series of eruptions in 2010. -AFP

Japan upset by S. Korean 'comfort women' comics at French show

Posted: 02 Feb 2014 12:00 AM PST

ANGOULEME, France: Japan has expressed its "regret" at a South Korean exhibit at an international comic book festival in France featuring "comfort women" forced into wartime sex slavery in Japanese military brothels.

Japan's ambassador to France, Yoichi Suzuki, said he "deeply regrets that this exhibition is taking place", saying it promoted "a mistaken point of view that further complicates relations between South Korea and Japan".

Up to 200,000 women from Korea, China, the Philippines and elsewhere were forced into brothels catering to the Japanese military in territories occupied by Japan during World War II, according to many mainstream historians.

Franck Bondoux, director of the Angouleme International Comics Festival in western France, told AFP that Japan had not asked for the expo to be cancelled.

South Korea's Gender Equality and Family Minister Cho yoon-sun was present at the opening of the South Korean exhibit, entitled "The Flower That Doesn't Wilt", on Thursday.

"The subject was proposed by the South Korean government but the artists were completely free to evoke the subject independently," Bondoux said.

The politically-charged issue of comfort women has stoked regional tensions, with South Korea and China insisting that Japan must face up to its World War II-era sexual enslavement of women from across occupied Asia.

In a landmark 1993 statement, then-chief Japanese cabinet secretary Yohei Kono apologised to former comfort women and acknowledged Japan's role in causing their suffering.

But in remarks in 2007 that triggered a regionwide uproar, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said there was no evidence that Japan directly forced women to work as sex slaves.

Last week, the Japanese government distanced itself from remarks by the head of the NHK public broadcaster, who had said the Japanese Imperial Army's system of wartime sex slavery was commonplace "in all countries during war".

Katsuto Momii later apologised for "causing trouble" with the statement.

The French regional Sud Ouest daily newspaper received a petition, ahead of the festival's opening, from Japanese women indignant at the South Korean exhibit.

On top of the comfort women row, the festival's organisers shut down the booth of a Japanese association that displayed revisionist WWII content and swastika images among the comics on display. -AFP

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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