Khamis, 6 Februari 2014

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The Star Online: World Updates

Japan's Abe backs Putin with visit, in contrast to China, Korea ties

Posted: 06 Feb 2014 09:05 PM PST

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe headed to Russia on Friday in a show of support for President Vladimir Putin at the Sochi Olympics, just hours after headlining a rally demanding that Moscow return islands seized from Japan.

Abe's trip to attend the Games and hold his fifth summit with Putin since taking office 13 months ago, despite the seven-decade territorial dispute, stands in marked contrast to Japan's sharply deteriorating ties with China and South Korea, involving spats over tiny uninhabited islands.

For Putin, the appearance of G7 leader Abe at Friday's opening ceremony provides a high-profile seal of approval. The Russian leader faces global criticism over the country's human rights record and a recent law against gay "propaganda," which opponents say curtails the rights of homosexuals.

U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German President Joachim Gauck are not attending the Games. The U.S. delegation includes three openly gay representatives.

Russia's domestic policies have not provoked controversy in Japan, but the territorial dispute forms the backdrop to Abe's trip. He left after addressing an annual "Northern Territories Day" gathering, meant to pressure Russia to return the islands, which Russia says comprise the southern end of its Kurile chain.

"While developing Japan-Russia ties as a whole, we have to finally solve the biggest so-far unresolved issue, that is the Northern Territories issue, and to sign the peace treaty with Russia," said Abe addressing the gathering in Tokyo.

"This is why I will engage in tenacious negotiations with Russia," Abe added, speaking from a stage with the slogan "Return the Four Northern Islands" and the Japanese flag at his back.

Also attending were ministers, lawmakers and representatives of political parties, as well as former island residents. One woman who used to live on the islands broke down in tears as she recounted how she had been made to leave.

Moscow took the islands east of Hokkaido days before Japan surrendered in World War Two, forcing 17,000 Japanese to leave. The often acrimonious dispute has kept the two countries from signing a peace treaty.

Abe and Putin - said to be on a first-name basis - have not let the dispute block progress in diplomacy centering on natural gas and other resources.

By contrast, the leaders of China and Korea have rebuffed Abe's repeated calls to meet. Besides the isle spats, Abe angered Beijing and Seoul with a December pilgrimage to a shrine they see as a symbol of Tokyo's past militarism.

Russia, too, criticised the shrine visit, but did not let it derail ties with Japan.

Abe's Sochi trip is "a manifestation that country-to-country relations are moving in a good direction," said former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, who has longstanding ties with Russia and has done much of the legwork for Abe's bilateral diplomacy. Mori told reporters the two sides are trying to arrange for Putin to visit Japan in the autumn.

Abe has made ties with Russia a priority, starting with a first-in-a-decade Moscow summit. Talks are to continue this year, although neither side expects a swift end to the dispute.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed the opening of the talks in Moscow last month but stressed that recognition of the outcome of the war would be vital.

Moscow wants to bolster its position in East Asia as it warily watches the growth of China's influence in the region.

"Putin, for his part, just like Obama, is shifting towards East Asia," said Nobuo Shimotomai, professor at Hosei University in Tokyo. "He aims to do that by playing Russia's soft-power trump card, that is by selling energy to the region's countries," he said.

A dramatic transformation is underway in Russia's energy sector, with oil flows being redirected to Asia via the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline. Russia plans to at least double oil and gas flows to Asia over the next 20 years, as it pivots away from export routes to Europe.

That spells opportunity for Japan, which has been forced to import huge volumes of fossil fuel to replace its entire nuclear power industry, shut down after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami wrecked the Fukushima plant.

Japan now consumes a third of global liquefied natural gas shipments, a key reason for its record 18 months of trade deficits.

Russian gas lies on Japan's doorstep and already makes up about a tenth of its LNG imports. That could rise as Tokyo is desperate to diversify and slash costs of energy imports.

(Editing by William Mallard and Clarence Fernandez)

Thai protesters seek to win over disgruntled rice farmers

Posted: 06 Feb 2014 08:55 PM PST

By Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat and Panarat Thepgumpanat

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Anti-government protesters in Thailand plan to collect money for farmers as they march in Bangkok on Friday, seeking to capitalise on discontent in rural areas at the state's failure to pay for rice bought under a controversial subsidy scheme.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was helped to power by a promise to buy rice from millions of farmers at a price that was way above the market. The government has been unable to sell the rice to fund the scheme and some farmers have been waiting months to get paid.

The protest movement in Bangkok trying to oust Yingluck has found much of its support from middle-class taxpayers appalled at what they see as corruption and waste in the rice scheme, but it is now trying to make common cause with the farmers.

"On Friday we will march through the business district of Silom to get donations to give to the farmers ... This is the way to get money from the rich to help the poor," Akanat Promphan, a spokesman for the movement, told reporters.

Hundreds of farmers rallied at the Commerce Ministry but Prasit Boonchoey, head of the Thai Rice Farmers Association, denied they were backing protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban.

"This is a farmers' problem and we won't be joining Suthep's protest. We are just calling for what is ours, which is the money the government should pay us," he told Reuters.

The Northern Farmers Network, a group claiming 50,000 members, has besieged the provincial hall in Phichit province in the lower north and blocked highways around the region.

"There's no way this caretaker government can find the money for us," its chairman, Kittisak Rattanawaraha, told Reuters. "That's why we're pressing the government to get out."

Kittisak also said his network was not aligned with Suthep and had no plans to march on Bangkok, although he acknowledged that some farmers supported the protest movement.


Rice farmers have until now been natural supporters of Yingluck and her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who raised living standards in the countryside with populist policies such as cheap healthcare when he was prime minister from 2001.

However, he ran up against opposition from the royalist establishment and the army, which toppled him in 2006, setting off eight years of political turmoil.

He fled into exile in 2008 to avoid being jailed for abuse of power but is widely seen as the power behind Yingluck. The latest unrest was sparked by her government's attempt in November to ram a political amnesty bill through parliament that would have let him come back home a free man.

Yingluck called a snap election to try to defuse the protests but the February 2 vote was disrupted in Bangkok and the south, strongholds of the opposition Democrat Party.

Election officials met for a second day on Friday to work out how to complete the voting.

Yingluck's Puea Thai Party is certain to have won the vote but it is unclear when there will be enough lawmakers elected to form a quorum in parliament to re-elect her as prime minister. Thailand may be stuck with a caretaker government, with only limited spending powers, for many weeks yet.

The protesters' numbers have dwindled. National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattantabutr estimated that only about 3,000 people were camped out now at the various protest sites.

A state of emergency was declared by the government ahead of the election and Paradorn said 19 arrest warrants had now been issued against protest leaders for violating the decree. Another 39 would be sought on Monday.

"When the right moment comes, we will arrest these leaders. At this point, we have teams of police following the movements of those who have arrest warrants out for them but we guarantee we won't break up the protests," he told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Alisa Tang in BANGKOK and Andrew R.C. Marshall in PICHIT; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Paul Tait)

Singapore angry at Indonesia move to name navy ship for convicted bombers

Posted: 06 Feb 2014 08:30 PM PST

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Anger is mounting in Singapore over neighbouring Indonesia's decision to name a new naval ship after two marines executed for a 1960s bombing in the city state's main shopping district that left three people dead.

Three Singapore ministers have asked their Indonesian counterparts to reconsider the move to name a new frigate after Osman Haji Mohamed Ali and Harun Said, who were convicted for the March 1965 bombing of MacDonald House on Orchard Road.

The issue is likely to be another pressure point in the delicate relationship between the two Southeast Asian neighbours whose ties were tested last year when the annual burning of Indonesian forests blanketed Singapore in a thick smog.

"The two Indonesian marines were found guilty of the bombing, which killed three people and injured 33 others," said a spokesman for Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"Singapore had considered this difficult chapter in the bilateral relationship closed in May 1973 when then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew visited and scattered flowers on the graves of the two marines," he added.

Singapore's Foreign Minister K Shanmugam, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean have all contacted their Indonesian counterparts about the matter.

The bombing happened during Indonesia's "confrontation" movement with the newly formed Malaysia, which then Indonesian president Sukarno opposed, as he viewed it as a puppet of the British government.

Singapore was part of Malaysia at the time and the attack on MacDonald House was the harshest of several launched by members of Indonesia's special Operations Corps Command who had infiltrated the island.

The two men were charged in Singapore, which gained independence in August 1965, and hanged for the bombing in 1968. In Indonesia they received the status of national heroes and a ceremonial funeral.

Indonesia has defended the naming decision, saying it is in line with its practice of naming vessels after the country's 'heroes'.

"There should be no intervention from any other country," said Agus Barnas, spokesman for the ministry for political, legal and security affairs.

Djoko Suyanto, the minister responsible for coordinating the three portfolios, said Indonesia had the authority to set its own criteria for naming heroes and to name warships after them, the spokesman added.

Indonesia is Singapore's third largest trading partner, with trade between the two totalling S$79.4 billion ($62.65 billion) in 2012, according to IE Singapore.

Macdonald House, a brick-faced historic structure built in 1949, was home to the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp, as well as the Australian High Commission and the Japanese consulate, at the time of the attack.

Today it houses a branch of American bank Citibank. ($1=1.2675 Singapore dollars)

(Reporting by Rachel Armstrong; Additional reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor in Jakarta; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)


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