- Thai protesters surround polling stations as advance voting begins
- Horror in Philippine online child sex abuse village
- Japan NHK head's 'comfort women' remark stirs controversy
Posted: 25 Jan 2014 07:22 PM PST
BANGKOK: Thai anti-government protesters surrounded polling stations Sunday as advance voting for controversial elections got under way, authorities said, raising uncertainty over whether the ballot will ultimately be held.
Over two million people are registered for the advance vote ahead of the February 2 election, which was called by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in an attempt to defuse rising political tensions after weeks of mass anti-government protests.
Demonstrators, who have staged a near two-week so-called "shutdown" of Bangkok in an effort to derail the vote, have rejected the election and vowed to congregate around polling stations.
Advance voting is being held for those who are unable to take part in the February 2 election and is routine, although this time it is being seen as a litmus test for the possibility of holding the vote next Sunday without violence.
The country's Election Commission has said that individual polling stations could decide to suspend advance voting if there is a blockade or violence.
Protesters insist they will not obstruct voters, although analysts have questioned whether their actions are tantamount to voter intimidation.
There were no immediate reports of violence on Sunday but Thai television said there had been verbal clashes between voters and protesters at some polling stations."There are around 2,500 protesters (in total) in front of at least 13-14 polling stations," in the Thai capital, a National Police officer, who did not want to be named told AFP.
Police would keep a low profile to avoid raising tensions, he said, adding they would go onto the streets in the event of any "unrest".
Protesters also reportedly blocked polling stations in southern Thailand - where the anti-government movement draws widespread support.
Demonstrators want to topple the government and install an unelected "people's council" to implement loosely-defined reforms that they hope will rid Thailand of the influence of ousted former leader Thaksin Shinawatra - Yingluck's older brother.
They do not want the February 2 polls to go ahead, calling for reform before elections.
An AFP reporter at one Bangkok polling station said there was no sign of voters early Sunday as dozens of protesters, many blowing whistles, surrounded the building's entrance which was padlocked as voting opened.
"I'm here to prevent people from voting," said 64-year-old Amornchock, giving one name.
"I'm not against democracy, I'm not against elections, but they have to be fair."
There is mounting uncertainty over whether elections will take place on schedule, after the country's Constitutional Court on Friday ruled that the February polls could legally be delayed because of the crisis.
Nine people have been killed and hundreds injured during nearly three months of protests that have sparked international concern and investor fears over the country's economy.
Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch, said it was unclear how the protesters would enact their plan to "persuade" people not to vote without blocking them from doing so.
"What if they refuse to comply? This is a slippery slope and could easily turn into intimidation of voters," Sunai said.
Thailand's political system has been left deeply fractured by years of political turmoil that began shortly before Thaksin was deposed in a military coup in 2006.
The crisis roughly pits Thaksin's supporters from rural and urbanised communities in the north and northeast against his foes within the country's elite, the Bangkok middle classes and parts of the south.
The billionaire tycoon-turned-politician - who lives abroad to avoid a jail term for corruption that he says was politically motivated - has won every election since 2001 either directly or more recently through allied parties.
But his opponents accuse him of corruption, "vote buying" and pushing through expensive populist policies to strengthen his electoral position.
The main opposition Democrat Party, which has not won an elected majority in some two decades, is boycotting the latest polls. -AFP
Posted: 25 Jan 2014 07:58 PM PST
IBABAO, Philippines: In a remote Philippine village, toddlers played oblivious at a nursery as the house next door became part of a horrifying child pornography ring, with live footage of children performing sex acts being streamed online to paedophiles around the world.
The depraved scenes in the bungalow were being repeated in many homes throughout Ibabao, a secluded community on Cebu island where Internet child pornography had for some of its 5,000 residents become more lucrative than fishing or factory work.
"In the beginning I was shocked, I could not believe this was happening in my town," mayor Adelino Sitoy told AFP last week, shortly after police announced they had cracked a global live-streaming paedophile ring in which Ibabao was a key source of the child pornography.
But while the village is currently in the spotlight, authorities and child rights advocates say the fast-growing global industry is infecting many parts of the mostly poor Philippines, with thousands of children having been abused.
At first look the coastal community of Ibabao, 885 kilometres (550 miles) south of Manila, is a typical close-knit rural Philippine village, where many of the long-time residents are relatives or enjoy close and longstanding ties.
In scenes echoed across the devoutly Catholic Philippines, its residents regularly attend masses held in quaint chapels along narrow footpaths and dirt roads.
Parents sell children for online sex
But police and authorities said that behind the closed doors of the tiny wooden and brick homes, many parents directed their children for sex videos in front of webcams connected via the Internet to paying paedophiles overseas.
Other children were lured into the homes of neighbours and forced to perform sex acts in front of webcams, they said.
Sitoy said the trade thrived because children were locked secretly inside homes, as well as Ibabao's remote location and the fact some elected village leaders with relatives involved ignored the crimes.
But some of the videos eventually found their way into the computer files of a known British paedophile two years ago, triggering a global manhunt to track down the perpetrators.
The British man was convicted in March last year and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Shortly afterwards police in the Philippines began carrying out raids in Ibabao and nearby areas with the help of British, Australian and US authorities.
One of the raids saw dozens of Filipino police and social workers break into the bungalow next to the day care centre in September last year, arresting a couple and rescuing their three children, aged three, nine and 11.
Two days later, 13 other children who were being abused in other Ibabao homes were rescued, according to Philippine police.
Residents are generally wary of outsiders but some allowed AFP to interview them on condition of anonymity.
They said "cybersex dens" remained in operation, but security fears and the Filipino tradition of not interfering with a neighbour's affairs helped to ensure that people did not pry further or try to stop it.
Housewife Jennifer Canete, 38, was willing to talk openly about the crimes, confirming many people in the community were involved and that she feared her four young children could become victims.
Canete said one of her children attended the nursery located next to the house where the three children were being abused.
"We were angry that this could happen just near the day care," she said.
"I was also afraid, we didn't know what could happen to our children if they went to school because there were many here who were doing that."
Shadowy outsider introduces child cyberporn
Authorities say they do not know exactly when the trade arrived in Ibabao.
But, according to local social workers, a Filipina woman from outside the community believed to belong to an organised crime group relocated to the village several years ago and introduced locals to the get-rich-quick scheme.
That woman taught residents how to scout for clients in pornographic chat rooms and receive payments through international money transfers, according to the social workers, who did not want to be named for security reasons.
Some operators lured friends of their children into their homes and abused them, threatening to harm their parents if they told anyone, the social workers said.
One parent told AFP a neighbour who had tried to recruit her said clients paid as much as 100 dollars a session, a fortune in a region where the minimum daily wage is the equivalent of about seven dollars.
She said the neighbour justified the trade by saying that no actual physical contact took place.
"I was angry. We were always taught to protect and love our children," the woman said.
"We are not rich, but we are also not poor and desperate. It was an evil thing to do."
Nevertheless, she said that staying silent and steering clear of those involved in the trade was the best thing to do, to avoid any trouble.
In announcing the dismantling of the paedophile network, Britain's National Crime Agency said in mid-January that 11 people had been arrested in the Philippines and 18 elsewhere around the world.
Another 733 suspects were being investigated, the agency added.
Andrey Sawchenko, Philippine head of the Washington-based International Justice Mission (IJM) who helped in the arrests, said 39 children had been rescued in Ibabao and elsewhere in the Philippines.
But this is widely believed to be just the tip of the iceberg, with the British crime agency describing online child sex abuse as a "significant and emerging threat".
"Extreme poverty, the increasing availability of high speed Internet and the existence of a vast and comparatively wealthy overseas customer base has led to organised crime groups exploiting children for financial gain," it said.
Dutch advocate group Terre des Hommes estimates that "tens of thousands" of children are being abused through the cybersex industry just in the Philippines.
Last year, the group created a virtual 10-year-old Filipina girl that was deployed in Internet chat rooms to lure paedophiles.
Over 10 weeks, 20,000 people from 71 countries approached the fake girl asking for sexual performances, according to Terre des Hommes, which passed the details of the paedophiles onto police. -AFP
Posted: 25 Jan 2014 08:27 PM PST
TOKYO: The newly appointed head of Japan's public broadcaster NHK has stirred controversy by saying the system of forcibly drafting women into military brothels during World War II was "common in any country at war".
Katsuto Momii's comment on Saturday came after popular Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto prompted global outrage last year by suggesting that the so-called "comfort women" served a "necessary" role by keeping battle-stressed soldiers in check.
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 WWII, according to many mainstream historians.
The military brothel system was "common in any country at war", Momii told his first news conference as NHK chairman on Saturday.
"Can we say there were none in Germany or France? It was everywhere in Europe," he said, according to reports.
Noting that this was his personal view, Momii said the comfort women issue has been "complicated because South Korea says Japan was the only country that forcibly recruited (women)".
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 government spokesman Yohei Kono apologised to former comfort women and acknowledged Japan's role in causing their suffering.
But in remarks in 2007 that triggered a region-wide uproar, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who also served as premier then, said there was no evidence that Japan directly forced women to work as sex slaves.
Momii, 70, who previously served as a vice chairman of trading house Mitsui, is rumoured to have been Abe's preferred choice as NHK chairman, Kyodo news agency said. -AFP
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