Sold for ransom: On the trail of Thailand’s human traffickers

May 22, 2015

From the BBC

As the trade in human beings becomes more and more profitable, the BBC’s Jonathan Head discovers that entire communities in Thailand are helping the traffickers.

Earlier this month, I accompanied a group of Thai volunteers through the steamy mangrove forest of an island on the Andaman coast. They were following up hazy reports of unmarked graves on the island; it was known to have been used by traffickers to hold large groups of migrants while they waited for transport south towards the Malaysian border.

They dug down deep into the waterlogged soil, before the first fragments of bone appeared. Then they pulled at a soggy wet cloth. It was a dress. Inside were the yellowing bones of a woman. Who she was, or how she died, we still do not know. But it is almost certain she was one of the migrants.

She must have endured a gruelling sea journey to reach this desolate spot. Had she lived, the ordeal ahead of her, on her route to a better life in Malaysia, might have been even worse.

The human trade

Rohingya migrants

The migrants found in Takua Pa last October were in deep distress

Last October, I was in almost exactly the same area. We had dashed down from Bangkok on news that a group of migrants had been rescued by officials in the district of Takua Pa. In the community hall we found 81 men in acute distress, weeping and praying.

Rohingya Muslims have been fleeing here from mistreatment in Myanmar for several years – but this time the men were not Rohingyas. They were Bangladeshis. And some of them told us they had been forced on to the boats that transported them here.

District chief Manit Pianthong took us back to where he had found them, in the jungle not far from the site of the woman’s grave. They had been starved and beaten over a period of several days.

Manit told us his district had long been used by human traffickers to transfer migrants from boats to trucks. He wanted to stamp it out. But he was getting little help from the central government, or from local law enforcement.

Volunteers help exhume migrant graves, recovering bones from the forest ground

Volunteers help exhume migrant graves, recovering bones from the forest ground

Over several days, I watched him dealing with angry phone calls from government officials and police, criticising him for talking to the media, and demanding that he send the Bangladeshis to immigration detention centres. It was an open secret that many of the migrants sent there were simply sold back to the traffickers.

Manit used volunteers from his own staff to go out searching for the holding camps. He put a 24-hour checkpoint on the main road route south to stop the truckloads of migrants. He put the word out among fishing communities to alert him if they spotted any boats coming in.

The arrival of growing numbers of Bangladeshis, together with the Rohingyas, showed that the trade in humans was expanding. And no wonder. It was immensely profitable.

Asia’s migrant crisis
  • Rohingya Muslims mainly live in Myanmar, where they have faced decades of persecution.
  • Rights groups say migrants feel they have “no choice” but to leave, paying people smugglers to help them.
  • The UN estimates more than 120,000 Rohingyas have fled in the past three years.
  • Traffickers usually take the migrants by sea to Thailand then overland to Malaysia.
  • But Thailand recently began cracking down on the migrant routes, meaning traffickers are using sea routes instead.

Why are so many Rohingya stranded at sea?

The perilous journey of a migrant boat that made it

The Indonesian villagers saving migrants

The business model

The humidity under the rubber trees was suffocating. A young man in a bright orange shirt moved quickly ahead of me, as I puffed uphill. There was no discernible path. Then he stopped and began talking quickly.

Six months earlier he had been living here, he said, with 600 others. He lay down among the fallen leaves and insects to show where they slept, without shelter. They took us to a tent over here, he gestured, and made us phone our parents to demand money. If they could not pay, we were beaten. And over there, he pointed, that is where we saw women being raped. People died, and they sent in trucks to take away the bodies.

This was the business model. The Thai trafficking networks bought the migrants by the boatload. The price for a cargo of 300 people, we were told by several sources including Thai police, was $20,000 (£13,000; €18,000) or more. Then the migrants were held in the jungle until their families paid a ransom, usually $2,000 – $3,000 per person, a huge sum for people usually doing low-end jobs in Malaysia.

Thai migrant

A migrant shows where he slept among the fallen leaves and insects

So how were the traffickers able to conduct this business in the midst of Thai villagers? The camp I saw was just 30 minutes drive from the city of Hat Yai. They involved the local community.

Boy, a young Thai Muslim man from a village near the camp, explained how his community was sucked into the trafficking business. A few years back, he said, he had been out hunting birds when he came across migrants, including children, being beaten in the camp. After that he discreetly started offering shelter to migrants who escaped.

“The whole community is involved”, he said. “It’s because of the money. The traffickers hire everyone. They hire people to keep watch on the camps, to carry food for the Rohingyas. They go round all the houses here, hiring people.” With the price of rubber, their main crop, plunging, it was a tempting alternative.

He told me the young men were also offered drugs as an inducement. So if the migrants escaped – there were no fences – they were likely to be caught, and risk violent punishment by the camp guards.

Thai traffickers map

Official involvement

None of this would have been possible, though, without official connivance. Just how high the involvement went is still unclear. But it must have been very high.

Towards the end of last year, I was given a briefing by a senior police officer who knows a lot about the human trade. He told me of at least one huge camp, right on the border with Malaysia, where 1,000 people could be held.

Why did he not shut it down, I asked. He laughed. “You know the border is a military zone”, he said. “As a police officer I can do nothing there without military approval.”

He had never got that approval. Why did he not go to General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led last year’s coup, and who had pledged to end trafficking? If I try that, he said, the traffickers will be told even before I see him, and they will quickly move the camp. All he could do, he said, was to observe.

Six months later, the first mass grave, containing 26 bodies, was found in the same camp that he had been impotently watching.

Thai volunteers exhume unmarked migrant graves in the forest

Thai volunteers exhume unmarked migrant graves in the forest

It became difficult to work out who was involved, and who was not.

One local police chief told us of his efforts to stop the trade. He offered us the use of his boat to go and look for more. A day later a military unit who had taken us out on patrol with them told us the same police chief was deeply implicated in trafficking.

But then their own commitment suddenly looked uncertain when they refused to land us, as promised, in villages we were passing where migrants were believed to have been hidden.

One officer showed us several sheets of paper detailing his investigations into prominent business figures in Ranong, a province well-known for its trafficking links.

He had names, phone numbers, times of calls, evidence of a well-connected network. This information, he said, had been passed on to the central government. The clear implication was that the government was doing nothing. That officer has now been transferred.

“Look, everybody knew those camps were there,” says Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch. “It wasn’t just the villagers in the vicinity who were working with the camps and serving as lookouts.”

“These are areas at the Thai-Malaysia border which are militarised. So you had police and military in those areas. There is no way somebody would be able to operate camps of that size without somebody signing off in exchange for a ‘packet'”.

Will it stop?

I stood before a large crowd of Rohingyas, in another local government hall, two days after they had been intercepted. Their guards had been locked up in the police cell next door, and the police chief was questioning them and going through their mobile phones in an effort to find out who their bosses were.

Migrant camp guards locked up in a police cell

Migrant camp guards locked up in a police cell

I had a question for the Rohingyas. How many of them were worried about whether their families could pay the ransoms the brokers would demand? Almost every one of them raised his hand.

“We don’t want to come here”, said Mohammad, a teacher from Rathedaung, in Rakhine State. “We don’t want to leave our motherland. But we don’t have anywhere to escape with our lives. The Myanmar government is so bad. They beat us, they shoot us”.

But Mohammad had little idea what awaited him in the camps, if he escaped, and ended up back in the hands of the traffickers.

Later, many of his group did just that, a military source told us, after they had been transferred to the immigration detention centre in Ranong. Possibly they were sold back to the traffickers, as many had been before them. They were all desperate to reach Malaysia, where there were jobs, families, and hope of a better life.

"We don't want to leave our motherland", said Mohammad (right) - a Rohingya migrant

“We don’t want to leave our motherland,” said Mohammad (right) – a Rohingya migrant

Until their treatment by the Burmese government improves, Rohingyas will continue to flee.

But the Bangladeshis have a choice. Only some of them were forced onto the boats. Most were persuaded to board them, by rosy talk of well-paid jobs. Once they understood the brutal reality of the trade, many of them wanted to go home.

The Thai ransom business had become so lucrative that the traffickers have extended their operations into Bangladesh, where there is already a well-established network of labour brokers. If the networks are broken, the numbers boarding rickety boats will probably fall sharply.

Thai soldiers patrol Ranong

Thai soldiers patrol Ranong
The crackdown

For months we talked to military and police officers who seemed genuine in their wish to stop trafficking. They said they were making progress, but they never seemed to have enough evidence to arrest, or even question, powerful figures in the provinces Ranong, Satun and Songkhla who were believed to be running the business. What seemed to be missing was political will.

It was the discovery of the first mass grave that shocked the government into action.

The many appalling tales of brutalities we had heard, from people held in the camps, were vindicated by the bones exhumed from the damp, tropical soil.

At the time of writing, more than 80 arrest warrants have been issued, and more than 30 people arrested. They include one very prominent businessman from Satun, a few government officials, but so far no military officers. More than 50 police officers have been transferred.

Will this anti-trafficking drive be sustained?

“We believe there are some much more senior people that were involved in making money off these rackets than have come to light so far,” says Phil Robertson. “There is a lot more to be done, a lot more to be uncovered.”

Includes videos:



Thai Military Junta Celebrates One Year Without Democracy, Human Rights; Courting New Friends China and Russia

May 22, 2015


Although it has been a year since Thailand’s most recent coup that saw General Prayut Chan-ocha snatch power from former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the recent cabinet approval of a referendum on a new charter is likely to further delay the much-awaited return of democracy.


BANGKOK: Friday (May 22) marks one year since Thailand’s most recent coup that saw the military seize power from the country’s ruling Pheu Thai Party.

The shift in power put an end to months of political protests and immediately restored a sense of stability in the South East Asian nation.

During the early days under military rule, however, the new government came under heavy criticism for its neglect of human rights, as it would detain anyone who did not fall in line with the country’s new leadership.

In response, western powers called for a swift return to democracy. Their request was met with the military junta laying out a road map to a general election in early 2016.

But in reality, polls are likely to happen later than that. Earlier this week, the cabinet under Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha approved a national referendum on the country’s draft charter, which would take around three to four months to complete. This means Thais would not be able to cast their ballots until August or September next year.

“If we have to do a referendum in January, after that we will need three to four months to amend various laws, then no more than 90 days after that we will hold an election,” said Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam. “At the earliest it will take place around August or in September.”

During the current military rule, Thailand has also cut down its dependence on the West by courting Russia and China. It signed infrastructure deals worth billions of dollars with China, and in April made several agreements with Russia during Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Bangkok – the first by a Russian prime minister in 25 years.

With the government efforts, Thailand’s economy has also picked up since the coup.

“If you ask me if the economy has improved following the coup, I would say it certainly has. This is because we don’t have any issues to worry about any more,” said Pornsil Patchrintanakul, Advisor at the Thai Chamber of Commerce.

The Thai Chamber of Commerce also believes the 2014 coup has not damaged the country’s tourism industry, which is the main contributor to its GDP.

“No industry has been affected by the coup. Some may say that the tourism industry was affected. But after a few months tourism recovered and now tourist numbers are increasing,” said the advisor.

Despite the positive signs in the economy, many people in Thailand are still concerned over their country’s situation.

“I predict that the government will continue to improve its methods and performance. But the real situation has not improved, if they want to make arrests they still can,” said iLaw lawyer Yincheep Atchanont.

Since it came into power, the military government has never denied that certain freedoms have been curbed. However, it maintains such measures are needed for the overall benefit of the country.

“I think in Thailand, the human rights issue is very light. We are still able to communicate we are still able to express our opinions, even though its not 100 per cent. But this comes at a cost, the media and human rights groups must pay for this in exchange for the stability of the country,” explained Weerachon Sukondhapatipak, Spokesman of the ruling junta – officially known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).

According to the government, it is working to enact national reforms that will unite the country and eliminate deep-rooted corruption in its political system. Still, the biggest test is yet to come, as the new military- backed constitution comes up for a public referendum, where tens of millions of Thais will have their chance to speak and show the military whatthey think of the government led by Prime Minister Prayut.

Thai junta detains opposition activists on coup anniversary

May 22, 2015

BANGKOK (REUTERS) – Thai authorities detained 20 student activists protesting against military rule on Friday, a year after the army seized power from an elected government.

The military has quashed public demonstrations and any sign of resistance to the May 22, 2014, coup which it says it was forced to undertake to end violence between rival factions.

The military government has promised a general election next year though critics worry about constraints on politics under a new constitution that they say is undemocratic.

Activists staged small shows of defiance to mark the anniversary of the takeover. Soldiers detained seven students, some who held anti-coup signs, after they gathered in the north-eastern city of Khon Khaen.

“We invited them to talk but they would not back down so we are sending them to the police,” said a soldier in the area who declined to be identified.

In Bangkok, police detained 13 members of the Young People for Social-Democracy student group who were protesting against the coup. The activists were later released, the group said on its Facebook page.

Thailand has been mired for a decade in rivalry between the Bangkok-based establishment and ousted premier Thasksin Shinawatra, a former telecommunications tycoon who broke the mould of politics with pro-poor policies that won him the support of the poor but the hostility of the elite.

The government ousted last year was led by Thaksin’s sister, the country’s first woman prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

A year later, the captains of industry remain firmly behind the junta, despite a lacklustre economy and a delayed return to democracy.

Human Rights Watch on Friday said the junta had systematically repressed human rights by banning political activity, censoring the media and trying dissidents in military tribunals.

(Reporting by Kaweewit Kaewjinda and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Robert Birsel)



Famous Authors Tell Bangladesh to stop attacks on bloggers after several bloggers hacked to death, violence against journalists

May 22, 2015


Members of Blogger and Online Activist Network protest against the killing of US blogger of Bangladeshi origin, Avijit Roy, who was hacked to death by unidentified assailants, in Dhaka on February 27, 2015. (AFP Photo)

DHAKA (AFP) – Leading authors, including Salman Rushdie and fellow Booker prize winners Margaret Atwood and Yann Martell, called on Bangladesh’s government on Friday to put an end to a spate of deadly attacks on atheist bloggers.

Three bloggers have been hacked to death by suspected Islamist militants since February, with the latest victim, Ananta Bijoy Das, attacked with machetes during morning rush hour in the city of Sylhet earlier this month.

In a petition published in the London-based daily The Guardian, 150 authors called on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her government “to do all in their power to ensure that the tragic events of the last three months are not repeated, and to bring the perpetrators to justice”.

“We are gravely concerned by this escalating pattern of violence against writers and journalists who are peacefully expressing their views,” said the petition.

“Freedom of expression is a fundamental right under Bangladesh’s constitution and under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Bangladesh is an officially secular country but more than 90% of its 160 million population are Muslims.

The country has seen a rise in attacks by religious extremists in recent years, with the attacks on the bloggers drawing widespread criticism
voicing concerns that a culture of impunity has been allowed to flourish.

Rushdie spent a decade in hiding after Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1989 calling for his death over his book ‘The Satanic Verses’, which was seen as mocking Prophet Mohammed.

Other signatories included the leading Indian authors Amitav Ghosh and Rohinton Mistry along with the Irish writer Colm Toibin and Norway’s Karl Ove Knausgaard.

A Indian student looks from behind a poster with pictures of recently killed Bangladeshi bloggers during a protest meeting organised to pay homage in Kolkata on May 16, 2015. Leading authors, including Salman Rushdie and fellow Booker prize winners Margaret Atwood and Yann Martell, called on Bangladesh’s government on Friday to put an end to a spate of deadly attacks on atheist bloggers. — PHOTO: AFP

– See more at:


Dinh Quang Tuyen, who has participated in several anti-China rallies expressing anger over Beijing’s claims to the disputed Paracel islands, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that he was targeted in an alleyway around 100 meters (330 feet) from his home when he left for his morning bicycle exercise.


Clinton Foundation reveals up to $26 million more in additional undisclosed payments from major corporations, universities, foreign sources and other groups

May 22, 2015


By Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger
The Washington Post

The Clinton Foundation reported Thursday that it has received as much as $26.4 million in previously undisclosed payments from major corporations, universities, foreign sources and other groups.

The disclosure came as the foundation faced questions over whether it fully complied with a 2008 ethics agreement to reveal its donors and whether any of its funding sources present conflicts of interest for Hillary Rodham Clinton as she begins her presidential campaign.

The money was paid as fees for speeches by Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton. Foundation officials said the funds were tallied internally as “revenue” rather than donations, which is why they had not been included in the public listings of its contributors published as part of the 2008 agreement.

According to the new information, the Clintons have delivered 97 speeches to benefit the charity since 2002. Colleges and universities sponsored more than two dozen of these speeches, along with U.S. and overseas corporations and at least one foreign government, Thailand.

Hillary Clinton  in Las Vegas earlier this week

The payments were disclosed late Thursday on the organization’s Web site, with speech payments listed in ranges rather than specific amounts. In total, the payments ranged between $12 million and $26.4 million.

The paid appearances included speeches by former president Bill Clinton to the Ni­ger­ian ThisDay newspaper group for at least $500,000 and to the Beijing Huaduo Enterprise Consulting Company Ltd., an investment holding company that specializes in the natural gas market, for at least $250,000. Citibank paid at least $250,000 for a speech by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The disclosures underscore how much the Clintons have leveraged their star power to draw more money not just for their personal enrichment but also for the benefit of their philanthropic work.

[Clintons have made more than $25 million for speaking since January 2014]

The foundation, which has raised $2 billion since Bill Clinton left the White House, has emerged as a political headache for Hillary Clinton amid recent controversies over donations. The foundation, along with the Clintons’ paid speaking careers, have provided additional avenues for foreign governments and other interests to gain entrée to one of America’s most prominent political families. Some Republicans have charged that Hillary Clinton, during her tenure as secretary of state, was in a position to reward foundation donors.
Thursday’s disclosure is one of a number of instances in recent weeks in which the foundation has acknowledged that it received funding from sources not disclosed on its Web site.

The ethics agreement was reached between the foundation and the Obama administration to provide additional transparency and avoid potential conflicts of interest with Hillary Clinton’s appointment as secretary of state.

Hillary Clinton with the Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, at the Apec summit, November 12 and 13, 2011. Since this photo was taken, experts believe China has been in the process of creating up to eight military bases in the South China Sea on tiny islets China may not “own” due to territorial disputes and claims from other nations

The agreement placed restrictions on foreign government donations, for instance, but the foundation revealed in February that it had violated the limits at one point by taking $500,000 from Algeria.

Thursday’s release regarding speaking fees follows earlier disclosures showing how the lecture circuit has also made the Clintons personally wealthy.

Last week, Hillary Clinton disclosed that she and her husband made around $25 million since January 2014 from speeches; Bill Clinton also was paid more than $104 million from 2001 through 2012 by delivering speeches.

The Clintons reported that income on federally required personal financial disclosure forms filed by Hillary Clinton as a senator, secretary of state and now a declared presidential candidate.

But the new disclosure indicates that the former president has also spent considerable time speaking on the foundation’s behalf — 73 times since 2002.

Hillary Clinton has delivered 15 such speeches, including one address to Goldman Sachs and another to JPMorgan Chase. Chelsea Clinton, who has taken on an increasingly active role at the foundation, has collected fees for the charity from nine organizations.

The foundation did not provide dates for the speaking engagements.


Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a news conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York, March 10, 2015.  REUTERS/Mike Segar

Vincent Salamone, a spokesman for the Office of Government Ethics, said this week that speeches delivered by public officials or their spouses acting as an “agent” of a charitable group in which the payment is made directly to the organization need not be disclosed in financial filings of public officials.

Brian Fallon, a spokesman for the Clinton campaign, said that analysis explains why the Clintons did not disclose the speeches while Hillary Clinton was a senator and then secretary of state.
While the Clinton Foundation has annually disclosed its donors since 2008, the foundation said Thursday that organizations that paid for Clinton speeches have not before been included in those lists because they were paying for a service and not making a tax-deductible donation.

Craig Minassian, a spokesman for the foundation, said the new release came as part of the foundation’s continuing commitment to transparency. Nonprofit groups are not required by law to release any information about their funders.

“In addition to the more than 300,000 donors who are all listed on our web site, posting these speeches is just another example of how our disclosure policies go above and beyond what’s required of charities,” he said in a statement.

“Like other global charities, the Clinton Foundation receives support from individuals and organizations across all sectors of society, backgrounds and ideologies because they know our programs are improving the lives of millions of people around the world,” he also said.

A foundation official indicated the speech dollars have been disclosed as revenue in annual tax filings to the IRS. The official indicated that the foundation will now update the public speech list four times a year, much as it has said it will do with other donors now that Clinton’s campaign has launched.

The Clintons have indicated that they donate significant personal funds to the foundation each year. The foundation official said that the couple have not considered speech revenue to be part of their personal charitable giving, and Fallon said they have never taken a deduction on their taxes for the fees.

There was one entity clearly associated with a foreign government that provided speaking fees, of $250,000 to $500,000 for a speech by Bill Clinton: The energy ministry in Thailand.

The U.S. Islamic World Forum also provided $250,000 to $500,000 to the foundation for a speech by Bill Clinton, according to the new disclosure. The event was organized in part by the Brookings Institution with support from the government of Qatar.
In addition, the list is studded with overseas corporations and foundations.

Hillary Clinton tries to explain her use of private email while she was Secretary of State. Reuters photo

They included the South Korean energy and chemicals conglomerate Hanwha, which paid $500,000 to $1,000,000 for a speech by Bill Clinton.

China Real Estate Development Corp. paid the foundation between $250,000 and $500,000 for a speech by the former president. The Qatar First Investment Bank, now known as the Qatar First Bank, paid fees in a similar range. The bank is described by Persian Gulf financial press as specializing in high-net-worth clients.

The Telmex Foundation, founded by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, provided between $250,000 and $500,000 for a speech by Hillary Clinton.

The new data shows that a number of public education institutions paid the foundation for speeches by Bill, Hillary or Chelsea Clinton.

Those speeches drew backlash on some campuses, as universities paid hundreds of thousands to the Clinton charity at a time of rising tuitions and slashed university budgets.

After the academic sponsors, financial services and health-industry-related firms heavily populated the list of domestic sponsors.


Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
Tom Hamburger covers the intersection of money and politics for The Washington Post.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a news conference at the United Nations in New York March 10, 2015. (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)


China Expanding Amphibious Warfare Capability

May 22, 2015


China’s Zubr-class LCAC

China’s ambitions to dominate the East and South China Seas will receive a powerful boost with the commissioning of four new Zubr-class air-cushioned landing craft (LCAC), reports the Beijing-based Sina Military Network.

The Zubr, meaning “European bison”, is the world’s largest military hovercraft. Originally designed in the 1980s by the St Petersburg-based Almaz Shipbuilding, construction of the first Zubr began in 1982 and was completed in three years. Issues identified during initial trials were corrected before a second series of tests in 1986, with the vessels officially commissioned by the Soviet Union in 1988.

Apart from the Russian and Ukranian navies, the Zubr is operated today by the Hellenic Navy and the People’s Liberation Army Navy. China placed an order for four of the vessels from Ukraine in 2009 for US$350 million. The first two were built under Chinese supervision on the Crimea Peninsula, while the second pair are being built under license in China.

Regarded as a “hovering fortress,” the Zubr has a full length of 57 meters and a width of 22 meters, dwarfing the US Navy LCAC, which is 26.8m long and 14.3m wide. It is fitted with five Kuznetsov NK-12MV gas turbines and three four-bladed variable-pitch propellers, enabling a maximum speed of 60 knots and a cruising speed of 30-40 knots.

Fully loaded, the Zubr displaces more than 550 tons, which is more than three times that of the US Navy LCAC. The craft remains seaworthy in conditions up to Sea State 4, and at full displacement it is capable of negotiating 1.6 m-high vertical walls.

The vessel has a maximum carrying capacity of over 130 tons and is typically equipped with three 40-ton-level main battle tanks (MBT) or eight BMP-2 amphibious infantry fighting vehicles. By comparison, the US Navy LCAC can only carry one MBT.

Chinese Type 96G Main Battle Tank

If just used for transporting personnel, the Zubr is capable of moving a battalion-sized force to islands as far as 5,000 kilometers away.

The Zubr also features impressive defensive capabilities, with a light alloy armor that protects against small arms and shrapnel and an active system that protects against magnetic influence mines. Personnel are also protected from the effects of weapons of mass destruction due to the vessel’s ability to provide airtight sealing to combat stations and crew compartments, which are equipped with individual gas masks and protective suits.

In terms of weapons, the hovercraft has a pair of 30mm AK-630 close in weapon systems and a pair of 140mm Ogon rocket launchers, with 22 rockets each and 132 rockets in total, It also has a man-portable air defense system that launches Strela-3 point air defense missiles fitted in a 16-round turret launcher and a pair of manually aimed Stela-2 Grail missiles.

The Zubr-class LCAC is said to be valued highly by the PLA Navy because of its usefulness in conducting beach landings and landings in locations without ports or piers, greatly expanding the scope of China’s strategic and tactical operations. The craft is particularly well-suited for amphibious operations, giving China a distinct advantage against Taiwan and countries with which it is engaged in territorial disputes, including Japan in the East China Sea and Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea.

Chinese amphibious ship Changbai Shan near James Shoal, an area also claimed by Malaysia, January 26, 2014 Photo by AP

Knowing what we know now, was abandoning Iraq in 2011 the right thing to do?

May 22, 2015


Displaced Iraqis from Ramadi cross the Bzebiz bridge near Baghdad while fleeing fighting. (Karim Kadim/Associated Press)

By Charles Krauthammer

Ramadi falls. The Iraqi army flees. The great 60-nation anti-Islamic State coalition so grandly proclaimed by the Obama administration is nowhere to be seen. Instead, it’s the defense minister of Iran who flies into Baghdad, an unsubtle demonstration of who’s in charge — while the U.S. air campaign proves futile and America’s alleged strategy for combating the Islamic State is in freefall.

It gets worse. The Gulf states’ top leaders, betrayed and bitter, ostentatiously boycott President Obama’s failed Camp David summit. “We were America’s best friend in the Arab world for 50 years,” laments Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief.

Note: “were,” not “are.”

We are scraping bottom. Following six years of President Obama’s steady and determined withdrawal from the Middle East, America’s standing in the region has collapsed. And yet the question incessantly asked of the various presidential candidates is not about that. It’s a retrospective hypothetical: Would you have invaded Iraq in 2003 if you had known then what we know now?

First, the question is not just a hypothetical but an inherently impossible hypothetical. It contradicts itself. Had we known there were no weapons of mass destruction, the very question would not have arisen. The premise of the war — the basis for going to the U.N., to the Congress and, indeed, to the nation — was Iraq’s possession of WMD in violation of the central condition for the cease-fire that ended the 1991 Gulf War. No WMD, no hypothetical to answer in the first place.

Above: A screengrab of President Obama’s video message to Iran

Second, the “if you knew then” question implicitly locates the origin and cause of the current disasters in 2003 . As if the fall of Ramadi was predetermined then, as if the author of the current regional collapse is George W. Bush.

This is nonsense. The fact is that by the end of Bush’s tenure the war had been won. You can argue that the price of that victory was too high. Fine. We can debate that until the end of time. But what is not debatable is that it was a victory. Bush bequeathed to Obama a success. By whose measure? By Obama’s. As he told the troops at Fort Bragg on Dec. 14, 2011, “We are leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.” This was, said the president, a “moment of success.”

Which Obama proceeded to fully squander. With the 2012 election approaching, he chose to liquidate our military presence in Iraq. We didn’t just withdraw our forces. We abandoned, destroyed or turned over our equipment, stores, installations and bases. We surrendered our most valuable strategic assets, such as control of Iraqi airspace, soon to become the indispensable conduit for Iran to supply and sustain the Assad regime in Syria and cement its influence all the way to the Mediterranean. And, most relevant to the fall of Ramadi, we abandoned the vast intelligence network we had so painstakingly constructed in Anbar province, without which our current patchwork operations there are largely blind and correspondingly feeble.

The current collapse was not predetermined in 2003 but in 2011. Isn’t that what should be asked of Hillary Clinton? We know you think the invasion of 2003 was a mistake. But what about the abandonment of 2011? Was that not a mistake?

Mme. Secretary: When you arrived at State, al-Qaeda in Iraq had been crushed and expelled from Anbar. The Iraqi government had from Basra to Sadr City fought and defeated the radical, Iranian-proxy Shiite militias. Yet today these militias are back, once again dominating Baghdad. On your watch, we gave up our position as the dominant influence over a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq” — forfeiting that position gratuitously to Iran. Was that not a mistake? And where were you when it was made?

Iraq is now a battlefield between the Sunni jihadists of the Islamic State and the Shiite jihadists of Iran’s Islamic Republic. There is no viable center. We abandoned it. The Obama administration’s unilateral pullout created a vacuum for the entry of the worst of the worst.

And the damage was self-inflicted. The current situation in Iraq, says David Petraeus, “is tragic foremost because it didn’t have to turn out this way. The hard-earned progress of the surge was sustained for over three years.”

Do the math. That’s 2009 through 2011, the first three Obama years. And then came the unraveling. When? The last U.S. troops left Iraq on Dec. 18, 2011.

Want to do retrospective hypotheticals? Start there.

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Finland tells 900,000 reservists their roles ‘in the event of war’

May 22, 2015

Amid rising tension with Russia, Finland takes the rare step of sending letters to every military reservist

Finnish Border Guard boats patrol the waters near Helsinki, April 28, 2015

Finnish Border Guard boats patrol the waters near Helsinki in April after the Finnish navy resorted to depth-charging a suspected submarine that was detected near the capital Photo: Reuters


Finland has sent letters to nearly a million military reservists, setting out their roles “in the event of war” amid rising tension with neighbouring Russia.

The letters have been dispatched to 900,000 former conscripts in the armed forces, including to Finns living abroad.

The first were sent earlier this month, with the final batch distributed in the last few days.

Finland is not a member of Nato and the country shares an 830-mile border with Russia – the longest of any European nation apart from Ukraine.

In the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine, Finland is uniquely vulnerable to any further aggression.

The letter tells the reservists which regiment or unit to report to in the event of hostilities. “Attached you will find your personal details as well as your role in the event of war,” it reads.

One Finnish reservist, who received the letter, said: “The timing was not random. It is clearly due to a more aggressive stance by the Russians. I’ve been in the reserves for 15 years and this is the first time I’ve received something like this. They send out letters like this very rarely.”

Finland’s army has 16,000 soldiers, but it could expand to 285,000 if reserves were to be called up.

The government has denied that the letters are connected to the crisis in Ukraine or tension with Russia, saying that plans for the mass delivery began two years ago.

“The reservist letter is associated with our intention to develop communications with our reservists, and not the prevailing security situation,” said Mika Kalliomaa, a spokesman for the Finnish Defence Forces.

The aim was to check that the armed forces had the right contact details for all reservists, he added.

But experts said that even if the initiative pre-dated Russia’s seizure of Crimea, the letter was clearly prompted by worries about the Kremlin’s intentions.

“If Russia had headed down the path towards being a liberal democracy, there would not have been the pressure to do this,” said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

“In the current reality, it makes sense. The Finnish Defence Forces want to make sure that if they need to blow the whistle, they can rely on 230,000 reserves.”

Mr Salonius-Pasternak added: “That is linked to the increasing instability in the region. Russia has shown that it can transport large numbers of troops across vast distances very quickly. I have never had so many people coming up to me asking if they should be worried about the security situation.”

The Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939 and seized more than 10 per cent of the country’s territory. During the Cold War, Finland was officially neutral, but remained under the influence of its neighbour.

In recent months, Russian warplanes have frequently probed Finnish air defences. In April, the Finnish navy resorted to depth-charging a suspected submarine that was detected near the capital, Helsinki.

Neighbouring countries are also on a heightened state of alert. Last October, Sweden carried out its biggest military mobilisation since the Cold War to hunt for a mysterious submarine sighted near Stockholm.

Although not a member of Nato, Finland has strengthened its ties with the Atlantic Alliance. Last month, the country promised more military cooperation with the armed forces of other Nordic countries.

On Thursday, David Cameron joined EU leaders for a summit with six former Soviet states in Riga, the Latvian capital.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, said the EU’s Eastern Partnership was not “directed against anyone”. But the two-day summit will inevitably discuss the military threat posed by Russia, not just to Ukraine but, potentially, to the Baltic states, which are Nato members.


Finnish navy drops depth charges onto suspected submarine in its territorial waters (April 28, 2015)


Hong Kong’s Not Special — And Beijing should stop perpetuating the self-serving notion that it is.

May 22, 2015


Hong Kong’s Not Special

Foreign Policy

The political wrangling in Hong Kong continues over changes to how the city’s chief executive (its head of government) will be selected in 2017, Beijing marks the 25th anniversary of the promulgation of the Hong Kong Basic Law, the constitutional document of the former British colony and now Chinese Special Administrative Region. A recurring theme — both in the electoral reform debate and in the Basic Law celebrations — has been the supposed novelty of the “One Country, Two Systems” governing policy that the Basic Law embodies, under which the “social and economic systems” of Hong Kong remain unchanged until 2047. In an op-ed published on May 4 this year, Zhang Xiaoming, head of the Beijing Government’s Hong Kong Liaison Office, called “a system of universal suffrage with Hong Kong characteristics” a “new contribution to … human political civilization.” The Liaison Office chief was not alone. Speaking in Beijing to mark the Basic Law’s anniversary, mainland legislator Zhang Rongshun stressed that “the Basic Law contained concepts not found elsewhere” and warned that “any new system may succeed but could also fail.” C.Y. Leung, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has also joined the chorus praising the Basic Law’s ostensibly unique status. At a symposium to mark the Basic Law’s 25th anniversary, Leung asserted that “one country, one system is the international standard.” Earlier in the year, during his Policy Address, Leung also referred to “One Country, Two Systems” as “a unique and unprecedented” approach.

The idea that Hong Kong’s governance arrangements are innovative is hardly new. Speaking in February 1984, then-paramount Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping implied that his “One Country, Two Systems” prescription for Hong Kong was a “new approach to stabilising the world situation.” In a speech to Hong Kong’s Basic Law Drafting Committee in April 1987, Deng claimed that the Basic Law was “something new, without precedent in world history.” In reality, however, Hong Kong’s constitutional status is not unique at all. And Beijing’s repeated insistence to the contrary is not only disingenuous, but dangerous.

“One Country, Two Systems,” with its supposed high degree of autonomy, describes a form of devolution or autonomous government, albeit a deeply imperfect one. But devolution, both in theory and in practice, is neither rare nor novel. As early as 1933, Italian constitutional scholar Gaspare Ambrosini questioned the idea that the world consisted only of unitary states or federal states, and argued that a system of devolved autonomy was a distinct constitutional arrangement. A more recent study of autonomy co-edited by constitutional scholar Yash Ghai and sociologist Sophia Woodman, considered no fewer than 13 autonomous areas worldwide, including Scotland, the Åland Islands, Hong Kong, and Macau.

Hong Kong is not even unique in terms of the historical background of its constitutional arrangements. Hong Kong’s autonomy was guaranteed by the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984; according to that document, in return for the peaceful recovery of territory given up after the Opium Wars under “unequal treaties,” China would guarantee a measure of autonomy. But the use of autonomous government as a tool for settling international disputes over sovereignty did not begin with Hong Kong. The Swedish-speaking Åland Islands in Finland are a much earlier example. When the League of Nations decided the territorial dispute over the islands between Finland and Sweden in Finland’s favor in 1921, it did so on the condition that Finland establish appropriate guarantees for Åland’s autonomy. Hong Kong and Macau are not even the only instances of devolution within China. China’s constitution recognizes, at least in theory, that ethnic minorities have legitimate claims to autonomy, although ongoing tensionsin the western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang suggest that Beijing has little interest in making good on these claims. Admittedly, the political and constitutional context in Hong Kong and Macau is much less combustible than that in Tibet and Xinjiang. Nonetheless, one would expect to see certain central government strategies being applied across the board.

Why should anyone outside of legal academia care? The first reason is that recognizing that Hong Kong is not unique gives a better picture of the deficiencies in “One Country, Two Systems.” The office of the chief executive, whose role and selection lay at the heart of the Umbrella Movement protests in late 2014, is a prime example. Part of the reason why Beijing has consistently stalled, then backtracked on chief executive electoral reform is that, under Basic Law Article 43, he is ultimately accountable to Beijing. Yet the chief executive is also supposed to represent the interests of the Hong Kong population. When these demands come into conflict, there are few institutional incentives for a chief executive to take Hong Kong’s side over Beijing’s.

Scholar James Mitchell’s account of administrative devolution in Scotland provides a cautionary tale of the perils of dual mandates in the same office. Prior to the introduction of legislative devolution with the Scotland Act 1998, successive Scottish secretaries were expected to defend Scotland’s interests in the cabinet. Yet the Scottish Office remained accountable to the U.K. Parliament in Westminster, rather than to a distinctively Scottish electorate. For as long as the office existed, Scottish secretaries risked being seen as “the cabinet’s man in Scotland,” and not “Scotland’s man in the cabinet.” Decades of opposition parties playing the “Scottish card” paved the way for the more expansive devolution powers — and democratic accountability to the Scottish electorate — contained in the 1998 Act.

The second reason to reject the myth of Hong Kong constitutional exceptionalism is that it is not merely wrongheaded, but pernicious. Veteran Hong Kong columnist Joseph Lian Yizheng, writing in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, accused officials of seeking to “prevent Hongkongers from drawing on the experience of other places where multiple systems work.” But one need not see the concept of Hong Kong’s “specialness” as the product of malice to recognize its dangers. By denying the relevance of other examples of devolved government, Beijing can entrench a situation in which the Basic Law means, as one blogger put it, “whatever Beijing officials say it means, whenever they choose to say it.” The joint statement in April 2015 by 23 democratic legislators in Hong Kong on Beijing’s trampling of the Basic Law underscores the urgency of putting the city’s constitutional predicament in proper perspective. Failing to do so would not only have disastrous consequences for Hong Kong’s autonomy. It would also make a mockery of China’s binding commitments under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and it would augur ill for Taiwan’s prospects in the event of reunification.

More fundamentally, the myth of Hong Kong exceptionalism is yet another variant of Chinese exceptionalism. The implication that Hong Kong and Beijing have nothing to learn from other instances of autonomy dovetails with the ongoing Chinese backlash against “Western” values, most recently embodied in Document 9, a hardline internal document circulated in 2013 by high authorities in the Chinese Communist Party. The same thinking underpins many of Beijing’s arguments against the applicability of international norms. For instance, Zhang’s op-ed, in addition to calling for “institutional confidence” in Hong Kong, disparaged international standards for universal suffrage — enshrined in Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — as a “pseudo-proposition to mislead the public.” Viewed in that light, “universal suffrage with Hong Kong characteristics” merely represents the latest attempt at debasing fundamental concepts by appending the phrase “with Chinese characteristics.”

Japan Vows To Keep Pace With China — Shinzo Abe sets aside $110 billion for infrastructure in Asia

May 22, 2015


The Associated Press

TOKYO —Vying to keep pace with China’s rising influence and economic clout, Japan plans to provide $110 billion to help develop roads, ports and other infrastructure in Asia in the next five years, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday.

Abe announced the commitment, which exceeds the $100 billion China has set for its newly created Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, at a conference in Tokyo.

It represents about a 30% increase over current funding levels.

“Asia has a voracious infrastructure demand, reaching as much as 100 trillion yen annually,” Abe said, adding that “we should seek ‘quality as well as quantity.’ Pursuing both is perfectly suited to Asia.”

In addition to the $110 billion in financing in collaboration with the Asian Development Bank, Japan will provide 4 trillion yen in support for public-private lending over the next five years, Abe said.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a banquet of a symposium on the “Future of Asia” in Tokyo, Thursday. AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi

Japan sided with the U.S. in not joining the 57 countries that have signed on to the Beijing-initiated AIIB. It says it wants to see if the new institution will meet the rigorous standards for operation and disclosure required of other lenders, such as the Asian Development Bank and World Bank.

Officials earlier announced plans to step up support for regional infrastructure investment, but had not specified how much Japan would spend.

Japan is eager to counter rising Chinese influence in the region. Analysts say their rival efforts will likely complement rather than compete with each other given the region’s huge need for vital infrastructure.

About half of the funds to be spent will be channeled through Japan’s aid agencies and the remainder will be extended in collaboration with the ADB.

Despite friction between the two countries over various issues, Abe has said he sees eye-to-eye with China on the need for infrastructure funding. Both Japan and China are rapidly expanding manufacturing capacity and trade in the region, especially in Southeast Asia, and can benefit themselves from improved ports, railways, roads, energy systems and other key facilities.

The scale of financing is still nowhere close to the $8 trillion the ADB says is needed by 2020 to help build up essential infrastructure.

“This is good news but it’s a drop in the bucket,” said Alison Evans, a senior analyst with IHS Economics & Country Risk in London.

The greatest benefit, she said, would go to smaller countries with the biggest needs, such as Myanmar and Laos.

“Definitely, as far as the recipient countries are concerned, the more funding the better,” she said. “There’s more than enough opportunities to go around.”

Although China and Japan are rivals as the world’s second- and third-biggest economies, they also have different advantages that can meet varied needs. With Chinese lenders, project planners need to “jump through fewer hoops,” Evans said.

Abe did stress Japan’s focus on quality, mentioning plans to provide advanced technologies, such as coal power plant knowhow, high-speed rail systems and electric vehicles.

“We will help Asian countries to realize their energy strategies and contribute to technological development around Asia. We will spare no effort in our cooperation,” he said.

But Abe said Japan recognizes that at times in the past risk-averse lenders have set requirements for risk guarantees too high. In a shift, he said the policy-lending Japan Bank for International Cooperation will launch a new mechanism to fund higher-risk projects.

The push to expand infrastructure financing by Asians for Asia signals a shift for the region, which in decades past relied more heavily on the World Bank and other U.S.-dominated global institutions.

“Asians are taking accountability for the build-out of Asia,” said Tony Nash, chief economist at the consultancy Complete Intelligence in Singapore.

In many parts of developing Asia, delivery of something as simple as ice cream or medicines or other necessities needing cold storage is near impossible due to the lack of cold chain facilities, he notes.

“I don’t see these funds as competing with each other but as complementing each other,” Nash said.




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