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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 10, 2024 - 05:00
Give us 5 minutes, and we'll give you the world. Around the clock, Voice of America keeps you in touch with the latest news. We bring you reports from our correspondents and interviews with newsmakers from across the world.

VOA Newscasts

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 10, 2024 - 04:00
Give us 5 minutes, and we'll give you the world. Around the clock, Voice of America keeps you in touch with the latest news. We bring you reports from our correspondents and interviews with newsmakers from across the world.

Red Sea Tensions Threaten Saudi Mega-Project

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 10, 2024 - 03:23
jeddah, saudi arabia — The Red Sea warfare that has made one of the world’s busiest shipping routes hazardous for vessels poses an additional risk for Saudi Arabia, which has committed billions of dollars to developing a commercial and tourist center in Jeddah, on the sea’s eastern coast. Authorities worry that if the weekslong shower of Houthi missiles and drone attacks is not contained, it could eventually drive away the investors and visitors that are key to the ambitious project. The Jeddah Central Project, initiated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2021, is intended to transform Jeddah into a world-class tourist destination and enhance the city’s economic strength. Aligned with Saudi Arabia’s economic diversification goals, the $19.9 billion development spans 5.7 million square meters in the heart of Jeddah, integrating modern amenities while preserving the city’s rich heritage. Featuring four prominent landmarks — an opera house, museum, sports stadium and oceanarium — the project embodies a contemporary interpretation of Jeddah's Hijazi essence. It also includes a marina, beach resorts, diverse dining options and modern residential areas. Upon completion in 2030, the destination is set to offer 8,000 rooms across 50 hotels and 1,000 residential properties while creating around 70,000 direct and indirect jobs. It is projected to contribute $5.3 billion annually to the Saudi economy from 2030 onward. Also threatened by the aerial warfare between a U.S.-led alliance and the Yemen-based Houthis — who say their attacks on shipping are in support of Hamas fighters in Gaza — is Saudi Arabia’s fast-growing Jeddah Islamic Port, which handled a record amount of freight in October, before the Houthi attacks began. Trouble from the Iran-aligned Houthis is nothing new to Saudi Arabia, which has faced missile and drone attacks from its southern neighbor since spearheading a nine-nation military intervention in 2015 to try to reverse a Houthi takeover of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. In 2021, the group tried to damage a crucial Saudi Aramco facility at Ras Tanura, which is important for exporting petroleum. This led to Brent crude prices going above $70 per barrel, their highest point in 14 months, and pushed U.S. crude futures to their highest level since October 2018. Earlier, Houthis claimed responsibility for attacks on military targets in Saudi cities like Dammam, Asir and Jazan. Before, in 2019, the Houthis claimed responsibility for attacks on oil facilities using missiles and drones on the Abqaiq and Khurais facilities, although the Saudi government blamed Iran. In 2020, they targeted oil facilities in Jeddah, which is closer to their territory. The Houthi-related insecurity has contributed to noticeably heightened security around the Jeddah Islamic Port, according to residents such as Khalid Ali, a Yemeni national with three decades of work experience in the Saudi city. “We used to freely roam inside the port. However, in the past couple of years, the kingdom has heightened security, and authorities now restrict movement without proper permission or a specific purpose,” he said in an interview. The United States has made a point of highlighting the threat posed to the regional economy by the Houthi attacks on shipping, even as the Houthi fighters claim to be acting in the interests of the region. “The effects of Houthi attacks in the Red Sea have been devastating for countries in the Middle East,” the State Department posted this week on X. "The Houthis claim to act in the interest of the Palestinians in Gaza, but their actions impact the delivery of critical humanitarian aid into Gaza and are harming Palestinians.”  Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told VOA that the best answer to Saudi Arabia’s economic worries over the Red Sea lies in addressing the broader issues afflicting the Middle East as a whole. “Businesses should lobby for a long-term solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. This will certainly not solve all its problems, but it would be a beginning,” he said. While multinational talks to that end are reported to be underway involving the United States, Saudi Arabia and other countries, Riyadh so far has not budged publicly from its long-standing position on the Israel-Palestinian dispute. Saudi Arabia “reiterates its call to the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council that have not yet recognized the Palestinian state, to expedite the recognition of the Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, so that the Palestinian people can obtain their legitimate rights and so that a comprehensive and just peace is achieved for all.” said a Tuesday posting on X from the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  

Chinese Bank Cuts Ties to Russian Importers 

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 10, 2024 - 03:22
washington — A major Chinese bank for Russian importers, Chouzhou Commercial Bank, ceased operations with Russian and Belarusian companies, the Russian Vedomosti newspaper reported Wednesday.  In addition to Chouzhou Commercial Bank, Vedomosti reported that other Chinese and Hong Kong banks are tightening regulations around transactions with Russia to ensure they comply with Western sanctions. The Kremlin has acknowledged the instability of relations between Russian companies and Chinese banks. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Russia's government is "working" with the Chinese government to resolve the commercial problems between the two nations. Since the West's initial sanctions on Russia in February 2022 after its invasion of Ukraine, Chinese banks have become key commercial partners for Russian companies, facilitating increased Sino-Russian trade. Vedomosti reported that Chouzhou's decision was related to U.S. President Joe Biden's December 22 executive order, which strengthened sanctions on financial institutions that aid the Russian military. Ali Wyne, a senior research and advocacy adviser for U.S.-China at the nonprofit International Crisis group, said the move was a sign that sanctions are working. "The United States is working harder to dissuade financial institutions from assisting Russia's efforts to circumvent sanctions. Chinese lenders are taking note and maneuvering to avoid secondary sanctions," Wyne told VOA in a statement. Russian analysts said Chouzhou's decisions, which coincide with the major Lunar New Year holiday season in China, would lead to short-term logistical delays. "All the troubles are superimposed on the Chinese New Year, so the Russians will not be able to start solving this problem until the beginning of March," Russian freelance economic journalist Maxim Blunt said to VOA Russian. "This will not stop mutual trade, but it will certainly add to the problems on the railways and in the ports. Logistics chains between Russia and China are already overloaded, and now this is compounded by overstocking of warehouses and other problems." Blunt said Russian consumers would most likely face shortages or inflation as a result. "Since China is Russia's main trading partner, we should expect either a shortage or a rise in the price of a wide range of goods, from industrial equipment to wide ports," Blunt said. "Another brick has been laid in the wall that separates Russia from the civilized market." Despite the increased costs, Chouzhou's decision will not be paralyzing for Russia, according to Russian Sinologist Aleksei Chigadaev of Leipzig University.  "Of course, the Russian economy will not collapse from this," Chigadaev told VOA Russian. "The main segment that the bank serves seems to be small and medium-sized businesses. There is no exact customer data in the public domain. "But judging by where it is located and which Russian companies are served in it, these are most likely small enterprises that are engaged in wholesale purchases of consumer goods, clothing, souvenirs and so on. Therefore, they will now record losses and come up with new payment schemes." Chigadaev said these tensions show that China is prioritizing its relationship with the U.S. over Russia. "The Chinese do not mind making money on supplies to Russia, but as soon as it comes to choosing between the Russian market and the American market — and now the question often arises in this way — then, of course, they will choose the latter," Chigadaev said. "This will be the end of any partnership." Wyne said, however, that Chouzhou's decision does not necessarily reflect a recalibration in the Sino-Russian relationship. "Whether one considers the frequent interactions between their presidents and defense ministers, the deepening of their military cooperation or the record trade that they posted last year, Beijing and Moscow are drawing closer, not drifting apart," Wyne wrote. "China appears to have concluded that it can simultaneously strengthen its ties with Russia and sustain the current thaw in its ties with the United States." 

In Letter From Prison, Former Myanmar Leader Writes of Suffering

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 10, 2024 - 03:21
washington — The day Kim Aris received a letter from his mother, Aung San Suu Kyi, marked a significant moment after almost three years of silence. Speaking on February 2 in an interview with VOA via Zoom from his home in England, Aung San Suu Kyi's youngest son expressed concern about his mother's health in prison. Aris confirmed with VOA that he had received a letter sent by his mother through the British Foreign Office. "Originally, it was just a picture, but I now have the original as well, a hard copy in her handwriting," he said. He said his mother — Myanmar's detained pro-democracy leader — isn't receiving adequate medical treatment. The handwritten letter detailed her suffering from dental and other health problems. "She was thanking me for the things I sent her in the care package and sending love to the family," Aris said of the letter. "But she also said that she's still suffering from ongoing health problems. Her teeth are still bad, which makes eating very difficult at times, and she has osteoporosis, which is ongoing even though she is generally well." He said he is concerned about the well-being of his mother. "She's 78 years old now and has been kept in horrible conditions without adequate health care. So, I'm worried about her," he said. "To the best of my knowledge, she is held in the Naypyidaw prison, separated from other prisoners in solitary confinement." Ousted, convicted, imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested on February 1, 2021, after the military seized power from her elected government. The ensuing protests led to global outrage. Despite widespread belief that corruption charges filed against her were contrived for political purposes, she received a 27-year sentence. "I sent a care package in September when we heard my mom was unwell," said Aris. "Although it arrived in Rangoon [Yangon] in September, she only received it at the end of December, and I received her reply in mid-January." When asked about the unexpected permission for Suu Kyi to write to him, Aris speculated, "I'm sure they want to try and make themselves look better, but at the same time, they are allowing her property in Rangoon to be auctioned off." On January 25, a court in military-controlled Myanmar ordered the auction of Suu Kyi's family home, where she spent 15 years under house arrest. This decision followed a lengthy legal dispute, granting half ownership to her estranged older brother, Aung San Oo, who holds U.S. citizenship. The auction is scheduled for March 20, with a floor price of 315 billion Myanmar kyats (about $90 million). "The property that she lived in Naypyidaw was not her own property. That was government property," said Aris. "So, if she loses her house in Rangoon, she won't have any property of her own in Burma [Myanmar] at all." He continued, "The military have already seized all her other assets, which she's built up for charitable works, and she wanted to use the house at University Avenue for the charitable works that she was setting up. Unfortunately, they've seized everything and along with the rest of the country. Everything has gone backwards." 'A lack of justice' A Myanmar human rights lawyer close to Suu Kyi's family, speaking anonymously for security reasons, told VOA by phone Thursday, "There is a lack of justice in the so-called legal process, which has disregarded a longstanding decision by the Myanmar Supreme Court in 2018." The country's highest court rejected Aung San Oo's appeal to auction off the house under the civilian government in 2018. However, the ruling from a Yangon district court, located in the nation's largest city, emerged approximately 18 months after the military-controlled Supreme Court approved a special appeal initiated by Aung San Oo. This legal development grants him half ownership of the familial property in Yangon, covering a 1.9-acre area along Inye Lake and featuring a two-story colonial-style edifice. The property holds profound historical significance, having been granted by the government to Suu Kyi's mother, Khin Kyi, following the assassination of her husband, the revered independence hero General Aung San, in July 1947. Khin Kyi's passing in December 1988 — shortly after a failed mass uprising against military rule in which Suu Kyi played a pivotal role as a co-founder of the National League for Democracy party — adds a poignant layer to the property's narrative. The Myanmar human rights lawyer said, "The rushed decision to sell the house is particularly unjust, given that Suu Kyi, who is currently in prison, resides in this house. The court, however, did not take this into consideration at all." Aris said, "Unfortunately, the military makes up the rules as they go along, and if it makes life harder for my mother, then they will follow this." Despite the challenges, Aris maintains hopeful about future communication with his mother. "I'll be writing to her again and sending more care packages," he said. "I hope that they get through."

King Charles' Cancer Announcement Raises Questions

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 10, 2024 - 03:20
london — In British history, the secrecy of the monarch's health has always reigned supreme. Buckingham Palace's disclosure that King Charles III has been diagnosed with cancer shattered that longstanding tradition.  On the heels of the shock and well-wishing that followed the official statement Monday came the surprise that the palace had announced anything at all. Indeed, the unprecedented missive was sparse on details: Charles, 75, had begun treatment for a cancer it did not name after being diagnosed during a recent corrective procedure for an enlarged prostate. The king is stepping back from public duties but carrying on state business during his treatment, which he'll receive as an outpatient, the palace said.  "The King has cancer," The Times of London declared in a terse banner headline Tuesday. It was unlike any other in British history.  Never complain, never explain, as Charles' late mother, Queen Elizabeth II, was known to say. Charles has withheld details of his illness and treatment, and in that way is carrying on her approach. But in beaming a sliver of light from inside the palace walls and his own life, the king has broken with his mother and royal tradition. Royals' health a mystery The world still does not know the cause of Elizabeth's death in 2022 at the age of 96. In the final years of her life, the public was told only that the queen was suffering from "mobility issues." Her death certificate listed the cause simply as "old age."  The British public wasn't told that Charles' grandfather, King George VI, had lung cancer before his death in February 1952 at the age of 56, and some historians have claimed that the king himself wasn't told he was terminally ill.  Given that Charles rules in a media-saturated age, "I do think it's incumbent on him to reveal more than he's revealed," said Sally Bedell Smith, author of "Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life."  "He was admirably candid in what he said about being treated for an enlarged prostate, and his impulse was to be open and also to encourage men to have the necessary examinations," she added. "But then he reverted to the traditional royal form, which is mystery, secrecy, opacity."    On Tuesday, former royal press secretary Simon Lewis told BBC Radio 4 that Charles' openness about his cancer diagnosis has been his style as a monarch.  "I think 20 years ago we would have got a very abrupt, short statement, and that's about it," he said. The palace statement goes as far as possible, "given that the King has had a diagnosis of cancer and, as a lot of people know, processing that is a pretty tough process."  One reason for disclosing his illness, the palace statement said, was "in the hope it may assist public understanding for all those around the world who are affected by cancer." Cancer patient advocates reported glimmers of success on that front, with Cancer Research UK reporting a 42% rise in visits to its cancer information page, according to Dr. Julie Sharp, the group's head of health and patient information.  The jump "reflects that high-profile cancer cases often act as a prompt to encourage people to find out more or think about their own health," she said.  But there was another pragmatic reason: To keep control of the information in the age of lightning-fast social media and misinformation. The palace statement said Charles "has chosen to share his diagnosis to prevent speculation."  Privacy part of past In the annals of power, leaders and their advisers strive to maintain — or at least, not undermine — the perception of being in strong and in control. Because to allow any perception of vulnerability or weakness could spark a fight for the gavel or the crown — or encourage a coup.  The former Soviet Union was famous for neglecting to mention when its leaders are sick or dead — think Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, secretly sick and soon deceased one after the other in the 1980s. Each event sparked scrambles for succession.  In the United States, there's little to no debate about the public's right to know the health status of their leaders. It's a key feature of the 2024 presidential rumble between President Joe Biden, 81, and former president Donald Trump, 77, with other contenders, such as GOP hopeful Nikki Haley, arguing that they're both too old to preside.  And on February 1, U.S.. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin — sixth in the presidential line of succession — apologized for keeping secret his cancer diagnosis and surgery. In a rare press conference, he acknowledged missing a key chance to use the experience as a teaching moment for those he leads across the Defense Department and, even more importantly, for Black Americans.  How much does the British public have a right to know?  Whether the monarch owes the world more information about his health than other Britons do is a tense subject.  Royals are private citizens but also, in a sense, part of the public trust given that they are subsidized by British taxpayers and play an important — though largely powerless — constitutional role. Unelected, they inherit their wealth under a 1,000-year-old monarchy that Republican activists have long tried to dislodge.  And though some polls show the public is friendly toward Charles, opposition and apathy to the monarchy are both growing. In a recent study by the National Center for Social Research, just 29% of respondents thought the monarchy was "very important" — the lowest level in the center's 40 years of research on the subject. Opposition was highest among the young.  Remaining relevant is part of what makes Charles' legacy and succession so urgent. Maintaining at least the appearance of vitality can be key to leaders' pursuit of and hold on power. The king, the palace was careful to note, would step away from public-facing duties during his treatment but continue to manage other duties of state.  In Charles' case, succession has long been set: Next in line is his son, William, the prince of Wales. But the king's illness makes William's preparation more critical at a time when he's also caring for his wife, Kate, princess of Wales, who is recovering from abdominal surgery.  Charles' news was received with great sympathy in a country in which 3 million people live with cancer, according to Macmillan Cancer Support, a London-based charity. On average, it says, one person is diagnosed with cancer in the UK every 90 seconds. That's about 1,000 new cancer cases detected every day, according to the National Health Service.  That the king has joined those ranks — and, critically for a British monarch, shared that vulnerability with the world — heralded for some a new era of transparency in an era of social media and misinformation. 

Argentina Getting Its First Female Saint

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 10, 2024 - 03:19
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — A Catholic laywoman who lived in 18th-century Argentina and joined the Jesuits in their evangelical mission throughout the South American country will become the first female saint from the home country of Pope Francis on Sunday. María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, more commonly known by her Quechua name of "Mama Antula," was born in 1730 into a wealthy family in Santiago del Estero, a province north of Buenos Aires. At the age of 15, she left the comfortable life of her home and the privileges of her family to join the Jesuits — at a time when women’s options were limited to marriage or joining a convent.  "She was a rebel, just like Jesus," Cintia Suárez, co-author of the biography Mama Antula, the first female saint of Argentina, told The Associated Press. "She confronted her father saying, 'I’m not going to get married or become a nun.' She just didn’t want to follow orders." Mama Antula collaborated in the performance of spiritual exercises based on the writings of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Company of Jesus in 1534, according to her biographer. When the Spanish crown expelled the Jesuits from America in 1767, considering them a threat to its interests, Mama Antula decided to take up the mantle and continue her work, even at the risk of being imprisoned. She was a very astute woman who, against the prejudices of the time, had the ability to persuade parish priests and bishops to continue the spiritual exercises of the Jesuits despite the prohibition. "Patience is good, but perseverance is better," is a phrase that is attributed to her in historical texts collected in Suárez’s biography. At a time when slavery still prevailed, masters and slaves, rich and poor were welcome in her spiritual exercises.  It was within that space of reflection that she helped to erase social differences. "Mama Antula’s charity, above all in the service to the neediest, is today very much in evidence in the midst of a society that runs the risk of forgetting that radical individualism is the most difficult virus to overcome," Francis told a group of Argentine pilgrims Friday who are in town for this weekend’s canonization. Despite her outstanding work, Mama Antula was not widely recognized due to her status as a lay woman until 2013, when Francis, also a native of Argentina, was elected pope and brought her back to the public eye. Francis first authorized her beatification in 2016, after the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints recognized a miracle linked to Mama Antula. It was the inexplicable healing in 1905 of a seriously ill nun belonging to the religious order in charge of the House of spiritual exercises founded by Mama Antula in Buenos Aires. The second miracle that opened the door to her canonization came in 2017, when a former Jesuit seminarian was left on the verge of death from a stroke. A friend brought a picture of Mama Antula to the hospital and stuck it on the vital signs monitor. The man improved and left intensive care. The canonization of Mama Antula in a ceremony to be presided over by Francis at St. Peter’s Basilica marks not only the first time a female from Argentina will become a saint, but will bring together two antagonistic figures: Francis and the newly elected president of Argentina, Javier Milei, who once called the pope an "imbecile" for defending social justice and "the representative of malignance on Earth."  Francis, who had a long conversation with Milei after he was elected, has indicated he has forgiven him for the campaign rhetoric and even suggested he is considering visiting his native country this year. María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, or "Mama Antula," died March 7, 1799, aged 69.

VOA Newscasts

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 10, 2024 - 03:00
Give us 5 minutes, and we'll give you the world. Around the clock, Voice of America keeps you in touch with the latest news. We bring you reports from our correspondents and interviews with newsmakers from across the world.

VOA Newscasts

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 10, 2024 - 02:00
Give us 5 minutes, and we'll give you the world. Around the clock, Voice of America keeps you in touch with the latest news. We bring you reports from our correspondents and interviews with newsmakers from across the world.

Proposed Mine Outside US Wildlife Refuge Nears Approval

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 10, 2024 - 01:34
SAVANNAH, Ga. — A company's plan to mine minerals near the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp and its federally protected wildlife refuge neared final approval Friday as regulators in the U.S. state of Georgia released draft permits for the project, which opponents say could irreparably harm a natural treasure. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division said it will take public comments on the draft permits for 30 days before working up final versions to send to the agency's director for approval. Twin Pines Minerals of Birmingham, Alabama, has worked since 2019 to obtain government permits to mine titanium dioxide less than 4.8 kilometers from the southeastern boundary of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the largest U.S. refuge east of the Mississippi River. Federal scientists have warned that mining near the Okefenokee's bowl-like rim could damage the swamp's ability to hold water. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in 2022 declared the proposed mine poses an "unacceptable risk" to the fragile ecosystem at the Georgia-Florida line. "This is a dark day in Georgia's history," said Josh Marks, an Atlanta environmental attorney and leader of the group Georgians for the Okefenokee. "EPD may have signed a death warrant for the Okefenokee Swamp, our state's greatest natural treasure." In documents released Friday, state regulators echoed past comments that their analysis shows the proposed 312-hectare mine won't significantly harm the Okefenokee or lower its water levels. "EPD's models demonstrate that the mine should have a minimal impact" on the Okefenokee refuge, the agency said, "even during drought periods." Twin Pines President Steve Ingle applauded regulators' decision to move forward after what he called a "thorough evaluation of our application." Ingle has insisted for years that his company can mine without hurting the Okefenokee. "We expect stringent government oversight of our mining-to-reclamation project, which will be fully protective of the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge and the region's environment," Ingle said in a statement. The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge covers nearly 1,630 square kilometers in southeast Georgia and is home to alligators, bald eagles and other protected species. The swamp's wildlife, cypress forests and flooded prairies draw roughly 600,000 visitors each year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge. In February 2019, the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote that the proposed mine could pose "substantial risks" to the swamp, including its ability to hold water. Some impacts, it said, "may not be able to be reversed, repaired, or mitigated for." C. Rhett Jackson, a hydrology professor at the University of Georgia, warned state regulators in a written analysis that the mining pits planned by Twin Pines would siphon off enough groundwater to triple the frequency and duration of severe droughts in the swamp's southeast corner. Georgia regulators have an outsized role in deciding whether to approve the mine because the U.S. government, which normally considers environmental permits in tandem with state agencies, relinquished oversight of the Twin Pines project. The Army Corps of Engineers was reviewing a federal permit for Twin Pines when the agency declared in 2020 that it no longer had jurisdiction authority because of regulatory rollbacks under then-President Donald Trump. Despite efforts by President Joe Biden to restore federal oversight, the Army Corps entered a legal agreement with Twin Pines to maintain its hands-off position. The mining project is moving forward as the National Park Service seeks designation of the Okefenokee wildlife refuge as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Conservation groups say the rare distinction would boost the Okefenokee's profile as one of the world's last intact blackwater swamps and home to more than 400 animal species. The draft permits were released barely two weeks after Twin Pines agreed to pay a $20,000 fine ordered by Georgia regulators, who said the company violated state laws while collecting soil samples for its permit application. Twin Pines denied wrongdoing, but said it agreed to the fine to avoid further permitting delays. "It is inconceivable to anyone who actually values Georgia's environment to claim that this mine will not harm the critically important wetlands and wildlife of the Okefenokee ecosystem," Ben Prater, southeast director for the group Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement. He added: EPD has one job. It must deny the permits." Some House lawmakers In the Georgia legislature are again pushing a bill that would ban future mining outside the Okefenokee. The proposal got a hearing last year, but has stalled in a House committee. While the measure wouldn't stop Twin Pines from obtaining permits already pending, it would prohibit expansion of the company's mining operation if it became law.

Anger Escalates in China After Messi’s Absence in Hong Kong Soccer Game

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 10, 2024 - 01:00
Washington — Lionel Messi, arguably the world’s most popular soccer player, is the object of uncharacteristic hostility in Hong Kong, where he was roundly booed by frustrated fans after sitting out an exhibition match this week. China’s state-controlled media was quick to suggest a CIA hand in the debacle. Messi later explained he had a hamstring strain that made him stay on the bench throughout the game on Sunday, but many fans don’t buy his excuse because Messi played about 30 minutes in Japan three days after his Hong Kong absence. The near-capacity crowd of 38,323 in Hong Kong had paid upwards of 1,000 Hong Kong dollars ($125) to see their hero, and in many cases five times that amount. Some of them also caught sight of Messi walking away with his hands in his pockets when John Lee, Hong Kong’s chief executive, greeted Messi’s fellow Inter Miami players one by one and shook hands with them. Regina Ip Lau Suk Yee, convenor of the Hong Kong Executive Council and a Legislative Council member, lashed out at the soccer hero: "Messi should never be allowed to return to Hong Kong. His lies and hypocrisy are disgusting." She further declared that "Hong Kong people hate Messi, Inter-Miami, and the black hand behind them, for the deliberate and calculated snub to Hong Kong." Kenneth Fok Kai-kong, a Hong Kong businessman and politician and brother of the Hong Kong Football Association chairman, published two long articles on Weibo, China’s most widely used but heavily censored social media platform. Fok described how disappointed he was when he saw that Messi had played in Japan. "This is very upsetting, thinking how disappointed 40,000 Hong Kong soccer fans were, and how Messi had no facial expression and avoided a group photo-op." Fok said Messi’s performance in Japan was like “pouring salt to Hong Kong fans’ wounds." Not everyone is hurt Global People, a magazine controlled by the Chinese Communist Party’s official mouthpiece People’s Daily, jumped into the fray with an article headlined "Background of Messi’s Boss Exposed: CIA involved?" The article noted that Messi’s Florida-based team, Inter Miami, is co-owned and managed by two sons of Jorge Lincoln Mas Canosa, a Cuban immigrant and successful businessman, who was trained in the 1960s by the CIA for the Bay of Pigs invasion and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Within a day, on the Chinese news portal Netease where the Global People article was posted, readers left 43,488 comments. While a large number of fans still feel disappointed and disrespected, many scorned the tabloid’s conspiracy theory. One user wrote: "I’m glad Hong Kong is not mainland China, otherwise a few ‘traitors’ are bound to be found … don’t always put on a political label, it may backfire on yourself one day." Another user called "TAEYEON" suggested that Messi may not have deliberately snubbed the Hong Kong chief executive: "Messi may not know those politicians at all. He didn’t play so he walked away, while only those who played shook hands with Lee, believe it or not." Global Times, a widely circulated Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, suggested a more sinister explanation in a February 7 editorial. "Hong Kong intends to build a mega economy, and some external forces are deliberately using this as a means to embarrass Hong Kong," it said. Messi, who led his native Argentina to victory in the 2022 World Cup before joining the Miami team, has not responded to these accusations, but some Chinese human rights activists hailed his behavior on X and ridiculed China’s reactions. "Toronto Square Face," a commentator with 532,000 followers on X, wrote that “The Global Times has labeled Messi’s behavior as 'embarrassing Hong Kong.' But if a country or a region’s heyday can be destroyed by a sport star, it can only mean this place is already in decline." Gao Yu, a former journalist in China said on her social media X account: "The more Kenneth Fok criticizes Messi, the more isolated China and Hong Kong will become, and the more value will be lost by the pathetic Chinese soccer team." The sports administration in Hangzhou, a prosperous city in eastern China where e-commerce giant Alibaba is based, announced its official decision to cancel a friendly game with Argentina’s national soccer team in March due to "reasons known to all." Christoph Rehage, a German sinologist and China affair commentator, joked to his 173,000 followers on YouTube: "Is Xi Jinping ready to sever diplomatic relations with Argentina now?"

VOA Newscasts

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 10, 2024 - 01:00
Give us 5 minutes, and we'll give you the world. Around the clock, Voice of America keeps you in touch with the latest news. We bring you reports from our correspondents and interviews with newsmakers from across the world.

Arrest of Cambodian Commentator Sparks Outcry

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 10, 2024 - 00:33
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — A Cambodian social commentator has been charged with incitement and jailed in a remote prison after criticizing a government minister on Facebook, sparking an outcry from human rights organizations amid other recent arrests of dissidents. Ny Nak, a 46-year-old seller of organic fertilizers and other agricultural products, runs a popular Cambodian Facebook page called IMan-KH. Interspersed with sales deals and tips for growing healthy crops, Nak fires off posts about politics and the Cambodian government to about 425,000 followers. The current incident dates back to a December 11 article published by the exiled online media outlet Cambodia Daily that identified Labor Minister Heng Sour as the recipient of a 91-hectare land giveaway. Nak speculated on Facebook the land would be used to build factories for Labor and Vocational Training Ministry officials. Over the next few days, both a Labor Ministry official and Prime Minister Hun Manet publicly denied that the minister had received the land and said it was intended for a different individual with the same name. On December 17, after the denials, Nak posted again, asking: "What achievements has Heng Sour done for the Khmer nation, that the government gave him forest land as his personal property? RIP Khmer forests." Nak was arrested on January 5, after Sour, the labor minister, filed a defamation complaint against him, ministry spokesperson Katta Orn told VOA. His words "affected the fame and dignity of the minister" and disseminated "untrue information with ill intention to incite and confuse public opinion," Orn said. Nak, who has previous arrests, faces charges of defamation and incitement, punishable with up to three years of jail time, which could be doubled because of a prior conviction clause. On January 28, he was transferred to Correctional Center 3, located more than 150 kilometers from Phnom Penh, near the Vietnamese border. A spokesperson for the Department of Prisons at the Ministry of Interior, Nuth Savna, told VOA that Nak was transferred because of overcrowding. "Over there, freedom is tightly restricted. He has more psychological stress," Nak’s wife, Sok Synet, 42, told VOA. "His health is not good." Human rights groups emphasized that defamation does not, on its own, carry a jail sentence under Cambodian law, and that citizens should be able to question official narratives without fearing imprisonment. "Citizens shouldn’t be thrown in jail for criticizing the actions of their government or publicly raising important issues," Naly Pilorge, outreach director at Cambodian human rights organization Licadho said. "To throw Ny Nak in prison again over Facebook comments, and then transfer him to a prison far away from his family, is an abuse of the legal system," she said. Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, struck a similar chord. "The persecution of Ny Nak shows that Hun Manet will not tolerate any sort of critical public criticism from anyone, no matter how big or small," he told VOA. "He seems determined to intimidate everyone, ranging from individual activists to civil society groups and organized political opposition parties." "Manet's message to ordinary Cambodians is sit down and shut up, or else," Robertson added. The family’s income has dropped by more than half since Nak’s arrest, Synet said, in part because police seized the phones the couple used to sell fertilizer products. She said she is worried about traveling so far to see him, as well as keeping up with payments for their daughter’s university education. "It’s far, and I need to spend more money when I go to visit him," she said. Past troubles with the government Nak has faced government backlash before. In 2020, he was arrested and ultimately served 18 months for parodying a speech by former prime minister Hun Sen, replacing words about a COVID-19 state of emergency with references to his chicken coop. Last September, Nak and Synet were assaulted by a group of men wielding metal batons while driving their motorbike in the capital. Nak was heavily beaten in the head and said that he believed the attack was related to his criticism of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, which the ministry denied. The incident bore a resemblance to six other assaults against opposition members that occurred throughout last year, before Cambodia’s July national election, during which attackers allegedly beat supporters of the Candlelight Party with extendable metal batons on motorbikes. Candlelight was considered the only viable opposition to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People's Party but was barred from participating in the election. Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s son, became prime minister the following month in a dynastic handover and ushered in a wave of new officials, many of whom are family relations of the prior generation. Pilorge told VOA that Nak’s arrest "reveals that the new government leaders appear the same as their predecessors in their willingness to misuse institutions to silence active, outspoken citizens." She pointed to at least four other arrests in January of opposition figures from the Candlelight Party before the February 25 Senate election, when local officials are to vote for new senators. Three Cambodian human right activists were arrested in Thailand on February 2 after fleeing political persecution in Cambodia. The Phnom Penh Appeal Court also recently upheld the conviction of former Candlelight vice president Thach Setha and rejected a request from another prominent former opposition leader, Kem Sokha, to review the conditions of his house arrest after he was convicted of treason last March. The arrests also come as Hun Manet, about six months into his appointment as prime minister, tries to project an image of "certainness and strength" and repair Western relationships, Katrin Travouillon, a senior lecturer and Cambodia expert at the Australian National University, told VOA. "They’ve invested a lot in lobbying efforts and changing their rhetoric and improving their image, but I don’t see that it’s accompanied by any substantive changes, especially when it comes to handling domestic critiques," Travouillon said. "You just find repetition of the same patterns." Robertson said Hun Manet’s "global charm offensive" drew a stark contrast with the recent spate of arrests. "Whether he is continuing his father's repressive legacy or acting out of his own conviction doesn't really matter," Robertson told VOA. "The bottom line is virtually all civil and political freedoms are harshly restricted, and those daring to defy Manet get smashed with harsh criminal sentences." Synet, Nak’s wife, said her husband had rejected her plea to apologize and join the ruling party, as other government critics have done in the past. In a Facebook update she posted on his behalf, Nak said he would stay firm. "I will not apologize in order to be released," the post said. "I will be in jail until the sentence is finished."

Malaysia's Top Court Invalidates State's Islam-Based Criminal Laws

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 10, 2024 - 00:18
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia's top court on Friday struck down Shariah-based criminal laws in an opposition-run state, saying they encroached on federal authority. Islamists denounced the decision and said it could undermine religious courts across the Muslim-majority nation. In an 8-1 ruling, the nine-member Federal Court panel invalidated 16 laws created by the Kelantan state government, which imposed punishments rooted in Islam for offenses that included sodomy, sexual harassment, incest, cross-dressing and destroying or defiling places of worship. The court said that the state could not make Islamic laws on those topics because they are covered by Malaysian federal law. Malaysia has a dual-track legal system, with both government laws and Shariah — Islamic law based on the Quran and a set of scriptures known as the hadith — covering personal and family matters for Muslims. Ethnic Malays, all of whom are considered Muslim in Malaysian law, make up two-thirds of Malaysia's 33 million people. The population also includes large Chinese and Indian minorities. The case decided Friday was filed in 2022 by two Muslim women from Kelantan, a rural northeastern state whose population is 97% Muslim. The conservative Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, has governed the state since 1990. Lawyer Nik Elin Nik Abdul Rashid, who brought the challenge to the state laws with her daughter, said the court's ruling attested to the Malaysian Constitution as the supreme law of the country. Hundreds of Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party supporters gathered outside the Federal Court calling for the protection of Shariah. "We are very sad today. This is a black Friday for Islamic Shariah laws," PAS Secretary-General Takiyuddin Hassan told reporters. "When Shariah laws in one locality become invalid, this means that Shariah laws in other states may now face the same risk." Malaysian media quoted Chief Justice Maimun Tuan Mat as saying the ruling does not dispute the position of Islam as the official religion and dismissing claims that the court was trying to curb the powers of Shariah courts. The PAS is a member of the opposition bloc but is the single biggest party represented in Parliament. It also runs the governments in four of Malaysia's 13 states. The party favors tough Islamic legal norms and once sought to implement a criminal code known as "hudud," which prescribes penalties such as amputations for theft and death by stoning for adultery. The federal government blocked the move. Mohamad Na'im Mokhtar, the government minister in charge of religious affairs, promised that the court ruling woold not affect the position of Shariah courts. He urged Muslims to stay calm and said that ongoing efforts to empower Shariah courts would continue. The issue could pose a challenge for Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who is struggling to win Malay support after taking office following a 2022 general election. Anwar has also disputed PAS's assertion that the court case was an attack on Shariah. He has said the the root issue was about state jurisdiction and that the matter shouldn't be politicized.

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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 10, 2024 - 00:00
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Activists Protest as Alleged Suspect in Atrocities Eyes Indonesian Presidency

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 9, 2024 - 23:58
Jakarta, Indonesia — Side stepping with spins on the stage, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto looks his age of 72 as he dances, but the presidential candidate’s social media posts have helped endear him to Indonesia’s young voters. "He seems so friendly," said 19-year-old Putri Ayu Ramadianti on her way to a Prabowo campaign event. It’s quite a turnaround for the former three-star army general who once led Indonesia’s special forces and is accused of committing atrocity crimes. With Indonesia’s presidential election just days away, he’s the front-runner. Analysts point to several reasons, in particular naming as his vice presidential running mate the 36-year-old son of Indonesia’s popular president, Joko Widodo, along with social media posts that have gone viral showing Prabowo dancing at campaign rallies. "In the past he was viewed as a militaristic person, a strongman, but now he’s presenting himself as a chubby old grandpa and this attracts [much] support from [young] Indonesian people," said Yoes Kenawas, a research fellow at Atma Jaya Catholic University in Jakarta. "When Prabowo named Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the current president’s son, as his running mate, his support from young people really shot up." Widodo must step down as president after his second term ends due to a constitutional term limit. Approximately half of Indonesia’s eligible voters are younger than 40, about a third are younger than 30. Thousands of them poured into a convention hall to hear Prabowo speak at a recent campaign event aimed toward young voters. "This world belongs to the you, belongs to the youth," Prabowo said during a speech that provided little in the way of policy details. But while Prabowo hopes to be Indonesia’s president in the near future, human rights activists are trying to derail him by informing the public about his past. Across the street from Indonesia’s presidential palace, dozens of demonstrators recently shouted, "long live the victims, never be silent," referring to Indonesia’s dark history when the country was led by the dictator Suharto who was Prabowo’s father-in-law. But after Suharto’s regime fell in 1998, then-Lieutenant General Prabowo was dismissed from the army for allegedly ordering the kidnapping of pro-democracy activists, of which, more than a dozen remain missing and are feared dead. He was also accused of atrocity crimes when hundreds of civilians were killed in East Timor. Prabowo denies all the allegations of wrongdoing. VOA reached out to Prabowo’s campaign multiple times for comment on the past accusations of human rights violations but received no response. "I believe that it’s not proper that an activist abductor and a major human rights violator can run for president," said Petrus Hariyanto. Hariyanto was friends with Wiji Thukul, a fellow activist who has not been seen since 1998, a time when many anti-Suharto activists were abducted by government forces. At the demonstration, Hariyanto wore a black T-shirt with a print showing Prabowo looking into a mirror and Thukul’s image staring back at him. Words at the bottom of the shirt translate to "Bring back our friend." Joining him at the rally was Stephanie Iskandar, a 21-year-old political science student at the University of Indonesia who held a sign that read "fight oppression." "I have to say I’m really scared that Prabowo is going to be elected," said Iskandar, adding that many young Indonesians know little about the country’s dark past and have been heavily influenced by the Prabowo campaign’s social media posts. "They become very vulnerable with all of this political communication with the young way and with the TikTok and other social media." At the Prabowo campaign rally, 19-year-old Putri Ayu Ramadianti, says she has been learning about Prabowo through social media and downplays accusations of human rights violations. "We don’t know who the real perpetrator is, yet Prabowo was accused," she said. Philips Vermonte, dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Indonesian International Islamic University says Prabowo has been working to clean up his image for years and issues from the past carry little weight with many of the country’s millennials and Gen Z voters. "They are very young and that means in 1998 they were in kindergarten or elementary school, so they do not have or share the collective memories of the authoritarian government for 32 years of Suharto and probably the memories of 1998 reform period when the authoritarian government fell," said Vermonte. "As a result, this issue of human rights violations — do not really resonate with the majority of the voters." 

Indonesia’s Popular President Accused of Undermining Democracy

Voice of America’s immigration news - February 9, 2024 - 23:37
Jakarta, Indonesia — As Indonesians prepare to go the polls for the country’s presidential election on Wednesday, the popular incumbent is coming under fire. Critics accuse President Joko Widodo, who can’t run for reelection due to term limits, of undermining democracy to extend his legacy. "He’s creating an unfair playing field," said Yoes Kenawas, a research fellow at Atma Jaya Catholic University in Jakarta. Widodo, widely known as Jokowi, is popular with approval ratings often topping 70%, according to Philips Vermonte, dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Indonesian International Islamic University. "He speaks plain language which resonates with the people, plus the public likes his infrastructure projects," said Vermonte. "He’s built highways, ports, airports. We don’t know yet how effective some of them will be, but for the public it’s something their eyes can see." Widodo’s 36-year-old son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, is now the vice presidential running mate of Prabowo Subianto, 72, the current defense minister who lost the presidential election to Widodo twice. Prabowo took a commanding lead in the polls for the upcoming election shortly after Gibran was named to the team in October. Approximately half of Indonesia’s eligible voters are younger than 40 and about a third are under 30. "Prabowo wanted Gibran because he’s young so it will help him attract younger voters plus it will also help him get Jokowi’s supporters," said Vermonte, referring to the president by his nickname. "If Gibran becomes the vice president, the next five years will be the apprenticeship period for Gibran to build his political credentials, build his popularity among Indonesians so in the future he can run as a president," said Kenawas. "That’s when Joko Widodo will have the guarantee that his legacy will be continued." While in his twenties, Gibran opened a catering business and a chain of dessert shops before becoming mayor of Solo, a midsize city in Central Java, in 2021. His father was mayor of Solo from 2005 to 2012. Gibran was able to run for vice president only after a ruling by the country’s Constitutional Court last year. The court amended the minimum age requirement of 40 for presidential and vice-presidential candidates so that the restriction would not apply to anyone who had previously held elected public office. It was a five to four decision. The judge who cast the deciding vote was the court’s chief justice, Anwar Usman, who is Widodo’s brother-in-law and Gibran’s uncle, leading to accusations of corruption and nepotism. Soon after, an ethics panel removed Anwar from his role as chief justice for not recusing himself from the proceedings. Despite the ruling, Anwar was able to remain as a judge on the Constitutional Court, and the court’s controversial decision on the age requirement stood. "Of course, a president would want to see his legacy continue on," said Vermonte. "The complaint is the way it is done." Some ordinary citizens have expressed their displeasure with the court’s ruling. "Gibran is allowed to run for office," said Alvin Gerard, a student at the University of Indonesia. "But changing the law this way is not ethical." Kenawas accuses Widodo of undermining democracy. "The playing field is being tilted towards the advantage of the incumbents or those who are endorsed by the incumbents and this is a bad precedent for the future of Indonesia’s democracy," he said. "Of course, supporting someone is not a taboo, but if the person enters the game by changing the law by violating ethical principles, that will give a precedent to Indonesian politics in the future." While Widodo has not officially endorsed any of the presidential candidates, political analysts say it’s clear to the public whom he supports. "He’s not saying I’m endorsing Prabowo," said Vermonte. "There’s a direct language and indirect language and I think what is clear is naturally people see the connection."

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Voice of America’s immigration news - February 9, 2024 - 23:00
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