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Ten more bodies recovered after Bangladeshi ferry sinks, six still missing

DHAKA: Ten more bodies have been recovered from Bangladesh’s Panguchi River, a local official said on Thursday, after a ferry carrying about 80 passengers capsized this week.

Divers had been deployed to find the six people who were still missing, the chief administrator of Morelganj sub-district, Obaidur Rahman, said.

Rashedul Alam, a police official from Morelganj, where the accident happened, said a combination of strong currents and overloading caused the ferry to sink on Tuesday.

Most of the passengers had swum to safety, he said.

Low-lying Bangladesh, with extensive inland waterways and slack safety standards, has a track record of ferry accidents and deaths sometimes run into the hundreds.

(Reporting by Serajul Quadir and Enammul Haque; Editing by Vin Shahrestani)

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Malaysian PM tells France not ready to decide on buying Rafale jets

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on Tuesday that he discussed the possible purchase of Dassault Aviation SA’s Rafale fighter jets with French President Francois Hollande but remained undecided.

“We’re not ready yet to make a decision, but we take note of its success in other countries…,” Najib said at a joint press conference hosted by both leaders during Hollande’s visit to Malaysia on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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Indian vice president defends liberal values, right to dissent

NEW DELHI: Indian Vice-President Hamid Ansari said on Saturday universities must uphold liberal values and respect dissent, a month after violent protests erupted at a university in the capital Delhi over a speech by a student accused of sedition. 

Addressing students at a university in the northern state of Punjab, Ansari said commitments to the right to dissent should be revisited at a time when the “value and scope of academic freedom” was being called into question.

“The right of dissent and agitation are ingrained in the fundamental rights under our constitution, which sets out a plural framework and refuses any scope to define the country in narrow sectarian, ideological or religious terms,” he said.

“Recent events in our own country have shown that there is much confusion about what a university should or should not be. The freedom of our universities has been challenged by narrow considerations of what is perceived to be ‘public good’.”

Ansari appeared to be referring to violence at the University of Delhi last month involving Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a pro-BJP student union. 

According to media reports, ABVP protested against inviting the student to give a speech at a literary seminar and violent clashes broke out.

The vice president’s defence of plurality also comes as criticism grows over an apparent shift in course by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that could redefine the world’s largest democracy as a Hindu nation.

Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand Hindu ascetic with a history of agitation against minority Muslims, was sworn in to lead the country’s most populous state on March 19, and observers said it marked a departure from the platform of development for all on which Modi rose to national power in 2014.

(Reporting by Neha Dasgupta; Editing by Helen Popper)

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Thailand seeks new abbot for scandal-hit Buddhist temple

BANGKOK: Thailand’s government is trying to get a new abbot appointed to head the country’s biggest Buddhist temple, whose former leader is wanted for money laundering, an official said on Thursday.

Police pulled back from a three-week siege of the Dhammakaya temple this month after failing to find Phra Dhammachayo in a search that was frustrated by monks and devotees in one of the biggest challenges to Thailand’s junta since a 2014 coup.

Dhammachayo, 72, is wanted for questioning for suspected money-laundering and on numerous charges of building on land without authorisation.

Thailand’s National Office of Buddhism had proposed to religious authorities that a monk with no affiliation to the temple should now be appointed to lead it, the head of the government office, Pongporn Pramsaneh, told Reuters.

This would help with an investigation into the temple’s assets and in the process of disrobing Dhammachayo, he said.

“The monk in chief should be someone the society can rely on for unbiased action and judgment,” Pongporn said.

The proposal on changing the leadership was made to the most senior monk in the Pathum Thani province, where the temple is located.

The temple’s current acting abbot is Dhammachayo’s deputy, Phra Dattajivo, but police last week said they were investigating him for using temple money in stock dealing.

The temple said the accusation was “fake news” and that none of its money had gone into stocks.

The Dhammayaka temple, nearly 10 times the size of the Vatican City, dwarfs Thailand’s other temples in wealth as well as size. It claims millions of followers, although still a small minority of Thai Buddhists.

Traditionalist Buddhists accuse the temple of commercialism, though it says it is just as dedicated to Theravada Buddhism as them and its money is only to do good works.

Pongporn said the Buddhist governing body in Pathum Thani province would convene to inspect the Dhammakaya temple’s financial records at the end of the month.

(Additional reporting and writing by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Simon Cameron-Moore)

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Vietnam seeks South Korean support in South China Sea

HANOI: Vietnam’s Prime Minister sought support for the nation’s stance in the South China Sea when he met South Korea’s foreign minister in Hanoi on Monday.

Vietnam is the country most openly at odds with China over the waterway since the Philippines pulled back from confrontation under President Rodrigo Duterte.

“The Prime Minister proposed that South Korea continue its support over the position of Vietnam and Southeast Asia on the South China Sea issue and to help the country improve its law enforcement at the sea”, the government said in a statement on its website after the meeting between Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se.

The statement did not say whether South Korea backed Vietnam’s position on the South China Sea.

Yun did affirm his country’s willingness to promote ties despite instability in South Korea after the ousting of President Park Geun-hye over a graft scandal.

South Korea is Vietnam’s biggest foreign investor thanks to companies like Samsung.

South Korea and China are currently in dispute over deployment of the U.S. anti-missile defence system. South Korea on Monday has complained to the World Trade Organization about Chinese retaliation against its companies over the deployment.

Last week, Vietnam demanded China stop sending cruise ships to the area in response to one of Beijing’s latest moves to bolster its claims to the strategic waterway.

China claims 90 percent of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan lay claim to parts of the route, through which about US$ 5 trillion of trade passes each year.

(Reporting by My Pham; Editing by Julia Glover)

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In talks with US, China calls for diplomacy on North Korea

BEIJING: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said after talks with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Saturday that there had to be a commitment to using diplomatic means to peacefully settle the North Korea issue.

Tillerson said Wang had agreed they would work together to try to get North Korea’s government to change its current course of pursuing nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

The two were speaking to reporters after meeting in Beijing.

(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Tom Hogue)

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North Korea, China in focus as Tillerson starts Asia trip in Tokyo

TOKYO: Japan will be seeking clues to Washington’s policies on a volatile North Korea and a rising China while hoping to steer clear of trade rows when U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets officials on Thursday at the start of his first Asia trip.

The former oil executive, who will also travel to South Korea and China, will seek to reassure Tokyo and Seoul about countering North Korea’s growing nuclear prowess, and press China to do more on one of the most serious security threats facing President Donald Trump.

Tillerson is expected to confirm the “unshakeable bond” of the U.S.-Japan alliance and underline cooperation on meeting the threat from Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programmes when he meets Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe is the only Asian leader to have met U.S. President Donald Trump since his inauguration, and Trump said the United States was “100 percent” behind Japan.

North Korea last week launched four more ballistic missiles and is working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States.

Tillerson will have “substantive, hard” talks with U.S. partners in Asia on next steps in dealing with North Korea, but his visit is not likely to produce an immediate specific response, the State Department said on Wednesday.

Washington has previously said all options, including military, are on the table in its review of policies toward North Korea and Japanese officials are keen to know more details.

U.S. Defence Secretary Jim “Mattis correctly said all options are on the table … but as a practical matter, I don’t see the administration deciding to preemptively strike North Korea’s capabilities,” said Michael Green, a former U.S. official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Japan has a pacifist constitution but influential lawmakers have been pushing for the country to develop the ability to counter Pyongyang’s military advances.

Tokyo is also considering beefing up its ballistic missile defences with a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system or Aegis Ashore, a land-based version of the missile defence system used at sea.

China’s assertiveness in the East China Sea, where it has a territorial row with Japan, and the South China Sea, where it has disputes with the Philippines and several other Southeast Asia nations, will also be on the agenda as will trade.

Trump administration trade adviser Peter Navarro cited Japan on Monday for non-tariff trade barriers and said Washington must use its leverage as the world’s largest market to boost U.S. exports.

Some Japanese officials, though, say trade will take a back seat to security. “We have more key issues of common concern, like North Korea,” one official said, declining to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to media.

(Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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Wary of China, Duterte tells navy to build 'structures' east of Philippines

MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the navy to put up “structures” to assert sovereignty over a stretch of water east of the country, where Manila has reported a Chinese survey ship was casing the area last year.

The Philippines has lodged a diplomatic protest with Beijing after the vessel was tracked moving back and forth over Benham Rise, a vast area east of the country declared by the United Nations in 2012 as part of the Philippines’ continental shelf.

The Philippines says Benham Rise is rich in biodiversity and fish stocks.

China’s foreign ministry on Friday said the ship was engaged in “normal freedom of navigation and right of innocent passage”, and nothing more.

Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Duterte’s instruction was to increase naval patrols in that area and put up structures “that says this is ours”. He did not specify what structures would be erected.

“We are concerned, they have no business going there,” Lorenzana told reporters late on Sunday.

Though he accepts China’s explanation, Lorenzana said it was clear its vessel was not passing through the area because it stopped several times, for sustained periods.

Lorenzana last week said he was suspicious of China’s activities near Benham Rise and suggested they might be part of surveys to test water depths for submarine routes to the Pacific.

Asked during a news conference what his instruction was to the navy concerning Benham Rise, Duterte said the Philippines had to assert itself, but gently.

“You go there and tell them straight that this is ours,” he said. “But I say it in friendship.”

The issue risks disturbing ties with China at a time of rare cordiality between the two countries under Duterte, who has chosen to tap Beijing for business rather than confront it over its maritime activities and intentions in disputed waters.

Rows with China have usually been about the South China Sea, west of the Philippines, a conduit for about $ 5 trillion of shipped goods annually. China lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea.

While Duterte has been sanguine about ties with China, Lorenzana is more wary, saying that Beijing’s fortification of manmade islands inside the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone has not abated.

Duterte said ties with China were in good shape and dismissed any suggestion of diplomatic disputes resurfacing soon.

“Let us not fight about ownership or sovereignty at this time, because things are going great for my country,” he said. 

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India's Modi eyes victory in biggest state election test

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will learn on Saturday whether his popularity is sufficient to clinch a win for his party in the country’s most populous state, where its sights are set on an absolute majority to consolidate its position.

Modi campaigned for more than two months to win the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the most important election he has faced since triumphing in the 2014 general election.

As the campaign ‘face’ of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Modi, and his election strategist Amit Shah, can take credit if they win – but may face a backlash from sidelined party elders if they come up short.

“The results will redefine the prime minister’s political destiny and his future course of action,” an aide to Modi in the capital, New Delhi, told Reuters.

Post-election surveys suggest Modi has done enough to come first in Uttar Pradesh, home to one in six Indians, but may fall short of an outright majority in the 403-seat state assembly.

The exit polls, which are often wrong in India, also put the BJP ahead in three of four other states that will declare election outcomes on Saturday.

ENDORSEMENT

If results do hand Modi an outright win in Uttar Pradesh that would be an endorsement of his stewardship of Asia’s third-largest economy after his high-risk decision last November to scrap high-value banknotes worth 86 percent of the cash in circulation.

A strong BJP showing would be welcomed by investors counting on further economic reforms – including the launch of a national sales tax – in the absence of any credible opponent who might halt Modi’s march to a second term in 2019.

Short of a majority, the BJP could see opponents block its path to power in the state by forming a coalition, although Modi’s party will also look to convince its smaller rivals to join forces.

“If the BJP fails to secure a majority, then Modi’s economic decisions will be questioned and his failure to create jobs will impact his political future,” said Mohan Guruswamy, who heads the Centre for Policy Alternatives, an independent think-tank.

The BJP’s opponents include an alliance between the Congress party and the ruling Samajwadi Party, a tie-up that caught Modi’s party off guard. A better than expected showing by a third party could complicate the picture as results filter out.

The BJP is also eyeing victory on Saturday in the northeastern state of Manipur, northern Uttarakhand state, and the southern resort state of Goa, while an alliance of which it is a member in Punjab state is predicted to lose badly.

(Editing by Douglas Busvine and Clarence Fernandez)

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Sarawak rounding up illegal North Korean workers: Report

SINGAPORE: Malaysian authorities are reportedly rounding up about 140 North Koreans in Sarawak whose work permits have expired.

According to The Star on Wednesday (Mar 8), Chief Minister Abang Johari said he was awaiting instructions from the Malaysian government on deporting the North Koreans.

“The question is whether we can deport them or not,” he was quoted saying. “Deportation has to be done because they are illegal but with the current diplomatic problem, we have to get clearance from the federal government.”

The workers who overstayed are being dealt with amid ongoing tensions between North Korea and Malaysia, which have been locked in a diplomatic spat over the killing of the man widely believed to be Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. 

Sarawak is the only state in Malaysia that hires North Koreans on record, according to Bernama which cited the human resource minister.

Mr Abang Johari had said on Tuesday that there are about 170 North Koreans in the Borneo state, who are mainly specialised workers operating in a coal mine and a hydro project. A total of 36 of them have valid permits and are still working in Sarawak, he added on Wednesday.

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