ASEAN at a ‘crossroad’ as Myanmar violence escalates

ASEAN’s diplomatic attempts to resolve the crisis have been fruitless as the junta ignores international criticism and refuses to engage with its opponents. Above, a vacant chair for the Myanmar delegation during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Labuan Bajo, Indonesia on May 9, 2023. (AFP)
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Updated 09 May 2023

ASEAN at a ‘crossroad’ as Myanmar violence escalates

  • Myanmar has been ravaged by deadly violence since a military coup deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s government more than two years ago

LABUAN BAJO, Indonesia: Southeast Asian nations are at a “crossroad,” a senior Indonesian minister warned Tuesday, as escalating violence in junta-controlled Myanmar loomed over a regional summit.
Myanmar has been ravaged by deadly violence since a military coup deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s government more than two years ago and unleashed a bloody crackdown on dissent.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — long-decried by critics as a toothless talking shop — has led diplomatic attempts to resolve the crisis.
But those efforts have been fruitless, as the junta ignores international criticism and refuses to engage with its opponents, which include ousted lawmakers, anti-coup “People’s Defense Forces” and armed ethnic minority groups.
An air strike on a village in a rebel stronghold last month that reportedly killed about 170 people sparked global condemnation and worsened the junta’s isolation.
It also fueled calls for ASEAN to take tougher action to end the violence or risk being sidelined.
“ASEAN is at a crossroad,” Mahfud MD, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for politics, legal and security, warned Tuesday on the first day of the summit.
“Crisis after crisis is testing our strength as a community. And failure to address them would risk jeopardizing our relevance,” he said according to a copy of his remarks, listing Myanmar among the emergencies facing the bloc.
Human Rights Watch said Tuesday that last month’s air strike in the central Sagaing region was a “likely war crime,” and urged ASEAN to “signal its support for stronger measures to cut off the military’s cash flow and press the junta for reform.”
Pressure on the regional bloc increased Sunday after a convoy of vehicles carrying diplomats and officials coordinating ASEAN humanitarian relief in Myanmar came under fire.
Few details have been released about the shooting in eastern Myanmar’s Shan State, but a foreign diplomat in Yangon said diplomats from the embassies of Indonesia and Singapore were in the group.
Singapore confirmed two staff members from its embassy in Yangon were in the convoy but unharmed.
“Singapore condemns this attack,” its foreign ministry said late Monday.
Indonesia, the ASEAN chair this year, has not yet said if its diplomats were in the vehicles.

The shooting happened days before the May 9-11 ASEAN summit on the Indonesian island of Flores, where foreign ministers and national leaders will continue efforts to kick-start a five-point plan agreed upon with Myanmar two years ago after mediation attempts to end the violence failed.
The foreign ministers held talks Tuesday while their countries’ leaders were scheduled to meet Wednesday and Thursday.
Ahead of the arrival of officials in Labuan Bajo, the army deployed more than 9,000 personnel and warships to the small fishing town that serves as the entrance to Komodo National Park, where tourists can see the world’s largest lizards.
In her opening remarks Tuesday, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said the ministers had already discussed “the implementation” of the peace plan, but she did not elaborate.
A Southeast Asian diplomat said that Sunday’s shooting “raises the urgency of Myanmar as a key discussion point at this summit.”
The US State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about the shooting and urged the junta to “meaningfully implement the Five-Point Consensus.”
Myanmar remains an ASEAN member but has been barred from top-level summits due to the junta’s failure to implement the peace plan.
Marsudi said Friday that her country was using “quiet diplomacy” to speak with all sides of the Myanmar conflict and spur renewed peace efforts.
ASEAN has long been criticized for its inaction, but its initiatives are limited by its charter principles of consensus and non-interference.
US-based analyst Zachary Abuza said the group was unlikely to offer more than “another milquetoast statement of condemnation” despite Sunday’s attack.
“Had a diplomat been killed, there would have been more pressure on the organization to do something, but frankly they’ve been so feckless in the past two years that it’s hard to see them actually acting in a meaningful way,” Abuza said.

Pope Francis opens big Vatican meeting as battle lines are drawn on his reform project

Updated 58 min 54 sec ago

Pope Francis opens big Vatican meeting as battle lines are drawn on his reform project

  • Gathering is historic because Francis decided to let women and laypeople vote alongside bishops in any final document produced
  • Reform is a radical shift away from a hierarchy-focused Synod of Bishops

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis opened a big meeting on the future of the Catholic Church on Wednesday, with progressives hoping it will lead to more women in leadership roles and conservatives warning that church doctrine on everything from homosexuality to the hierarchy’s authority is at risk.
Francis presided over a solemn Mass in St. Peter’s Square to formally open the meeting, with hundreds of clergy from around the world celebrating on the altar before the rank-and-file Catholic laypeople whose presence and influence at this meeting marks a decisive shift for the Catholic Church.
Rarely in recent times has a Vatican gathering generated as much hope, hype and fear as this three-week, closed-door meeting, known as a synod. It won’t make any binding decisions and is only the first session of a two-year process. But it nevertheless has drawn an acute battle line in the church’s perennial left-right divide and marks a defining moment for Francis and his reform agenda.
Even before it started, the gathering was historic because Francis decided to let women and laypeople vote alongside bishops in any final document produced. While fewer than a quarter of the 365 voting members are non-bishops, the reform is a radical shift away from a hierarchy-focused Synod of Bishops and evidence of Francis’ belief that the church is more about its flock than its shepherds.
“It’s a watershed moment,” said JoAnn Lopez, an Indian-born lay minister who helped organize two years of consultations prior to the meeting at parishes where she has worked in Seattle and Toronto.
“This is the first time that women have a very qualitatively different voice at the table, and the opportunity to vote in decision-making is huge,” she said.
On the agenda are calls to take concrete steps to elevate more women to decision-making roles in the church, including as deacons, and for ordinary Catholic faithful to have more of a say in church governance.
Also under consideration are ways to better welcome of LGBTQ+ Catholics and others who have been marginalized by the church, and for new accountability measures to check how bishops exercise their authority to prevent abuses.
Women have long complained they are treated as second-class citizens in the church, barred from the priesthood and highest ranks of power yet responsible for the lion’s share of church work — teaching in Catholic schools, running Catholic hospitals and passing the faith down to next generations.
They have long demanded a greater say in church governance, at the very least with voting rights at the periodic synods at the Vatican but also the right to preach at Mass and be ordained as priests or deacons.
While they have secured some high-profile positions in the Vatican and local churches around the globe, the male hierarchy still runs the show.
Before the opening Mass got under way, advocates for women priests unfurled a giant purple banner reading “Ordain Women.”
Lopez, 34, and other women are particularly excited about the potential that the synod might in some way endorse allowing women to be ordained as deacons, a ministry that is currently limited to men.
For years supporters of female deacons have argued that women in the early church served as deacons and that restoring the ministry would both serve the church and recognize the gifts that women bring to it.
Francis has convened two study commissions to research the issue and was asked to consider it at a previous synod on the Amazon, but he has so far refused to make any change. He has similarly taken off the table debate on women priests.
Miriam Duignan, from the group Women’s Ordination Worldwide, said advocates want the synod to recognize that women were ministers in the early church “and they need to be restored to ministry.”
“The Catholic people around the world in every country have spoken and they have all mentioned women priests,” she said at a prayer vigil on the eve of the meeting. “They can see in their parishes, in their communities, that women are doing the work of priests. They are just not allowed to be recognized as priests.”
The potential that this synod process could lead to real change on previously taboo topics has given hope to many women and progressive Catholics and sparked alarm from conservatives who have warned it could lead to schism.
They have written books, held conferences and taken to social media claiming that Francis’ reforms are sowing confusion, undermining the true nature of the church and all it has taught over two millennia. Among the most vocal are conservatives in the US
On the eve of the meeting, one of the synod’s most outspoken critics, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, delivered a stinging rebuke of Francis’ vision of “synodality” as well as his overall reform project for the church.
“It’s unfortunately very clear that the invocation of the Holy Spirit by some has the aim of bringing forward an agenda that is more political and human than ecclesial and divine,” Burke told a conference entitled “The Synodal Babel.”
He blasted even the term “synodal” as having no clearly defined meaning and said its underlying attempt to shift authority away from the hierarchy “risks the very identity of the church.”
In the audience was Cardinal Robert Sarah, who along with Burke and three other cardinals had formally challenged Francis to affirm church teaching on homosexuality and women’s ordination before the synod.
In an exchange of letters made public Monday, Francis didn’t bite and instead said the cardinals shouldn’t be afraid of questions that are posed by a changing world. Asked specifically about church blessings for same-sex unions, Francis suggested they could be allowed as long as such benedictions aren’t confused with sacramental marriage.

India’s spies infiltrated West long before Canada’s murder claim

Updated 04 October 2023

India’s spies infiltrated West long before Canada’s murder claim

  • RAW was created under a government order with no formal constitutional backing and is exempt from legislative oversight
  • The Indian agency expanded its reach in Western nations after 2008 Mumbai attack and was emboldened by Modi administration

NEW DELHI: India’s external intelligence service is a feared foe in its neighborhood: Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal have all accused it of political meddling and involvement with outlawed groups that have perpetrated acts of violence.

Now, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegation last month that Indian government agents were involved in the June killing of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in a Vancouver suburb has thrust Delhi’s secretive Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) into the global spotlight.

India angrily denied the allegations and demanded that Canada — which expelled RAW’s station chief — furnish evidence. Ottawa said it shared proof with allies, but will not release it publicly.

Reuters spoke to four retired and two serving Indian security and intelligence officials familiar with RAW who said the agency was galvanized to play a more assertive international role after the 2008 Mumbai attacks that left 166 people dead. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

Four officials said that RAW expanded its reach in Western nations gradually after 2008. One current official cited India’s failure to secure the extradition of a US citizen convicted of involvement in the Mumbai attack as a key motivation for RAW to increase its sway in the West.

While in its immediate neighborhood RAW has advanced signal and technical intelligence capabilities, in the West the agency remains largely dependent on human intelligence for its operations, according to one serving and one former official.

RAW, like other arms of India’s national security apparatus, has been emboldened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has bolstered India’s defense capabilities since his 2014 election and built a strongman image, five of the officials said.

Modi’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

RAW Chief Ravi Sinha, the only serving official publicly affiliated with the agency, did not return messages seeking comment. Sinha reports to Modi’s office through the powerful National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, who also did not return a request for comment.

All six officials denied that RAW engages in targeted killings, noting that the agency has no mandate for such operations.

Fallout from the Vancouver incident has also raised concerns that RAW will come under greater global monitoring, Indian intelligence officials and analysts said.

“The current developments have undoubtedly increased global curiosity about RAW,” said Dheeraj Paramesha Chaya, an expert on Indian intelligence at Britain’s Hull University. He said that greater Western scrutiny of RAW’s activities might also bring a closer understanding of Delhi’s security concerns.

The West has expanded military and intelligence cooperation with Delhi as tensions with China have grown, with Washington agreeing in 2020 to share sensitive mapping and satellite data with India.

In the short term, Canada’s assertion might make it harder for Western countries to trust RAW, one of the officials said.

Ottawa and Delhi have been in a diplomatic standoff since Trudeau made his allegations in public. India has suspended the issuance of new visas to Canadian citizens and demanded that Ottawa reduce its diplomatic presence.

Canada had unsuccessfully pushed allies such as the US to issue a joint statement condemning India, the Washington Post reported.


RAW has long been identified as an arch-rival by Pakistani security leaders. Most recently, Islamabad — without providing evidence — blamed RAW for a suicide blast near a mosque on Friday that killed over 50 people. An Indian Foreign Ministry spokesperson did not return a request for comment on the accusation.

The Indian government publicly blamed Islamabad for the 2008 Mumbai attacks — widely seen by policymakers in Delhi as RAW’s most recent major failure — which Delhi says were carried out by Pakistan-based militants.

Islamabad denied that its agents were involved.

The agency enhanced its intelligence gathering operations in the West, including North America, due to the role of US citizen David Headley, now serving a 35-year prison sentence in Chicago on charges that included scouting locations for the Mumbai attacks, one of the officials said.

American law enforcement was warned before the attack that Headley had terrorism ties, according to US media reports. Top Indian policymakers have publicly suggested that he was a US “double agent,” and Delhi’s failure to secure his extradition frustrated RAW, the official said.

The United States, which gave India access to Headley, has denied he was a double agent. The American Embassy in Delhi did not return a request for comment.

RAW has had a small Western presence since its inception in the 1960s, when it inherited the London station of the Intelligence Bureau, a colonial-era agency that now focuses on domestic security, according to Chaya, the Hull professor.

The large Indian diaspora in countries like the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia is an asset, two officials said.

But the risk of Indian agents coming under surveillance in their host nations means they are used for political influence campaigns rather than security operations, they said.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported in 2020, citing government and intelligence sources, that the country’s security services were monitoring the possibility of India and China using their diaspora to influence candidates in that year’s federal election.

“Our footprint is growing in parts of the world which were not important earlier,” a recently retired senior RAW official said, without providing specifics.

RAW has “long been associated with direct action ... including targeted killings and disappearances” in its immediate neighborhood, said Adrian Levy, co-author of a book on South Asian spy agencies, adding that such actions were arranged via proxies, which gave India deniability.

Delhi has generally not seen a need for covert operations outside South Asia because it has friendly relations with many countries that enable it to secure aims such as extradition and getting access to people of interest, one official said.

The agency has been “super careful” about its operations in the West, said Levy. While RAW has arranged the movement of cash, weapons and men to other locations from Europe, “direct action was reserved for South Asia and Southeast Asia,” he said.


RAW operates from a drab office complex with no signage in central Delhi. Reuters was unable to determine specifics about the agency’s operations, such as its budget and its size.

It split off from the Intelligence Bureau in 1968 and was initially tasked with keeping a keen eye on China after Delhi’s humiliation in their brief 1962 war. RAW had close links to Israel’s Mossad and the CIA since its inception, according to a 2008 report by the US Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank that tracks Indian foreign and security policies.

One serving and one retired official told Reuters that RAW’s political masters in the Modi government demanded that it expand its “presence, significance and capabilities.”

“What they have done is to give confidence to the organization,” one of the officials said.

Two serving and one retired RAW agents told Reuters that some previous governments did not offer sufficient resources and political support.

Under Modi, India’s national security community “has become far more proactive, in terms of diplomacy (and) deal making but also direct action, analog and digital,” said Levy, the intelligence writer.

But as Indian intelligence services have gained more capabilities and far greater reach, the legal framework they operate in has not kept pace with how modern democracies manage espionage operations, he said.

RAW was created under a government order with no formal parliamentary or constitutional backing and is exempt from legislative oversight, according to PRS, a research group that studies India’s federal and state legislatures.

“This means there is less oversight, and fewer legal hurdles ... as real command and control is centralized” with the prime minister, Levy said.

Russian journalist who staged TV war protest handed 8-1/2 year jail term in absentia

Updated 04 October 2023

Russian journalist who staged TV war protest handed 8-1/2 year jail term in absentia

  • Marina Ovsyannikova found guilty of ‘spreading knowingly false information about the Russian Armed Forces’
  • TV journalist fled Russia with her daughter for an unspecified European country after escaping from house arrest

MOSCOW: A Russian court sentenced former state TV journalist Marina Ovsyannikova, who burst into a news broadcast with a placard that read “Stop the war” and “They’re lying to you,” to eight and half years in jail in absentia on Wednesday.
Ovsyannikova was found guilty of “spreading knowingly false information about the Russian Armed Forces,” according to a statement posted by the court on Telegram.
Ovsyannikova, 45, fled Russia with her daughter for an unspecified European country a year ago after escaping from house arrest, according to her lawyer, saying she had no case to answer.
She had staged her original protest less than three weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, in what it called a “special military operation.”

Philippines looking into ramming incident in South China Sea – president

Updated 04 October 2023

Philippines looking into ramming incident in South China Sea – president

  • Three Filipino fishermen died after their fishing boat was rammed by an unidentified foreign commercial vessel
  • Incident occurred on Monday while the boat was moored 15 nautical kilometers northwest of the disputed Scarborough Shoal

MANILA: The Philippines is investigating a maritime incident to find out what killed three Filipino fishermen in a ramming incident that sank their boat in the South China Sea, its president said on Wednesday.
“We assure the victims, their families, and everyone that we will exert every effort to hold accountable those who are responsible for this unfortunate maritime incident,” Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said on the X social media platform.
Three Filipino fishermen died after their fishing boat was rammed by an unidentified foreign commercial vessel while it was moored in the South China Sea, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said on Wednesday.
The incident occurred on Monday while the boat was moored 15 nautical kilometers northwest of the disputed Scarborough Shoal, it said in a statement. Eleven crew members survived when the boat sank.
“The incident is still under investigation to ascertain the details and circumstances surrounding the collision between the fishing boat and a still unidentified commercial vessel,” Marcos said.
“Let us allow the PCG to do its job and investigate, and let us refrain from engaging in speculation in the meantime,” he added, referring to the coast guard.
Tensions around those waters have recently flared up after the Philippines said it removed a 300-meter ball-buoy barrier installed by China’s coast guard near the Scarborough Shoal, a prime fishing spot and one of Asia’s most contested maritime features.
The strategic shoal, named after a British cargo vessel that ran aground there in the 18th century, is in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone but was seized in 2012 by China, which has maintained a constant presence of coast guard ships and fishing trawlers there ever since.
China has rejected the Philippines’ version of events over the barrier, while the United States has weighed in with support behind Manila and vowed to honor its treaty commitments to defend its treaty ally if attacked.
The Philippine coast guard did not elaborate on the incident or provide details of the vessel it said had rammed the Filipino crew.

A Nepal town imposes a lockdown and beefs up security to prevent clashes between Hindus and Muslims

Updated 04 October 2023

A Nepal town imposes a lockdown and beefs up security to prevent clashes between Hindus and Muslims

  • Nepal is a Hindu majority country that turned secular just a few years ago
  • Trouble began over the weekend over a status posted on social media by a Hindu boy
Katmandu: Despite quickly escalating tensions between Hindus and Muslims, the night passed peacefully after a lockdown was imposed and security heightened in a city in southwest Nepal, officials said.
Trouble began in the regional hub city of Nepalgunj over the weekend after a Hindu boy posted a status about Muslims on social media. Muslims protested the status inside the region’s main government administrator’s office building, burned tires on the streets and blocked traffic.
A larger Hindu rally was held Tuesday until stones and bottles were thrown at protesters, resulting in a few minor injuries.
The indefinite curfew was imposed since Tuesday afternoon in Nepalgunj, about 400 kilometers west of the capital, Katmandu, directly after the Hindu protest came under attack.
Area police chief Santosh Rathore said officers were patrolling the city and people were not allowed to leave their homes or gather in groups during the lockdown. There were no reports of any trouble overnight, nor on Wednesday morning.
Officials said they needed to impose the stay-at-home order and stop people from gathering together to prevent any more clashes between the two sides.
Communal violence is not common in Nepal, which is a Hindu majority country that turned secular just a few years ago. Muslims make up roughly a third of Nepalgunj’s population, and only about 14 percent of India’s population, which shares a border with the Nepal town and has seen a widening religious divide.