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Sawang Boonmee, deputy secretary-general of Election Commission talks as he works in a social media war room in Bangkok
FILE PHOTO: Sawang Boonmee, deputy secretary-general of Election Commission talks as he works in a social media war room in Bangkok, Thailand March 8, 2019. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

March 18, 2019

By Patpicha Tanakasempipat

BANGKOK (Reuters) – In Thailand’s election “war room”, authorities scroll through thousands of social media posts, looking for violations of laws restricting political parties’ campaigning on social media that activists say are among the most prohibitive in the world.

The monitors are on the look-out for posts that “spread lies, slander candidates, or use rude language”, all violations of the new electoral law, said Sawang Boonmee, deputy secretary-general of the Election Commission, who gave a Reuters team an exclusive tour of the facility.

When they find an offending post, on, for example, Facebook, they print it out, date-stamp it, and file it in a clear plastic folder, to be handed over to the Election Commission and submitted to Facebook for removal.

“When we order content to be removed, we’ll reach out to the platforms, and they are happy to cooperate with us and make these orders efficient,” Sawang said.

Sawang said the tough electoral laws governing social media for the March 24 election, the first since a 2014 military coup, are a necessary innovation aimed at preventing manipulation that has plagued other countries’ elections in recent years.

“Other countries don’t do this. Thailand is ahead of the curve with regulating social media to ensure orderly campaigning and to protect candidates,” Sawang said.

A Facebook representative said it reviewed requests from governments on a case-by-case basis.

“We have a government request process, which is no different in Thailand than the rest of the world,” the representative said.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

Democracy advocates, worry the social media restrictions laid out by the military government may be impeding parties from freely campaigning.

The rules require that candidates and parties register social media handles and submit a post to the commission, stating what platform it will appear on and for how long.

Parties and candidates are only allowed to discuss policies, and posts that are judged to be misleading voters or that portray others negatively could see the party disqualified, or a candidate jailed for up to 10 years and banned from politics for 20.

Pongsak Chan-on, coordinator of the Bangkok-based Asia Network for Free and Fair Election (ANFREL), said the rules go far beyond combating “fake news” and raise questions about how free and fair the election will be.

“The rules are stricter than in any recent elections anywhere. They’re so detailed and strict that parties are obstructed,” he told Reuters.

‘DOESN’T BODE WELL FOR DEMOCRACY’

The monitoring center, with a signboard reading “E-War Room”, has three rows of computers and stacks of printouts, with half a dozen workers spending eight hours a day searching for violations of the law.

Sawang said another intelligence center scanned for violations 24 hours a day but it was “off-limits” to media.

The election is broadly seen as a race between the military-backed prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, and parties that want the military out of politics.

But the stringent rules have left anti-junta parties fretting about how to campaign online, nervous that they could inadvertently break a rule that triggers disqualification.

Up to now, the new rules have not been used to disqualify any candidates though the very threat has had a dampening effect and encouraged self-censorship.

“They create complications for parties,” said Pannika Wanich, spokeswoman for the new Future Forward Party, which has attracted support among young urban folk who have come of age on social media.

She said her party had to consult a legal team before making posts.

Some candidates have deactivated their Facebook pages while others have removed posts that might cause trouble.

Last month, Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroonruangkit faced disqualification over an allegation that he misled voters in his biography on the party’s website. The commission dismissed the case last week.

In another petition, the commission was asked to ban the party’s secretary-general for slandering the junta in a Facebook post.

“It’s very restrictive and doesn’t bode well for democracy,” said Tom Villarin, a Philippine congressman and member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).

“Putting more restrictions on social media during a campaign season defeats the purpose of holding elections in the first place.”

FIGHTING FAKE NEWS

About 74 percent of Thailand’s population of 69 million are active social media users, putting Thais among the world’s top 10 users, according to a 2018 survey by Hootsuite and We Are Social.

Thailand is Facebook’s eighth biggest market with 51 million users, the survey showed.

Facebook said it has teams with Thai-language speakers to monitor posts and restricts electoral advertisements from outside the country.

“Combating false news is crucial to the integrity and safety of the Thailand elections,” said Katie Harbath, Facebook’s Global Politics and Government director, during a Bangkok visit in January.

Sawang said the election commission has also gained cooperation from Twitter and Japanese messaging app Line, used by 45 million Thais.

Line Thailand told Reuters it did not monitor chats for the election commission but helped limit fake news by showing only articles from “trusted publishers” on its news feature.

(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Kay Johnson, Robert Birsel)

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Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at church in Sonning
FILE PHOTO: Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at church in Sonning, Britain March 17, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

March 18, 2019

By Guy Faulconbridge and Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) – One of the most influential Brexit-backing lawmakers in Prime Minister Theresa May’s party gave the strongest hint to date on Monday that rebels might back her departure deal, saying that a bad exit accord was better than staying in the European Union.

May has warned lawmakers that unless they approve her Brexit divorce deal after two crushing defeats, Britain’s exit from the EU could face a long delay which many Brexiteers fear would mean Britain may never leave.

After two-and-a-half years of tortuous negotiations with the EU, the final outcome remains uncertain – with options including a long delay, exiting with May’s deal, a disorderly exit without a deal or even another EU membership referendum.

May is scrambling to rally support ahead of a summit of EU heads of government on Thursday and Friday where she has warned she will ask for a long Brexit delay unless parliament ratifies the deal she struck in November.

Rees-Mogg, chairman of the European Research Group of euroskeptics in Britain’s House of Commons, said he had not yet made up his mind how to vote on May’s deal but any Brexit was better than staying in the bloc.

If Rees-Mogg did swing behind May, dozens of rebels could follow him, although it is unclear if that would be enough to save her deal.

“No deal is better than a bad deal but a bad deal is better than remaining in the European Union in the hierarchy of deals,” Rees-Mogg told LBC radio. “A two-year extension is basically remaining in the European Union.”

Rees-Mogg said his dream option would be a no-deal exit on March 29 but that he felt May – a former supporter of EU membership who won the premiership in the turmoil that followed the 2016 Brexit referendum – would seek to stop a no-deal.

“The question people like me will ultimately have to answer is: can we get to no-deal instead? If we can get to no-deal instead, that is a better option… but I am concerned the prime minister is determined to stop a no-deal.”

May’s deal, a bid to keep close trading and security ties with the EU while leaving the bloc’s formal political structures, was defeated by 230 votes in parliament on Jan. 15, and by 149 votes on March 12.

If she could get the deal approved after the biggest parliamentary defeat for a government in modern British history, it would mark a spectacular and surprising turnaround and by far the biggest achievement of her crisis-riven tenure.

To get her deal through parliament, May must win over at least 75 lawmakers – dozens of rebels in her own Conservative Party, some Labour lawmakers, and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up her minority government.

The biggest issue is the so-called Northern Irish border backstop, an insurance policy aimed at avoiding post-Brexit controls on the United Kingdom’s border with EU-member Ireland.

Many Brexiteers and the DUP are concerned the backstop will trap the United Kingdom in the EU’s orbit indefinitely, and have sought guarantees it will not.

THIRD TIME LUCKY?

May’s finance minister, Philip Hammond, held talks with the DUP on Friday but said the government did not yet have support it needed and would only put the deal to a third vote if it felt it could win.

“There are some cautious signs of encouragement … but there is a lot more work to do,” Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the BBC on Monday.

If May could swing the DUP behind her, along with several dozen more Brexit supporters in her own party, she will be getting close to the numbers she needs.

Stepping up the pressure on the prime minister, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said he could trigger another confidence vote in May’s government if she fails again to get her deal adopted by parliament.

Former British foreign minister Boris Johnson said on Sunday it was not too late for the government to get “real change” to May’s deal and cautioned against holding another parliamentary vote on the agreement this week.

Johnson, a prominent Brexit campaigner who might influence other lawmakers on which way to vote over May’s deal, asked in his column in the Telegraph newspaper whether there was a way forward to break the impasse of Brexit in parliament.

“Perhaps,” he answered. “There is an EU summit this week. It is not too late to get real change to the backstop. It would be absurd to hold the vote before that has even been attempted.”

He also said May should outline her strategy for talks on the future relationship with the EU to “reassure … understandably doubtful MPs (members of parliament) by answering some basic questions”.

EU leaders have said repeatedly that the terms of their Withdrawal Agreement with May cannot be revisited.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Giles Elgood and Mark Heinrich)

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Lynk, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Palestinian territories attends a session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva
Michael Lynk, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Palestinian territories, attends a session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

March 18, 2019

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Israel is depriving millions of Palestinians of access to a regular supply of clean water while stripping their land of minerals “in an apparent act of pillage”, a United Nations human rights investigator said on Monday.

Michael Lynk, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, said that Israel “continues full-steam with settlement expansion” in the West Bank, which the United Nations and many countries deem illegal. There are some 20-25,000 new settlers a year, he said.

He was addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council, whose debate Israel’s delegation boycotted due to what it considers a deep bias against it. “In his latest farcical report, Mr. Lynk stoops to a new low and (accuses) the Jewish State of stealing,” Israel’s mission in Geneva said in a statement to Reuters. It

accused Lynk of being a “known Palestinian advocate”.

Israel’s main ally, the United States, quit the 47-member forum last year, also accusing it of an anti-Israel slant.

“In Gaza, the collapse of the coastal aquifer, the only natural source of drinking water in the Strip and now almost entirely unfit for human consumption, is contributing to a significant health crisis among the two million Palestinians living there,” Lynk said.

Despite the withdrawal of Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza in 2005, it has maintained a “hermetic seal of air, sea and land blockade” around the coastal enclave, he said.

An internationally-sponsored $567 million plan has been agreed to address Gaza’s acute shortage of clean water by constructing desalination plants, but analysts say its realization is years away.

“For nearly five million Palestinians living under occupation, the degradation of their water supply, the exploitation of their natural resources and the defacing of their environment are symptomatic of the lack of any meaningful control they have over their daily lives,” Lynk said.

In the West Bank, Israeli quarry companies extract some 17 million tonnes of stone each year, “notwithstanding strict prohibitions in international law against a military power economically exploiting an occupied territory”, Lynk said.

“The Dead Sea and its plentiful natural resources, part of which lies within the occupied Palestinian territory, is off-limits to any Palestinian development while Israeli companies are permitted to harvest the minerals in an apparent act of pillage,” he added.

Israeli authorities have said in the past that Palestinian quarries were ordered shut because they posed safety and environmental risks.

Palestinian Ambassador Ibrahim Khraishi called for Israel to halt what he said was theft of Palestinian property.

“Israel must stop this pillaging, what Israel is doing in the occupied territories is very far from its obligations under international law and treaties,” he said. “This is more even than apartheid.”

(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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FILE PHOTO: Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon, arrives to attend his trial at the courthouse in Lyon
FILE PHOTO: Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon, arrives to attend his trial, charged with failing to act on historical allegations of sexual abuse of boy scouts by a priest in his diocese, at the courthouse in Lyon, France, January 7, 2019. REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot/File Photo

March 18, 2019

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who was convicted by a French court of failing to report allegations of sexual abuse, met Pope Francis on Monday after saying before he left France that the purpose of his trip was to hand in his resignation as archbishop of Lyon.

The Vatican confirmed that the meeting took place but gave no details. The Vatican did not say if the pope had accepted any resignation.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Alison Williams)

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A Myanmar soldier patrols in a boat at the Mayu river near Buthidaung in the north of Rakhine state, Myanmar
FILE PHOTO: A Myanmar soldier patrols in a boat at the Mayu river near Buthidaung in the north of Rakhine state, Myanmar September 13, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

March 18, 2019

YANGON (Reuters) – Myanmar’s army said on Monday it had set up a military court to investigate its conduct during a crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority in 2017 that forced more than 730,000 to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.

The court comprising a major-general and two colonels will investigate events in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state in August 2017, the military said in a statement posted on the website of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the army commander-in-chief.

“The information is released that the investigation court was formed with the following persons to further scrutinize and confirm the respective incidents,” the military said.

The court will respond to allegations made by the United Nations and rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accusing security forces of mass killings, rape and arson.

Myanmar forces launched their offensive in Rakhine State in response to a series of attacks by Rohingya insurgents on security posts near the Bangladesh border.

A U.N. fact-finding mission last year said the military campaign was orchestrated with “genocidal intent” and recommended charging Min Aung Hlaing and five other generals with the “gravest crimes under international law”.

Myanmar has denied the accusations of murder, rape and other abuses by its forces though Min Aung Hlaing said last month “a number of security men may have been involved”.

A previous military investigation in 2017 exonerated the security forces of any crimes.

The new court is “another bad faith maneuver” to fend off international pressure, said Nicholas Bequelin, Southeast Asia and Pacific Director of Amnesty International.

“The military stands accused of the gravest crimes under international law and has shown no sign of reform,” he said.

“The idea that the Tatmadaw could investigate itself and ensure justice and accountability is both dangerous and delusional,” Bequelin added, referring to the army.

The military information unit did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Myanmar is facing growing international calls for accountability over the Rakhine campaign.

The International Criminal Court has opened a preliminary examination into the violence, while a commission of enquiry formed by Myanmar and including Filipino diplomat Rosario Manalo and Kenzo Oshima, Japan’s former ambassador to the U.N., is due to publish its findings this year.

The creation of the military court was based on assessments and suggestions from the military-appointed Judge Advocate-General, as well the allegations contained in human rights reports, according to the army statement.

(Editing by Darren Schuettler)

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Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov speaks during a news conference in Moscow
FILE PHOTO: Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov speaks during a news conference in Moscow, Russia February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

March 18, 2019

MOSCOW (Reuters) – United States Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov are due to meet in Rome this week to discuss the situation in Venezuela, diplomats from the two countries said.

Venezuela, a close ally of Moscow, is in political turmoil.

The United States and many other Western countries back Juan Guaido, head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly who invoked the constitution in January to assume an interim presidency, while Russia says President Nicolas Maduro remains the country’s only legitimate leader.

Washington says Moscow is propping up Maduro’s administration. But U.S. diplomats say there could come a point where Russia decides that Maduro’s rule is beyond salvaging.

Russia’s Interfax news agency cited Ryabkov on Sunday as saying that the main day of talks with Abrams would be on Tuesday and that the two sides would discuss how they might encourage negotiations between the Venezuelan government and opposition.

“The positions of Moscow and Washington on this question are diametrically opposed, but that’s not a reason not to talk,” Interfax quoted Ryabkov as saying.

(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova and Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn)

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Israeli forensic police inspect the scene of Palestinian shooting attack near the Jewish settlement of Ariel, in the occupied West Bank
Israeli forensic police inspect the scene of Palestinian shooting attack near the Jewish settlement of Ariel, in the occupied West Bank March 17, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

March 18, 2019

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An Israeli rabbi died on Monday of wounds from a Palestinian attack a day earlier in the occupied West Bank in which a soldier was killed – an incident that played into Israeli politics three weeks before a national election.

The rabbi, Achiad Ettinger, 47, was a father of 12 and a resident of a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. He was shot on Sunday shortly after the soldier was stabbed to death at an intersection on a busy highway in the territory.

The Palestinian assailant used the 19-year-old conscript’s rifle to fire at the rabbi and wound a second soldier before fleeing in a hijacked car, Israeli officials said.

A spokeswoman at Beilinson hospital near Tel Aviv announced Ettinger’s death. He was the head of a religious seminary in Tel Aviv.

“The people of Israel are mourning the murder of Rabbi Achiad Ettinger,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.

On Sunday, Culture Minister Miri Regev, one of Netanyahu’s most outspoken supporters in his right-wing Likud, seized on the incident to attack his strongest challenger in the April 9 election, former armed forces chief Benny Gantz.

Regev said Gantz, who heads the centrist Blue and White party, would seek the support of an Arab legislator whom she accused of inciting Palestinian violence. Gantz accused Regev was using Israeli deaths for “political propaganda”.

The Israeli military was still searching for the suspected attacker, identified in the Israeli media as a 19-year-old Palestinian with no known affiliation with a militant organization.

Palestinians, many of them individuals without links to armed groups, carried out a wave of attacks in the West Bank in late 2015 and 2016 but the frequency of such incidents has since decreased.

Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war. Palestinians seek to establish a state there and in the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014.

Tensions have also been high along the Israel-Gaza border where Palestinians have been holding weekly protests in support of a right of return to lands in Israel from which they fled or were forced to leave in the war over Israel’s creation in 1948.

On Thursday, Palestinians in Hamas-ruled Gaza fired two rockets at Tel Aviv, causing no damage or injuries. Israel responded with air strikes against Hamas targets.

The incidents have highlighted security as an election issue, with both Netanyahu and Gantz promoting themselves as the best qualified to defend Israel.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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French President Emmanuel Macron presides over an emergency crisis meeting at the Interior Ministry in Paris
French President Emmanuel Macron presides over an emergency crisis meeting at the Interior Ministry in Paris, France, late 16 March 2019. Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool via REUTERS

March 18, 2019

PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron is considering banning all demonstrations on the Champs Elysees after “yellow vest” rioters wrecked the iconic Parisian avenue last weekend, an official from the president’s office said on Monday.

On Saturday, protesters related with the “yellow vest” movement burned down the famous Fouquet’s restaurant on the Champs Elysees as well as several newspaper stands, a Longchamp luxury goods shop and vehicles.

Following Saturday’s riots, that were reminiscent of violent clashes last December on the Champs Elysees between protesters and police, Macron summoned a meeting with the interior and justice ministers on Monday.

Macron has promised to take “strong measures” as soon as possible to prevent riots happening again next Saturday.

Since mid-November, the “yellow vests” protesters – a group that originally demanded fuel tax cuts but has since morphed into a general opposition movement against the government – have held demonstrations every Saturday in the French capital.

(Reporting by Marine Pennetier; Editing by Inti Landauro/Sudip Kar-Gupta)

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Britain's Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is seen outside Downing Street ahead of a Brexit vote in London
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is seen outside Downing Street ahead of a Brexit vote in London, Britain March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville

March 18, 2019

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Britain’s government will only hold another meaningful vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal on Tuesday if it is certain that the divided House of Commons would back it at a third attempt, the foreign minister said.

Jeremy Hunt, in Brussels for talks with his EU peers, told journalists on Monday when asked if the vote would take place the following day: “We hope it will. “But we need to be comfortable that we’ll have the numbers.”

“The risk of no-deal, at least as far as the UK parliament is concerned, has receded somewhat but the risk of Brexit paralysis has not,” he said.

Hunt said there were “cautious signs of encouragement” that May’s deal could go through.

(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Alison Williams)

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eople stand as they look at damaged houses after a flash flood in Sentani, Papua
People stand as they look at damaged houses after a flash flood in Sentani, Papua, Indonesia, March 17, 2019 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Gusti Tanati/ via REUTERS

March 18, 2019

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Authorities in Indonesia raised the death toll from floods and landslides in the easternmost province of Papua to nearly 80 on Monday as President Joko Widodo called for the urgent evacuation of victims from devastated communities.

The deadly floods and landslide struck at the weekend after torrential rain fell across the Cyclops mountain range, much of which has been stripped of tree cover by villagers chopping fire wood and farmers cultivating plantations.

The death toll shot up to nearly 80 from 58 on Sunday as rescuers found more victims as they struggled to clear mud, rocks and shattered trees from the area near the provincial capital of Jayapura, including a 70 km stretch of road.

With 43 people missing, Widodo urged rescuers to step up their efforts.

“What is most important is handling the evacuation,” he said in a statement posted on Instagram.

More than 4,000 people have been displaced and are sheltering in tents, schools, and public buildings.

Disaster authorities have warned provincial officials of the danger of flash floods due to deforestation, said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman of the national disaster mitigation agency.

The central government sent supplies of seedlings last year, hoping to help restore some forest cover, he said.

(Reporting by Jessica Damiana; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor)

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