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Pakistan rolls out red carpet for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed”:


This is the Saudi crown prince’s first visit to Pakistan since assuming that role

For a country running out of foreign reserves, facing a yawning current account deficit and fighting to secure its financial future, Pakistan is putting on quite a show for Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

And it’s easy to see why: Prime Minister Imran Khan needs money, and he needs it fast.

MBS, as he’s known, has come to town promising billions.

But money is just one dimension of a relationship that goes much deeper. The two countries have a nexus of interests.

Pakistan was meant to be the first stop on an Asian tour taking in five countries but the crown prince’s trips to Indonesia and Malaysia have been postponed. He is still scheduled to visit China and India in what is being seen as a charm offensive by the controversial prince.

How lavish is the visit?

The last time a Saudi royal visit was marked with this much fanfare was in 2006, when then Saudi ruler King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz toured the nuclear-armed nation.

And security is being taken seriously – with Imran Khan making a point of saying that he is personally taking care of the arrangements. The 33-year-old Saudi’s tour comes amid heightened tensions in the region, after India blamed Pakistan for the deadliest attack on its security forces in Kashmir in decades.

JF-17 Thunder fighter jets escorted MBS’s fleet on Sunday evening as it entered Pakistani airspace – with all other flights grounded. The crown prince was greeted by Mr Khan and Pakistan’s powerful army chief on a red carpet at a military airport and given a 21-gun salute.

Imran Khan then personally drove Mohammed bin Salman to the official residence of the prime minister, where Mr Khan doesn’t actually stay but where MBS will for his two-day visit, in a first for a state guest.

Hundreds of five-star rooms in Islamabad are believed have been booked out for the 1,000-strong delegation. There are even reports that thousands of pigeons have been caught for a welcome ceremony.

Pakistan’s higher civilian honour will be conferred on the prince, who Mr Khan has praised for his “reformist ideas”.

Pakistan needs Saudi money to stave off a huge IMF bail-out – but this is not a one-way relationship

Why is Pakistan desperate for cash?

The central bank has only $8bn (£6.2bn) left in foreign reserves and faces a balance of payments crisis.

Since he was sworn in last August, former star cricketer Imran Khan has been aggressively pursuing help from friendly countries in order to reduce the size of the bail-out package that Pakistan is likely to need from the International Monetary Fund, under very strict conditions.

The country is seeking its 13th bailout since the late 1980s and Saudi Arabia has already provided a $6bn loan.

What has become of India’s and Pakistan’s economies, 70 years after partition?

The visit of MBS comes soon after Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan was in town and the United Arab Emirates has pledged to provide $6bn to support Pakistan’s battered economy.

But Saudi Arabia is taking things up a notch – with its media reporting provisional agreements worth $20bn are being signed.

The crown jewel is a new $10bn oil refinery in southern port city of Gwadar.

Gwadar is the nerve centre of China’s $60bn China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Chinese money is much valued by Pakistan’s government but analysts say it comes with strings attached – Chinese workers normally build Chinese projects. There are also concerns about Beijing having too much influence.

Funds from the Gulf countries are hence very welcome.

What’s in it for the Saudis?

While it is easy to see Pakistan as a country which is benefiting from the largesse of its allies at the cost of its sovereignty, the story is not so simple.

Saudi Arabia needs Pakistan too.

The crown prince’s tour comes at a peculiar time for the kingdom, which is currently facing a global reputational crisis of its own due to the humanitarian catastrophe of its war in Yemen and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate.

Against this backdrop, the current tour can be seen as a charm offensive by MBS, who is seeking to bolster relationships with dependable allies while doling out cash.

And it’s important not to forget that Pakistan is very important to the Saudis.

Mohammad Bin Salman - then defence minister - is welcomed by Pakistani Army General Raheel Sharif on January 10, 2016
GETTY IMAGES

MBS visited Pakistan in 2016 before he was elevated to crown prince

The two countries have a military relationship which goes back decades. When Islam’s holiest site in Mecca was attacked by militants four decades ago, it was Pakistani troops who were deployed to eliminate them.

“There has always been the assumption that Pakistan would be able to provide manpower if Saudi Arabia faced a major security crisis or a major attack,” says Shashank Joshi, a South Asia expert and defence editor of The Economist magazine.

“Saudi Arabia, like some of the other gulf countries, has lots of cash but not necessarily a particularly strong army. Pakistan has not very much cash but a very strong and powerful army.”

He adds that it has long been suspected – but never proven – that the two sides have a longstanding nuclear relationship that Saudi Arabia could draw upon if it one day needed access to the technology – for example if regional rival Iran became a nuclear-armed power.

The Saudis have a strong religious influence in mostly Sunni Muslim Pakistan and after the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s, they were able to set up a large network of religious seminaries, in part to counter Iran’s influence.

In fact, a week before MBS’s visit to Pakistan, the main avenues of Islamabad were dotted with posters and banners commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution. Since then, those have been replaced with pictures of MBS.

The presence of Iran as Pakistan’s next door neighbour is another reason why the Saudis want to keep up the relationship.

“Saudi Arabia would like to ensure Pakistan remains closer to Riyadh than it does to Tehran,” says Mr Joshi.

Signs of Iranian leaders were taken down – and replaced with these

It’s true that Pakistan’s decision not to heed Saudi Arabia’s call to join its war in Yemen  four years ago damaged the relationship. But this visit – coming amid a generational shift in the Saudi leadership – “represents a turning of the page”, says Pakistani newspaper columnist Mosharraf Zaidi.

The Taliban question

What makes the timing of this tour even more significant is that it comes at a time when geo-politics in the region are shifting.

Unprecedented talks are taking place to bring an end to the war in Afghanistan – where Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, India and the US all have a stake.

The high-level talks have been held in Qatar – the Gulf country with which Saudi Arabia has an ongoing rift – and Saudi officials will want to find out exactly what has been going on from Pakistan’s army chiefs, says Shashank Joshi.

“Saudi Arabia will be keen that as the peace process continues that it is factions [of the Taliban that they are close to] who are empowered, rather than those who are close to Iran.”

China closes its Everest base camp to tourists”:


More and more people want to see the world’s tallest peak

China has closed the base camp on its side of Mount Everest to visitors who don’t have climbing permits.

Authorities have resorted to the unusual move to deal with the mounting waste problem at the site.

The ban means tourists can only go as far as a monastery slightly below the 5,200m (17,060ft) base camp level.

More people visit the mountain from the southern side in Nepal, but over the past years numbers have been rising steadily on the Chinese side as well.

The Chinese base camp, located in Tibet, is popular as it is accessible by car – whereas the Nepalese camp can only be reached by a hike of almost two weeks.

The world’s highest peak has been struggling with escalating levels of rubbish for years, as the number of visitors rises.

The Chinese Mountaineering Association says 40,000 visited its base camp in 2015, the most recent year with figures. A record 45,000 visited Nepal’s base camp in 2016-7 according to Nepal’s Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation.

Everest view from Tibetan side
GETTY IMAGES

Tourists are still allowed to go as far as the Rongbuk monastery

Ordinary tourists will only be banned from areas above Rongbuk monastery, which is around 5,000m above sea level, according to China’s state news agency Xinhua.

Mountaineers who have a permit to climb the 8,848m peak will still be allowed to use the higher camp.

In January, authorities announced that they would limit the number of climbing permits each year to 300.

On Chinese social media, claims have spread in recent days that its base camp will be permanently closed to tourists – but Xinhua cited officials denying that.

Nepalese sherpa picking up trash on Everest
GETTY IMAGES

The temperature and high altitude make clean-up efforts on Everest a tough task

The official announcement about the closure was made in December, on the website of the Tibetan authorities.

It stated that three clean-up operations last spring had collected eight tonnes of waste, including human faeces and mountaineering equipment climbers had left behind.

This year’s clean-up efforts will also try to remove the bodies of mountaineers who have died in the so-called death zone above 8,000m, where the air is too thin to sustain life for long.

Due to the cold and high altitude, these bodies often remain on the mountain for years or even decades.

Pulwama attack: India will ‘completely isolate’ Pakistan”:


The blast took place on a heavily guarded highway

India has said it will ensure the “complete isolation” of Pakistan after a suicide bomber killed 46 soldiers in Indian-administered Kashmir.

It claims to have “incontrovertible evidence” of its neighbour’s involvement but has not provided it.

Pakistan denies any role in the attack by militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad, which is based on its soil.

Thursday’s bombing of a military convoy was the deadliest attack on Indian forces in the region for decades.

Federal Minister Arun Jaitley said India would take “all possible diplomatic steps” to cut Pakistan off from the international community.

But a Pakistani minister has asked India to reveal their evidence, and offered to help them investigate the attack.

There has been an insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir since the late 1980s but violence has risen in recent years.

Demonstrators overturn a car during a protest against the attack on a bus that killed 44 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel in south Kashmir on Thursday, in Jammu February 15, 2019.
REUTERS

Protests were held in Jammu after Thursday’s attack

In the wake of the attack, authorities have imposed a curfew in parts of Hindu-majority Jammu city after an angry mob vandalised cars in a largely Muslim neighbourhood.

Both India and Pakistan claim all of Muslim-majority Kashmir but only control parts of it.

How will India ‘punish’ Pakistan?

India says that Pakistan has long given safe haven to Jaish-e-Mohammad militants and accused it of having a “direct hand” in Thursday’s attack.

It has called for global sanctions against the group and for its leader, Masood Azhar, to be listed as a terrorist by the UN security council.

India has tried to do this several times in the past but was repeatedly blocked by China, an ally of Pakistan.

Mr Jaitley set out India’s determination to hold Pakistan to account when speaking to reporters after attending a security meeting early on Friday.

He also confirmed that India would revoke Most Favoured Nation status from Pakistan, a special trading privilege granted in 1996.

Pakistan said it was gravely concerned by the bombing but firmly rejected allegations that it was responsible.

The country’s Information Minister, Fawad Chaudry, asked India to show its evidence, and offered to help the investigation into the attack.

“This needs evidence,” he told broadcaster CNN-News18. “This needs an investigation.”

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a speech that those behind the attack would pay a “heavy price”, leading many analysts to expect further action from Delhi.

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But they say that the government’s military options appear limited due to heavy snow across the region.

After a 2016 attack on an Indian army base that killed 19 soldiers, Delhi said it carried out a campaign of “surgical strikes” in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, across the de facto border. But a BBC investigation found little evidence militants had been hit

How did the attack unfold?

The bomber used a vehicle packed with explosives to ram a convoy of 78 buses carrying Indian security forces on the heavily guarded Srinagar-Jammu highway about 20km (12 miles) from the capital, Srinagar.

The bomber is reported to be Adil Dar, a high school dropout who left home in March 2018. He is believed to be between the ages of 19 and 21.

Soon after the attack, Jaish-e-Mohammad released a video in which a young man identified as Dar spoke about what he described as atrocities against Kashmiri Muslims. He said he joined the group in 2018 and was eventually “assigned” the task of carrying out the attack in Pulwama.

He also said that by the time the video was released he would be in jannat (heaven).

Dar is one of many young Kashmiri men who have been radicalised in recent years. On Thursday, main opposition leader Rahul Gandhi said that the number of Kashmiri men joining militancy had risen from 88 in 2016 to 191 in 2018.

India has been accused of using brutal tactics to put down protests in Kashmir – with thousands of people sustaining eye injuries from pellet guns used by security forces.

Presentational grey line

‘It feels like my son is always with me’

by Arvind Chhabra, BBC News Punjabi

Kulwinder Singh was killed in the attack on Thursday

“I’m proud of my son. He has sacrificed himself for his family,” says Darshan Singh, whose son, Kulwinder, died in the suicide attack in Kashmir.

Mr Singh, who lives in Rauli village in Punjab, last saw Kulwinder on 10 February, before he returned to Kashmir at the end of his vacation.

His son was 26 and planned to marry in November: “We talked of only his wedding. We had finalised the caterers and the venue.”

“It feels like my son is always with me,” Mr Singh says, pointing to the jacket he is wearing. It belonged to Kulwinder and has his name embroidered on it.

Darshan Singh says his son was like a friend to him and he had been waiting to see him come home with his bride. “I didn’t know we would instead be waiting for his body.”

Presentational grey line

What’s the background?

There have been at least 10 suicide attacks since 1989 but this is only the second to use a vehicle.

Prior to Thursday’s bombing, the deadliest attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir this century came in 2002, when militants killed at least 31 people at an army base in Kaluchak, near Jammu, most of them civilians and relatives of soldiers.

Why has 2018 seen a spike in violence in Indian-administered Kashmir?

The latest attack comes amid a spike in violence in Kashmir that came about after Indian forces killed a popular militant, 22-year-old Burhan Wani, in 2016.

More than 500 people were killed in 2018 – including civilians, security forces and militants – the highest such toll in a decade.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars and a limited conflict since independence from Britain in 1947 – all but one were over Kashmir.

What is Jaish-e-Mohammad?

Started by cleric Masood Azhar in 2000, the group has been blamed for attacks on Indian soil in the past, including one in 2001 on the parliament in Delhi which took India and Pakistan to the brink of war.

People protest carrying placards of Maulan Masood Azhar

Maulan Masood Azhar founded JeM in 1999

Most recently, the group was blamed for attacking an Indian air force base in 2016 near the border in Punjab state. Seven Indian security personnel and six militants were killed.

India, the UK, US and UN have all designated it a “terrorist” organisation and it has been banned in Pakistan since 2002.

But Masood Azhar remains at large and is reportedly based in Bahawalpur in Pakistan’s Punjab province. India has demanded his extradition but Islamabad has refused, citing a lack of proof.

He was arrested in Srinagar in 1999 but India released him as a part of a hostage exchange after an airliner was hijacked.

How have others reacted?

Mr Gandhi and two former Indian chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir condemned the attack and expressed their condolences.

The attack has also been widely condemned around the world, including by the US and the UN Secretary General.

The White House called on Pakistan to “end immediately the support and safe haven provided to all terrorist groups operating on its soil”.

Gay couples sue Japan over right to get married


Ai Nakajima and Tina Baumann are married in Germany, but Japan doesn’t recognise that

Thirteen same-sex couples across Japan are taking legal action on Thursday against the government, demanding the right to get married.

They are suing for symbolic damages arguing that being barred from marriage violates their constitutional rights.

Should the courts agree, it would mean same-sex unions will have to be permitted in future.

Japan is the only G7 country that does not allow gay marriage but surveys suggest strong support for the case.

The country’s constitution says that “marriage shall be only with the mutual consent of both sexes” and authorities have until now always read this as not permitting same-sex marriage.

But the lawyers for Thursday’s plaintiffs counter that the text of the constitution was to prevent forced marriages and there isn’t anything in it that explicitly prohibits same-sex marriage.

They argue in turn that the refusal to allow same-sex marriage is a violation of the constitutional right that all people should be equal under the law.

‘A very conservative society’

The 13 couples will all file their case on Valentine’s Day, in different cities across the country.

One of the couples is 40-year old Ai Nakajima from Japan and 31-year old German, Tina Baumann.

The two have been together since 2011 when they met in Berlin. After living a few years in Germany, they then moved to Japan. But living as a same-sex couple was very different in the two countries.

“Japanese society is by nature very conservative,” Ms Nakajima told the BBC.

Many of their friends don’t dare to out themselves as homosexual and hide their partners from families and even friends.

Japan is a very traditional country but polls indicate that the vast majority of younger Japanese support same-sex marriage.

Since 2015, some cities issue certificates for same-sex couples yet those are not legally binding and merely call on businesses to accord equal treatment.

REUTERS

In 2015 the Shibuya ward was the first to issue same-sex certificates

“So while among younger people there is an overwhelming support for gay marriage, politicians tend to be older and are very hesitant when it comes to changing things,” Ms Nakajima says.

The group knows the court cases will of course draw public attention to their struggle but there is genuine hope they might be successful.

“We are prepared to take this to the supreme court,” Ms Nakajima explains. “If we have to take that route, it might take more than five years.”

German marriage rejected

The two got married in Germany and soon afterwards applied for that marriage to be recognised in Yokohama where they currently live.

As they had expected, the German marriage was not recognised.

For the two of them, this means concrete problems – Ms Baumann is currently studying but once she graduates will require a new visa to be allowed to stay in the country.

For a married couple such a visa would easily be issued to a spouse – but that’s not the case for same-sex partnerships.

The problems don’t stop there though, the two women explain.

“In Germany it’s a lot easier to come out and just live the way you choose to as an individual,” Ms Baumann says.

“In Japan however, gender roles are a lot more traditional and a woman is expected to marry and have children. In many cases, it’s even still expected that a woman will stop working once she becomes a mother.”

AI NAKAJIMA

The two say life as a gay couple is very different in Germany and Japan

Many of their friends don’t dare to talk openly to their families for fear of being outcast.

“It’s almost like you’re being banished,” Ms Nakajima says. “And it affects many aspects of your life. If you for instance want to rent a house as a same-sex couple, you might be rejected because of this. Or you might not be able to take out a loan as couple if you want to buy a property together.”

“It’s really like in almost every situation that we are facing problems,” she says.

“We have received some criticism from the public that we should just move to Germany rather than make trouble here in Japan,” the German says.

Yet in the end, they decided that standing up for what they believe in was more important.

Thursday’s lawsuit will likely be only the first step in a long process to eventually allow same-sex couples to get married in Japan.

Monica Witt: Who the woman at the centre of the spying case?


US prosecutors have accused a former US Air Force officer of spying for Iran in an elaborate operation that targeted her fellow intelligence officers.

But who is Monica Witt?

Details of her upbringing are unclear, but a previously issued FBI missing persons poster says that she was born on 8 April 1979 in El Paso, Texas.

According a curriculum vitaeposted on jobs website Indeed, Ms Witt joined the Air Force in December 1997. Stationed at Offutt Air Force Base, she worked as a Persian-Farsi language specialist.

She later served as a Special Agent at the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) from November 2003, based at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. On its website, the AFOSI says its mission is to “identify, exploit and neutralize criminal, terrorist and intelligence threats to the Air Force, Department of Defense and U.S. Government.”

A spokesperson for the US Air Force told the BBC she was discharged in June 2008 with the rank of Technical Sergeant. She received numerous decorations including the Air Medal, awarded for “single acts of heroism or meritorious achievements.”

Ms Witt left the US military in May 2008 with the rank of Technical Sergeant. For the next seven months, she worked as a contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton in Maryland, consulting on “Iranian subject matter” and providing “language and cultural specialisation.”

From November 2008 to August 2010, she worked as a Middle East Desk Officer at another contractor, Chenega Federal Systems, in Virginia. During this role Ms Witt says she “supervised, controlled, and coordinated the execution of highly sensitive counterintelligence operations against foreign intelligence services worldwide.”

Later, from December 2010 to May 2011, Ms Witt worked in Washington with Amidest. During her time with the non-profit, she “submitted applications for 60 Iraqi Fulbright candidates to multiple U.S. universities.”

According to her CV, she holds a Bachelors degree, from the University of Maryland, a Masters from George Washington University, and a qualification in Persian-Farsi from the Defense Language Institute.

Whilst at George Washington University, she published articles on Tajik-Iranian relations andsubsidy reform in Iran .

She claims to have lived and worked within countries including Iraq, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey, the UAE., Tajikistan, and Iran.

Monica Witt in Air Force uniform
Monica Witt was last heard from while travelling in southwest Asia.

After this, details of her activities and whereabouts are unclear.

In an undated missing persons declaration the FBI says Witt worked as an English teacher in either Afghanistan or Tajikistan and had out of contact since 2013.

According to her indictment, Ms Witt travelled to Iran in February 2012 to attend a conference organised by the New Horizon Organization. The Justice Department says the event is sponsored by Iran’s Revolutionary and seeks to promote “anti-American propaganda.”

Ms Witt allegedly had an “ideological” turn and defected to Iran in August 2013.

Returning to the country that month, she was provided with housing and computer equipment went on to disclose highly-classified information to Iranian officials. The information included details of her former colleagues within the US intelligence community.

While in Iran, she also allegedly converted to Islam during a television segment after identifying herself as a US veteran, and delivered several broadcasts in which she criticised the US.

In one article , published by state-run Press TV, Ms Witt attacked “a prevailing culture of tolerance for sexual harassment” within the US armed forces.

A warrant has been issued for Ms Witt, who remains at large.

Sri Lanka begins recruitment drive for “moral” hangmen”:


Inmates at Colombo jail – nearly 1,300 prisoners are on death row in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has begun a search for two executioners with “strong moral character” as part of a crackdown on drug smuggling.

The job, advertised in the state-run Daily News paper, pays 36,310 rupees ($158; $203) a month.

Capital punishment is legal in Sri Lanka but no executions have taken place since 1976.

The country has struggled to find a permanent executioner after its last hangman resigned five years ago.

The dedicated role is open to any Sri Lankan males aged 18-45 who possess “mental strength.”

The last hangman resigned in 2014 after seeing the gallows for the first time and going into shock. Another was hired last year but never turned up for work.

Sri Lanka has nearly 1,300 people currently on death row, 48 for drug-related offences.

The country’s constitution recognises the freedom of individuals to engage in “any lawful occupation, profession, trade, business or enterprise”.

Since 2004 rape, drug trafficking and murder have been considered capital crimes but punishments have only extended to life imprisonment.

hangman's noose - file photo
Sri Lanka has struggled to find a hangman since its one of its recruits resigned in 2014, going into shock after being shown the gallows for the first time.

On 7 February, President Maithripala Sirisena told parliament that he would authorise the death penalty “within the next two months” for those jailed on drugs charges.

During a visit to the Philippines in January, President Sirisena praised President Rodrigo Duterte, for his campaign against drugs, calling it “an example to the world.”

More than 5,000 drug dealers or users have been killed, according to Filipino police, since Mr Duterte launched his anti-narcotics campaign in 2016.

President Sirisena announced in July 2018 that hangings would resume for drug offenders, citing a rise in arrests for drugs offences in the country.

Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe has criticised the move.

According to the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board (NDDCB), drug-related arrests have risen steadily since 2013.

Cannabis and heroin are the most widely-used drugs in Sri Lanka, and authorities have expressed concerns that the island nation could become a major transit point for traffickers in Asia.

Police have arrested more than 50 people on trafficking charges since the middle of last year.

Plastic pollution: One town smothered by 17,000 tonnes of rubbish”:


Meet the people who fought back against foreign plastic waste

Malaysia has become one of the world’s biggest plastic importers, taking in rubbish the rest of the world doesn’t want. But one small town is paying the price for this – and it is now smothered in 17,000 tonnes of waste.

It began last summer. Every night, after the clock struck midnight, Daniel Tay knew exactly what was coming.

He would shut his doors, seal his windows and wait for the inevitable. Soon his room would be filled with an acrid smell, like rubber being burned. Coughing, his lungs would tighten.

Over the next few months, the strange smell would return every night, like clockwork.

It was only later that he found the source of the smell – illegal recycling factories that were secretly burning plastic.

Nowhere else to go

Plastic waste in Kuala Langat
The town of Jenjarom has now become synonymous with plastic waste

At that point he had no idea that in 2017 China had decided to ban the import of foreign plastic waste. In that year alone it had taken in seven million tonnes of plastic scrap and many environmental campaigners considered it a victory when China clamped down.

But with nowhere to go, the bulk of the plastic waste – most of it from the UK, the US and Japan – just went somewhere else and that was to Malaysia.

It could have been any town but Jenjarom’s proximity to Port Klang – Malaysia’s largest port and the entry point for most of the country’s plastic imports – made it the ideal location.

From January to July 2018 alone, some 754,000 tonnes of plastic waste was imported into Malaysia.

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What the council describes as illegal plastic recycling factories began cropping up, hoping to make a quick profit from the burgeoning plastic recycling industry, worth over RM3bn ($734m, £561m).

According to the State Council, there were soon 33 illegal factories in Kuala Langat – the district Jenjarom is located in. Some sprang up near dense palm oil plantations, others were closer to town.

But it would be months before residents learned of their existence – and then only after the symptoms started appearing.

‘Slowly poisoning them’

“The smells started a while ago but got really bad around August this year,” said Mr Tay.

“I started to feel unwell and I would keep coughing. I was really angry when I found out it was because of the factories.”

Daniel Tay
Daniel Tay says he is angry at the damage the factories caused

Plastic waste is typically recycled into pellets, which can then be used to manufacture other types of plastic.

Not all plastic can be recycled, so legal recycling plants should send unrecyclable plastics to waste centres – something which costs money.

But many illegal recyling plants instead choose to dispose of it in free but unsanitary ways, either burying it or more commonly – burning.

Ngoo Kwi Hong says the fumes from the burning sparked a cough so violent she even coughed up a blood clot.

“I couldn’t sleep at night because it was so smelly. I became like a zombie, I was so tired,” said Ms Ngoo.

“It was only later I found out there were factories surrounding my house – north, south, east, west.”

Those who lived nearest to the factories were affected the most.

Belle Tan, who found out there was an illegal factory just 1km from her house, spoke of the impact on her 11-year-old son.

“He got a really bad rash around his stomach, neck, legs and arms. His skin would keep peeling, even when we touched him it hurt. I was angry and scared for his health but what could I do? The smell was everywhere in the air.”

Belle Tan and her son
Belle Tan says her son’s stomach has been plagued with rashes

It’s unclear if these ailments can be directly linked to air pollution, but one expert said inhaling burnt plastic fumes was likely to have had an impact on their respiratory health.

“The main thing about [these plastic fumes] is that they are carcinogenic. Carcinogens [are involved] in causing cancer,” Tong Yen Wah, a professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS)’s Department of Chemical and Bio-molecular Engineering, told the BBC.

“It also depends a lot on the types of plastics being burnt and the exposure to it. If you have short term exposure at a high level you might have difficulty breathing… [or it might] trigger some effects in your lungs. But if it’s long term exposure… that’s where the carcinogenic effects come in.”

But many in the town remain completely unaware or indifferent to the potential effects of the burning.

“Many people here are just trying to make a simple living,” said Mr Tay. “They’ll just say its smelly and get on with their lives, they don’t understand that it is something that could be slowly poisoning them.”

The BBC spoke to several residents, many of whom said they had smelt the fumes, but hadn’t given it much thought.

“You keep smelling it and your body gets used to it,” joked one resident. “Maybe it could even be good for you.”

A makeshift landfill

The Malaysian government has now shut down 33 factories it says were illegal in Jenjarom, and for the most part, the fumes are gone.

But the 17,000 tonnes of rubbish left by these factories is still there – and not insignificant for a town of 30,000. Most of this waste has been repossessed by the authorities, but a staggering 4,000 tonnes of waste plastic still sits on a single site – open to anyone who might walk by.

Graphic

A mountain of rubbish greets you the minute you arrive at what was once an unused piece of land, but is now a makeshift landfill.

A quick walk around the site reveals that a staggering amount of plastic waste comes from foreign countries, with a huge portion of it from Japan and the UK – brands like Asda, Co-op and Fairy can be seen strewn around.

Some of the plastics from different countries found in Jenjarom
Most of the plastic found at the dump site are from the large developed nations

“We are trying to identify who is the owner of the land, we are still investigating this,” Minister of Housing and Local Government Zuraida Kamaruddin told the BBC.

The state that Jenjarom sits in – Selangor – has tried to auction it off but to no avail.

Jenjarom's 4000 metric tonnes of waste
4,000 tonnes of waste sits in a single site

“No one wants it because it is so contaminated,” Yeo Bee Yin, Minister of Energy, Technology, Science, Environment and Climate Change, acknowledged.

Ms Yeo reveals that there are several options available – the most viable of which would be sending the rubbish to a cement plant, which would burn the plastic to generate heat for their boiler. But this solution would come at a high cost to the government.

A dumpsite in Jenjarom
It’s just metres away from a palm tree plantation

“[We estimate that it] will cost around RM2.5m just to transport that pile [to the plant],” Ms Yeo revealed. “[But we recognise that] we have to get rid of that pile first.”

From one town…

But Jenjarom is just one town in Malaysia – the problem of illegal plastic recycling doesn’t end there.

“Many of these [illegal factory operators] rent the land from local Malaysian landowners and set up very [basic] factories,” Ng Sze Han, a local councillor in Selangor, told the BBC.

“When we [catch the illegal factory operators], they just hit and run – we shut them down there, they move to another part of Malaysia.”

And it’s no surprise that they are able to find landowners to rent from so easily.

A plastic recycling factory in Kuala Langat
An abandoned recycling factory in Kuala Langat

One landowner the BBC spoke to reveals he rented his land out for RM50,000 (about $12,260, £9,500) a month to a Chinese national. He says he wasn’t aware of what they were doing, but was essentially only concerned with collecting rent. It’s not an inconsiderable sum when you learn that the average monthly income for a Malaysian family in 2016 was RM5228.

Mr Ng reveals he’s already had calls from officials in Johor and Negeri Sembilan – other states in Malaysia – saying illegal factories had begun popping up in their patches.

He says the problem of illegal plastic recycling is unlikely to be solved effectively without a total ban on plastic.

But this is unlikely to happen.

Ms Kamaruddin says the government had initially considered banning plastic, but “after we studied, we realised it [had a lot of] business potential for Malaysia”.

Instead, she says, stricter rules are being placed on plastic importers – they’ll now have to adhere to newly imposed criteria before being able to gain an Approval Permit (AP) to import plastic waste.

Only companies with a recognised AP will be allowed to import plastic waste into Malaysia.

“If you nip it at the source and customs control it well, I think it will be effective in reducing a lot,” Ms Yeo adds.

Garbage
Decomposing waste sits in moss covered water at one illegal plastic recycling factory

To the rest of the world

There’s a bigger problem here – and what Jenjarom reveals is that there is a huge flaw in the plastic recycling system.

Plastic waste and scrap has its own international trade code – HS3915.

But what this code fails to take into account is whether the waste being imported is of good quality or contaminated – there’s no way to know unless someone manually goes through it.

A report by the United Nations Environment Programme in 2017 recognised that it was common for mixed plastic waste to be concealed “as clean plastic scrap”.

What is needed, says Ms Yeo, is a proper labelling system that will be able to take this distinction into account.

“At the end of the day, [what we need is a] systemic standardisation for waste,” she said.

Otherwise, it seems only a matter of time before other towns in Malaysia – or even the rest of the world – become the next Jenjarom.

Abdurehim Heyit Chinese images ‘disproves Uighur musician’s death’:


Chinese state media have released a images appearing to show a Uighur musician previously reported to have died in a detention camp.

The video, dated 10 February, features a man said to be Abdurehim Heyit stating that he is in “good health”.

Turkey earlier called on China to close the camps following reports of his death. Up to a million Uighurs are reportedly being detained.

Some Uighurs have questioned the video’s authenticity.

Nury Turkel, chairman of the US-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, told the BBC that some aspects of the video were “suspicious”.

The Uighurs are a Muslim Turkic-speaking minority based in the north-western Xinjiang region of China, which has come under intense surveillance by Chinese authorities. Their language is close to Turkish and a significant number of Uighurs have fled to Turkey from China in recent years.

What is in the video?

The video was released by China Radio International’s Turkish-language service, which said Turkey’s criticism of China was unfounded.

In it, Mr Heyit appears to say he is “in the process of being investigated for allegedly violating national laws”.

What did Turkey say?

Its foreign ministry had said that detained Uighurs were being subjected to “torture” in “concentration camps”.

Foreign ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said the reports of Mr Heyit’s death “further strengthened the Turkish public’s reaction to the serious human rights violations in Xinjiang”.

“The reintroduction of concentration camps in the 21st Century and the systematic assimilation policy of Chinese authorities against the Uighur Turks is a great embarrassment for humanity,” Mr Aksoy said.

He called on UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres “to take effective steps to end the human tragedy” there.

China has described the comments as “completely unacceptable”.

Presentational grey line

China’s hidden camps

BBC

How unusual is the Turkish stance?

So far few Muslim-majority countries have joined in public international condemnation of the allegations. Analysts say many fear political and economic retaliation from China.

However Mr Turkel said the release of the video showed that the Chinese government did respond to public pressure.

“The Chinese government responds to Turkey because of the influence it has in the Muslim world,” he said, adding that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had been “awfully quiet” on the issue of detentions in Xinjiang.

“The ball is in the Chinese government’s court. They detained Heyit. They detained 10% of the Uighur population. They are trying to tell the world there is no abuse and these are just so-called vocational training centres. It’s their responsibility to prove the video is authentic,” he said.

Mr Turkel said the Chinese government was capable of doctoring video because of the “technological advantages it has”.

“With today’s technology it is possible to create a video presentation. It’s not that difficult,” he said.

What do we know about Heyit’s fate?

Amnesty International has said it is very concerned about reports of his death.

He was a celebrated player of the Dutar, a two-stringed instrument that is notoriously hard to master. At one time, he was venerated across China. He studied music in Beijing and later performed with national arts troupes.

Mr Heyit’s detention reportedly stemmed from a song he had performed titled Fathers. It takes its lyrics from a Uighur poem calling on younger generations to respect the sacrifices of those before them.

But three words in the lyrics – “martyrs of war” – apparently led Chinese authorities to conclude that Mr Heyit presented a terrorist threat.

Who are the Uighurs?

The Uighurs make up about 45% of the population in Xinjiang.

John Sudworth reports from Xinjiang, where one million Uighurs have reportedly been detained

They see themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations.

In recent decades, large numbers of Han Chinese (China’s ethnic majority) have migrated to Xinjiang, and the Uighurs feel their culture and livelihoods are under threat.

Xinjiang is officially designated as an autonomous region within China, like Tibet to its south.

Contact Email (BBCNEWS.CO.UK@bbcnewslight.co.uk) or (mrbenrory@europe.com)

Thailand’s king condemns bid by sister to become PM


Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn has denounced as “inappropriate” his sister’s unprecedented bid to run for prime minister in March’s election.

In a palace statement, he said such an act would “defy the nation’s culture”.

Princess Ubolratana Mahidol, 67, has been nominated as a candidate for a party allied to divisive former PM Thaksin Shinawatra.

Such a move would break with the tradition of the Thai royal family publicly staying out of politics.

Analysts say the king’s intervention is likely to lead to the election commission disqualifying her from the 24 March election.

The vote is being closely watched as the first chance for Thailand to return to democracy after five years under military rule.

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In a palace statement broadcast on all Thai TV networks, the king said: “Even though she has relinquished her royal titles in writing, she maintained her status and carried herself as a member of the Chakri dynasty.

File image of Thai King Vajiralongkorn outside Bangkok's royal palace on May 14, 2018
King Vajiralongkorn says the princess retains her status as a member of the royal family

“Involvement of a high-ranking member of the royal family in politics, in whatever way, is considered an act that defies the nation’s traditions, customs and culture, and therefore is considered extremely inappropriate.”

The statement cited a passage of the constitution that says the monarchy should maintain political neutrality.

Hours earlier, Princess Ubolratana defended her decision to run for office.

In an Instagram post, she reiterated that she had relinquished all her royal titles and now lived as a commoner.

She said she wanted to exercise her rights as an ordinary citizen by offering her candidacy for prime minister. She said she would work with all sincerity and determination for the prosperity of all Thais.

Grey line

A miscalculation by military’s opponents?

Analysis by Jonathan Head, BBC News Bangkok

The entry of flamboyant Princess Ubolratana’s into the political fray threatened to upend an election in which the military government has stacked the odds in its own favour through a new constitution and electoral system.

Now King Vajiralongkorn has issued an unusually strong statement censuring the nomination of his sister.

The decision to nominate the princess now looks like a grave miscalculation.

It will weaken the pro-Shinawatra faction seeking to push the military out of politics, which until now seemed likely to win the largest share of seats in the new parliament. It also underlines the power and influence of the new king, whose word on matters of state that he believes concern him is always final.

Grey line

Who is Princess Ubolratana Mahidol?

Born in 1951, Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi is the oldest child of Thailand’s beloved late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He died in 2016.

She attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and after marrying an American in 1972 she gave up her royal title. After her divorce she returned to Thailand in 2001 and once again started participating in royal life.

The princess engages actively in social media and has also starred in several Thai movies.

She has three children, one of whom died in the 2004 Asian tsunami. The other two now also live in Thailand.

The princess has registered for the Thai Raksa Chart party, which is closely linked to Mr Thaksin.

Why is the election important?

It will be the first vote since current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha took power in 2014, overthrowing the democratic government and ousting ex-PM Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of Mr Thaksin.

Both Mr Thaksin and his sister live in self-imposed exile but remain a powerful force in Thai politics, with many in the country remaining loyal to them.

Prayuth Chan-ocha delivers a speech in Tokyo on February 9, 2015
Prayuth Chan-ocha is running as a candidate for the pro-military Palang Pracharat party

In 2016, Thais voted to approve a new constitution created by the country’s military leaders, which was designed to perpetuate military influence and block Mr Thaksin’s allies from winning another election.

But the princess aligning herself with a party allied with Mr Thaksin threatens those plans, correspondents say.

A former general, Mr Prayuth also announced on Friday that he would be running for prime minister in the forthcoming election as a candidate for the pro-military Palang Pracharat party.

Thailand has some of the world’s toughest royal defamation “lese-majeste” laws but technically the princess is not covered by them.

However, the royal family is revered in Thailand and rarely criticised, so there are questions around whether any other candidate would want to challenge a member of the royal family.

New Zealand wildfire: Thousands of people evacuated near Nelson”:


Thousands of people have been evacuated from a New Zealand town as firefighters battle a wildfire stoked by winds in the country’s South Island.

The blaze, which began six days ago near the city of Nelson, is now threatening the town of Wakefield.

A state of emergency has been declared and about 3,000 people have fled their homes in the district of Tasman.

Strong winds were expected, and officials warned that Sunday could be a “critical danger point” for the fire.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she hoped “the weather plays ball”.

The blaze is thought to be the worst forest fire in New Zealand since 1955.

Nelson MP Nick Smith said the entire region was a “tinderbox” and its 70,000 residents were “on edge.”

Twenty-three helicopters and two planes have been deployed to tackle the blaze. Rain forecast for the area on Tuesday is expected to miss the fire zone.

Fires of this size are unusual for New Zealand, with local media calling it the worst bushfire in 50 years.

Map of New Zealand towns Nelson and Wakefield