Obama ends India visit with focus on positive partnership

US President Barack Obama urged India to promote religious tolerance and do more to combat global warming as on January 27 he wrapped up a visit aimed at forging a new friendship between the world’s largest democracies.

Speaking to an audience of mainly young people, Obama said the United States could be India’s ‘best partner’ but put pressure on his hosts over a range of political and social issues, including women’s rights. The US president also said their countries could forge ‘one of the defining partnerships of this century,’ even as he warned the war against climate change would not ‘stand a chance’ without India.

The speech was the finale of a packed visit which has seen a dramatic upturn in an often troubled relationship, including the signing of a new ‘friendship’ pact between Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India’s right-wing premier has developed a close bond with Obama, with their two countries keen to counter-balance the rise of China.

‘India and the United States are not just natural partners – I believe that America can be India’s best partner,’ said Obama after receiving a rapturous welcome from a group of around 1,500 people.

Obama, however, weighed in on two sensitive issues in India before departing for Saudi Arabia, saying women should not only have equal rights but be safe to ‘walk the street’ He also urged respect for religion in officially secular India, where the election of Hindu nationalist Modi has given rise to fears among the country’s large Muslim minority.

‘Every person has the right to practice their faith how they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free of persecution and fear of discrimination,’ he said. ‘Nowhere is that more important than India, nowhere is it going to be more necessary for that foundational value to be upheld.’

Obama was chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade on January 26 – one of the biggest honours that India can bestow on a foreign leader.

Pakistan: second Shia mosque hit by deadly explosion

An explosion at a Shia mosque in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province has killed at least 12 people and left dozens more wounded, officials say.

Saqib Ismail Memon, a local police official in Shikarpur, told local media that the explosion occurred just before Friday prayers on January 30 were due to begin, as a crowd was gathered outside the mosque. The mosque is in the centre of Shikarpur city, which is home to about 150,000 people.The injured are being taken to the nearby government-run civil hospital.

‘Such attacks cannot lessen the spirit of the nation,’ said Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, in a statement released shortly after the explosion.

The explosion is the second attack on a Shia mosque since Pakistani security forces stepped up operations against the Pakistani Taliban and its allies following a December attack on a Peshawar school. In a previous attack, seven people were killed when a Shia mosque in the city of Rawalpindi was targeted in a suicide bombing on January 10.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrived in the southern city of Karachi, also in Sindh province, earlier on January 30 to chair political meetings, as well as receive briefings on law and order and counter-terrorism operations in the city.

 Kashmir gun battle sees two rebels killed

A brief gun battle between Indian government forces and suspected rebels on January 27 killed two rebels and two soldiers in the disputed Kashmir region, police said.

Army and police officers acting on a tip had been searching for militants hiding in the southern Kashmiri village of Hundoora when militants began firing on them, sparking an hour long gun battle, according to senior police officer Abdul Ghani Mir. He said two militants, a police constable and an army colonel were killed. Another two soldiers were wounded.

There was no immediate statement from any of the rebel groups that have been fighting against Indian rule in the Himalayan region since 1989. Public opposition to Indian rule remains widespread in the mostly Muslim territory, where rebel groups are demanding either Kashmir’s independence or its merger with neighbouring Pakistan. Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, with both claiming the territory in its entirety.

More than 68,000 people have been killed in the armed uprising and subsequent Indian military crackdown, though with the rebel groups now largely suppressed most public resistance is now shown in street protests.

PDP, BJP hint at early announcement of govt in J&K

India’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have given hints that they could soon announce the formation of a coalition government in Jammu &Kashmir as senior leaders of the two parties held a meeting there.

‘Now, I think we might not have to wait for long,’ said PDP spokesman Nayeem Akhtar when asked about the update on government formation efforts. ‘I think the structured dialogue is not very far now. We look forward to it.’

In the polls to the 87-member assembly, whose results came on December 23 last, PDP emerged as the single-largest party with 28 seats while BJP came second with 25 seats. The state is currently under governor’s rule.

When asked when the state can have a popular government, BJP leader and Union minister Jitendra Singh told reporters, ‘The party leadership is discussing all the issues and time will tell.’ He said BJP strongly believes in the democratic process and ‘we don’t rush into things. Let the process take its time’.

PM Tsipras: ‘Greece will not default’

Greece’s newly elected prime minister Alexis Tsipras has said his country will not default on its debts. Addressing his first cabinet meeting since his party’s January 25 victory, Mr Tsipras said he would negotiate with creditors over the €240 billion bailout.

‘We won’t get into a mutually destructive clash but we will not continue a policy of subjection,’ said the left-wing Syriza party leader.

Germany’s vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said it was unfair of Greece to expect other states to pick up its bills. ‘I cannot imagine a haircut [debt reduction],’ he said.

As Mr Tsipras made his debut cabinet speech, Greek government bond yields rose to their highest since the 2012 debt restructuring, amid investor concern that the anti-austerity coalition was gearing up for a clash with international creditors.

The Athens Stock Exchange fell by 8 per cent in response to Mr Tsipras’s remarks, and as it emerged that his government was putting on hold major privatisation projects, including the port of Piraeus and the main power company, the Public Power Corporation of Greece.

Greece has endured tough budget cuts in return for its 2010 bailout, negotiated with the ‘troika’ – the EU, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Central Bank (ECB). Its economy has shrunk drastically since the 2008 global financial crisis, and high unemployment has thrown many Greeks into poverty.

Thai junta gets tough on dissent after ex-PM banned from politics

Thailand’s junta says it has summoned two opposition members ‘to amend their political way of thinking’, less than a week after former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was banned from politics.

The announcement comes after a lull in strong-arm tactics by the military following a coup last May that overthrew the government, ending months of protests in which about 30 people were killed.

Following the coup, the military detained more than 200 people, among them journalists, activists and politicians perceived to be critical of the regime. Some were held for days and later released.

The junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has overseen a period of stability following the coup but has struggled to revive Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy.

Thailand’s military-appointed legislature recently voted to ban Yingluck from politics for five years over her involvement in a state rice buying scheme that cost Thailand billions of dollars. Yingluck’s fall from power has mirrored that of her brother Thaksin, who was deposed in a coup in 2006 and later fled the country.

Syria talks in Moscow end without visible results

Representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition wrapped up four days of consultations in Moscow on January 29 with a general statement avoiding any of the difficult issues surrounding the country’s nearly four-year civil war.

Vitaly Naumkin, the head of the Moscow-based Institute for Eastern Studies who moderated the discussions, said they focused on a platform for future talks and made no attempt to tackle the disputed issues. He said the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad was not on the agenda.

Russia, which has staunchly backed Assad throughout the war, hoped that hosting the consultations could help raise its profile amid tensions with the West over Ukraine.

But the main opposition groups refused to attend the consultations, and Moscow cast them as a preparatory meeting.

Naumkin said the discussions involved 32 representatives of the opposition and seven officials from the Assad regime.

‘It’s already an achievement that those people, who have opposite views, sat down and talked calmly and found some common ground,’ he said.

The meeting ended with a declaration of principles shared by all participants, which included support for Syria’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity, a pledge to counter international terrorism, a warning against foreign interference among others.

 Prince Charles urged to raise concerns

The Prince of Wales has been urged by Amnesty International UK to raise ‘concerns over human rights’ during his extensive Middle East tour next month.

During a six-day tour Charles will visit a string of Gulf States including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have faced condemnation for alleged human rights abuses.

The campaigning organisation has suggested that the prince could feel compelled to express concerns about jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who faces a decade behind bars and 1,000 lashes after being convicted of insulting Islam.

He might also highlight the plight of foreign workers employed to build the infrastructure of the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

Charles recently travelled to the Saudi capital Riyadh, as did a number of world leaders including David Cameron, to pay his respects following the death of the nation’s King Abdullah, who died aged 90 on January 22 after two decades in control of the world’s biggest oil exporter. He has been succeeded by his 79-year-old half-brother, Salman.

The decision to fly flags at half-mast on key public buildings in London drew sharp criticism from some prominent politicians who highlighted claims of Saudi Arabia’s abuses of free speech, women’s rights and the country’s role as a cradle of Islamist extremism.

Allan Hogarth, Amnesty International UK’s head of policy and government affairs, said they did not expect the Prince to become a human rights campaigner overnight but hoped he would want to ‘drop a few well-chosen words into his royal hosts’ ears’.

HRW: Egypt, Syria, Iraq used 2014 turmoil to abuse rights

The governments of Egypt, Syria and Iraq used real and perceived security threats in 2014 as an excuse to downplay or abandon the rights of their citizens, which ultimately fuelled crises, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.

In its annual review of global human rights, the group said security forces across the globe are ignoring rights in dealing with threats such as China’s crackdown on Uighurs in Xinjiang, Mexico’s war on drugs and Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram.

The New York-based group launched its 2015 world report from the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on Thursday January 29.

‘The issue that we have seen over the last year is one in response to a clearly, a more tumultuous world, one presenting very severe security threats. And we found that governments almost instinctively, when confronting security threats of the sort that is, say, typified by the terrible atrocities of ISIS – the Islamic State – governments tend to fall back almost reflexively on a pure security approach that ignores the role of human rights. Governments tend to see human rights as a luxury for less tumultuous times, something that can be dispensed with when the going gets tough,’ executive director, Kenneth Roth, told a news conference, adding that this approach only made the security threat worse.

Happy birthday, TDF

The Democracy Forum celebrated its fifth birthday and the twentieth anniversary of its sister publication Asian Affairs at the St James’ Court Hotel, London on Wednesday January 21. In attendance was a gathering of high-profile media members and writers, politicians and peers, diplomats and leading financiers.

Several prominent speakers addressed the guests: the Rt. Hon. Mr Hugo Swire, Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth office; Lord Black of Brentwood, Executive Director of the Telegraph Media Group and Chairman of the Commonwealth Press Union Trust; Lord Charles Bruce of the Kolkata Scottish Heritage Trust and Scottish Centre of Tagore Studies & Japan Society of Scotland; M J Akbar, author, journalist and national spokesman for Narendra Modi’s BJP coalition government; and Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy, a renowned nuclear physicist and commentator.

Their speeches focused on themes related to Asia and democracy, such as the prominent role played by Asian states in political and economic issues, press freedom and free speech, the elimination of poverty in India and the struggle against religious extremism.

Later in the evening, guests enjoyed a sumptuous Indian banquet, as well as musical and comedy entertainment.

The event was sponsored by Lyca Media, State Bank of India, Tea Board of India, Air India and Punjab National Bank.

News in brief:

Pakistan army says 53 militants killed in airstrikes

Pakistan’s military says its air force has killed 53 militants in a tribal region near the Afghan border. The statement said the airstrikes targeted militants in the Datta Khel area of North Waziristan, long a safe haven for local and foreign extremists carrying out attacks on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Some foreigners were among those killed; six militant hideouts, an ammunition dump and seven explosives-laden vehicles were also destroyed. The army launched a major offensive in North Waziristan last June and claims to have killed over 2,000 militants so far. It also says it lost nearly 200 soldiers in the operation.

Party officials involved in Tibet movement, says Beijing

Chinese authorities have accused 15 Tibet-based Communist Party of China officials of being involved with underground Tibetan separatist groups, according to a party spokesman. Publicly acknowledging this investigation into the Tibetan independence movement is a rare move for the Party.

Jordan: government wants proof of life before exchange

The Jordanian government will not release prisoner Sajida al-Rishawi until the Islamic State provides evidence that Jordanian hostage Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh is alive, government spokesman Mohammed al-Momani said at a January 29 press conference. Al-Momani said that once Amman has received proof, it will be able to proceed with the exchange. Al-Kaseasbeh is the Jordanian pilot who was captured by the Islamic State on December 24. Al-Rishawi is an Iraqi woman sentenced to death for her involvement in al-Qaeda attacks in Amman in November 2005.

CAR: Seleka rebels & anti-Balaka Movement agree to ceasefire

The warring Seleka and anti-Balaka rebel groups of the Central African Republic agreed to a ceasefire and cessation of hostilities on January 28. The Christian anti-Balaka movement was formed to fight the predominately Muslim Seleka group after it took control of the country in 2013. A new government took power in 2014, but it has not been a part of the peace process. The agreement will not take effect until it is formally signed. A timeframe for the next stage of the talks has not been released.

Parole for S. Africa apartheid killer

One of South Africa’s most notorious apartheid murderers, Eugene de Kock – dubbed ‘Prime Evil’ – was granted parole on January 30 after 20 years in jail. Correctional Services Minister Michael Masutha told a news briefing, ‘In the interest of nation-building and reconciliation I have decided to place Mr De Kock on parole.’