Indonesia’s Popular President Sworn in for 2nd Term

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who rose from poverty and pledged to champion democracy, fight entrenched corruption and modernize the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, was sworn in Sunday for his second and final five-year term with a pledge to take bolder actions.

Army troops and police, along with armored vehicles, firetrucks and ambulances, were deployed across Jakarta, the vast capital, and major roads were closed in a departure from the more relaxed atmosphere of the popular Widodo’s 2014 inauguration. An Oct. 10 knife attack by an Islamic militant couple that wounded the country’s security minister set off a security crackdown.

Known for his down-to-earth style, Widodo, 58, opted for an austere ceremony at the heavily guarded Parliament without the festive parade that transported him after his inauguration five years ago on a horse-drawn carriage in downtown Jakarta, where he was then cheered on by thousands of waving supporters.

On his way to the ceremony Sunday, Widodo got out of his convoy with some of his security escorts and shook the hands of supporters, who yelled his name, waved Indonesia’s red-and-white flag and called him “bapak,” or father.

After taking his oath before the Quran, the Muslim holy book, in front of hundreds of lawmakers and foreign dignitaries in the heavily guarded Parliament, Widodo laid out ambitious targets to help Indonesia join the ranks of the world’s developed nations by the time it marks a century of independence in 2045.

He said in his inauguration speech that he expects poverty – which afflicts close to 10 percent of Indonesia’s nearly 270 million people – to be just about wiped out and the country’s annual GDP to reach $7 trillion by then.

“For those who are not serious, I’ll be merciless. I would definitely fire people,” Widodo warned.

Western and Asian leaders and special envoys, including Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, flew in for the inauguration. President Donald Trump sent Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao for the ceremony in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy and a member of the G-20 bloc of nations.

Indonesia is a bastion of democracy in Southeast Asia, a diverse and economically bustling region of authoritarian regimes, police states and nascent democracies.

After decades of dictatorship under President Suharto, the country was convulsed by political, ethnic and religious unrest in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Since then, it has consolidated its democratic transition. While most of the country remains poor and inequality is rising, it is home to a rapidly expanding middle class.

Popularly known as Jokowi, Widodo is the son of a furniture maker who grew up with his family in a rented bamboo shack on the banks of a flood-prone river in Solo city on Java island. He is the first president from outside the country’s super rich, and often corrupt, political, business and military elite.

Widodo presents himself as a man of the people, often emphasizing his humble roots. His popular appeal, including his pioneering use of social media, helped him win elections over the past 14 years for mayor of Solo, governor of Jakarta and twice for president. In a reflection of his popularity, he has nearly 26 million followers on Instagram and more than 12 million on Twitter.

He has been likened to Barack Obama, but since taking office he has been perceived as unwilling to press for accountability that threatens powerful institutions such as the military. Instead, he has emphasized nationalism while also fending off attacks that he is not devout enough as a Muslim.

Widodo was sworn in with his new vice president, Ma’ruf Amin, one of the most important religious figures in Indonesia. He chose Amin as his running mate to shore up his support among pious Muslims. Amin was chairman of Majelis Ulama Indonesia, the country’s council of Islamic leaders, and supreme leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization.

But Amin, 76, has been criticized for being a vocal supporter and drafter of fatwas against religious minorities and the LGBT community. Human Rights Watch says the fatwas, or edicts, have legitimized increasingly hateful rhetoric by government officials against LGBT people, and in some cases fueled deadly violence by Islamic militants against religious minorities.

Widodo has been widely praised for his efforts to improve Indonesia’s inadequate infrastructure and reduce poverty. He inaugurated the nation’s first subway system, which was financed by Japan, in chronically congested Jakarta in March after years of delay under past leaders.

Pressing on is the biggest challenge, however, in his final years in office given the global economic slowdown, major trade conflicts, falling exports and other hurdles that impede funding.

In an interview with The Associated Press in July, Widodo said he would push ahead with sweeping and potentially unpopular economic reforms, including more business-friendly labor laws, because he’ll no longer be constrained by politics in his final term.

“Things that were impossible before, I will make a lot of decisions on that in the next five years,” he said then.


Pelosi in Jordan for ‘Vital Discussions’ Amid Syria Crisis

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a group of American lawmakers on a surprise visit to Jordan to discuss “the deepening crisis” in Syria amid a shaky U.S.-brokered cease-fire.
The visit came after bipartisan criticism in Washington has slammed President Donald Trump for his decision to withdraw the bulk of U.S. troops from northern Syria — clearing the way for Turkey’s wide-ranging offensive against the Kurdish groups, who had been key U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State group.
Turkey agreed on Thursday to suspend its offensive for five days, demanding the Kurdish forces withdraw from a designated strip of the border about 30 kilometers deep (19 miles).  
Pelosi, along with the nine-member Congressional delegation, met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in the capital of Amman late Saturday for talks focusing on security and “regional stability,” according to a statement from her office.
Jordan is a key U.S. ally in the region and has been greatly affected by the eight-year-long civil war in neighboring Syria. Jordanian officials say the kingdom hosts some 1 million Syrians who have fled the fighting.
 “With the deepening crisis in Syria after Turkey’s incursion, our delegation has engaged in vital discussions about the impact to regional stability, increased flow of refugees, and the dangerous opening that has been provided to ISIS, Iran and Russia,” said the statement, using the Islamic State group’s acronym.
Jordan’s state news agency Petra said Abdullah stressed the importance of safeguarding Syria’s territorial integrity and guarantees for the “safe and voluntary” return of refugees.
 “The meeting also covered regional and international efforts to counter terrorism within a comprehensive approach,” the agency said.
The Congressional delegation included Democrats Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, who is leading the impeachment probe into President Trump; Eliot Engel, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and Bennie Thompson, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. There was one GOP member of the group, Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
The U.S. Embassy in Amman said the delegation left Jordan early Sunday but gave no further details on where it was heading.
Many Democrat and Republican lawmakers say that the U.S. pullout could make way for rivals like Iran and Russia, who back Syrian President Bashar Assad.





Esper Makes Unannounced Visit to Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has made an unannounced trip to Afghanistan amid efforts to restart peace talks with the Taliban.

“The aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, a political agreement, that is the best way forward,” Esper told reporters traveling with him Sunday.

Last month, President Donald Trump abruptly called off yearlong U.S.-Taliban talks just when the two adversaries had come close to signing a peace agreement that could have ended the 18-year-old Afghan war, America’s longest overseas military intervention.  

Trump declared the peace process process “dead,” citing continued insurgent deadly attacks on Afghan civilians and American troops in Afghanistan.




EU Pursues Brexit Ratification Despite Delay Request

Brussels officials on Sunday pressed on with plans to ratify the divorce deal as European leaders considered Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s reluctant request for a Brexit delay.

Ambassadors and senior officials from the other 27 member states met Sunday after British MPs forced Johnson to send EU Council president Donald Tusk a late request to postpone the withdrawal.

“The EU is keeping all options open and has therefore initiated the ratification process so that it can be handed over to the European Parliament on Monday,” an EU diplomat told AFP.

“The EU will probably pursue this strategy until there is clarity on the British side,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

FILE – European Council President Donald Tusk speaks during a media conference at an EU summit in Brussels, July 2, 2019.

Tusk will spend a “few days” canvassing member state leaders, and diplomats said this would mean the British parliament will have to vote on Brexit again before hearing their decision on the October 31 departure.

“It was a very short and normal meeting of the EU ambassadors to launch the next steps of the EU ratification of the agreement,” EU negotiator Michel Barnier told reporters after Sunday’s talks.

Diplomats told AFP the ambassadors’ meeting lasted only 15 minutes and had dealt simply with EU ratification, although a participant said they had “taken note” of Johnson’s letter.

Asked whether he thought EU leaders would grant a delay, Barnier said: “President Tusk will consult in the next days.”

Previous deal torpedoed

On Saturday, MPs pushed through an amendment obliging a furious Johnson to ask for an extension until the British legislation governing the withdrawal is drafted and passed.  

Johnson, who refused to sign the letter and insists no delay is necessary, plans to bring the Brexit agreement he reached with Barnier last week to a vote on Monday.

MPs will thus have to vote without knowing whether EU leaders will allow an extension — and if so whether they will delay Brexit as far as January 31 next year, as the British letter requested.

“Further developments on the British side will have to be taken into account,” another European diplomat confirmed.

“What was decided on Thursday stays on the table. The British parliament didn’t reject the deal, so no need to change course.”

And one diplomat took to Twitter to complain that his Sunday morning had been disrupted by British political maneuvers.

Gregor Schusterschitz, Austria’s deputy permanent representative to the EU, sent a picture of the meeting agenda.

“What better way at to start a Sunday morning than with a meeting on Brexit… and this in all the uncertainty yet again created by the House of Commons,” he added.

European sources were not sure how any decision on an extension will be made. Tusk could call a special summit next week, but diplomats said he is more likely to use a written procedure.

Diplomats suggested a summit would only be necessary if British MPs reject the deal next week and overturn the whole process. Any decision either way must be unanimous.

“If the parliament says it needs more time, then there could be a ‘technical extension’ for some weeks. This would probably be agreed. We certainly do not want to risk a no deal because of a few days more,” one EU diplomat said.

Election prospects

If the House of Commons rejects the withdrawal agreement, however, the EU leaders would probably want to hold a meeting to discuss whether it is worth giving a longer extension to allow Britain to hold an election or second Brexit referendum to break the impasse.

Last week, EU and UK negotiators announced an agreement to govern Britain’s departure from the bloc at the end of the month and European leaders endorsed it at a summit on Thursday.

The EU parliament will begin its own ratification procedures on Monday but Britain’s House of Commons, which torpedoed an earlier agreement signed a year earlier, still has its doubts.




Rohingya Refugees to Move to Flood-Prone Bangladesh Island

Thousands of Rohingya living in Bangladesh refugee camps have agreed to move to an island in the Bay of Bengal, officials said Sunday, despite fears the site is prone to flooding.

Dhaka has long wanted to move 100,000 refugees to the muddy silt islet, saying it would take pressure off the overcrowded border camps where almost a million Rohingya live.

Some 740,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar in August 2017 in the face of a military crackdown, joining 200,000 refugees already in makeshift tent settlements at Cox’s Bazar.

Relocations begin soon

Bangladesh’s refugee commissioner, Mahbub Alam, said officials overseeing the relocation would be posted to Bhashan Char island in the next few days.

Approximately 6,000-7,000 refugees have  expressed their willingness to be relocated to Bhashan Char, Alam told AFP from Cox’s Bazar, adding that “the number is rising.”

He did not say when the refugees would be moved, but a senior Navy officer involved in building facilities on the island said it could start by December, with some 500 refugees sent daily.

Bangladesh had been planning since last year to relocate Rohingya to the desolate flood-prone site, which is an hour by boat from the mainland.

Rights groups have warned the island, which emerged from the sea only about two decades ago, might not be able to withstand violent storms during the annual monsoon season.

In the past half-century, powerful cyclones have killed hundreds of thousands of people in the Meghna river estuary where the island is located.

Rohingya leaders would be taken to Bhashan Char to view the facilities and living conditions, Alam said.

Safety facilities built on the island include a 9-feet (3 meter) high embankment along its perimeter to keep out tidal surges during cyclones, and a warehouse to store months’ worth of rations, he added.

Overcrowding in camp

Rohingya father-of-four Nur Hossain, 50, said he and his family agreed to relocate to Bhashan Char after they were shown video footage of the shelters.

“I have agreed to go. The camp here (at Leda) is very overcrowded. There are food and housing problems,” the 50-year-old told AFP.

There was no immediate comment from the U.N., although Bangladeshi officials said they expect a delegation would visit the island in the next few weeks.

Afghan Election Results Delayed

Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) confirmed Saturday it had delayed the planned release of preliminary results of the Sept. 28 presidential polls. 
The commission’s chief, Hawa Alam Nuristani, made the widely anticipated announcement at a late evening news conference in Kabul on the day the commission was supposed to officially deliver first results. 
Nuristani apologized to Afghans for not being able to meet the deadline, but she defended the decision to delay the results, saying it would “further ensure the transparency of the [electoral] process” and restore the people’s confidence in it. 
The chief election commissioner promised to release preliminary results as soon as possible but did not say exactly when that would happen. 
Two senior IEC members, while speaking to VOA on Friday, predicted results would be delayed by at least one week. 

Problems from the start
Election officials said they had from the outset faced issues in collecting and transferring massive amounts of data to the main IEC computer server from biometric devices used to record voter fingerprints and pictures. A time-consuming exercise of identifying fraudulent votes was cited as another major factor for the slow data entry. 
The fourth Afghan presidential election was already under scrutiny for a record-low turnout of about 26 percent and allegations of fraud. The final turnout was expected to drop further as the IEC was expected to disqualify an estimated 700,000 of the 2.7 million votes cast last month for not meeting anti-fraud rules. 

FILE – Independent Election Commission workers carry ballot boxes to be taken to a counting center in Kabul, Oct. 2, 2019.

All previous elections held in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban government in 2001 were marred by allegations of widespread fraud and rigging, prompting the IEC to use biometric devices for the first time in the just concluded presidential polls. 
While security concerns stemming from violent Taliban attacks on the election process were mainly blamed for the low turnout, the polling was marred by widespread irregularities and allegations of fraud. 
The United Nations, in a report released this week, noted that election-related attacks had killed 85 Afghan civilians and injured 373 others. 
Both front-runners, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, have already claimed victories, raising fears of a repeat of what happened in the 2014 fraud-marred presidential election. The United States at the time had to intervene to help the two men negotiate a power-sharing deal, ending months of nationwide chaos. 

Accuracy paramount
On Wednesday, U.S. acting Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells underscored the need for a credible outcome of the election and called on all candidates to avoid declaring victory before official results were released. 
“We welcome the IEC’s intention to conduct all necessary anti-fraud measures before it announces the preliminary result. An accurate result is more important than a rushed one,” Wells told reporters in Kabul after her meetings with Ghani, Abdullah and election commission officials. 
Abdullah and Ghani have both pledged support for the IEC to take as much time as needed to deliver a transparent outcome. 
“The Afghan people yearn to hear about the results of the presidential elections, but we respect the Independent Election Commission’s decision to postpone announcing the results to ensure fairness, transparency and accountability of the final vote,” Ghani tweeted shortly after the delay was announced. 

Turkish-Backed Forces, Kurds Clash Despite Syria Cease-Fire

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters clashed with Kurdish-led forces in several parts of northeastern Syria on Saturday, with some crossing the border from Turkey to attack a village, a war monitor said. Both sides blamed each other for fighting that has rattled the U.S.-brokered cease-fire.

Nearly two days into the five-day halt in fighting, the two sides were still trading fire around the key border town of Ras al-Ayn. There has also been no sign of a withdrawal of Kurdish-led forces from positions along the Syrian-Turkish border as called for under the agreement, reached between Turkey and the United States.

Turkey’s Defense Ministry said it was “completely abiding” by the accord and that it was in “instantaneous coordination” with Washington to ensure the continuity of calm. The ministry accused Kurdish-led fighters of carrying out 14 “attacks and harassments” the past 36 hours, most in the town of Ras al-Ayn, which is besieged by allied fighters before the cease-fire. It said the Syrian Kurdish fighters used mortars, rockets, anti-aircraft and anti-tank heavy machine guns.

Turkey also said Saturday said it has recaptured 41 suspected Islamic State members who had fled a detention camp amid the chaos caused by the fighting earlier this week.

The Kurds, meanwhile, appealed to Vice President Mike Pence to enforce the deal saying Turkey has failed to abide by its provisions and has continued the siege of Ras al-Ayn.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said there were still clashes inside Ras al-Ayn and medical personnel could not enter to help the wounded.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Turkish-backed fighters entered Syria and advanced into Kurdish-held Shakariya, a village east of Ras al-Ayn that saw clashes and a Turkish strike a day earlier.

Video posted online showed the fighters driving alongside the wall Turkey has erected along the border and boasting that they were headed on “an assault” into Syria. The video did not show them crossing the border.

Syrian state media said Turkish-backed fighters also made an “infiltration attempt” south of Ras al-Ayn but were repelled in clashes with the Syrian government military that had just moved into the area. The reports gave no further details.

People stand in a queue to receive bread in the border town of Tal Abyad, Syria, Oct. 18, 2019.

The Observatory said Saturday that Turkey-backed Syrian fighters have prevented a medical convoy from reaching Ras al-Ayn. It said a medical convoy arrived outside the town Friday but Turkey-backed factions closed the road ahead and behind, leaving it stuck outside Ras al-Ayn.

The agreement — reached in negotiations between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence — would virtually hand Turkey its aims in the invasion, requiring Kurdish fighters to vacate a swath of territory in Syria along the Turkish border during the cease-fire.

The Kurdish-led force, which said it was in contact with the Americans during the negotiations, said it will abide by the halt in fighting but has not committed to any pull-out. Erdogan warned Friday that Turkey will relaunch its assault on Tuesday when the deal runs out if the Kurdish fighters don’t pull out of a zone 30 kilometers (20-miles) deep running the entire length of the border.

On Saturday, the Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said 41 suspected Islamic State members were re-captured after fleeing a detention camp amid fighting earlier this week in Syria. He said 195 other suspected IS members had already been recaptured. He said the captured IS suspects would be relocated to areas controlled by Turkey in northern Syria, including Afrin and al-Bab.

Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighters chat in the border town of Tal Abyad, Syria, Oct. 18, 2019.

Last week, there were reports that after a Turkish shell landed near Ein Issa camp that holds members of IS families, more than 700 managed to flee amid the chaos.

Turkey’s state-run English language broadcaster TRT World said the IS members and families were captured by Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces.

Erdogan has accused Syrian Kurdish forces of releasing some 750 IS members and families, amid Turkey’s offensive. The Kurds say they broke out of their camp a week ago, attacking guards, amid heavy clashes and Turkish airstrikes nearby.


Bipartisan Shrug as US Budget Deficit Nears $1 Trillion

Washington is drowning in red ink again, yet the mounting fiscal problem is prompting collective yawns from the Trump Administration and Democrats alike.

It wasn’t so long ago that an announcement that the United States annual budget deficit was approaching $1 trillion — in a time of record low unemployment and steady economic growth, no less — would have set off alarm bells in the nation’s capital and sent politicians running to the television cameras to demand action to rein in federal spending. But a recent report from the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic analysis that shows the deficit ballooning to a seven-year high of $984 billion in fiscal 2019 was greeted with near silence from U.S. lawmakers, the administration and other policy makers.

Instead, as the 2020 presidential campaign heats up, Republicans and Democrats are promoting ambitious new spending and tax relief measures that would add many trillions of dollars to the cumulative federal debt – the sum total of past deficits — which is now approaching a staggering $23 trillion.

After forcing a $1.5 trillion tax cut through Congress in 2017 and demanding sharp increases in military spending, both of which have contributed to a 48% increase in the federal deficit since he took office, President Trump and others in his administration have floated the idea of further tax reductions heading into 2020.

FILE – U.S. President Donald Trump holds an executive order relieving qualified disabled veterans of federally held student loan debt at the AMVETS (American Veterans) National Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, Aug. 21, 2019.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidates including liberal Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont are pushing for additional federal spending on social programs, including a controversial “Medicare for All” proposal. A study by the Urban Institute found that the most expansive version of that program, which extends healthcare coverage to every American and eliminates virtually all out-of-pocket spending on health care, would cost an average of $3.4 trillion per year, or $34 trillion over a decade.

Warren, who is surging in the polls ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders, is also advocating expanded Social Security benefits, free college tuition, student debt relief and environmental initiatives with hefty price tags.

The current U.S. federal debt, now approaching $23 trillion  is equal to more than 100% of the estimated $21.3 trillion 2019 Gross Domestic Product. The country has not seen a debt-to-GDP ratio this high since World War II. But still, the primary policy proposals coming from voices on both sides of the political spectrum are in favor of measures that would likely exacerbate the deficit and add to the federal debt.

It’s a state of affairs that leaves Washington budget watchdogs frustrated and worried about the future.

“Certainly, interest in fiscal responsibility seems to be an all-time low,” said Marc Goldwein, senior vice president and senior policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget

“It should be frustrating for everyone, because the deficit is at an all-time high…for this point in the economic cycle,” he said. “It’s really dangerous. And what we need to be doing is getting our debt under control now, understanding that it will have to expand during a recession, not making it even worse.”

That’s a message that neither the Trump administration nor the Democrats running for president appear to have acknowledged.

FILE – A worker aerates printed sheets of dollar bills at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, Nov. 15, 2017.

There are multiple reasons why demands for spending cuts and deficit reduction have been muted in recent years. For one, the seemingly constant state of crisis in Washington, made even more profound by the ongoing effort to impeach President Trump, leaves little room in the headlines for more complex issues like fiscal policy.

However, one key reason that deficit hawks’ collective voice does not command the attention in Washington that it once did is that they have been demonstrably wrong about the effects of rising federal borrowing.

For years, the twin terrors of rising interest rates and inflation were key arguments against allowing the deficit and debt to continue to mount. Expansive federal spending was supposed to goose demand and drive up prices. At the same time, lenders — in the form of the bond market — were expected to demand ever-higher interest rates from a federal government that kept driving itself further into debt.

Additionally, as the government borrowed more and at higher interest rates, the borrowing was supposed to “crowd out” more productive investment in the private sector.

But for the past decade, inflation has remained stubbornly low, even in the years immediately following the Great Recession, when the government was pouring money into the economy to increase demand.

At the same time, the federal government is still able to borrow at historically low rates, making the cost of servicing new debt much lower than budget hawks predicted it would be at this point. And the absence of any evidence that government borrowing is “crowding out” private sector investment has been sparse enough that the conservative-leaning Tax Foundation has declared it to be a concern of “minimal importance.”

Additionally, while much is made of the fact that the federal debt is now higher than annual GDP, that hardly makes the U.S. an outlier among developed nations. Other advanced economies carrying comparable levels of debt include Canada, Spain, the United Kingdom, and France. Japan’s debt load is equal to more than twice its GDP.

In fact, there is a rising consensus among economists worldwide that, especially given the low interest rate environment that is expected to persist indefinitely, high debt levels among advanced economies simply are not that big a deal. Among the loudest voices making this point has been Olivier Blanchard, the former head of the International Monetary Fund — an organization that has spent decades trying to convince developing economies to avoid high debt loads.

“The right attitude…is not to pretend that debt is catastrophic if it is not,” he wrote in a recent paper with economist Ángel Ubide. “Sooner or later, a government will test that proposition and discover that it is false. The right approach is to tailor the advice to the situation of each country.”


Laos Urged to Cancel Latest Dam for Mainstream Mekong

Environmental rights groups are calling on Laos to cancel the latest hydro-electric dam it has approved for construction across the Mekong River, warning of dire consequences for the millions of people who rely on the waterway for a living.

A six-month “prior consultation process” for the Luang Prabang dam began on October 8, giving Laos’ partners in the Mekong River Commission (MRC) — Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam — a chance to review the project plans and raise concerns. But the rights groups say the farming and fishing communities expected to be hit hardest by such dams have been let down by the consultations for previously approved projects, and they expect no different this time.

The Luang Prabang dam is the fifth mainstream Mekong dam Laos will have put through the consultation process, and with 1,460 megawatts of generating capacity, it will be the biggest thus far. The first, the Xayaburi, is due to start producing electricity at the end of the month.

“For the past four prior consultation processes that we have experienced, we’ve seen big loopholes and the exclusion of affected communities in the process,” said Pianporn Deetes, Thailand campaign director for International Rivers, which advocates for sustainable river management.

“This consultation process, for me personally, I’m seeing it as just a rubber stamp to get the project approval,” she told VOA.

MRC members cannot veto each other’s plans for the Mekong during the consultations, only complain and make requests.

Responding to concerns about the Xayaburi, the Lao government and dam developer, Xayaburi Power, made changes meant to help more sediment and migrating fish pass through. But researchers and rights groups say the upgrades might not make much of a difference, some having been modeled on rivers with different conditions. The MRC secretariat itself said it could not tell how much they would help because the company had not shared enough data.

Rights groups say the consultations are failing.

Save the Mekong, a coalition of concerned citizens and non-government groups across the river basin, is urging Laos to cancel the Luang Prabang and the other dams it has planned for the main stream.

“There is little indication that a new prior consultation process for Luang Prabang dam will be any different from past experience or that it will be able to ensure minimum standards of transparency and accountability, let alone meaningful participation for affected communities, civil society and the general public,” it said in a statement.

“Rather than embarking on another flawed prior consultation process, we urge lower Mekong governments and the MRC to address outstanding concerns regarding impacts of mainstream dams and to undertake a comprehensive options assessment to study alternatives,” it added.

A six-year study by the MRC secretariat found that the cumulative effects of the 11 dams planned for the mainstream Mekong south of China by 2040 — nine in Laos, two in Cambodia — threaten the entire region’s economy and food security. It says they will slash fish stocks basinwide by at least 40%, possibly twice that.

An impact assessment for the Luang Prabang itself says the dam will make it harder for migratory fish to get upstream, and that many of those that manage it will find fewer spawning grounds. It adds that some of the studies meant to soften the blow will come only once the project is under construction.

Despite the warnings, Laos is diving headlong into its plans for the Mekong in a rush to become “Asia’s battery.”

But rights groups say power consumption forecasts show neighboring countries won’t need the amount of electricity the dams will end up churning out, and that safer alternatives abound.

“So the justification of the [Luang Prabang] project needs to be questioned, and this question needs to be answered by decision makers, [why] the important resources of the basin are being exploited more and more by construction companies together with banks, together with developers, while the existing impacts of the projects have been ignored,” said Pianporn, of International Rivers.

At the Lao Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Management and Coordination Director Syamphone Sengchandala told VOA that hydropower dams were not his concern and directed questions to the Energy Ministry, which could not be reached.

Receptionists for PetroVietnam, the state-owned enterprise developing the dam, refused to connect VOA with company officials or communications staff and said requests for comment would have to be arranged by mail, citing company policy.

In answers prepared for VOA, the MRC secretariat conceded that the consultation process was “now without flaw.”

It said it had done its best to hear feedback from “broader stakeholders” and was learning to do better with each project, including the addition of “joint action plans,” a process by which MRC members and others can continue to discuss a project once the six-month consultation is over.

The secretariat said that without the consultations the upgrades to the Xayaburi would not have happened and that project documents on some other dams would never have been made public.

“We believe that the prior consultation process has served its objective and addressed the mandate of the MRC secretariat. But as a process, we acknowledge that there is room for improvement,” it added.

It said those improvements could include project impact assessments that take into account the likely effects of each dam beyond the country hosting it and listening to the concerns of villagers and non-government groups even after the consultations end.


38 People Cited for Violations in Clinton Email Probe

The State Department has completed its internal investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of private email and found violations by 38 people, some of whom may face disciplinary action.

The investigation, launched more than three years ago, determined that those 38 people were “culpable” in 91 cases of sending classified information that ended up in Clinton’s personal email, according to a letter sent to Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley this week and released Friday. The 38 are current and former State Department officials but were not identified.

Although the report identified violations, it said investigators had found “no persuasive evidence of systemic, deliberate mishandling of classified information.” However, it also made clear that Clinton’s use of the private email had increased the vulnerability of classified information.

The Associated Press sent an email seeking comment to a Clinton representative.

The investigation covered 33,000 emails that Clinton turned over for review after her use of the private email account became public. The department said it found a total of 588 violations involving information then or now deemed to be classified but could not assign fault in 497 cases.

For current and former officials, culpability means the violations will be noted in their files and will be considered when they apply for or go to renew security clearances. For current officials, there could also be some kind of disciplinary action. But it was not immediately clear what that would be.

The report concluded “that the use of a private email system to conduct official business added an increased degree of risk of compromise as a private system lacks the network monitoring and intrusion detection capabilities of State Department networks.”

The department began the review in 2016 after declaring 22 emails from Clinton’s private server to be “top secret.” Clinton was then running for president against Donald Trump, and Trump made the server a major focus of his campaign.

Then-FBI Director James Comey held a news conference that year in which he criticized Clinton as “extremely careless” in her use of the private email server as secretary of state but said the FBI would not recommend charges.

The Justice Department’s inspector general said FBI specialists did not find evidence that the server had been hacked, with one forensics agent saying he felt “fairly confident that there wasn’t an intrusion.”

Grassley started investigating Clinton’s email server in 2017, when he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Iowa Republican has been critical of Clinton’s handling of classified information and urged administrative sanctions.