Monthly Archives: March 2017

Nine Malaysians freed by North Korea arrive home


KUALA LUMPUR: Nine Malaysians freed by Pyongyang arrived home early on Friday (Mar 31), after Kuala Lumpur agreed to send back the body of the assassinated half-brother of North Korea’s leader, ending a bitter feud between the two countries.

Kim Jong Nam was killed with the lethal nerve agent VX on Feb 13 in a Kuala Lumpur airport, triggering a diplomatic row between Malaysia and North Korea, which expelled each other’s ambassadors and barred their citizens from leaving.

But a deal announced by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and confirmed by North Korean state media on Thursday said the two countries had lifted their respective travel bans, and Kuala Lumpur would send the body to North Korea.

The Malaysians, three embassy staff and six family members, landed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport before sunrise where they were met on the tarmac by Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman.

Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Anifah Anan (3rd R) walks with the nine Malaysians as they return home, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. (Photo: REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin)

There were emotional scenes at the airport as they were embraced by tearful relatives who had also gathered to meet them.

Mohamad Nor Azrin, counsellor of the Malaysian embassy in Pyongyang, said that while they had not been threatened and were free to move around they were not allowed to leave.

“We were very concerned because we had done no wrong. But we had to keep our spirits up,” he told reporters.

Najib, who had earlier declared the diplomatic crisis over, said on Twitter on Friday: “Thank God, all nine Malaysians from Pyongyang have arrived safely in our homeland.”

Najib had earlier announced the body was being sent back “following the completion of the autopsy on the deceased and receipt of a letter from his family requesting the remains be returned to North Korea”.

The prime minister did not specify who in the family had made the request. Kim’s wife and children, who were living in exile in the Chinese territory of Macau, staged a vanishing act after the murder and are believed to be in hiding.

The US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur said in a statement on Friday that they were pleased the Malaysians had been allowed to return home.

“The barred departure of diplomats and their family members was a grave and unacceptable breach of the Vienna Convention,” the embassy said.

“We support Malaysia’s expressed intent to continue investigation into serious crimes committed on its territory; all possible measures must be taken to bring those responsible for these crimes to justice.” 

On Friday, foreign minister Anifah confirmed the body was on its way back to North Korea after being kept in a hospital morgue in Kuala Lumpur for more than six weeks.

Chinese and Malaysian media reported it was put on board a Malaysian Airlines plane bound for Beijing at 7.39pm on Thursday and an AFP photographer saw a North Korean embassy van and officials leaving Beijing airport early Friday morning.

South Korean news agency Yonhap reported on Friday Kim’s body was expected to leave for Pyongyang on an Air Koryo flight as early as on Saturday.

South Korea has blamed Pyongyang for the Cold War-style killing, citing what they say was a standing order from North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un to murder his exiled and estranged half-brother.

But the North denies this and denounced Malaysia’s investigation into the death as an attempt to smear the secretive regime. It had insisted that the man died of a heart attack and his body should be handed over to Pyongyang.

BODY A ‘PROPAGANDA TOOL’

Analysts said the North Korean regime may use Kim’s body as a “propaganda tool”. “They will likely use the body to claim they were not responsible and tell an alternative narrative,” said Bridget Welsh, an expert on Southeast Asian politics.

Pyongyang has refused to confirm the identity of the victim, who was carrying a North Korean passport bearing the name of Kim Chol when he was killed. Malaysia however has officially confirmed his identity using DNA evidence.

There are fears Kim’s 21-year-old son, Kim Han Sol, could be targeted next.

Two women – one Vietnamese and one Indonesian – have been arrested and charged with the murder. Airport CCTV footage shows them approaching the 45-year-old victim and apparently smearing his face with a piece of cloth.

Malaysian investigators are also seeking seven North Korean suspects, four of whom left Malaysia on the day of the murder.

Interpol has issued an international arrest warrant for the four men and they were still on Interpol’s list of those wanted for murder as of Friday.

Japanese media on board the MH360 plane to Beijing said two of the three other suspects were on board the plane that carried the remains of Kim. It was still unclear what happened to the third suspect.



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LTA revises road works permit fee structure to ease traffic


SINGAPORE: To encourage more efficient road works and minimise traffic disruptions, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) will revise its fee structure for road work applications.

In a fact sheet issued to the media on Thursday (Mar 30), LTA said the new fee structure will take effect from Jul 1 this year and aims to encourage agencies and service providers to plan their road works schedule more efficiently so as to minimise inconvenience to public transport users and motorists.

Road works are carried out to install, maintain or repair utility lines such as electrical cables or gas pipes beneath the roads.

Currently, the authority charges a flat rate of S$165 for each application regardless of the time taken and the amount of road space affected. 

“Road works carried out on extended stretches of roads and/or over long periods of time can impede traffic flow and increase travel time,” it said. 

The revised fee structure will introduce a time-based and distance-based fee for road works requiring lane closures.

(Table: LTA)

The authority said the changes aim to encourage agencies, telecoms and utilities service providers to limit the affected areas and to complete their road works within the shortest possible time and preferably during off-peak hours.

According to the new fee structure, road works carried out during peak hours will incur higher fees and there will be a maximum permit period of three weeks and maximum lane closure length of 300m. Road work applications must be submitted at least 14 days before the proposed start of the works. 

Should applicants fail to complete the road works within the time duration approved in the permit, they will have to pay an additional administrative fee of S$165 as well as the daily charge for the extended period of time requested, LTA said, explaining that this is to encourage proper planning. 



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Malaysians stranded in North Korea on their way home: Najib


KUALA LUMPUR: Nine Malaysians who had been stranded in North Korea for three weeks have left Pyongyang and are expected to arrive in Kuala Lumpur at about 5am on Friday (Mar 31), Prime Minister Najib Razak announced on Thursday evening.

Their flight took off at 7.45pm Malaysian time, he said. Channel NewsAsia understands the Malaysians will be flying home escorted by the Royal Malaysian Air Force. 

The Malaysians have been barred from leaving North Korea since Mar 7 amid a row over the killing of Kim Jong Nam at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb 13. North Korean diplomats and embassy officials in Malaysia were also barred from leaving the country in what appeared to be a tit-for-tat move.  

In his statement on Thursday, PM Najib said the Malaysian government “worked intensively behind the scenes to achieve this successful outcome”. “Many challenges were overcome to ensure the return of our fellow Malaysians.  The safety and security of our citizens will always be my first priority,” he added.

Mr Najib said North Koreans in Malaysia are now free to leave the country. 

He also said the coroner has approved the release of Kim’s body, “following the completion of the autopsy on the deceased and receipt of a letter from his family requesting the remains be returned to North Korea”. 

Earlier on Thursday, local media reported that a van carrying Kim’s embalmed body was seen entering MASkargo at KLIA around 3pm and that it was due to arrive in Beijing. 

Four North Koreans, including two suspects in his alleged murder, are also believed to be departing the Malaysian capital, reports said.

A van believed to be carrying the body of Kim Jong Nam, leaves the Kuala Lumpur Hospital in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Photo: Kyodo/via Reuters)

PM Najib had earlier said the country was in “sensitive talks” with North Korea. 

Said Mr Najib on Thursday: “The government believes strongly in the principles of justice and sovereignty. Our police investigation into this serious crime on Malaysian soil will continue. I have instructed for all possible measures to be taken to bring those responsible for this murder to justice.”



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ASIA'S FUTURE CITIES: Cambodian start-up introduces anti-pollution masks


PHNOM PENH: Every day, millions of people in Phnom Penh fill their lungs with bad air.

Whenever they breathe – roughly about 30,000 times a day for an adult – their respiratory system becomes exposed to harmful pollutants hovering over the city.

Some of them can be felt or smelled, but many are so fine they can reach the deepest parts of the lungs undetected and have the potential to cause premature death.

“It’s like you eat the same poison every single day; you don’t feel it now but you will later,” said Veasna Srey, a Cambodian-born French from Toulouse who repatriated to Phnom Penh last year.

During the first few months after his return, Veasna struggled to breathe and his partner suffered from bronchitis, an inflammation of the air passages. Their symptoms were a result of prolonged exposure to air pollutants in Phnom Penh, from toxic gases like carbon monoxide to small particles such as PM2.5 – one of the deadliest forms of air pollution.

A PM2.5 is tiny. It has a diametre of less than 2.5 micrometres or about 3 per cent the diametre of a human hair. This means it can penetrate deep inside the lungs, where it either remains for long periods or passes into the blood stream unfiltered. Long-term exposure to these particles can result in cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and cancers.

A lot of them fill Phnom Penh’s air but only a handful of millions of its residents know they exist. So when Veasna searched for an anti-pollution mask that can filter these harmful particles in the city last year, he found none.

“I only found surgical masks but they’re not the same. It’s like using a cap instead of a helmet. So, I decided to import anti-pollution masks with proper filters from abroad.”

PM2.5 particles have a diametre of less than 2.5 micrometres or about 3 per cent the diametre of a human hair. (Photo: United States Environmental Protection Agency)

As it turned out, the bad air has created a window of opportunity for the couple. Their fruitless search for effective anti-pollution masks made them realise there was none in the polluted city, and subsequently drove them to provide some for local Cambodians.

Still, the high cost of imported masks – more than US$50 apiece – means many people will never be able to afford the protection.

“So I researched about air pollution and started making the masks from scratch,” Veasna told Channel NewsAsia.

His Cambodian start-up KamasK came up with two affordable designs he now sells for US$8 and US$10. One of them can trap fine PM2.5 such as combustion particles, organic compounds and metals, while the other can capture PM0.1 – even finer particles.

Anti-pollution masks produced by Veasna can trap ultrafine airborne particles. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

They are the first of their kind to be made by a Cambodian company, according to Veasna. The filter contains carbon active charcoal and micro fibres that can be worn for 70 hours, and cost an additional US$6-7 for a pack of three.

“Our goal is to make them cheap for Cambodians. I might have grown up in France but I was born Cambodian. So I want to help Cambodians protect themselves,” Veasna said.

“I plan to make them even cheaper when we can produce more.”

AIR POLLUTION “STILL ACCEPTABLE”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the average annual concentrations of PM2.5 in a city should not exceed 10 microgrammes per cubic metre of air (μg/m3).

In the Cambodian capital, however, WHO’s data shows they can go up to 25 μg/m3 annually. And of 180 countries worldwide, its air quality ranks 148th in the Environmental Performance Index, indicative of a gradual downward trend over the past decade.

Grime built up on a building in Phnom Penh. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

Cambodia’s air pollution may seem worrisome but for its own government, it is not a major concern.

Based on the national air quality standard set by the government itself, levels of dust and air pollution in Phnom Penh are not considered unhealthy.

“Air pollution in Phnom Penh has increased but the level is still acceptable,” said Thiv Sophearith, director of the Environment Ministry’s Air Quality and Noise Management Department.

But for many of its residents, it is not good enough. On the street, many riders wear masks to stop airborne pollutants from entering their lungs. However, most of them are surgical masks, which are not designed to filter fine particles such as PM2.5.

And as the city presses ahead with fast paced development, with more construction and pollutants in the air, there are increasing risks of worsening air quality and subsequent impacts on public health.

Prolonged exposure to PM2.5 air pollutants can result in respiratory diseases and premature death. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

According to WHO, about 92 per cent of the global population is breathing polluted air and Southeast Asia is one of the regions with the highest air pollution levels in the world.

In 2012, air pollution contributed to 6.5 million deaths worldwide, including 7,000 in Cambodia. Some of the main causes included industrial activities, household fuel and waste burning, and inefficient modes of transport.

“What we’re mostly concerned about is vehicles because they’ve increased very fast. It’s the biggest challenge we’re facing,” Sophearith told Channel NewsAsia, adding the environment ministry will work with the transport ministry in monitoring and minimising pollution caused by transportation.

But until actions are implemented, the residents of Phnom Penh may need to rely on whatever masks they can afford.

“Masks are not the solution to air pollution,” Veasna said. “They’re like life jackets to help people save themselves.”

Follow Pichayada Promchertchoo on Twitter @PichayadaCNA



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Wild Thai tiger cub footage sparks hope for endangered species


BANGKOK: Conservationists on Tuesday (Mar 29) hailed the discovery of a new breeding population of tigers in Thailand as a “miraculous” victory for a sub-species nearly wiped out by poaching.

Images of some tigers including six cubs, captured by camera traps in an eastern Thai jungle throughout 2016, confirm the presence of what is only the world’s second known breeding population of the endangered Indochinese tiger.

The only other growing population – the largest in the world with about three dozen tigers – is based in a western forest corridor in Thailand near the border with Myanmar.

“The extraordinary rebound of eastern Thailand’s tigers is nothing short of miraculous,” said John Goodrich, the tiger programme director at Panthera, a wild cat preservation group that backed the survey.

Two Indochinese tigers roam the forest in Eastern Thailand. (Photo: AFP / DNP-FREELAND / PANTHERA)

The camera trap footage, which shows female tigers and their cubs traipsing through the leafy jungle, was captured with help from the anti-trafficking group Freeland and Thai park authorities.

Indochinese tigers, which are generally smaller than their Bengal and Siberian counterparts, once roamed across much of Asia.

But today only an estimated 221 remain, with the vast majority in Thailand and a handful in neighbouring Myanmar.

Aggressive poaching, weak law enforcement and habitat loss has rendered the animals all but extinct in southern China, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, according to scientists.

Tiger farms around the region have also boosted the trafficking trade by propping up demand for tiger parts, which are treasured as talismans and used in traditional medicines popular in China.

Indochinese tigers are generally smaller than their Bengal and Siberian counterparts. (Photo: AFP / DNP-FREELAND / PANTHERA)

Conservationists and park officials attributed Thailand’s success story to a rise in counter-poaching efforts over the past few decades.

But they warned that the breeding populations remained vulnerable and would not thrive without a sustained commitment to busting poachers and taking down the lucrative trafficking trade.

Today only an estimated 221 Indochinese tigers remain. (Photo: AFP / DNP-FREELAND / PANTHERA)

The Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai forest complex, where the latest young cubs were caught on some of the 156 cameras, still hosts a only modest tiger density of 0.63 tigers per 100 square kilometres.

It is a ratio on par with some of the world’s most threatened tiger habitats, according to Freeland, but still means there is a population of at least 23 of the big beasts roaming wild.

“It’s crucial to continue the great progress made by the Thai government to bolster protection for tigers at the frontlines,” said Kraisak Choonhavan, the group’s board chairman.

“As long as the illegal trade in tigers continues, they will need protection.”



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