Thailand's embattled premier announced Wednesday he might lift an emergency decree that has failed to stifle a growing protest movement demanding his resignation and reforms to the monarchy.

Thai PM says may lift emergency decree as rival rallies rock nation

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Thailand’s embattled premier announced Wednesday he might lift an emergency decree that has failed to stifle a growing protest movement demanding his resignation and reforms to the monarchy.

After a day of anti-government and rival royalist protests across the country, thousands of angry democracy activists marched on Government House, defying an emergency decree imposed last week banning gatherings of more than four people.

As they chanted for him to resign, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha addressed the nation, saying he would make “the first move to de-escalate” the situation.

“I am currently preparing to lift the state of severe emergency in Bangkok and will do so promptly if there are no violent incidents,” he said, without specifying any timeframe.

“We must now step back from the edge of the slippery slope that can easily slide to chaos,” he added, calling on protesters to resolve their differences through parliament.

Democracy activists had massed at Bangkok’s Victory Monument, while counter-rallies attracted thousands of royalists in the southern province of Narathiwat and scores more in the capital.

AFP journalists in Bangkok said some minor scuffles broke out between rival factions before around 7,000 pro-democracy activists set off towards the seat of the executive.

A line of around 150 riot police and barbed wire stopped the crowd about two kilometres (1.2 miles) from their target, although protesters soon managed to push their way through.

As they kept up their chants, one group even waved a giant “resignation letter” for the premier from the top of buses parked just a couple of hundred metres away from the building’s gates.

“Prayut said we should take one step back together. We will step back when Prayut resigns and stops taking legal action against our friends,” one protester shouted to the crowds, reading out a statement.

“If Prayut’s government does not resign within three days, they will see us again,” warned another activist to chants of, “Prayut, get out!” and “Monarchy reform!”, before they all dispersed.

Democracy protesters have assembled daily in the capital since last week, flouting the emergency edict as their calls for Prayut to go intensified.

The former army chief masterminded the 2014 coup and demonstrators say the military-drafted constitution rigged last year’s vote in his favour.

Activists are also demanding the powerful and ultra-wealthy monarchy stay out of politics — a previously taboo subject.

The emergency decree was issued after a group of protesters surrounded the queen’s royal motorcade, raising their arms in a three-fingered salute of defiance, inspired by the “Hunger Games” movies.

On Friday the use of force escalated as riot police deployed water cannon against the unarmed activists and scores of demonstrators have been arrested.

– Court U-turn –

Earlier on Wednesday, Bangkok’s criminal court backtracked on a ruling that ordered Voice TV — partly owned by exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra — to close over its coverage of pro-democracy rallies.

The website was one of four media outlets under investigation for violating computer crimes laws and an emergency decree aimed at curbing the civil unrest.

But the court revoked the ruling, allowing all four to continue reporting freely.

The court said there “must be specific content that is illegal and authorities cannot shut down a whole page or URL,” Voice TV’s lawyer Winyat Chartmontri told reporters.

“The court said people’s freedom (of) communication must be protected and media outlets can not be shut down. Press freedom is very crucial,” he said, adding that today’s decision cannot be appealed.

Voice TV staff would continue their reporting duties “fully, professionally and factually”, said a statement on the outlet’s website.

Sunai Phasuk from Human Rights Watch hailed the court decision but warned journalists were still at risk as their presence at protests is considered a violation of the emergency decree.

“They are not out of the woods yet.”

Activist Nat, 26, told AFP she was happy the court ruling had been overturned.

“We will still have a TV channel that reports the truth,” she said, urging for the freedom to protest to be returned too.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn — who sits at the apex of power in the country — also officially signed off Wednesday on an extraordinary session of parliament, due to begin on Monday, to try to resolve the unrest.

But since senators are appointed by the government and many come from military ranks, they are unlikely to willingly give up their power, said political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak.

“It’s almost a moot point. It’s buying time,” he told AFP. Agence France-Presse

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As Trump returns to political stage, nagging questions about 2024

by Michael Mathes

Brace yourself for Donald Trump 2.0, America. The ex-president returns from political hiatus Sunday seeking to regain control of a Republican Party that is out of power and pondering whether the flawed billionaire can win again in 2024.

After losing the Senate and White House, and failing to retake the House of Representatives, a US political party would normally lick its wounds, jettison its failed leader and chart a new path to claw back relevance.

But Trump is a singular force who maintains a vice-like grip on the Republican base, and all eyes will be on the 74-year-old showman when he addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference and teases attendees about his political future.

The speech, his first post-presidential address, comes on CPAC’s final day in Orlando, Florida, where an enthusiastic reception is expected at the nation’s largest conservative gathering.

But is he still the party’s uncontested leader, despite losing to Joe Biden? Or is Trump a twice-impeached has-been who left Washington in shame, banned from Twitter and accused of inciting the January 6 Capitol insurrection?

While Trump has retreated to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, after spending months promoting the falsehood that the election was stolen, strategists and many lawmakers say he remains the dominant conservative political force.

“President Trump is the leader of the Republican Party,” congressman Jim Jordan declared Wednesday on Twitter.

A source familiar with Trump’s plans said the former president will be “talking about the future of the Republican Party” and will criticize some new Biden policies.

But a Trump 2024 announcement may not come at CPAC, which started Friday with panels on “cancel culture” and “protecting elections.”

With Republicans now in the minority, CPAC speakers aired their grievances, describing an America “under siege” by the liberal left, with freedom of speech steamrolled by Silicon Valley “oligarchs.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signaled the rising influence of the party’s populist wing, telling CPAC “we will not go back to the days of the failed Republican establishment of yesteryear.”

So many were maskless in the crowd that organizers paused the proceedings to implore people to wear them.

“Freedom!” attendees shouted back.

– Base ‘still with Trump’ –

CPAC organizer Matt Schlapp, a pro-Trump activist, retweeted a reporter Wednesday citing sources saying that Trump will not announce his candidacy Sunday but will appear “warm” to the idea.

Such posturing will likely freeze other Republican contenders in place, for now.

Several potential White House hopefuls — including former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem and Senator Josh Hawley — will address CPAC, which may make for awkward presentations to a crowd still in Trump’s thrall.

A mid-February Quinnipiac poll showed three of four Republicans want Trump to play a prominent role in the party.

“I think there’s a disconnect between the Washington DC Republican Party and where the base is — and the base is still with Trump,” lobbyist John Feehery, who worked in House Republican leadership for 15 years, told AFP.

Tensions over Trump intensified Wednesday at a Republican press conference. Asked whether Trump should address CPAC, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said: “Yes he should.”

The question then went to congresswoman Liz Cheney, the Republican conference chairwoman who voted to impeach Trump over the Capitol riot.

“That’s up to CPAC,” Cheney said. But “following January 6 I don’t believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country.”

The drama exposed the extraordinary faultline between establishment Republicans and pro-Trump populists.

“Whether the GOP remains an uneasy alliance of those two factions, or splits apart… depends on a number of things that haven’t happened yet,” said Republican political consultant Whit Ayres, president of North Star Opinion Research.

Predicting another Trump candidacy now would be “rank speculation,” Ayres said, pointing to Trump’s “mountain of financial and legal challenges” including tax returns and alleged hush-money payments before the 2016 election.

Such trouble could complicate a future run.

– ‘Stay tuned’ –

But Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a vociferous critic turned steadfast loyalist when Trump won the White House, enthused that the defeated former president “ain’t going anywhere.”

And Senator Lindsey Graham said supporting Trump is crucial for their party to take back Congress in next year’s midterm elections and gear up for 2024.

“If we can get behind president Trump and follow his lead we will win in 2022,” Graham told Fox News. “If we argue with ourselves, we’re going to lose.”

Asked whether Trump runs in 2024, Graham deadpanned: “Stay tuned.”

Politics professor John Pitney Jr of Claremont McKenna College is confident Trump will control the GOP into 2024 — unless legal woes or other hurdles consume him.

“Supporters of president Trump vastly outnumber his critics within the Republican Party,” Pitney said.

“Republicans understand that breaking with Trump carries a political price within the Republican Party,” he said. “Most aren’t willing to pay that price.” via Agence France-Presse

WHO tells UN: Back words with action on vaccines

by Robin MILLARD

The WHO on Friday urged the UN Security Council to back up its call for increased vaccine supply to poorer nations with concrete action to ensure production gets ramped up.

The Security Council gave unanimous approval Friday to a resolution calling for improved access to Covid-19 vaccines in conflict-hit or impoverished countries.

But Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, said that while their vote was all well and good, they ought to address “the elephant in the room” stimying the availability of doses for poorer nations.

“I hope we will take the right choices and in addition to the voting, we take concrete action,” Tedros told a press conference in Geneva.

He called for countries to agree to waive the intellectual property (IP) rights on vaccines so many more manufacturers can start rolling doses off their production lines.

The idea is fiercely opposed by many richer countries and the pharmaceutical industry.

“I’m glad the UN Security Council has voted in favour of vaccine equity,” said Tedros.

“At the same time, if we’re going to take practical solutions, then waiver of IP should be taken seriously. And the UN Security Council can do it — if there is political will.”

He said the problem with vaccine sharing could be addressed effectively if production was increased, but to do that, the barriers blocking the way could not simply be ignored.

Tedros suggested technology transfers, voluntary licencing for outsourced production, and the temporary lifting of IP rights as possible solutions.

However, when the notion of IP waivers is raised, “We see lack of cooperation and even serious resistance. To be honest, I can’t understand this, because this pandemic is unprecedented. The virus has taken the whole world hostage.

“But there are people who don’t even want to discuss this issue.

“If we cannot apply provisions for a difficult time like now, during unprecedented conditions, then when?

“This is serious.”

– Covax being undermined: Tedros –

The World Trade Organization is due to discuss the idea of lifting IP rights at its general council meeting on Monday and Tuesday.

The plan was put forward in October by India and South Africa.

It is backed by dozens of countries including Argentina, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Venezuela.

But the United States, the European Union and wealthy nations including Australia, Britain, Japan and Singapore are against the plan.

While richer countries have surged ahead in the vaccination race, many poorer countries are still awaiting their first doses, paid for by international donors through the Covax facility.

On Friday, Ivory Coast joined Ghana as the only countries outside India — where doses are manufactured — to receive their first batches of vaccines through Covax.

Tedros said increasing the production and distribution of vaccines through Covax could not be done if certain countries continued to approach the manufacturers producing the doses that the facility is counting on.

“These actions undermine Covax and deprive health workers and vulnerable people around the world of life-saving vaccines,” he said.

Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s access to Covid tools hub lead, said though the message was beginning to creep through, certain nations were still trying to source extra vaccine doses in ways that undercut Covax.

“Some countries are still pursuing deals that will compromise the Covax supply, without a doubt,” he said.

“Some of the major suppliers to Covax, like the Serum Institute of India, are being approached by multiple countries.

“Any other demands on it do put a strain potentially on the supply.” via Agence France-Presse

Colombia launches ‘elite force’ to hunt rebels, drug gangs

Colombia on Friday launched a 7,000-strong elite force to fight rebels financed by drug trafficking and other illegal activities, and which allegedly operate across borders.

Surrounded by helicopters, tanks and hundreds of soldiers at the Tolemaida military base in central Colombia, President Ivan Duque described the launch as “historic”.

The force, he said, will be tasked with “subduing, beating and subjecting the structures of drug trafficking and the… threats linked to the illegal exploitation of minerals, trafficking of species, of persons and, of course, to any transnational form of terrorism.”

The force will “without qualms” pursue members of the ELN — the last active guerrilla group in Colombia, as well as drug gangs and ex-FARC rebels who have abandoned the terms of a 2016 peace deal, he said.

“Soldiers, it is a morally necessary, morally correct battle… Let’s go for the defence of Colombia!” he proclaimed.

Duque did not refer to Venezuela.

When he first announced the creation of the elite force earlier this month, he said many of its targets “are protected in Venezuela” though he did not mention direct military action in the neighboring country.

His statement prompted Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro to vow to “respond forcefully”.

In Caracas, he instructed the country’s security forces to “clean the barrels of our rifles to answer them at any level we need to answer if Ivan Duque dares violate the sovereignty of Venezuela.”

Bogota and a string of other countries recognise opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president, prompting Venezuela to break off diplomatic ties with its neighbor in 2019.

In 2008, Colombia executed a FARC leader on Ecuadorian soil, sparking a serious diplomatic crisis with Quito, whose president at the time, Rafael Correa, was a socialist ally of Venezuela’s.

Despite the 2016 peace accord, Colombia continues to battle a multi-faceted armed conflict involving leftist guerrillas, drug-traffickers and right-wing paramilitaries competing for control of the lucrative cocaine and illegal mineral extraction industries.

Colombia has repeatedly accused Venezuela of providing refuge to armed groups, which Caracas denies. via Agence France-Presse

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