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Friday Asia Update: Top Five Stories for the Week of January 10, 2014

by Guest Blogger for Elizabeth C. Economy
January 10, 2014

Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina speaks during a media conference in Dhaka on January 6, 2014. (Andrew Biraj/Courtesy Reuters) Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina speaks during a media conference in Dhaka on January 6, 2014. (Andrew Biraj/Courtesy Reuters)

Darcie Draudt, Charles McClean, Will Piekos, and Sharone Tobias look at the top stories in Asia this week.

1. Bangladesh’s governing party wins vote despite unrest. Bangladesh’s Awami League won 232 of 300 seats in the country’s new Parliament, with nearly half of the seats uncontested due to a boycott from the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP), which labeled the election a sham. The government declared the average turnout to be 39.8 percent, though the opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, said that the turnout was closer to 10 percent. Twenty-two protesters were killed on Sunday, and seven were killed on Monday; the government also arrested seven high-ranking BNP leaders this week, including a close aide to Zia. The government has also demanded that the BNP cut ties with the banned Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami.

2. North Korea rejects South’s proposal for family reunions. Pyongyang refused Seoul’s request for family reunions on January 9, citing concerns about military drills in South Korea. The reunions, which are part of a humanitarian effort to allow elderly family members separated by the peninsula’s division in 1953 to reunite, have been on hold since 2010, when North Korea launched a series of minor provocations against the South. Efforts to restart the program in September 2013 were also canceled by North Korea, who at that time blamed Seoul for rhetorical provocation. South Korean president Park Geun-hye proposed the reunions be held for the Lunar New Year on January 31. The South Korean Ministry of Unification expressed disappointment over the rejection, and urged the North to “show sincerity through its actions, instead of talking about improving ties only with words.” The North Korean unification committee hinted that reunions could possibly occur in a better political climate.

3. Rodman apologizes for incendiary remarks about an American imprisoned in North Korea. On January 9, former NBA star Dennis Rodman apologized for his outburst during an interview with CNN, in which he seemed to suggest Kenneth Bae, an American imprisoned in North Korea, was potentially guilty for an unnamed crime. The remarks drew much criticism, including from Bae’s family in the United States. For his fourth and much-publicized visit to Pyongyang—this time for an exhibition game staged for Kim Jong-un’s birthday—Dennis Rodman brought eleven American players, seven of whom are former NBA athletes. Diplomats and scholars are cautiously watching Rodman’s visits, which he has called “basketball diplomacy.” The U.S. State Department continues to distance themselves from Rodman by underscoring that the retired basketball star is there not as a representative of the U.S. government and has not contacted Rodman about his trips to North Korea.

4. Thai anticorruption authorities open investigations of hundreds of officials. Thailand’s National Anticorruption Committee announced this week that 308 lawmakers, mostly members of the governing party Pheu Thai, are under investigation on suspicion of “malfeasance in office.” The inquiry stems from a constitutional amendment, later ruled by a court to have been enacted illegally, that would have made the Thai Senate a directly elected body instead of having half of the body appointed by a committee of officials and judges. Critics of the constitutional amendment saw it as an effort by Pheu Thai to solidify its power; opponents of the anticorruption investigation charge that the inquiry is “highly” politicized. The opposition is boycotting upcoming elections and has attempted to disrupt voter registration.

5. Accused Indian diplomat returns to Delhi. Devyani Khobragade, who was India’s deputy consul-general in New York, was allowed to return to India after her indictment by a federal grand jury for falsifying visa documents and lying about underpaying her housekeeper. The twenty-page indictment alleges that Khobragade paid her housekeeper under $3.33 per hour, making her work ninety hours per week with no days off. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs reiterated her innocence. The U.S. State Department said that it would recall an unidentified U.S. diplomat at India’s request shortly after, a serious and rare occurrence. India has postponed visits by U.S. officials and a business delegation in protest of Khobragade’s arrest one month ago. On Wednesday, the government ordered the U.S. embassy to close a social club frequented by expatriates.

Bonus: A dispute that must not be named. Last week, China’s ambassador to Britain Liu Xiaoming compared Japanese militarism to Lord Voldemort—the villain from the Harry Potter series—in an opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph, writing, “If militarism is like the haunting Voldemort of Japan, the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is a kind of Horcrux, representing the darkest parts of that nation’s soul.” Not to be outdone, Tokyo’s ambassador to London Keiichi Hayashi responded on January 6 in an op-ed in the same paper that it is China that risks becoming Asia’s Voldemort by “letting loose the evil of an arms race and escalation of tensions.” Needless to say, the Harry Potter-themed name-calling did little to ease tensions between the two neighbors, which have been strained recently by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine and China’s announcement of a new Air Defense Identification Zone that covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. It seems fitting, though, that such an exchange should take place in the UK—perhaps Harry Potter is required reading for diplomats dispatched there.

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