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Friday Asia Update: Top Five Stories for the Week of January 31, 2014

by Guest Blogger for Elizabeth C. Economy
January 31, 2014

srilanka_humanrights A demonstrator from the Frontline Socialist Party shouts slogans during a protest against Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa's government as they commemorate the International Human Rights Day in Colombo on December 10,2013. Demonstrators from Frontline Socialist Party protest against abductions and murders in the final stage of the war against Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Courtesy Reuters).

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

1. U.S. envoy to visit Sri Lanka as pressure builds for war crimes inquiry. Three days after the United States announced that it would seek a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council calling for an investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, the U.S. State Department sent Nisha Biswal, assistant secretary of state for Central and South Asian affairs, to meet with government officials in the country. The ruling Sri Lankan government has not welcomed investigations into war crimes during the thirty-year civil war against the Tamil Tigers, though the UN Human Rights Council has already passed two resolutions pressing the Sri Lankan government to do so. The Northern Provincial Council of the country, a majority Tamil body, also voted for an independent investigation this week. The government of Sri Lanka continues to deny UN allegations that up to 40,000 civilians were killed by Sri Lankan troops in the final months of the war in 2009.

2. Senator Baucus in confirmation hearings to be next ambassador to China; gets an earful. Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) said that the United States needed to be “fair but firm” with China during a confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after being nominated by President Obama to be the next U.S. ambassador to China. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) implied that Senator Baucus was not being firm enough, calling China a “rising threat” and saying that the Chinese leadership has a “profound belief… that China must, and will regain the dominant role that they had for a couple of thousand years in Asia.” Senator Baucus said that Senator McCain’s point was “accurate,” but insisted that the two countries must focus on finding common ground. Senator Baucus also began the confirmation hearing saying, “I’m no real expert on China”—though an aide later clarified that the comment was just the humble Montana way of speaking.

3. Japan’s NHK chief ignites controvery with “comfort women” remarks. On Saturday, Katsuo Momii, the new chairman of Japan’s national broadcaster NHK, ignited a firestorm of controversy when he said at a press conference that Japan’s practice of forcibly recruiting Asian women to serve as sexual slaves during World War II—commonly referred to as “comfort women”—existed in “every country” and is only considered wrong by “today’s morality.” Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto, who created his own controversy last May when he suggested that Asia’s wartime brothels had been necessary, told reporters on Monday that he supported Momii’s argument. Momii later apologized for the remarks, calling them “extremely inappropriate” and asked that they be struck from the public record. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga downplayed calls for Momii’s resignation by saying that he made the comment as his personal view and not as the head of NHK. Nevertheless, on Friday Momii was called to appear before the National Diet, where he faced criticism from opposition parties who questioned his qualifications to lead NHK and provide the public with neutral, unbiased news.

4. China forces New York Times reporter to leave. In the latest in a series of Chinese actions targeting foreign journalists, China did not issue a visa for New York Times reporter Austin Ramzy. Ramzy had previously worked in China for Time magazine for six years, but when he started working for the New York Times last year, Ramzy was only issued a temporary visa. As it neared expiration, Ramzy was denied a new journalist visa. On Thursday Ramzy left Beijing for Taipei, where he will continue to report while he applies for a new visa to China. The White House has expressed its concern over Beijing’s treatment of foreign journalists; in response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei, via the state news agency Xinhua, denied that China forced Ramzy to leave. Ramzy is the second New York Times reporter forced to leave in thirteen months. The incidents follow an October 2012 article that reported then Premier Wen Jiabao’s family had accumulated wealth during his leadership.

5. Hong Kong imposes sanctions on Philippines. As of February 5, Philippine officials and diplomats will no longer have visa-free access to Hong Kong, the first phase of sanctions against the Philippines and the first time Hong Kong has imposed sanctions on a foreign country. The sanctions by Hong Kong are an attempt to secure an apology from Manila for what it considers the mishandling of a 2010 hostage situation on a Manila tour bus that resulted in the deaths of eight Hong Kong tourists. The Philippines has expressed its “deepest regret” for the incident but is “not prepared to consider” a formal apology. As many as 800 Filipinos visit Hong Kong each year on the existing visa-free arrangement.

Bonus: Japanese vending machines now sell packaged tomatoes. Kagome, a large manufacturer and distributor of tomato-based foods in Japan, has set up a vending machine that peddles tomatoes. Kagome is marking the vegetable as a healthy post-run snack; the new machines have been installed at the end of a route popular with joggers near the Tokyo Imperial Palace. The packaged tomatoes come in two sizes, costing 300 yen ($3) or 400 yen ($4) per unit. The machine will remain until February 23, the date of the annual Tokyo Marathon. Vending machines are very common in Japan, selling everything from apples to t-shirts to hamburgers.

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