Bangkok, Apr 2 (AP/UNB) — The air hanging over Thailand's far north has become so polluted, the prime minister went Tuesday to see in person what's been called a severe health crisis.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha arrived by helicopter at an army base in Chiang Mai, a city that's a popular tourist destination where seasonal haze has been unusually bad and prolonged this year.
Usually the pollution has been blamed on the burning of forests in neighboring Myanmar. Adding to the problem this year are wildfires caused by a drier-than-usual dry season as well as Thai farmers and hunters clearing land.
Prayuth handed out firefighting supplies like hoes and told local military personnel and firefighters that he traveled to Chiang Mai because he wanted to show his support. He'll later meet with local officials to discuss budgets and other issues related to combatting the smog.
Standard measurements of Chiang Mai's air quality have soared way in the danger zone and remained there for many weeks. Once such measurement, PM2.5, refers to airborne fine particulates 2.5 microns or less in diameter that are small enough to be sucked deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. High PM2.5 levels indicate pollution that is severe enough to cause respiratory problems and that over time may raise risks of cardiovascular disease and cancers.
Thailand's official safety limit is 50 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter of air, higher than that suggested by the United Nations.
In recent weeks in the north, the levels have regularly been reaching four to six times the Thai safety limit, and in one case peaked at 700 mcg.
Local news reports have described efforts to get face masks to Chiang Mai residents that are capable of filtering out PM2.5 matter. A school posted photos of air cleaners installed in the building. Broadcaster Thai PBS reported Monday that officials expect foreign tourists to continue traveling there but worry domestic tourists may avoid the north during Thailand's new year holidays in mid-April.
Khuanchai Supparatpinyo, director of the Research Institute of Health Sciences at Chiang Mai University, told The Associated Press that Chiang Mai province has for over a decade has endured an annual phenomenon its locals dub "dust season."
The city, popular with tourists, is especially vulnerable because it is surrounded by mountains that trap the pollution.
The smog that usually hits from February to March accumulates due to Chiang Mai city's vehicular traffic, agricultural burning and forest fires.
Khuanchai said in recent years, "dust season" can last up to five months due to worsening conditions such as drier air and industrial farming.
In January, more than 400 schools in the capital, Bangkok, were shut for a week when the PM2.5 level was around 70 to 120 mcg. Bangkok's governor responded by declaring the city a "pollution control zone," allowing measures such as road closings and limits on diesel exhaust, outdoor burning and construction activities.
Air quality in Bangkok, Thailand's largest city, has been mostly measured at moderate levels since then, a concern mainly for people with sensitivities such as existing lung conditions.
Islamabad, Apr 2 (AP/UNB) — Pakistan and India traded fire in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, leaving seven people dead — three Pakistani soldiers, a Pakistani villager, an Indian woman and a girl and a member of the Indian paramilitary troops, officials said Tuesday.
The fatalities were some of the highest since tensions flared between the rival nuclear-armed nations after a suicide bombing killed 40 Indian troops in Indian-administered Kashmir in February.
Pakistan's military said Indian troops targeted its military positions overnight in the border town of Rakhchakri in Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir. Along with the three soldiers killed, a fourth was wounded, the army said. The statement added that Pakistani soldiers "responded effectively."
The Indian fire also killed a 70-year-old Pakistani villager in a remote area of Niaza Per on Monday evening, according to Pakistani police official Waheed Qureshi.
In India, the army accused Pakistani troops of firing mortars and small-arms fire Monday along the disputed frontier, the highly militarized so-called Line of Control, hitting the sector of Poonch in Indian-controlled Kashmir. It said Indian soldiers retaliated.
Indian police officer M.K. Sinha said an Indian paramilitary officer, a woman and a girl were killed while at least 18 civilians and five troops were wounded.
The cross border firing resumed on Tuesday morning, after a brief lull, he said.
Days after the Feb. 14 suicide attack in Kashmir, India launched an airstrike inside Pakistan, saying it targeted militants from the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed militant group who had claimed responsibility for the bombing.
Pakistan retaliated and said it shot down two Indian air force planes; one Indian pilot was captured and later released and handed back to India amid signs of easing tensions. Pakistan said Washington, Moscow, Beijing and Riyadh helped avert all-out fighting but tensions remained. Islamabad later claimed no Pakistani was linked to the attack and that Jaish-e-Mohammed had no training camps inside Pakistan.
The group was founded by Pakistani militant Masood Azhar after his release from prison in India in 1999 in exchange for 155 hostages held on an Indian Airlines flight hijacked in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Azhar is believed to be seriously ill, living at an undisclosed location.
Wellington, Apr 2 (AP/UNB) — New Zealand lawmakers on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly in favor of new gun restrictions during the first stage of a bill they hope to rush into law by the end of next week.
The bill would ban the types of weapons a gunman used to kill 50 people at two mosques last month.
The bill was backed by both liberals and conservatives, with only a single lawmaker from the 120 that sit in Parliament voting against it. The vote was the first of three that lawmakers must pass before the bill becomes law.
Police Minister Stuart Nash said far too many people have access to dangerous guns and lawmakers were driven by the need to ensure public safety.
"We are also driven by the memory of 50 men, women and children who were taken from their loved ones on the 15th of March," Nash said. "Their memory is our responsibility. We don't ever want to see an attack like this in our country again. We are compelled to act quickly."
Seemingly drawing a distinction with the U.S., where gun possession is constitutionally protected, Nash said that in New Zealand, gun ownership remains a privilege and not a right.
Conservative lawmaker David Seymour voted against the bill, saying it was too rushed.
"Doing it in nine days before politicians go on their Easter break is starting to look more like political theater than public safety," he said.
But Seymour was so busy explaining to reporters his reasons for opposing the bill that he missed a procedural vote in which he could have tried to slow its passage.
Many New Zealanders were shocked at the firepower the gunman was able to legally obtain and favor the legislative changes.
Some are opposed. More than 14,000 have signed a petition filed in Parliament which says the law changes are "unjust" for law-abiding citizens and are being driven by emotions.
The bill would ban "military-style" semi-automatic guns and high-capacity magazines. It would also ban semi-automatic shotguns that could be fitted with detachable magazines and pump-action shotguns that can hold more than five rounds.
The bill wouldn't ban guns often used by farmers and hunters, including semi-automatic .22-caliber or smaller guns that hold up to 10 rounds, or shotguns that hold up to five rounds.
Bangkok, Apr 2 (AP/UNB) — Thailand's junta leader looks set to return as prime minister after a general election stacked heavily in his favor, but the process reveals that more than a decade's polarization in Thai politics is as strong as ever.
Rather than ensuring stability, the sharply divided vote almost guarantees new struggles over power, which could involve parliament, street protests or even fresh military intervention.
A self-declared "democratic front" of seven political parties says a preliminary vote count from the March 24 election shows it will be able to put together a majority in the House of Representatives.
But the junta-appointed Senate also takes part in the vote for prime minister, meaning junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha will likely need to win only one-quarter of the elected representatives in the lower house to get his job back.
Prayuth as army commander led the 2014 coup that toppled an elected government, and many people would see his taking power again through a carefully manipulated process as just the latest instance of Thai voters having their choices overruled by legal or extralegal means.
It would still be far from smooth sailing even if Prayuth and his allies in the Palang Pracharath party form a government, while the anti-junta coalition led by the Pheu Thai party holds a majority in the House of Representatives.
A Prayuth-led government "won't be able to pass laws and pass budgets," said Pornson Liengboonlertchai, a professor of political science at Bangkok's Thammasat University. "There's a likelihood that they will become an ineffective government because there could be a no confidence vote which relies on majority votes, and there's a likelihood that Prayuth will face that, a vote of no confidence."
With the final election results not being certified until May 9, there's a good chance the numbers — perhaps whittled down by disqualifications — will not give the anti-junta coalition a majority.
But this runs the risk of appearing that the junta-friendly Election Commission is helping to steal the election, creating a public backlash and the possibility of street protests.
"If they go the nuclear option and get rid of one of the parties, entirely dissolve them, then I think you may see people getting really, really, really upset," said Kevin Hewison, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina and veteran Thai studies scholar.
In the worst-case scenario, the failure to establish a working government could invite new intervention by the military.
"My big fear is that there's going to be another coup," Hewison said. "They'll say, 'Look, this hasn't worked, we'll set them straight again.'"
The army's excuse for staging its coup in 2014 was to end political strife that deadlocked the country's administration.
Aside from the maneuvering to form a new government, the vote showed that what Thailand's people want is not uniform and perhaps not even clear after nearly half a decade in which political activities were banned and freedoms of speech and assembly were severely restricted.
The preliminary results of the election, though marred by alleged irregularities, paint the picture of a nation deeply divided between those for and against military rule.
Of course divisions are nothing new in Thailand. The country's politics have been defined by them since the rise of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications tycoon who came to power in a populist political revolution nearly two decades ago.
Thaksin was beloved by many in the countryside for policies such as universal health care and farm subsidies, but was loathed by many in the country's conservative establishment who saw him as corrupt and a threat to the traditional role of the monarchy at the center of Thai society. He was ousted by a 2006 coup and is now in exile.
"The election seems above all to have made clear the depth of continuing divisions," said Michael Montesano, coordinator of the Thailand Studies Program at Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. "At the same time, the rhetoric used by some on the Thai right in support of the Palang Pracharath party may have inflamed the concerns of voters worried about former Prime Minister Thaksin's continued influence on Thai politics and broader threats to the old status quo."
But the dominating factor of Thaksin as boogeyman may be fading, with the rise of what some analysts see as a third force, the Future Forward Party, which starting from scratch without the benefit of old-school politicians in its leadership managed to pull off a third-place finish in the polls, both in terms of popular vote and likely seat total.
The party has a youth-oriented appeal but also a frank anti-military stance, and as more or less amateurs, stands apart from the other major contenders.
Part of the party's appeal is that it has given those opposed to both military rule and Thaksin a path to express themselves.
Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit has said he would join a coalition and support a Pheu Thai prime minister. Yet in a recent interview, when a reporter asked him to say the first word that popped in his head when he heard the name Thaksin, his answer was telling: "History."
The anti-Thaksin forces may still see the battle as one against the former prime minister and his political machine, but others such as the Future Forward Party and Pheu Thai are trying to move it toward a pro-democracy versus anti-democracy dialogue, said Jacob Ricks, a political scientist at Singapore Management University.
"Thaksin is appearing less important in their discussion, while he remains front and center for the military and their allies," he said.
Montesano said one of the upsides of the election is that divides in Thailand are no longer so much about Thaksin.
"The downside may be that voter sympathy for or patience with a continuing authoritarian orientation toward politics has become evident," he said.
He said it was unlikely these divisions can be overcome in the foreseeable future, especially if "Palang Pracharath continues to push to install either Gen. Prayuth or an outsider into the premiership, if Future Forward stays true to its electoral platform, and if meaningful progress in addressing inequality in Thai society does not occur."
Mandan, Apr 2 (AP/UNB) — Four people were found dead Monday in what police called a "multiple homicide" at a North Dakota property-management business.
The bodies of three men and a woman were discovered inside RJR Maintenance and Management in Mandan, a city of about 22,000 just across the Missouri River west of Bismarck, Police Chief Jason Ziegler said. The victims weren't immediately identified and police didn't say how they died.
"It's quite a large crime scene, so it's not something that's going to be easy for us to get in and do quickly," Ziegler said of the pace of the investigation.
Officers were combing through the building, which includes an office area in the front and a large warehouse area in the back, and planned to be there "as long as it takes us to get everything that we need," the chief said.
Ziegler said someone other than the four people who were found dead is responsible for the killings. However, police have not yet identified a suspect and have no motive.
"The crime scene is contained to where it's at, and there is no evidence based upon what we see that the public at large is in any danger from what happened there," Ziegler said. "It looks like an isolated incident."
He said he was not aware of officers responding to any other recent incidents at the business that might have been connected to the killings.
The building has many surveillance cameras, Ziegler said. He asked other businesses in the area that might have video footage they consider relevant to come forward.
Police announced in a brief statement Monday morning that they had found "several" bodies while responding to a "medical call" to RJR. As hours passed without additional information, people with friends or loved ones who work at RJR gathered beyond a police line, anxious for news about those inside.
Judy Praus, 70, said she was a longtime friend of the owner's family and had just seen them at a restaurant Saturday. She said she also knew a lot of employees, and had no details on any of them.
"When I was notified, I shattered. Unbelievable," she said.
Gina Kessel, 52, of Mandan, showed up at the business Monday to pick up her son, Mitchell Kessel, an employee there. She said Mitchell "called me, said something is going on." She said he didn't tell her what.
She and her son hugged, with both of them crying. The son declined comment before going back behind a police line.
A statement posted on the company's website said the business was closed Monday. No one answered the phone at RJR, which is somewhat isolated despite its location in a business district near a busy main road known as The Strip. A large empty lot sits in the front, a golf course in back and a soccer complex to one side.
Darin Helbling, a manager at a nearby bowling alley, said police asked to see his business' surveillance video. Helbling said the video showed only a couple of vehicles on the road that separates the businesses since 10 p.m. Sunday.
RJR's website identified it as a family-owned company that has been handling commercial and residential properties in Bismarck and Mandan for more than 20 years. Its services include collecting rent for landlords, paying mortgages, re-renting apartments, building and grounds maintenance, lawn care, and snow removal. It also rents out storage units.
A "Meet Our Team" feature on the website pictured 22 employees.
Natasha Towne said her brother, Adam Fuehrer, has worked at the business for about eight years. She said she didn't know his status and was frustrated at the lack of news. She declined to talk further.