Bangkok, Mar 24 (AP/UNB) — Nearly five years after a coup, Thailand voted Sunday in a long-delayed election setting a military-backed party against the populist political force the generals overthrew.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the blunt-speaking army chief who led the 2014 coup, is hoping to extend his hold on power after engineering a new political system that aims to stifle the influence of big political parties not aligned with the military.
Voting stations closed at 5 p.m. and meaningful results were expected within several hours, but the formation of a new government could take weeks of haggling.
About 51 million Thais were eligible to vote. Leaders of political parties opposed to military rule urged a high turnout as the only way to derail Prayuth's plans.
Prayuth was among the first to vote in Bangkok, the capital, arriving in a black Mercedes after polling booths opened at 8 a.m.
"I hope everyone helps each other by going to vote today as it's everyone's right," he told reporters after voting. He played golf later in the morning before heading to an army base to await results.
The election is the latest chapter in a nearly two-decade struggle between conservative forces including the military and the political machine of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a tycoon who upended tradition-bound Thailand's politics with a populist political revolution.
Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup and now lives in exile abroad to avoid a prison term, but parties allied with him have won every election since 2001. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who led the government that was ousted in 2014, also fled the country after what supporters said was a politically motivated corruption prosecution.
After the coup, political party gatherings were banned and pro-democracy activists and other dissenters were regularly arrested, interrogated and imprisoned. Just days before Sunday's election, the Thaksin-allied Pheu Thai party said the houses of party officials and its campaign canvassers in some provinces were searched by military personnel in an act of intimidation.
The party's leader, Sudarat Keyuraphan, said after voting in Bangkok's Ladprao district that she was confident of winning.
"I don't say it'll be a landslide. I don't know. Depends on the people. But I think we can win this election," she said.
Thailand's powerful King Maha Vajiralongkorn issued a statement on the eve of the election that said the role of leaders is to stop "bad people" from gaining power and causing chaos. It was also broadcast on Thai television stations minutes before voting started.
Invoking a speech by his father, the previous Thai king who died in 2016 after reigning for seven decades, Vajiralongkorn said not all citizens can be transformed into good people so leaders must be given support in ruling to create a peaceful nation.
He urged government officials, soldiers and civil servants to look after national security.
It was the monarch's second notable intervention in politics recently. Last month, he demanded his sister Princess Ubolratana Mahidol withdraw as a prime ministerial candidate for a small Thaksin-allied party within 24 hours of her announcement.
First-time voter Napasapan Wongchotipan said she hopes for positive changes after the election.
"I have no idea what the results will be like," she said. "But I do wish that the party that we will get, the party that wins the votes, will come in and improve our country."
Thais were voting for a 500-seat parliament that along with a 250-member junta-appointed Senate will decide the country's next prime minister. That setup means a military-backed figure such as Prayuth could become leader even while lacking a majority in parliament.
"The biggest challenge of this election is whether it will mark the beginning of a transitional democracy in Thailand. I hope to see that, but it seems to be a very dimmed hope," said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"It might end up with the election being used as a façade for a new authoritarian ruler or we might end up with another round of conflicts and polarization," she said.
Political parties and their main leaders held their final major rallies on Friday evening in Bangkok.
Sudarat said Pheu Thai would fight to overcome constitutional hurdles erected against it by Prayuth's regime.
"In 2014, they took power with the barrel of a gun, by a coup," she said. "In 2019, they are trying to take away the people's power again through crooked regulations under the constitution."
When it seized power in 2014, the military said it was to end political unrest that had periodically turned violent and disrupted daily life and the economy. The claim has been one of the few selling points for the gruff Prayuth, who according to critics has overseen a period of growing inequality and economic hardship in Thailand.
"I want things to improve," Narate Wongthong said after voting. "We had too many conflicts in the past and I want to see lots of people come out and vote."
New Delhi, March 23 (Xinhua/UNB)- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote a letter to his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan, greeting him on the occasion of Pakistan's national day, confirmed an official source in the Indian external affairs ministry on Saturday.
Pakistan's national day is celebrated every year on March 23.
Received msg from PM Modi: "I extend my greetings & best wishes to the people of Pakistan on the National Day of Pakistan. It is time that ppl of Sub-continent work together for a democratic, peaceful, progressive & prosperous region, in an atmosphere free of terror and violence"— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) March 22, 2019
"Prime minister sends customary message on national days to other heads of state or government. His message to Prime Minister Imran Khan highlighted the importance of a terror free Asia," said the official source.
Imran Khan also tweeted about receiving message from Modi. "Received message from PM Modi: 'I extend my greetings and best wishes to the people of Pakistan on the National Day of Pakistan. It is time that people of sub-continent work together for a democratic, peaceful, progressive and prosperous region, in an atmosphere free of terror and violence.'"
The letter assumes significance in the wake of escalating tension between the two countries since February.
Bangkok, Mar 23 (AP/UNB) — Thailand's election Sunday is likely to produce a weak unstable government whether it's a civilian or military-backed party that cobbles together a coalition, setting off a new phase of uncertainty in a country that's a U.S. ally in Southeast Asia and one of the world's top tourist destinations.
The election is Thailand's first since its military seized power from an elected government in May 2014. It was the conservative establishment's third major attempt by either military or legal coup to eradicate the influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, a tycoon who made his fortune in telecommunication and upended Thailand's politics with a populist political revolution nearly two decades ago.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who as army chief led the 2014 coup, is hoping to stay in power with a hybrid political system that relies on an appointed Senate and a 20-year national strategic plan to limit the power of political parties not aligned with the military.
"It will be unstable," said Prajak Kongkirati, a political science lecturer at Thammasat University. "Whatever party wins, Prayuth or Thaksin's side, both governments will be weak and unstable," he said. "The government can collapse within a year or a year and a half and we might have a new election quite soon."
Prayuth's five years as junta leader have been marred by complaints of human rights violations and growing economic inequality. Thailand's ties with the U.S. cooled because of the coup and Prayuth is seeking greater international legitimacy with an election meant to provide the appearance of a return to democracy.
If the junta had one success, it was reinforcing its claim to be protector of Thailand's monarchy, an institution at the heart of Thai society, following the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016 after a reign of seven decades and the succession of his son Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Critic say the new military-designed political system is intrinsically unstable because it is not accepted by all sides and will be the beginning of a new round of struggle in Thailand.
The country's prime minister will not be directly elected by its 51 million voters. Instead 750 lawmakers — 500 from an elected lower house of parliament and 250 from a junta-appointed Senate — will decide by simple majority. The prime minister does not have to be a member of parliament.
None of the major political parties is likely to have enough elected lawmakers to choose a prime minister and form a government outright. Chaotic outcomes, such as a military favored prime minister chosen with Senate backing that lacks a majority in the parliament, are possible.
Sunday's vote is the latest episode in a sometimes violent political struggle that pits Thaksin's political machine against a conservative establishment led by the ultra-royalist military.
Thaksin swept to power in 2001 with social welfare policies aimed at uplifting the majority rural poor. He lives in exile after he was ousted by a 2006 military coup and accused of abuse of power, corruption and self-enrichment. Some saw him as disrespectful to the monarchy.
The 2014 coup ousted the government that was led by Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was the head of the Thaksin-allied Pheu Thai party at the time.
On Friday, Thaksin hosted a glittering wedding reception in Hong Kong for his youngest daughter, causing a sensation and substantial media and online coverage in Thailand. Guests included the Thai king's sister Princess Ubolratana Mahidol, who last month made a spectacular but quickly aborted attempt to be a prime ministerial candidate for a small Thaksin-allied party.
Though ostensibly a family affair, the ceremony's timing two days ahead of the election seemed to implicitly say: Don't forget me and my political allies when you go out to vote.
The Pheu Thai party remains broadly popular, especially in the country's north and northeast, home to the majority of voters, and its current leader Sudarat Keyuraphan has urged all Thais to vote, hoping a high turnout will derail Prayuth's plans to stay in power.
"If Pheu Thai does reach the number needed to form a new government, it is unclear how the military leadership would respond," said John Ciorciari, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of Michigan.
"Regardless of the election result, it is unlikely to put an end to Thailand's protracted political crisis," he said.
Beijing, Mar 23 (AP/UNB) — A massive explosion at a chemical plant in eastern China with a long record of safety violations has killed at least 62 people and injured hundreds of others, 90 of them seriously.
The death toll appeared likely to rise still further, with another 28 people still listed as missing, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Saturday. Just 26 of those confirmed dead in Thursday's explosion have been identified, it said.
The blast in an industrial park in the city of Yancheng, north of Shanghai, was one of China's worst industrial accidents in recent years. State-run television showed crushed cars, blown-out windows and workers leaving the factory with bloodied heads.
Schools were closed and nearly 1,000 residents were moved to safety as a precaution against leaks and additional explosions, the city government said in a statement posted to its microblog.
The blast created a crater, and more than 900 firefighters were deployed to extinguish the fire that burned into the night. Windows in buildings as far as 6 kilometers (4 miles) away were blown out by the force of the blast, which caused a magnitude 2.2 seismic shock.
The cause of the blast was under investigation, and people responsible for operations at the plant have been placed "under control," Xinhua said. It wasn't clear whether anyone had been formally arrested.
Drains and waterways running through and from the plant complex have been blocked to prevent toxic chemicals from running into the nearby Yellow Sea, under orders from the Ministry of Ecology and Environment.
The orders covered sewage and rainwater outlets while further assessments of air and water quality were ongoing, Xinhua reported.
A resident of the community of Chenjiagang, about 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) from the plant, said glass from windows smashed by the force of the blast injured neighbors.
"At the time of the explosion, I was almost deafened and I was terribly frightened," said the woman, who gave only her surname, Zhi.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, on a state visit to Italy, demanded "all-out efforts" to find and rescue victims, Xinhua reported.
"Relief work must be well done to maintain social stability. Meanwhile, environmental monitoring and early warning should be strengthened to prevent environmental pollution as well as secondary disasters," it quoted Xi as saying.
Xi said local officials need to learn the lessons of a recent series of industrial accidents to save lives and property, signaling a likely crackdown on safety violations at a time when many Chinese companies are being hit by a downturn in sales that is squeezing profit margins.
On Xi's orders, State Councilor Wang Yong led officials from the State Council, China's Cabinet officials to the explosion site to "guide the rescue and emergency response work and visit the injured people," Xinhua said. The State Council has been ordered to oversee the investigation into the cause of the explosion, an indication of the seriousness with which the government regards the incident.
The Yancheng city government statement said 3,500 medical workers at 16 hospitals were mobilized to treat the injured, dozens of whom remained in critical condition.
The U.N. said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was "deeply saddened" at the loss of life and injuries and sent "heartfelt sympathies" to the families of the victims and to the people and government of China.
China experiences frequent industrial accidents despite orders from the central government to improve safety at factories, power plants and mines.
Among the worst accidents was a massive 2015 explosion at a chemical warehouse in the port city of Tianjin that killed 173 people, most of them firefighters and police officers. That blast was blamed on illegal construction and unsafe storage of volatile materials.
In November, at least 22 people were killed and scores of vehicles destroyed in an explosion outside a chemical plant in the northeastern city of Zhangjiakou, which will host competitions in the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Thursday's disaster occurred at a factory run by the Jiangsu Tianjiayi Chemical Co. Located among a cluster of chemical factories in Yancheng, it has a dismal safety record: In February 2018, China's State Administration for Work Safety cited 13 types of safety hazards at the company, including mishandling of tanks of toxic benzene, believed to be the source of Thursday's explosion.
Other local media reports said chemical fertilizer may have also been involved in the explosion.
Those violations came despite the plant having racked up 1.79 million RMB ($267,000) in fines since 2016 for violations of environmental regulations, according to a judgments issued by local county and city environmental protection bureaus. Those included improperly dealing with hazardous waste and evading air pollution supervision.
A 2017 explosion that killed 10 at a nearby plant prompted the State Administration of Work Safety to dispatch inspectors. They discovered over 200 safety hazards at chemical factories in Yancheng and four nearby cities, including 13 at the Tianjiayi plant. Safety hazards cited included leaks and drips, employees who didn't understand safety procedures, and a lack of emergency shut-off valves on tanks carrying flammable chemicals.
In 2014, the company's chairman, Zhang Qinyue, and Wu Guozhong, its former supply chief, were arrested on suspicion of dumping and burying hazardous waste byproducts near a temple and a village landfill, according to a Jiangsu court criminal judgment. They were convicted in 2017 and the company was fined 1 million RMB ($149,000).
Beijing, Mar 22 (AP/UNB) — Authorities in northern China say a man trying to kill his wife and daughter has crashed his car into pedestrians and killed six people.
Authorities in Zaoyang city, northern Hubei province, say restaurant owner Cui Lidong attempted to kill his wife and daughter Friday morning before hitting people on the street with a car.
The 44-year-old Cui was then shot dead by police.
The Zaoyang government statement says six people were killed, including one child. Eight people, including four children, were injured.
Cui's wife and daughter are among the injured.