Bangkok, Mar 25 (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 former Prime Minister 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 Thailand's Thammasat University. "Whatever party wins, Prayuth or Thaksin's side, both governments will be weak and unstable. 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 the 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.
Critics 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 who lacks a majority in the lower house, 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 has lived in exile since being 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.
London, Mar 25 (AP/UNB) — Embattled Prime Minister Theresa May was scrambling Sunday to win over adversaries to her Brexit withdrawal plan as key Cabinet ministers denied media reports that they were plotting to oust her.
May spent the afternoon ensconced in a crisis meeting at her country residence Chequers with fellow Conservatives and outspoken Brexit advocates like Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and others who would prefer to leave the European Union without a divorce deal rather than delay Britain's departure from the bloc further.
Her office released a statement afterward giving no hint about whether she had gained any new backing. It said only that they discussed "whether there is sufficient support" to bring her Brexit divorce plan back to Parliament for a third vote.
The prime minister has found her authority weakened after a series of setbacks in Parliament and her inability to win meaningful concessions from EU leaders who refuse to sweeten the Brexit deal.
The Sunday Times claims that 11 Cabinet ministers plan to tell May to resign so a caretaker leader can be put in her place to kick start the stalled Brexit process. She faces growing pressure from within her own party either to resign or to set a date for stepping down as a way to build support for her Brexit plan.
The confrontation may come to a head at a Cabinet session expected Monday.
Under Conservative Party rules, May cannot face a formal leadership challenge from within her own party until December because she survived one three months ago. But she may be persuaded that her position is untenable if top Cabinet ministers and other senior party members desert her.
Despite headlines about a Cabinet coup, there was no indication from Downing Street on Sunday that a resignation was near. Two of the people mentioned as possible successors — Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington and Treasury chief Philip Hammond — expressed strong support for May.
Hammond said Sunday that senior party members plotting to oust May were being "self-indulgent." He said a change of leadership would not provide a solution to the U.K.'s political deadlock on Brexit.
"We've got to address the question of what type of Brexit is acceptable to Parliament, what type of way forward Parliament can agree on so that we can avoid what would be an economic catastrophe of a no-deal exit and also what would be a very big challenge to confidence in our political system if we didn't exit at all," Hammond said.
Lidington, mentioned as a possible caretaker prime minister should May be ousted, said Sunday that talk of a Cabinet revolt was far-fetched speculation. He said May is doing a "fantastic job" and that he has no desire to take her place.
Still, May thus far has been unable to generate enough support in Parliament for the deal her government and the EU reached late last year. Lawmakers voted down the Brexit plan twice, and May has raised the possibility of bringing it back a third time if enough legislators appear willing to switch their votes.
The Cabinet is focused on the best way to get May's withdrawal plan passed in the House of Commons, Lidington said.
The U.K.'s departure from the EU was set to take place on March 29, but the absence of an approved divorce agreement prompted May last week to ask the leaders of the 27 remaining EU nations for a postponement.
The leaders agreed to delay Brexit until May 22, on the eve of the EU Parliament elections, if the prime minister can persuade Parliament to endorse her twice-rejected agreement.
If she is unable to rally support for the deal, the European leaders said Britain only has until April 12 to choose between leaving the EU without a divorce deal and a new path, such as revoking the decision to leave the bloc or calling another voter referendum on Brexit.
Parliament may hold a series of votes this week to determine what Brexit proposals, if any, could command majority support.
Conservative Party legislator George Freeman, a former policy adviser to May, tweeted that the U.K. needs a new leader if the Brexit process is to move forward.
"I'm afraid it's all over for the PM. She's done her best. But across the country you can see the anger. Everyone feels betrayed," Freeman tweeted. "This can't go on. We need a new PM who can reach out & build some sort of coalition for a Plan B."
May also faces pressure from groups demanding a second Brexit referendum. Huge crowds turned out Saturday for an anti-Brexit protest march in London, which organizers claimed involved more than 1 million people.
On Sunday, an electronic petition designed to cancel Brexit altogether passed the 5 million signature mark.
Serbia, Mar 25 (AP/UNB) — Twenty years after NATO intervened to stop Serbia's onslaught in Kosovo, Belgrade on Sunday commemorated the victims of what it says was an aggression while Kosovo hailed the beginning of its national liberation.
The staunchly opposed views of the two former war foes reflect persisting tensions over Kosovo, a former Serbian province whose 2008 declaration of independence Serbia still does not recognize.
Thousands of people gathered Sunday evening in the southern Serbian city of Nis for the main remembrance event featuring top state officials. President Aleksandar Vucic said in a speech that Serbia will never forget its victims.
"Yes, it was a crime!" Vucic said of the bombing campaign. "No one has been held responsible for these crimes. Serbian civilians, our children, were a permitted target of the NATO aggression."
Anti-NATO sentiments remain high in Serbia even as the country seeks European Union entry. Vucic reiterated Serbia won't join the Western military alliance.
Earlier on Sunday, Serbian far-right supporters burned NATO and EU flags in Belgrade, condemning the 78-day bombing that ended the country's rule over the territory many here view as their nation's historic heartland.
Wreath-lying commemorations also were held throughout the day.
Rights groups say several hundred people died in the NATO bombing, while Serbia says the number of victims was much higher. The bombing also destroyed much of Serbia's infrastructure.
In Kosovo, leaders said NATO's air war brought freedom for their people as they paid their respects to the victims of the 1998-99 war that killed more than 10,000 people.
"It is wonderful that Kosovo's people are free and children can grow up at their home and can go to their schools and that's only thanks to NATO air campaign," Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj told The Associated Press.
Serbia and Kosovo have been told they must normalize relations in order to advance in their bids to become members of the EU, but the EU-mediated talks have stalled amid tensions.
Several Western embassies in Belgrade on Sunday issued a joint statement of condolence for the victims of the bombing, pledging to "work even harder to contribute to lasting peace and stability to the region."
"We remember March 24 as the day diplomacy failed, and we express our sincere regret for the loss of civilian lives during the events of 1999," said the statement. "We are saddened for all of those who lost their loved ones during the wars of the 1990s."
Escondido, Mar 25 (AP/UNB) — A note referencing the recent terrorist attacks in New Zealand was found at the scene of a possible arson fire at a Southern California mosque, police said Sunday.
Nobody was hurt, and members of the Islamic Center of Escondido were able to extinguish the small blaze before firefighters around 3:15 a.m., officials said.
The incident was being investigated as arson and a possible hate crime, said police in the city about 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of downtown San Diego.
A note was found in the parking lot referencing the shootings this month that killed 50 people at mosques in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, police Lt. Chris Lick said. He did not elaborate about the contents of the note.
Investigators did not release information about a suspect.
The fire caused minor damage to the building's exterior.
Seven people were inside the mosque at the time of the fire, police told the KNSD TV station . They were able to put out the fire with a fire extinguisher before firefighters arrived on the scene, KNSD reported.
"There are people who sleep there overnight," member Yusef Miller said. "They heard the sounds, they smelled some funny smells, and there was a letter saying something connecting to New Zealand at the same time. So, this made everybody especially on edge."
The Escondido mosque was created four years ago and serves several hundred people in the city of about 143,000 residents, Miller said.
He told KNSD that worshippers are undeterred.
"We won't stop praying," Miller said. "We won't stop gathering."
Dustin Craun, the head of the Council of American-Islamic Relations in San Diego, said his civil rights group stands with the mosque.
"It is disturbing enough that some sick individual would attempt to burn a house of worship to the ground, but referencing the slayings in New Zealand is beyond the pale," he said in a statement. "While the majority of humanity has responded to the tragedy to draw closer to one another and refute hatred, a violent and hate-filled minority seeks further divisions. We are grateful that someone was inside the mosque and was able to act quickly to put the fire out. We ask anyone with information to come forward and contact the Escondido Police Department. We stand in solidarity with our community members who attend the Islamic Center of Escondido."
Mali, Mar 24 (AP/UNB) — Militia fighters descended on a village in central Mali before dawn Saturday, killing at least 115 people in the latest deadly attack blamed on an ethnic militia, local authorities said.
The massacre in the village of Ogossogou left the village chief and his grandchildren dead in the ethnic Peulh community, according to a local official who had received detailed accounts from the remote area.
The victims "included pregnant women, young children and the elderly," according to Abdoul Aziz Diallo, president of a Peulh group known as Tabital Pulaaku.
It was not immediately possible to independently corroborate the toll given by those in contact with survivors from the Peulh village. The U.N. mission in Mali confirmed reports of an attack but gave no figures.
Militants from a Dogon group known as Dan Na Ambassagou have been blamed for scores of attacks over the past year, according to Human Rights Watch. The umbrella group comprises a number of self-defense groups from the Dogon villages among others.
The growing prominence of Islamic extremists in central Mali since 2015 has unraveled relations between the Dogon and Peulh communities.
Members of the Dogon group accuse the Peulhs of supporting these jihadists linked to terror groups in the country's north and beyond. Peulhs have in turn accused the Dogon of supporting the Malian army in its effort to stamp out extremism.
In December, Human Rights Watch had warned that "militia killings of civilians in central and northern Mali are spiraling out of control." The group said that Dan Na Ambassagou and its leader had been linked to many of the atrocities and called for Malian authorities to prosecute the perpetrators.
Mali's Dogon country with its dramatic cliff landscapes and world renowned traditional art once drew tourists from Europe and beyond who hiked through the region's villages with local guides. The region, though, has been destabilized in recent years along with much of central Mali.