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How a medical evacuation exposed Solomon Islands’ China challenge | Politics News



Daniel Suidani, the premier of Malaita – the Solomon Islands’ largest province – is in hospital in Taiwan receiving treatment for a suspected brain tumour. But the influential politician is also under fire from the Pacific nation’s government over a medical evacuation that has underlined the deep divisions over a 2019 decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

Suidani, who has emerged as one of the Solomon Islands’ most prominent China critics since the country ended its 36-year alliance with Taiwan, arrived in Taipei on May 26 in a trip the government has condemned as “unauthorised”.

That decision to shift diplomatic ties to China – known locally as “the switch” – remains unpopular and is mired in allegations that corrupt influence by Taiwan and China helped shape the decision.

Solomon Islanders who opposed the switch feared an economic relationship with China would be unmanageable.

Others expressed concern over Beijing’s treatment of religious minorities and its one-party system of government, which they said conflicted with the Solomon Islands’ democratic principles and widely-held Christian views.

Opposition was loudest in Malaita, where anti-China activism has taken hold in Auki, the provincial capital.

Suidani has since pledged to refuse any Chinese investment in his province, while fostering a close partnership with Taiwan bringing him into direct conflict with the Solomon Islands’ formal “One China” policy, and resulting in an increasingly acrimonious and public, spat between him and the Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare.

‘Shaking hands with China’

Premier Suidani’s health has been deteriorating since the start of the year.

After it was recommended that Suidani seek treatment abroad, his senior adviser, Celsus Talifilu, flew to Brisbane to arrange treatment in Australia, which was priced at $121,000 Australian dollars ($92,700).

The foreign ministers of China and Solomon Islands at a signing ceremony in Beijing in October 2019. The Pacific nation’s decision to switch diplomatic allegiance to China from Taiwan has not been universally welcomed [File: Thomas Peter/Reuters]

Talifilu told Al Jazeera English that the Malaitan premier first approached the Sogavare Government for financial assistance, where it is alleged that support for Suidani would be conditional to a public handshake between Suidani and Sogavare.

The Malaitan leader refused to entertain the idea.

“It would be like shaking hands with China”, Talifilu said, referencing Sogavare’s close relationship with Beijing.

The Sogavare Government told local media that its offers of assistance were refused for political reasons.

“[Premier Suidani] can express his political views against the Government that paid his salaries, but his personal health should be his priority rather than snooping around to poor advice from his henchmen,” it said.

Talifilu, who worked personally with Taipei to arrange the premier’s treatment and is travelling with Suidani, says that his subsequent request for Taipei’s assistance had “strong support” from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen.

But Taipei has downplayed the claims.

“Premier Suidani took the initiative of approaching Taiwan in the hope of travelling to our country for medical treatment,” said Joanne Ou, a spokesperson for Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Considering that Premier Suidani is a long-term friend and staunch supporter of Taiwan and that professional assessment has confirmed the need for urgent medical treatment, the government of Taiwan has agreed to Premier Suidani’s visit on the basis of humanitarian concern.”

China’s Honiara embassy says it has “raised concerns” with the Sogavare Government over Suidani’s Taiwan visit.

“China firmly opposes any official contacts in any form between Taiwan and any officials from countries having diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China” it said in a statement on May 30.

Shifting diplomatic tactics

Taipei’s assistance to Suidani, a leader of a rebel province with independence aspirations and one of Solomon Islands’ most prominent Beijing critics, is the latest example of the two parties’ extended public courtship.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Premier Suidani held numerous public events celebrating the arrival of Taiwanese aid consignments in Malaita – aid that was not approved by Honiara.

Taiwan ended formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan in September 2019, and was followed only days later by Kiribati [File: David Chang]

The consignments began flowing after a clandestine meeting between Talifilu and Taiwanese diplomats in Brisbane, Australia in March last year and have often been unveiled in ceremonies with prominent displays of the Taiwanese and Malaitan flags.

The Pacific had long been a bastion of Taiwanese support but the recognition of Beijing by Solomon Islands and Kiribati in 2019 was a blow to Taipei’s regional influence.

Four Pacific Island nations, Palau, Marshall Islands, Nauru and Tuvalu – with a combined population of just 100,000 people – still extend full diplomatic recognition to Taipei. Taiwan is recognised by just 15 nations globally.

Malaita, a geographically substantive province in the Solomon Islands, has a population of almost 200,000 people.

As China poaches more of its allies, Taipei has engaged in unconventional diplomatic tactics, including forging ties with Somaliland, an unrecognised breakaway region of Somalia.

“China’s motive has been to shrink Taiwan’s international space”, said Sana Hashmi, a visiting fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation.

“Amid China’s rising aggression, Taiwan could do with more friends and like-minded countries. [Its] continuous engagement with Malaita hints towards strengthening sub-national cooperation with countries with unofficial ties.”

Hashmi believes Taiwan’s assistance to Suidani is consistent with its “policy of giving no-strings-attached humanitarian assistance” and its deepening relationship with Malaita suggests President Tsai’s “willingness to engage friendly populations”.

Taiwan’s engagement with Malaita has coincided with the growth of Malaita’s separatist aspirations. In 2020, Premier Suidani announced that Malaita would conduct an independence vote, seeking to separate from Solomon Islands and citing his province’s opposition to Honiara’s China policy as justification.

Unity at risk

Meanwhile, China’s role in the Solomon Islands has continued to grow since “the switch”. It has provided significant COVID-19 assistance, including supplies of its Sinopharm vaccine.

China has courted significant media companies by giving them cars and computers, two local journalists familiar with Beijing’s media assistance told Al Jazeera.

But these efforts have been undermined by suspicions of China’s intentions in the country, exacerbated by the failed efforts of one Chinese business figure to lease a centrally located island near Honiara, and leaks showing Sogavare’s finance minister in negotiations with a mystery Chinese financier for a $100bn loan.

Despite the Honiara-Beijing relationship approaching its third year, opposition politicians believe the Solomon Islands’ recognition of China is not yet settled.

“If I were prime minister, I would go back to the people”,  said Matthew Wale, the Solomon Islands’ opposition leader.

He said any future Wale Government would test the question of Honiara’s allegiance to China in a national referendum.

The office of Prime Minister Sogavare did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Solomon Islands has suffered periods of political instability, sometimes requiring intervention by peacekeeping forces. Some fear the dispute over diplomatic ties could undermine peace [File: William West/AFP

Between 1998 and 2003, the Solomon Islands descended into civil conflict, with tensions between Malaitans and other ethnic groups leading to an estimated 200 deaths.

The conflict was brought under control only after Australia and other countries in the region intervened. The peacekeeping operation, known as the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI), ran for 13 years, concluding in 2017 at a cost of more than $700m.

As tensions continue to escalate between Malaita and the National Government, some fear the post-RAMSI peace in the country is being undermined.

“I am extremely concerned about the unity of the country”, Wale said. “I am extremely concerned about this matter leading to civil strife”.

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Armenia: Nikol Pashinyan claims victory in snap polls | Elections News




Nikol Pashinyan, the acting prime minister of Armenia, has claimed victory in a snap parliamentary election he had called in an effort to defuse a political crisis following a disastrous war with Azerbaijan.

With 75 percent of results declared, Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party had 55.61 percent of the vote on Monday. The electoral alliance of his top rival, former President Robert Kocharyan, had 20 percent of the vote, according to the Central Election Commission (CEC).

Voter turnout was about 50 percent, with some 2.6 million people eligible to vote.

“The people of Armenia have given our Civil Contract party a mandate to lead the country and personally me to lead the country as prime minister,” Pashinyan said early on Monday.

“We already know that we won a convincing victory in the elections and we will have a convincing majority in parliament,” he added.

Kocharyan’s bloc, however, questioned the credibility of the preliminary results and said it would not recognise Pashinyan’s quick claim to victory, which came when just 30 percent of precincts had been counted.

“Hundreds of signals from polling stations testifying to organised and planned falsifications serve as a serious reason for lack of trust,” the bloc said in a statement, adding it would not “recognise” the results until the “violations” were studied.

Armenia’s former President Robert Kocharyan visits a polling station to cast his vote during the snap parliamentary election in Yerevan, Armenia June 20, 2021 [Vahram Baghdasaryan/Photolure via Reuters]

Earlier on Sunday evening, the general prosecutor’s office said it had received 319 reports of violations. It said it had opened six criminal probes, all of which concerned bribes during campaigning.

The election is being monitored by experts from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which recently assessed the voting as largely fair and free. They will deliver an overall verdict on Monday.

Opinion polls prior to the election had put the two parties neck and neck. And while a record four electoral blocs and 21 parties ran for election, only a handful are expected to win seats in parliament.

Six-day war

Pashinyan had called the snap poll to try to end a political crisis that erupted after ethnic Armenian forces lost a six-week war against Azerbaijan last year and ceded territory in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh region. More than 6,500 people were killed in the war, according to the latest official figures from Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Pashinyan has since been under pressure, with regular street protests demanding he step down over the terms of the peace agreement that ended the conflict. Under the deal, which was brokered by Russia, Azerbaijan regained control of territory it had lost during a war in the early 1990s. Pashinyan himself described the agreement as a disaster, but said he had been compelled to sign it in order to prevent greater human and territorial losses.

From Moscow’s perspective, Pashinyan is a guarantor that the agreement will remain in place. This includes the stationing of some 2,000 Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Arsen Kharatyan, a former adviser to Pashinyan, told Al Jazeera the results gave the acting prime minister a chance to form a government “so that the internal political turmoil stops”.

“Now, how are you going to handle the situation that Armenia is in? In the larger picture, the security architecture of the region has not changed much since the war. Russia is still going to be a major player in all of this. So, whoever comes in to power is going to have to deal with Moscow quite directly,” Kharatyan said, adding that Sunday’s vote also showed none of the parties who campaigned on a “pro-Western agenda got enough votes”.

Armenia, which hosts a Russian military base, is a close ally of Moscow, although Pashinyan, who came to power on the back of street protests and on an anti-corruption agenda in 2018, has had cooler relations with the Kremlin.

Turkey, which supported Azerbaijan in last year’s conflict, will also be watching the election closely.

Conflicting opinions

On the streets of Yerevan on Sunday, Armenians voiced conflicting opinions about Pashinyan.

Voter Anahit Sargsyan said the prime minister, who spearheaded peaceful protests against corrupt elites in 2018, deserved another chance.

She said she feared the return of the old guard whom she accused of plundering the country.

“I voted against a return to the old ways,” said the 63-year-old former teacher.

An Armenian woman casts her ballot paper at a polling station during a snap parliamentary election – called after last year’s defeat in fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh – in Yerevan, Armenia, Sunday, June 20, 2021 [Sergei Grits/AP Photo]

Another voter, Vardan Hovhannisyan, said he had cast his ballot for Kocharyan, who calls Russian leader Vladimir Putin his friend.

“I voted for secure borders, solidarity in society, the return of our war prisoners, the wellbeing of the wounded and a strong army,” said the 41-year-old musician.

Kocharyan, who hails from Karabakh, has accused Armenia’s leadership of inaction during last year’s war and pledged to start negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh’s borders if he came to power.

Kocharyan was president of Armenia from 1998 to 2008 and was accused of acting unlawfully when he introduced a state of emergency in March 2008 after a disputed election.

At least 10 people were killed in the clashes that followed between police and protesters.

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New Zealand’s Hubbard selected as first transgender Olympian | LGBTQ News




Laurel Hubbard, 43, will compete in the super-heavyweight women’s event in Tokyo.

Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard will become the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics after being selected by New Zealand for the women’s event at the Tokyo Games, a decision set to test the ideal of fair competition in sport.

New Zealand Olympic Committee chief Kereyn Smith said 43-year-old Hubbard – who was assigned male at birth but transitioned to female in 2013 – had met all the qualification criteria for transgender athletes.

“We acknowledge that gender identity in sport is a highly sensitive and complex issue requiring a balance between human rights and fairness on the field of play,” Smith said in a statement.

Hubbard will compete in the super-heavyweight 87-kg category after showing testosterone levels below the threshold required by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The 43-year-old had competed in men’s weightlifting competitions before transitioning.

“I am grateful and humbled by the kindness and support that has been given to me by so many New Zealanders,” Hubbard, an intensely private person who rarely speaks to the media, said in a statement issued by the New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) on Monday.

Hubbard has been eligible to compete at Olympics since 2015, when the IOC issued guidelines allowing any transgender athlete to compete as a woman provided their testosterone levels are below 10 nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months before their first competition.

Some scientists have said the guidelines do little to mitigate the biological advantages of people who have gone through puberty as males, including bone and muscle density.

Advocates for transgender inclusion argue the process of transition decreases that advantage considerably and that physical differences between athletes mean there is never a truly level playing field.

Save Women’s Sport Australasia, an advocacy group for women athletes, criticised Hubbard’s selection.

“It is flawed policy from the IOC that has allowed the selection of a 43-year-old biological male who identifies as a woman to compete in the female category,” the group said in a statement.

Weightlifting has been at the centre of the debate about the fairness of transgender athletes competing against women, and Hubbard’s presence in Tokyo could prove divisive.

Her gold medal wins at the 2019 Pacific Games in Samoa, where she topped the podium ahead of Samoa’s Commonwealth Games champion Feagaiga Stowers, triggered outrage in the host nation.

Samoa’s weightlifting boss said Hubbard’s selection for Tokyo would be like letting athletes “dope” and feared it could cost the small Pacific nation a medal.

Belgian weightlifter Anna Vanbellinghen said last month allowing Hubbard to compete at Tokyo was unfair for women and “like a bad joke”.

Australia’s weightlifting federation sought to block Hubbard from competing at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast but organisers rejected the move.

Hubbard was forced to withdraw after injuring herself during competition, and thought her career was over.

“When I broke my arm at the Commonwealth Games three years ago, I was advised that my sporting career had likely reached its end,” Hubbard said on Monday, thanking New Zealanders.

“But your support, your encouragement, and your aroha (love) carried me through the darkness.”

Olympic Weightlifting New Zealand President Richie Patterson said Hubbard had worked hard to come back from the potentially career-ending injury.

“Laurel has shown grit and perseverance in her return from a significant injury and overcoming the challenges in building back confidence on the competition platform,” he said.

Hubbard is currently ranked 16th in the world in the super heavyweight category.

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Apple Daily could shut ‘in days’ after Hong Kong asset freeze | Freedom of the Press News




Company adviser says action under security law means it cannot access some $50 million in funds to pay staff and vendors.

Hong Kong pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily will be forced to shut “in a matter of days” after authorities used the national security law imposed by China to freeze the company’s assets as it arrested the paper’s editor and four other directors, an adviser to jailed tycoon Jimmy Lai told Reuters on Monday.

Mark Simon, speaking by phone from the United States, said the company was no longer able to access its funds and would be holding a board meeting on Monday to discuss how to move forward.

“We thought we’d be able to make it to the end of the month,” Simon told the news agency. “It’s just getting harder and harder. It’s essentially a matter of days.”

His comments signal closure is imminent even after Apple Daily said on Sunday the freezing of its assets had left the newspaper with cash for “a few weeks” for normal operations.”

The news comes two days after editor Ryan Law, 47, and chief executive Cheung Kim-hung, 59, were denied bail after being charged under the security law with collusion with foreign forces.

Apple Daily’s editor-in-chief Ryan Law arrives back at the detention centre after he was remanded in custody on Saturday [Lam Yik/Reuters]

Three other senior executives were also arrested last Thursday when 500 police officers raided the newspaper’s offices in a case that has drawn condemnation from Western nations, human rights groups and the chief United Nations spokesperson for human rights.

The three have been released on bail.

Simon told Reuters it had become impossible to conduct banking operations.

“Vendors tried to put money into our accounts and were rejected. We can’t bank. Some vendors tried to do that as a favour. We just wanted to find out and it was rejected,” he said.

Speaking earlier to US news channel CNN, Simon said the company had about $50 million available, but was unable to access the funds.

The publisher has come under increasing pressure since its owner Jimmy Lai was arrested under the national security law last August, which marked the first time the company’s headquarters was raided. Lai, 73, is now jailed and facing trial under the national security law. In May, the authorities also froze some assets belonging to the longtime critic of Beijing has also had some of his assets frozen.

Three companies related to Apple Daily are also being prosecuted for collusion with a foreign country and authorities have frozen HK$18 million ($2.3 million) of their assets.

China imposed the national security law on Hong Kong last June saying it was necessary to restore “stability” to a territory that had been rocked by mass protests in 2019, some of which turned violent.

The broadly-worded law criminalises acts such as subversion, sedition, collusion with foreign forces and secession with possible life imprisonment, but critics have said it is being used to suppress legitimate political debate with dozens of pro-democracy politicians and activists among the more than 100 arrested since it was brought into force.

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