US Marks Anniversary of Myanmar Coup With New Sanctions

U.S. state department — The United States is imposing further sanctions on Myanmar’s military regime three years after the February 1, 2021, military coup, and designating four individuals and two entities associated with it.

The U.S. State Department said the latest action targets sources of revenue that support the regime’s military activities against civilians and those who provide material and support for arms production in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against the Shwe Byain Phyu Group of Companies, its owner Thein Win Zaw, and his wife and two adult children. Sanctions were also announced against Myanma Five Star Line, a shipping company.

The two entities are said to maintain a relationship with Myanma Economic Holdings Public Co. Ltd., or MEHL, which is controlled by the now-ruling Burmese military or Tatmadaw. The Tatmadaw has long relied on business activities to finance its own operations.

The Treasury said these two entities have facilitated the military regime’s acquisition of foreign currency and the importation of petroleum and other materials through their ties to MEHL.

Today’s sanctions freeze any U.S. assets of those targeted, and generally bar Americans from dealing with them.

“Today, we have ramped up our economic and political pressure on the military regime, including by restricting U.S. dollar transactions with state-owned enterprises that provide revenue enabling the military to do harm and kill its own civilians,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said during a briefing on Wednesday.

“We’re going to continue to support efforts by the opposition to the regime and to seek a resolution of the conflict that provides for genuine and inclusive multiparty democracy,” he said.

On February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military forces ousted the democratically elected government, stripping civilian leaders of their power.

The coup triggered massive pro-democracy demonstrations that were initially crushed with a deadly crackdown by the military, but has since evolved into a conflict between the military and armed resistance forces allied with several rural ethnic rebel groups who have been fighting for decades for greater autonomy.

U.S. officials and lawmakers urge the Myanmar military to cease violence against its people, release unjustly detained individuals, permit unhindered humanitarian access, and respect the public’s will for a return to representative democracy.

Speaking in Congress, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the conflict has displaced roughly 2.5 million people. He called for the unconditional release of all political prisoners in Myanmar.

Almost 2,000 members of the National League for Democracy, Myanmar’s main pro-democracy party, along with numerous others from across Burmese society and various ethnic groups, are being unjustly detained as political prisoners, according to McConnell.

Despite international pressure to stop assaults in civilian areas, Myanmar’s regime has continued to use its military aircraft to conduct bombings.

On Wednesday, Amnesty International said new evidence suggests Myanmar’s junta is using new tactics to import aviation fuel after sanctions were imposed in response to air strikes that have unlawfully killed and injured civilians.

Shipping data suggests there is an attempt to evade sanctions within the aviation fuel supply chain. Direct sales of fuel have diminished. Instead, intermediaries seem to be assisting in the purchase of fuel for Myanmar, according to a report by the Amnesty International.

Last year — 2023 — was the worst for airstrikes in Myanmar since the coup three years ago, according to Amnesty International.

“The best way to stop the Myanmar military from carrying out lethal airstrikes is to stop all jet fuel imports into the country,” said Montse Ferrer, deputy regional director for research at Amnesty International.

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China Circumspect After International Court Ruling on Israel

Johannesburg, South Africa — In a carefully worded response this week, China voiced its support of the U.N.’s International Court of Justice, or ICJ, ruling that orders Israel to desist from the killing of Palestinians in Gaza. Experts tell VOA that privately China has reservations about the use of such courts to deal with allegations of genocide, which could have awkward implications for Beijing.

“We hope that the ICJ’s provisional measures can be effectively implemented,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin when asked about the issue at a regular press conference on Monday. While the EU and U.S. reacted almost immediately to Friday’s ruling in The Hague, Wang’s comments were the first from a previously taciturn Beijing and came in response to a question from state broadcaster CCTV.

“We condemn all acts against civilians and oppose all moves that violate international law. China urges parties to the conflict to realize a comprehensive cease-fire at once, abide by the international humanitarian law,” he said.

South Africa’s case

It was the South African government — a longtime supporter of the Palestinian cause — that asked the ICJ to investigate whether Israel was committing genocide in the war in Gaza, which began in response to an attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

While a final ruling on whether genocide has indeed been committed is years down the road, the court announced provisional measures in the case last week. A majority of the judges — including a Chinese judge — ruled that South Africa had a plausible case and that Israel must now take every measure to avoid causing deaths in Gaza.

Israel has slammed allegations of genocide, and President Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to the court’s order by vowing to continue the war. Israel’s key ally, the United States, played down the ruling and noted it did not call for a cease-fire. But experts said the damning nature of the ruling was embarrassing for both democracies, which are proponents of international law.

South Africa — which has a close relationship with China — hailed the ruling as a win for the so-called Global South, of which Beijing sees itself as a leader.

Israel and the U.S. are both members of the ICJ, whose rules are binding. However, there is no enforcement mechanism, so sometimes — as in the case of the court’s 2022 ruling that Russia must exit Ukraine — its orders are ignored.

Usually, China is quick to point out anything it sees as U.S. hypocrisy, but on this issue Beijing has remained tight-lipped. Some experts think that is because Beijing is afraid of the precedent it could set.

China wary

“I think China is using the ICJ decision to push for de-escalation. But it made no mentioning of genocide and called the decision a ‘temporary measure,’” Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, told VOA.

“‘Genocide’ is a sensitive word for China, and I doubt China wants to set the precedent that it can be declared and imposed on a sovereign country,” she said.

Paul Nantulya, a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, echoed this view.

“They are privately very worried about precedent,” he wrote to VOA. “It is very possible for a state that is not directly affected by the goings on in Xinjiang to bring a case at the ICJ.”

Nantulya was referring to China’s policies regarding the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province. The United Nations and rights groups have accused Beijing of persecuting the minority group, which, evidence has shown, is subjected to torture, sexual violence and mass arbitrary detention in camps.

In 2022, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet reported China’s counterterrorism policies in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

Lawyers representing Uyghurs in exile filed a case with another global judicial body, the International Criminal Court, also in The Hague, Netherlands, in 2020. They accused senior Chinese leaders of genocide, but the ICC said it could not hear the case because the alleged crimes happened in China, which — like the U.S. — is not a party to the court.

The lawyers have argued the ICC should still take up the case given evidence of Beijing’s efforts to round up Uyghurs in neighboring countries that are members of the court.

However, unlike with the ICC, even a state that is not party to a conflict can bring charges against another state at the ICJ if they are both members of the court — as are South Africa and Israel.

South Africa was the second country to use the court this way, after West African state Gambia filed a genocide case against Myanmar over its persecution of the Rohingya Muslims.

In 2022, the ICJ set a precedent by ruling it would hear Gambia’s case on the basis that all parties to the Genocide Convention have an interest in ensuring the prevention of genocide anywhere in the world.

“I don’t think this sits easily with the Chinese side,” Nantulya said, given that China is an ICJ member.

Therefore, he said, Beijing is unlikely to chide Israel, and by association the U.S., over any noncompliance. “Softly, softly will be their approach.”

Cobus van Staden, an analyst with the South African Institute for International Affairs, told VOA he thinks China shares South Africa’s position overall on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Where I think they become more cautious is around the international institution aspect … and obviously they are wary of those tools kind of being turned against them,” he said.

Jonathan Hafetz, professor of law at Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey, likewise noted China’s “reticence in accepting the jurisdiction of international tribunals.” However, he said it was a reticence “shared by other major global powers, including the United States.”

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Turkish Assault on Syrian Kurdish Forces Fuels Talk of American Pullout

Turkish warplanes continue to pound U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria that are fighting Islamic State militants. As Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul, Turkey’s assault is fueling speculation among observers that Washington could be preparing to pull out and cut back its support for Kurdish forces in Syria.

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UN, Somalia Launch $1.6 Billion Appeal for Humanitarian Aid

Mogadishu, Somalia — The United Nations and the Somali government have launched a $1.6 billion appeal to address humanitarian challenges in Somalia. The 2024 Humanitarian Needs Action Plan seeks to provide life-saving support to over 5 million Somalis this year. 

The U.N. says climate shocks, conflict, widespread poverty and disease outbreaks continue to drive humanitarian needs in the Horn of Africa country. 

The appeal comes as Somalia struggles to deal with long dry spells followed by heavy rains and deadly flash floods. 

“In terms of the overall humanitarian situation in Somalia for 2024, World Vision sees humanitarian needs remaining high in 2024 due to recurrent shocks induced by climate change and underlying factors such as conflict and insecurity,” says Suganya Kimbrough, program development and quality assurance director for World Vision Somalia.

But “the number of people needing humanitarian assistance in 2024 has decreased to 6.9 million from 8.2 million people in 2023, according to the latest draft of the 2024 Humanitarian Needs and Response Plan,” she added.

Kimbrough says funding for the U.N.’s Somalia Humanitarian Fund currently stands at only $56.6 million, leaving a significant gap between resources available and the need. 

She added that most of the funding goes to life-saving interventions because Somalia remains fragile. 

However, Kimbrough said, humanitarian organizations, including World Vision, are gradually charting long-term sustainable solutions. 

“Over the last few years, World Vision Somalia has seen a gradual shift in funding, focusing more on longer-term resilience linked to the humanitarian development peace nexus and away from short-term humanitarian responses,” she said.

“Continued investments in disaster risk management, system strengthening, social cohesion and livelihood adaptation, and including mechanisms such as crisis modifiers are all key to foster resilience and build the capacity of communities to cope with recurrent shocks,” she added.

Close to three million Somalis are living in internally displaced persons camps and largely depend on support from the government and aid agencies. 

Marya Ahmed, a mother of seven based in a camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu, says, she has have been living with all children in the camp for the last five years. She said they get just a little food and medical support, and that she really wants to leave the camp one day and start a new life. Right now, she added, she doesn’t have the means.

Analysts say whereas the annual call for international support has been critical in staving off humanitarian suffering, it hardly resolves Somalia’s food security problems. 

Ali Mohamed, a food security expert and researcher in Mogadishu, says the appeal by the Somali government and aid agencies is critical for millions of Somalis who are starving. But, he adds, we’re dealing with cyclical problems and we’re yet to find a lasting solution that will enable populations to develop the capacity to respond to shocks and sustainably generate their food.

Studies indicate that Somalia contributes only a tiny percentage of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming but suffers more than most countries from adverse climate change conditions. 

Mohamed says the situation could get worse because of dwindling global resources and dire humanitarian situations elsewhere. 

“I am worried that donors are increasingly getting fatigued with Somalia as we have witnessed recently. There have to be deliberate efforts by the government to seriously invest in food systems and fully exploit the local resources to gradually reduce foreign dependence.” 

According to the humanitarian agency OCHA, the 2023 appeal was only 43% funded, raising concerns about a similar scenario this year. 

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Putin Vows to Make Military Gains in Ukraine as He Meets With His Campaign Staff

Moscow — President Vladimir Putin vowed Wednesday to push back Ukrainian forces to reduce the threat of attacks on Russian territory as he met with activists running his campaign ahead of the March presidential election that he’s all but certain to win.

Asked about plans for the military campaign in Ukraine, Putin said the line of contact needs to be pushed back to “such a distance from our territory that will make it safe from Western-supplied long-range artillery that Ukrainian authorities use for shelling peaceful cities.”

He added the Russian military has been doing just that, “pushing the enemy back from vital populated centers.”

“This is the main motive for our guys who are fighting and risking their lives there — to protect the Motherland, to protect our people,” he added.

Ukraine has struck inside Russia recently, including a December 30 attack on the border city of Belgorod that killed 25 people, injured over 100.

Putin also said Russian investigators concluded that Ukraine used U.S.-supplied Patriot air defense systems to shoot down a Russian military transport plane in the Belgorod region on January 24. Russian authorities said the crash killed all 74 people onboard, including 65 Ukrainian POWs heading for a swap.

Ukrainian officials didn’t deny the plane’s downing but didn’t take responsibility and called for an international investigation.

Putin said Russia wouldn’t just welcome but would “insist” on an international inquiry on what he described as a “crime” by Ukraine.

Putin, 71, who is running as an independent candidate, relies on a tight control over Russia’s political system that he has established during 24 years in power.

With prominent critics who could challenge him either jailed or living abroad and most independent media banned, his reelection in the March 15-17 presidential vote is all but assured.

“Russia has been forced to defend its interests, including by military means,” Putin told the meeting with his campaign staff, saying that even as the meeting was going on, Russian troops made new gains on the edge of the town of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine.

“We are passing through a very difficult and important period in the development of our country, the strengthening of its independence and sovereignty in all vectors,” he said. “Scum that is always present is being washed away bit by bit.”

Under a constitutional reform that he engineered, Putin is eligible to seek two more six-year terms, potentially allowing him to remain in power until 2036. He is already the longest-serving Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who died in 1953.

Three other candidates who were nominated by parties represented in parliament are also running: Nikolai Kharitonov of the Communist Party, Leonid Slutsky of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and Vladislav Davankov of the New People Party.

All three parties have been largely supportive of the Kremlin’s policies. Kharitonov ran against Putin in 2004, finishing a distant second.

Boris Nadezhdin, a 60-year-old local legislator in a town near Moscow, also is seeking to run. He has openly called for a halt to the conflict in Ukraine and starting a dialogue with the West.

Thousands of Russians across the country signed petitions in support of Nadezhdin’s candidacy, an unusual show of opposition sympathies in the rigidly controlled political landscape that raises a challenge for the Kremlin. On Wednesday, Nadezhdin submitted 105,000 signatures to the Central Election Commission, which is expected to review them over the next few days.

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UN Court Rejects Much of Ukraine’s Case Alleging Russia Discriminated in Crimea, Supported Rebels

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The United Nations’ top court on Wednesday rejected large parts of a case filed by Ukraine alleging that Russia bankrolled separatist rebels in the country’s east a decade ago and has discriminated against Crimea’s multiethnic community since its annexation of the peninsula. 

The International Court of Justice ruled Moscow violated articles of two treaties — one on terrorism financing and another on eradicating racial discrimination — but it rejected far more of Kyiv’s claims under the treaties. 

It rejected Ukraine’s request for Moscow to pay reparations for attacks in eastern Ukraine blamed on pro-Russia Ukrainian rebels, including the July 17, 2014, downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 that killed all 298 passengers and crew. 

Russia has denied any involvement in the downing of the jetliner. A Dutch domestic court convicted two Russians and a pro-Moscow Ukrainian in November 2022 for their roles in the attack and sentenced them in their absence to life imprisonment. The Netherlands and Ukraine also have sued Russia at the European Court of Human Rights over  Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. 

Court rules Russia violated order 

In another rebuke for Moscow, the world court ruled that Russia had violated one of the court’s orders by launching its full-scale invasion in Ukraine nearly two years ago. 

The leader of Ukraine’s legal team, Anton Korynevych, called the ruling “a really important day, because this is a judgment which says that the Russian Federation violated international law, in particular both conventions under which we made our application.” 

The legally binding final ruling was the first of two expected decisions from the ICJ linked to the decade-long conflict between Russia and Ukraine that exploded into all-out war almost two years ago. 

At hearings last year, a lawyer for Ukraine, David Zionts, said the pro-Russia forces in eastern Ukraine “attacked civilians as part of a campaign of intimidation and terror. Russian money and weapons fueled this campaign.” 

Another ruling expected Friday

The court, however, ruled that sending arms and other equipment didn’t constitute terrorism funding, according to the 1999 treaty. 

“The alleged supply of weapons to various armed groups operating in Ukraine and the alleged organization of training for members of those groups fall outside the material scope” of the treaty, said ICJ President Joan E. Donoghue. 

Another lawyer for Ukraine, Harold Koh, said during last year’s hearings that in the Crimean Peninsula, Russia “sought to replace the multiethnic community that had characterized Crimea before Russia’s intervention with discriminatory Russian nationalism.” 

Lawyers for Russia urged the world court to throw out the case, arguing that the actions of pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine did not amount to terrorism. 

The court found that Russia failed to investigate allegations by Ukraine of alleged terrorist acts but rejected all other claims by Kyiv of breaches of the Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism. 

It also ruled that Moscow breached the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by limiting school education in the Ukrainian language and by maintaining a ban on a Tartar representative assembly called the Mejlis. 

The court is scheduled to rule Friday on Russia’s objections to its jurisdiction in another case filed by Ukraine shortly after Russian troops invaded on February 24, 2022. It alleges Moscow launched its attack based on trumped-up genocide allegations. The court already has issued an interim order for Russia to halt the invasion, which Moscow has flouted. 

In recent weeks, the ICJ also heard a case brought by South Africa accusing Israel of committing genocide in Gaza. Judges issued provisional measures last week calling on Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in the conflict. 

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Zelenskyy Proposes Change to Allow Dual Citizenship for Ukrainians

Over 6 million Ukrainians have fled fighting in their homeland since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in 2022. Even as the war continues, Ukrainian officials are laying the groundwork to get those citizens back in Ukraine when the war ends. Mariia Ulianovska has the story. VOA footage by Kostiantyn Golubchik.

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Eight Million Displaced by Sudan War, UN Says

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — The number of people uprooted by the war between rival generals in Sudan is around 8 million, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, who was visiting Ethiopia, rallied international donors to open their wallets to fight the crisis, describing the situation as “serious.”

“The conflict has increased in intensity and in impact on civilians,” Grandi told reporters in Addis Ababa.

“Since April 2023, so less than a year ago, 8 million people have been displaced from their homes in Sudan,” he said, adding that more than 1.5 million had fled to six neighboring countries.

The conflict between Sudan’s army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his former deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, erupted last April.

Diplomatic efforts to end the violence continue after numerous cease-fires have been broken.

Grandi, who was later to visit Sudan, called on donors to boost support for the influx of refugees, warning that only 40% of funding had been provided.

“This is not acceptable,” he said. “I understand that there are more crises that are more visible. But it does not mean that this is not urgent.

“I heard stories of heartbreaking loss of family, friends, homes and livelihoods,” UNHCR quoted him as saying.

As of January 21, the number of people displaced stood at 7.6 million, with children accounting for about half, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA.

Over 100,000 people, nearly half of them Sudanese, have fled into Ethiopia, according to the latest U.N. estimates.

The number of people who have gone to Chad since the war began crossed 500,000 last week, and an average of 1,500 flee into South Sudan each day, the U.N. statement said.

By January 21, almost 517,000 people had been recorded crossing the border from Sudan to South Sudan, OCHA said.

The war — which has flared in the capital, Khartoum — has killed thousands, including between 10,000 and 15,000 in a single town in the western Darfur region, according to U.N. experts.

Sudan’s army-aligned government this month spurned an invitation to a summit organized by the East African bloc IGAD and subsequently suspended its membership in the group for engaging with Daglo.

Both sides have been accused of war crimes, including the indiscriminate shelling of residential areas, torture and arbitrary detention of civilians.

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Scholz Evokes Nazi Era as He Urges Germans to Reject Far Right

BERLIN — Chancellor Olaf Scholz reminded Germans of their Nazi past on Wednesday as he called on citizens to reject the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) which is second in most national polls.

Hundreds of thousands of people have joined demonstrations across Germany against the AfD after a report that two senior party members had discussed plans for the mass deportation of citizens with foreign backgrounds — a term called remigration.

Addressing the Bundestag lower house of parliament after a special session marking the Holocaust and dressed in a black suit and tie, Scholz said democrats must stand together and stop the shift to the right.

“The word ‘remigration’ is reminiscent of the darkest times in German history,” Scholz said.

“Those who remain silent are complicit,” he said, adding he wanted voters to see the AfD for what it was.

Support for the AfD dipped slightly in a poll published this week following the protests but the party, which has a strong focus on migration, is still second in most polls before this year’s European elections.

Scholz also said that “Dexit”, the idea of Germany leaving the European Union, which AfD co-leader Alice Weidel has talked about, would lead to “the greatest destruction of prosperity that could happen to Germany and Europe.”

In an unusually combative speech during which he waved his clenched fists in the air, Scholz argued for a stronger EU.

“If the world becomes even more difficult, for example if you look at what is possible in the U.S. election, then the European Union must become all the stronger,” he said, adding the bloc must complete a banking and capital market union.

Support for Social Democrat Scholz and his awkward three-way coalition with the Greens and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) is hovering around record lows.

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Why Americans Are Leaving California and Moving to Florida and Carolinas?

According to the latest U.S. census, in 2022 over 8 million Americans moved within the country. Dozens of thousands have left California, while Florida has become the fastest growing state population-wise, with 22 million residents and counting. Angelina Bagdasaryan took a look at the stories behind the demographics. Anna Rice narrates her story. (Camera: Vazgen Varzhabetian) 

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Traffic-Blocking Farmers Closing In on EU Capital

HALLE, Belgium — Farmers blocked more traffic arteries across Belgium, France and Italy on Wednesday, as they sought to disrupt trade at major ports and other economic lifelines. They also moved closer to Brussels on the eve of a major European Union summit, in a continued push for better prices for their produce and less bureaucracy in their work.

The protests had an immediate impact on Wednesday — the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, announced plans to shield farmers from cheap exports from Ukraine during wartime and allow farmers to use some land that had been forced to lie fallow for environmental reasons.

The plans still need to be approved by the bloc’s 27 member states and European Parliament, but they amounted to a sudden and symbolic concession.

“I just would like to reassure them that we do our utmost to listen to their concerns. I think we are addressing two very important (concerns) of them right now,” European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said.

The rallies are part of farming protests across the EU and have shown how only a few hundred tractors can snarl traffic in capitals from Berlin to Paris, Brussels and Rome. Millions across the bloc have been facing disruptions and struggling to get to work, or seen their doctor’s appointments canceled because protests blocked their way.

“It obviously has a major economic impact. Not only for our company, but for many companies in Flanders and Belgium,” said Sven Pieters of the ECS transport company in Belgium’s Zeebrugge North Sea port.

In France, the prosecutor in Creteil, south of Paris, said that 15 people have been placed in police custody Wednesday after they have been arrested near the entrance of the Rungis international market, where they headed with tractors.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has warned farmers encircling Paris that any attempt to block the Rungis market and airports, and to enter into the capital would be considered “red lines.” The Rungis market supplies Paris and the surrounding regions with fresh food.

Protesters put a big banner on the A6 highway, south of the French capital, writing: “Paris, let our farmers get through” as police armored vehicles were blocking the road. No major incidents between police and farmers have been reported so far.

A climax in Belgium is set for Thursday, when farmers plan to protest outside EU headquarters during a summit of government leaders. They will seek to get their issues on the summit agenda and win some concessions on the financial burdens they face and the increased competition from nations as far away as Chile and New Zealand.

“It is important that we listen to them,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said. “They face gigantic challenges,” from adapting to climate change to countering environmental pollution, he said.

Belgium currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, and De Croo said that he would address the issue during the summit as a late addition to an agenda centered on providing aid to Ukraine, after Russia’s full-scale invasion nearly two years ago.

French President Emmanuel Macron has said he wants to hold off on a free trade deal with South American nations because of the vehement opposition of EU farmers and will discuss the issue at the summit.

Despite the widespread inconveniences, governments in the EU are treating protests, which have been mostly peaceful, with extreme caution.

Spanish farmers were also set to add their weight to the protests. Three main Spanish farming associations agreed to begin protests in the coming weeks to demand changes in what they describe as overly restrictive EU policies. 

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Extreme Climate Conditions in Somalia Displace Farmers, Disrupt Production

Last year, Somali farmers faced the dual threats of drought and flooding. Jamal Ahmed Osman spoke with farmers who shared their experiences of how extreme climate conditions are taking a toll, in this report narrated by VOA’s Arash Arabasadi. Camera and video edit: Abdulkadir Zubeyr

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Musk Cannot Keep Tesla Pay Package Worth More Than $55 Billion, Judge Rules

DOVER, Del. — Elon Musk is not entitled to a landmark compensation package awarded by Tesla’s board of directors that is potentially worth more than $55 billion, a Delaware judge ruled Tuesday.

The ruling by Chancellor Kathaleen St. Jude McCormick comes more than five years after a shareholder lawsuit targeted Tesla CEO Musk and directors of the company. They were accused of breaching their duties to the maker of electric vehicles and solar panels, resulting in a waste of corporate assets and unjust enrichment for Musk.

The shareholder’s lawyers argued that the compensation package should be voided because it was dictated by Musk and was the product of sham negotiations with directors who were not independent of him. They also said it was approved by shareholders who were given misleading and incomplete disclosures in a proxy statement.

Defense attorneys countered that the pay plan was fairly negotiated by a compensation committee whose members were independent, contained performance milestones so lofty that they were ridiculed by some Wall Street investors, and blessed by a shareholder vote that was not even required under Delaware law. They also argued that Musk was not a controlling shareholder because he owned less than one-third of the company at the time.

An attorney for Musk and other Tesla defendants did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

But Musk reacted to the ruling on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter that he owns, by offering business advice. “Never incorporate your company in the state of Delaware,” he said. He later added, “I recommend incorporating in Nevada or Texas if you prefer shareholders to decide matters.”

Musk, who as of Tuesday topped Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people, had earlier this month challenged Tesla’s board to come up with a new compensation plan for him that would give him a 25% stake in the company. On an earnings call last week, Musk, who holds 13%, explained that with a 25% stake, he can’t control the company, yet he would have strong influence.

In trial testimony in November 2022, Musk denied that he dictated terms of the compensation package or attended any meetings at which the plan was discussed by the board, its compensation committee, or a working group that helped develop it.

McCormick determined, however, that because Musk was a controlling shareholder with a potential conflict of interest, the pay package must be subject to a more rigorous standard.

“The process leading to the approval of Musk’s compensation plan was deeply flawed,” McCormick wrote in the colorfully written 200-page decision. “Musk had extensive ties with the persons tasked with negotiating on Tesla’s behalf.”

McCormick concluded that the only suitable remedy was for Musk’s compensation package to be rescinded.

Greg Varallo, a lead attorney for the shareholder plaintiff, praised McCormick’s decision to reverse the “absurdly outsized” Musk pay package.

“The fact that they lost this in Delaware court, it’s a jaw dropper,” said Wedbush Securities analyst Dan Ives. “It’s unprecedented, a ruling like this. I think going in investors thought it was just typical legal noise and nothing was going to come out about it. The fact that they went head-to-head with Tesla and Musk and the board and voided this, it’s a huge legal decision.”

During his trial testimony, Musk downplayed the notion that his friendships with certain Tesla board members, including sometimes vacationing together, meant that they were likely to do his bidding.

The plan called for Musk to reap billions if Tesla, which is based in Austin, Texas, hit certain market capitalization and operational milestones. For each incidence of simultaneously meeting a market cap milestone and an operational milestone, Musk, who owned about 22% of Tesla when the plan was approved, would get stock equal to 1% of outstanding shares at the time of the grant. His interest in the company would grow to about 28% if the company’s market capitalization grew by $600 billion.

Tesla has achieved all 12 market capitalization milestones and 11 operational milestones, providing Musk nearly $28 billion in stock option gains, according to a January post-trial brief filed by the plaintiff’s attorneys. The stock option grants are subject to a five-year holding period, however.

Defense attorney Evan Chesler argued at trial that the compensation package was a “high-risk, high-reward” deal that benefited not just Musk, but Tesla shareholders. After the plan was implemented, the value of the company, based in Austin, Texas, climbed from $53 billion to more than $800 billion, having briefly hit $1 trillion.

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Kimchi Consumption Grows, Thanks to K-Content, Health Claims

washington — South Korean kimchi exports hit a record high amid a global surge in the popularity of Korean culture, hitting 44,041 tons in 2023, a 7.1% increase from 42,544 tons exported in 2021. 

Kimchi, a traditional Korean dish made by fermenting cabbage or other vegetables, was exported to 92 countries from South Korea last year, with the United States and Japan being the top customers, according to BusinessKorea, a monthly magazine.  

The United States imported more than 10,000 tons of kimchi in 2023, and Japan imported more than 20,000 tons. Kimchi exports to the United States have grown significantly in the past few years, increasing from $14.8 million in 2019 to $29 million in 2022, according to The Korea Daily. 

Some experts see a connection between this rise in exports and the rising popularity of Korean entertainment content, such as K-pop and K-dramas. According to Forbes, U.S. viewership of Korean dramas rose 200% from 2019 to 2021, with TV shows like “Squid Game” topping the Netflix viewership charts in the United States.  

Others attribute the rising popularity of kimchi to its health benefits, as fermented foods expand the diversity of digestive tract microbes.  

Patrice Cunningham, founder and CEO of Tae-Gu Kimchi in Washington, spoke about the increase in popularity of kimchi in the United States. 

“Kimchi is a huge part of the Korean diet,” she said. “They eat it as a side dish with almost every meal. … In the states now, we’re kind of implementing that same style of eating.”  

Cunningham makes and distributes kimchi with her mother, selling both vegan and non-vegan varieties made from napa cabbage.  

“I always knew that my mom had a really great kimchi recipe, and I remember saying to myself for a while that I wanted to bottle it one day and sell it,” Cunningham said.  

She attends 15 to 16 farmers markets a week in the main season and has won multiple grants for her business, contributing to its growth. 

She said many of their customers focus on their “gut health … and so they buy our kimchi for that.”   

K-culture boosts popularity

Another Washington business that sells kimchi is Rice Market. Partner Sak Pollert said kimchi sales have increased significantly over the past two years.  

He said more customers come in “with recipes on their phone, looking for Korean and other Asian ingredients, too.”   

As to kimchi’s rise in popularity, particularly in the United States, Pollert said that many in Washington are world travelers already familiar with kimchi but don’t like the smell.  

“But now, they learned it’s probiotic foods that taste good and help with digestion,” he said. “It helps make other foods taste better, so they get over the smell quickly.”  

Pollert said he thinks that K-content has played an important role in bolstering kimchi’s global popularity. K-dramas “did a phenomenal job promoting kimchi and Korean food and drinks, especially soju,” a Korean grain-based alcohol.  

He noted that restaurant and dinner scenes in many K-dramas feature ajummas — Korean for married or middle-aged women — gathering around a table to gossip and make kimchi before winter.  

South Korea promotes its cuisine 

This rise in popularity of kimchi, though influenced by multiple factors, is a part of a broader plan by the South Korean government to push Korean cuisine worldwide.  

“South Korea’s government and corporations are thinking of ways to promote Korean food and profit from it,” National Public Radio’s Anthony Kuhn said in an interview with Yang Joo-Pil, an official at the South Korean Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.  

Yang said that each year, about 10 food items are chosen for product placement in popular dramas, and Korean foods are sold at K-pop concerts. 

In Washington, efforts to promote Korean food and spread Korean culture are evident in the work of the Korean Cultural Center. Last November, the center partnered with Tae-Gu Kimchi for “DC’s First Kimjang: Making and Sharing Kimchi.”  

Kimjang in Korea is an event that occurs once or twice a year “as a way for communities to collectively stock up on and share essential foods,” according to the Korean Cultural Center’s event page.  

At the kimjang event, participants had the opportunity to try kimchi over rice and make their own kimchi in a hands-on workshop. 

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Zimbabwean Opposition Leader Released After Almost 600 Days in Custody

An opposition leader in Zimbabwe who spent nearly 600 days in detention while awaiting trial on charges of inciting public violence has been released. A magistrate in Harare convicted Job Sikhala on the charges but handed down a suspended two-year sentence because Sikhala had already spent so many days in jail. Columbus Mavhunga has more from Harare.

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US Syphilis Cases Rise in 2022; Most in 70 Years

new york — The U.S. syphilis epidemic isn’t abating, with the rate of infectious cases rising 9% in 2022, according to a new federal government report on sexually transmitted diseases in adults.

But there’s some unexpected good news: The rate of new gonorrhea cases fell for the first time in a decade.

It’s not clear why syphilis rose 9% while gonorrhea dropped 9%, officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, adding that it’s too soon to know whether a new downward trend is emerging for the latter.

They are most focused on syphilis, which is less common than gonorrhea or chlamydia but considered more dangerous. Total cases surpassed 207,000 in 2022, the highest count in the United States since 1950, according to data released Tuesday.

And while it continues to have a disproportionate impact on gay and bisexual men, it is expanding in heterosexual men and women, and increasingly affecting newborns, too, CDC officials said.

Syphilis is a bacterial disease that can surface as painless genital sores but can ultimately lead to paralysis, hearing loss, dementia and even death if left untreated.

New syphilis infections plummeted in the U.S. starting in the 1940s when antibiotics became widely available and fell to their lowest number by 1998.

About 59,000 of the 2022 cases involved the most infectious forms of syphilis. Of those, about a quarter were women and nearly a quarter were heterosexual men.

“I think it’s unknowingly being spread in the cisgender heterosexual population because we really aren’t testing for it. We really aren’t looking for it” in that population, said Dr. Philip Chan, who teaches at Brown University and is chief medical officer of Open Door Health, a health center for gay, lesbian and transgender patients in Providence, Rhode Island.

The report also shows rates of the most infectious types of syphilis rose not just across the country but also across different racial and ethnic groups, with American Indian and Alaska Native people having the highest rate. South Dakota outpaced any other state for the highest rate of infectious syphilis at 84 cases per 100,000 people — more than twice as high as the state with the second-highest rate, New Mexico.

South Dakota’s increase was driven by an outbreak in the Native American community, said Dr. Meghan O’Connell, chief public health officer at the Great Plains Tribal Leaders’ Health Board based in Rapid City, South Dakota. Most Nearly all of the cases were in heterosexual people. O’Connell said STD testing and treatment was limited in isolated tribal communities and only got worse during the pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last year convened a syphilis task force focused on stopping the spread of the STD, with an emphasis on places with the highest syphilis rates — South Dakota, 12 other states and the District of Columbia.

The report also looked at the more common STDs of chlamydia and gonorrhea.

Chlamydia cases were relatively flat from 2021 to 2022, staying at a rate of about 495 per 100,000, though there were declines noted in men and especially women in their early 20s. For gonorrhea, the most pronounced decline was seen in women in their early 20s as well.

Experts say they’re not sure why gonorrhea rates declined. It happened in about 40 states, so whatever explains the decrease appears to have occurred across most of the country. STD testing was disrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic, and officials believe that’s the reason the chlamydia rate fell in 2020.

It’s possible that testing and diagnoses were still shaking out in 2022, said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention.

“We are encouraged by the magnitude of the decline,” Mermin said, though the gonorrhea rate is still higher now than it was pre-pandemic. “We need to examine what happened, and whether it’s going to continue to happen.”

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China’s Jailing of Brit for Espionage Will Further Discourage Business, Analysts Say

LONDON — Beijing’s revelation that it sentenced an elderly and well-connected British businessman who has lived in China for decades to five years in prison for espionage will further discourage business and trade, say analysts and a friend of the man.

Last week, China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that in August 2022 a Beijing court found Ian J. Stones, a 70-year-old consultant, guilty of “buying and unlawfully providing intelligence for an organization or individual outside China.”

Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin was responding to a question about Stones at a regular press briefing the day after The Wall Street Journal broke the story on his case, which had not previously been made public by the Chinese or British.

Wang said that Stone’s appeal of the verdict was rejected last September but did not provide any more details about the case. He did say the Chinese courts held the trial “strictly in accordance with the law, guaranteed Stones’ procedural rights, and allowed the UK [side] to visit him and sit in on the sentencing.”

Stones’ daughter, Laura Stones, told The Wall Street Journal the Chinese authorities refused them access to legal documents and did not allow them to attend the trial.

“There has been no confession to the alleged crime; however, my father has stoically accepted and respects that under Chinese law he must serve out the remainder of his sentence,” she told the Journal.

Stones has worked in China since the 1970s for prominent companies, including Pfizer and General Motors. He started his own consultancy, Navisino Partners, which he was working for when he disappeared from public view in 2018, the Journal reported Thursday. Stones also built close relations with Chinese government agencies and officials, including some with whom he studied who went on to achieve high ranks.

‘He thought he could manage’

Peter Humphrey, a former fraud investigator for Western firms in China, has known Stones for 45 years.

He told VOA, “Three years before he was taken, I saw him in London. He had realized that an agency was tracking him, and they even invited him for a tea chat. So he was worried, but he thought he could handle it. Then, when he was detained, he also thought he could manage. So, he did not speak out to the outside world.”

Governments and rights groups have accused China of arresting foreigners to use as bargaining chips. China in 2018 arrested two Canadians, a consultant and an analyst, on spying charges after Canadian authorities arrested Chinese technology company Huawei’s chief financial officer on a U.S. warrant for violating sanctions on Iran. Beijing released the Canadians in 2021 after a deal was made to release the Huawei officer.

Romanian university professor Marius Balo worked in China before being charged with contract fraud and sentenced to eight years in prison in 2014.

He told VOA, “In my own experience, these espionage cases are bogus. They use it as an excuse to capture people and then use them as bargaining chips. I’ve met several of these people, and it’s a common tactic for them.”

Another possible explanation

Humphrey says it’s also possible Stones was hired by a company linked to an intelligence agency.

“If you are a consultant, you want to see as much information as possible so that you can analyze and interpret it and write a report for your client about the condition of the Chinese economy and predictions for what will happen in the next few months, and so on. But the problem might be: Who is the client?” Humphrey said.

“Among his clients, are there any that the Chinese authorities do not want him to provide information to? Sometimes intelligence services try to use consultancies to gather information for them unwittingly,” he said. “I don’t know if Ian Stones fell afoul of this or not.”

VOA sent requests for comment via email to the Chinese Embassy in London and the British Foreign Office. No response has been received yet.

China last year expanded its counterespionage law to include more options for prosecuting alleged spying.

China’s Ministry of State Security earlier this month announced it arrested a man it identified as a third party national named “Huang” for spying for Britain’s MI6 foreign intelligence service. The arrest was seen by some analysts as retaliation for Britain’s arrest last year of a parliamentary researcher on suspicion of spying for China.

Benedict Rogers, chief executive of the Britain-based human rights organization Hong Kong Watch, said China’s espionage allegations not only worsen Sino-British relations but also significantly affect foreign nationals and businesses operating in China.

“Whether the Chinese allegations are true, or whether this is a tit-for-tat retaliation for allegations of Chinese espionage at Westminster, remains to be seen,” he said. “But either way, this incident will make it a much more dangerous environment for British citizens doing business in or traveling to China.”

China under President Xi Jinping has been tightening controls on information, raiding foreign companies and jailing journalists.

China jailed Humphrey himself in 2013, the year Xi first became president, for two years for his consultancy’s collecting and selling of private information, revoked his risk consultancy’s business license, and had him deported.

It’s not clear if the Chinese court will count any of Stones’ time served in detention toward his five-year sentence. If it does, he could be released as early as this year.

VOA’s Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

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Behind European Farmers Protests: Anger, Hardship and No Easy Answers

PARIS — French cereal grower Jerome Regnault has spent years explaining his profession, as co-founder of a nonprofit to educate consumers about agriculture, and as a local lawmaker for the Ile-de-France region surrounding Paris. 

But last week, he chose to communicate another way — firing up his tractor to join a spreading farmers’ protest in France and across the European Union. 

“It’s been several years since government announcements haven’t been followed,” Regnault said, as he drove to a roadblock set up by farmers Monday in the Yvelines department west of the French capital. “In farming, we like to weigh, measure, count. So, it’s over with announcements.” 

Simmering discontent among European growers has exploded into protests and blockages of ports and roads in recent months, hopscotching from Germany and Poland to touch the Netherlands, Romania, Greece, Spain and Belgium — and now agricultural heavyweight France.

The grievances are varied, but many touch on complicated bureaucracy, soaring costs of inputs like fertilizer and fuel, competition from overseas and European environmental regulations that many say threaten their business. 

Speaking to parliament on Tuesday, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal vowed to resolve the standoff, and promised fresh financial support to farmers. From Sweden, French President Emmanuel Macron added more concessions, calling for ending select food imports from Ukraine and an end to talks on a trade deal with countries in a Latin American trade bloc known as Mercosur. 

Yet there is no sign of the protest movement fading. Farmers in Brittany dumped 700 tons of soil on a highway Tuesday, in a bid, they said, to “sow a prairie.” Around the southern city of Toulouse, others tried to block access to a local airport. Meanwhile, Paris-area protesters promised to slowly tighten a blockade on eight main arteries around the capital, with some aiming to block the wholesale market Rungis that supplies the city’s food. 

The discontent clashes with national values that have long embraced farming and rural life. Every year, French presidents and political candidates make an obligatory stop at the Paris agricultural fair to pat cows, chat with growers and snack on sausages.

Yet many of France’s small- and medium-sized farmers are becoming poorer by the year. Over half a century, the number of farms has plummeted, from 1.5 million to about 456,000 today. Roughly one-quarter of growers lives under the poverty line, and suicide rates are high, according to French statistical agency INSEE. 

Heading toward a wall 

Regnault, whose farm is located on the outskirts of Paris and who took over the business from his father, pointed to a raft of red tape and expenses, and faulted both French and EU bureaucracy. 

Among other demands, he wants more subsidies to farmers and an end to diesel taxes along with international trade agreements that he said penalize French agriculture. Regnault said he uses pesticides judiciously and tries to follow green farming practices as long as they don’t undermine his business. 

“The Green Deal and the Farm to Fork seem wonderful, but they harm agricultural productivity,” said Regnault, referring to two major EU measures aimed at promoting healthy and environmentally friendly food production and slashing carbon emissions.

Polls show a large majority of French support the protest movement. And a recent CSA survey found more respondents believe French farmers do a better job of protecting nature than environmentalists. 

Nadine Lauverjat, coordinator for French environmental group Generations Futures, sided with the farmers on ending major international trade deals like with Mercosur, but rejected efforts to soften environmental regulations that she argued ultimately helped farmers as well. 

“We’re heading towards a wall,” she said of the standoff, “and so are the farmers.” 

Marco Contiero, who heads agricultural policy for environmental group Greenpeace in Brussels, outlined a range of changes that he said are needed, and would benefit both the bloc’s farmers and environment. Among them: ensuring EU farm subsidies target small- and medium-sized growers rather than large ones, incorporating costs like pollution in the price of food, and cutting profits earned by fertilizer companies, retailers and others. 

Rather than being too stringent, Contiero said, many of the EU’s Green Deal environmental regulations have not been enforced or are not binding. 

“The science is unequivocal — we have to do things differently,” Contiero said of the growing environmental problems facing Europe, from degraded land to polluted water and climate change. “The problem for farmers is that we cannot ask them to do things better if the current subsidy system keeps benefitting the biggest ones.” 

Here and elsewhere, right-wing parties have capitalized on the farmers’ anger and the mounting anti-EU and anti-globalization sentiments.

“What we’re paying today is the punitive ecology by the crazy environmentalists from Brussels,” Laurent Jacobelli, spokesman for France’s far-right National Rally party, told France-Info radio Tuesday. 

“There is a large chunk of French farmers who don’t believe in the government anymore,” said farmer Regnault.

Nor, he added, do they believe in the mainstream right and left parties. 

“They’ll be tempted to vote for the far right,” he said, “Which would be unfortunate.”  

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