TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong Marks Chinese National Day With Demands for Political Reform

A protester holds up a placard which reads "Peace is our greatest weapon", outside the venue of the official flag-raising ceremony for celebrations of China's National Day, in Hong Kong
A protester holds up a placard which reads "Peace is our greatest weapon," outside the venue of the official flag-raising ceremony for celebrations of China's National Day, in Hong Kong, October 1, 2014. Tyrone Siu—Reuters

Ceremonial venue is besieged by democracy activists as city enters its fourth day of massive protests

Chaotic scenes stole the show from the pomp and spectacle of Chinese National Day celebrations in Hong Kong on Wednesday, as thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators harangued dignitaries and set up camp on the fringes of the city’s politically sacrosanct Golden Bauhinia Square.

Protesters in jeans and sneakers, many who had been on the streets all night, heckled a parade of the city’s oligarchs and tycoons as they attempted to enter the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center for ceremonial speeches.

At one point, the crowd, some wearing gas masks, linked arms and bellowed “Down with the Chinese Communist Party!” and “We want universal suffrage!”

“It’s China’s National Day not Hong Kong’s,” protestor Ivan Chau, 26, told TIME.

Simon Lee, 28, an IT worker, said he felt no love for the Chinese Communist Party and felt more Hong Kong than Chinese. “Everyone agrees we are from Hong Kong,” he said.

Hong Kong has been given a broad degree of autonomy since the end of British colonial rule in 1997. But this sophisticated, freewheeling city of 7 million is deeply suspicious of Beijing and unable to freely choose its own leader.

Calls for democratic reform have built to a crescendo over the last five days, with tens of thousands of protestors bringing several downtown locations to a standstill.

Demonstrators aim to force Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, to resign, and are calling for the Chief Executive to be elected by a popular vote in 2017.

Beijing has agreed to elections but only if the candidates (a maximum of three has been set) are first vetted by a 1,200-strong committee largely perceived as loyal to the mainland.

Such a caveat undermines the entire principle of the vote, say democracy activists, who have vowed to paralyze the city through a campaign of civil disobedience in order to foment change, braving police batons, tear gas and pepper spray.

Their movement has been dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution” after the umbrellas that demonstrators use to shield themselves from pepper spray.

“The Umbrella Revolution only has one ultimate goal: to have true democracy in Hong Kong,” said one protester.

Back inside the ceremony, one guest, district councilor Paul Zimmerman, made a bold display by unfurling a yellow umbrella in support of the protestors. Another guest, district councilor and former radio personality Pamela Peck, was entirely clad in yellow—the Umbrella Revolution’s symbolic color.

Other attendees toasted the “security and stability of Hong Kong,” while a patriotic song celebrating “Hong Kong’s close ties with the motherland,” in the words of the MC, was played in the lavish hall without irony.

The theme of this year’s celebrations was declared to be “Chinese Dreams.”

Outside, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers rouse from their slumber, ready for another day’s protest in pursuit of dreams of a very different kind.

—With reporting by Elizabeth Barber, David Stout, Helen Regan, Rishi Iyengar and Emily Rauhala / Hong Kong

TIME Hong Kong

Pro-Democracy Protesters Swarm Hong Kong, Violent Clashes With Police

Student demonstrations on Friday and Saturday sparked an early start to the Occupy Central movement, which spread to various parts of the city after the police deployed tear gas

Updated: Sept. 28, 2014, 2:21 p.m. E.T.

Police used tear gas, batons and pepper spray against pro-democracy demonstrators in central Hong Kong on Sunday, as tens of thousands joined a civil-disobedience movement that seeks unfettered elections for the city’s top job.

The demonstrations, which were originally supposed to be confined to the Central district, continued into Monday morning and spread to various neighborhoods, including across the iconic harbor in Kowloon. Tear gas even billowed into the city’s famously efficient subway system.

Protesters chanted democracy slogans and sang songs by legendary 1980s Hong Kong rock band Beyond. Many were apparently drawn onto the street after becoming incensed that the police had fired tear gas at the crowds. Some 78 people were arrested, say police.

“This protest is definitely outside of anyone’s expectations,” says Maya Wang, a researcher for Human Rights Watch based in Hong Kong. “Both the government in Hong Kong and in Beijing are going to have a huge headache on their hands.”

Occupy Central With Peace and Love, as the protest is officially known, aims to foment democratic change by paralyzing the heart of this freewheeling financial hub. It was originally slated to begin Wednesday, but an aligned student demonstration Friday gathered such momentum that its leaders brought the launch forward.

“We want to help the students achieve their goals,” Benny Tai, a founder of Occupy Central, told TIME on Sunday morning. “They want to stay here, and we want to support them.”

By Sunday afternoon, protesters brandishing umbrellas repeatedly charged at lines of riot police in front of Government House, only to be repelled by volleys of pepper spray. The protesters then retreated to regroup and rushed again. Each time, the cache of mangled umbrellas behind the police grew larger. As tensions rose, tear gas was fired at the crowd in Harcourt Road. Dozens of police and protesters were injured in the melee.

“They needed to do something to control the scene, so they needed to shoot the gas,” a police spokesman told TIME. “[The protests] are not good for ordinary people.” Late Sunday evening, officers held banners aloft that read “Disperse or We Will Fire” as rumors swirled of rubber bullets being readied.

Hong Kong has been run under a “one country, two systems” since British colonial rule ended in 1997. Beijing had promised to let residents choose the city’s Chief Executive, the tellingly corporate title of the top job in this bastion of free enterprise, by 2017, but now insists that all candidates must first be vetted by a committee perceived as curated by the Chinese Community Party.

Hong Kong’s democracy activists see this as a betrayal; Beijing retorts that the Special Administrative Region already enjoys considerable autonomy and lacks patriotism.

Current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, a polarizing figure largely seen as loyal to the mainland, told reporters Sunday that Hong Kong was “not a self-contained democracy.”

“Any fair-minded person will come to the conclusion that the method of electing the Chief Executive in 2017 is more democratic,” he said. “It is not ideal, but it is better.”

On Saturday, a public square attached to the government headquarters was stormed by students, and at least 74 people were arrested. That protest swelled to upwards of 50,000 people, according to organizers, congregating in the austere, concrete flanking areas.

Hong Kong Police Commissioner Andy Tsang defended his officers’ handling of the student protests when speaking with media Sunday. “Even after considering the protesters were unarmed, I believe it is important to consider that many others were injured as a result of their acts,” he said.

On Sunday afternoon, several pro-democracy legislators were arrested for “obstructing police in the detainment of audio equipment” at one of the steel barriers, according to the Hong Kong Federation of Students. That same organization donned black T-shirts with the English phrase, in green letters, “Freedom Now!”

Layla Chang, an 18-year-old university student, said she didn’t feel she could leave the main protest site even if she tried, since the police had been blocking all entrances and exits, and the throngs had amassed to intractable numbers outside. “We are very afraid but we can’t leave now,” she said.

Early on, the sprawl had a typically Hong Kong sense of order, with volunteers organizing the collection and sorting of waste, and medical groups erecting tents to treat protesters for exhaustion and pepper spray. Plastic wrap, to guard against the latter, was doled out by organizers. Protesters caught quick naps under the shade of blue and red tents and hunted for snacks in the piles of bread, bananas, cookies and water that volunteers had dropped off. Yellow ribbons, a long-standing symbol of demands for universal suffrage, were wound around police barricades. At one, dozens of umbrellas were fanned out to protect against the use of pepper spray.

In a surreal scene, at a park just a few hundred yards from the protests, a small group of elderly folk listened to Mandarin songs celebrating the coming 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Audrey Eu, chairman of the Civic Party, a leading pro-democracy party in Hong Kong, told TIME that though she thought it “unlikely” Beijing would reverse its position on the 2017 elections, the protests would go a long way toward galvanizing pro-democracy sentiment and heralding future change. “This is a broad-based movement,” she said.

“The people of Hong Kong need to stand up and defend one country, two systems,” she said by a police barricade, protective ski goggles perched on her head. She had brought her sleeping bag for a possible “long wait.”

“I’m prepared to be arrested,” Jimmy Lai, a prominent Hong Kong publisher and critic of the Beijing government, told reporters, as he sat down in front of a row of police on Sunday morning, wearing a plastic white raincoat and pair of goggles.

“If you persist in resistance, there is always hope,” he told TIME. “If you give up, there is no hope.”

Gemma Yim, 21, a university student sitting behind Lai, said she was not prepared to go home anytime soon and would stay at least until all those demonstrators arrested Saturday were released.

“We just want to go step-by-step,” she said. “Right now, I don’t know what we can do but go on strike.”

At around 8 p.m., police announced they had released Joshua Wong, leader of the Scholarism student-activist group, who was arrested Friday for his role in the earlier disturbances. The 17-year-old vowed to join the demonstrations after taking a shower and rest at home.

May Wong, a 55-year-old NGO employee, pledged to stay on the streets all night if necessary. “As a Hong Kong citizen, we need to support the students,” she said. “We support what they support — universal suffrage.”

But by 11:15 p.m., Occupy Central co-organizer Chan Kin-man urged the protesters to retreat, fearing bloodshed. “It is a matter of life and death,” he told the South China Morning Post. “We put people’s safety as our top priority. Retreat doesn’t mean giving up … we will still continue to struggle.”

— With reporting by Zoher Abdoolcarim, David Stout and Rishi Iyengar / Hong Kong

TIME Hong Kong

Pro-Democracy Students Storm Government Square in Hong Kong

Hong Kong student protesters surrounded by police in the city's Civic Square on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014. Elizabeth Barber for TIME

Unrest part of the wider Occupy Central movement to begin Wednesday that demands unfettered elections for city's top job

Updated: Sept. 27, 2014, 2:40 a.m. E.T.

Police used pepper spray and protesters threw plastic bottles in Hong Kong late Friday, as pro-democracy demonstrators stormed a public square attached to the government’s headquarters. More than a dozen people, mainly students, were arrested.

At about 10:30 p.m. local time, several students managed to scale the three-meter high barricades around Hong Kong’s “Civic Square,” a time-honored focal point of peaceful protest in the Chinese Special Administrative region, but which had been shuttered since July.

Some 50 people then rushed in but were quickly surrounded by police. Around half this number remained at lunchtime on Saturday, but were quickly running out of supplies.

“This is a violation of human rights,” said student leader Alex Chow over a loudspeaker, of police refusing to let those inside leave to use the bathroom or get food and water. Chow was arrested on Saturday for his role in the disturbance.

Some 2,000-3,000 supporters remained in the area surrounding the square, but Yvonne Leung, spokesperson for Hong Kong University student union, called for more to arrive. “Concern is not enough,” she said. “We need 10,000 people here.”

Since British colonial rule ended in 1997, Hong Kong has been governed under “one country, two systems,” and enjoys significant autonomy and various freedoms unthinkable in mainland China.

But democracy activists are demanding the right to choose the city’s top post of Chief Executive by 2017. Beijing has agreed to a popular vote, but only if candidates are first vetted by a 1,200-strong nominating committee staffed with figures largely perceived as loyal to the Chinese Communist Party.

Hong Kong’s democracy activists treat this as a renege on an earlier promise, and have vowed to foment change by paralyzing the heart of this freewheeling financial hub. Friday’s student-led protests, coming amid a weeklong class boycott, are a precursor to the larger Occupy Central movement slated to begin Wednesday.

Early Saturday, students chanted “Occupy Central now!” and “How can you face the students now otherwise!”

Occupy Central’s leaders, Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Chan Kin-man, addressed the throng at around 10 a.m. “The students were restrained yesterday. But the police have used too much force. We condemn that,” said Tai, according to the South China Morning Post.

Four police officers were injured and 13 protesters were arrested overnight, Police Superintendent Steve Hui Chun-tak told the Post. “Police strongly condemn the violence of protesters, and urge them to leave the site as soon as possible in an orderly way,” he said. By Saturday, all of those arrested had been released apart from Joshua Wong, the leader of the Scholarism student protest group, whose bail was denied.

By Saturday afternoon, many of the students were visibly flagging, milling around listlessly and napping under trees. “Maybe this is not the time,” Jason Tsang, a 22-year-old philosophy student at Hong Kong University, tells TIME of prospects for universal suffrage in 2017. “But we will still be part of Chinese history. Change doesn’t come in just one night.”

TIME Australia

Australian Plan to Resettle Refugees in Impoverished Cambodia Sparks Concern

Australia Edges Closer To Cambodia Refugee Transfer Deal
A lotus-flower seller stands underneath the Australian flag along the riverside in Phnom Penh on Aug. 13, 2014. After months of negotiations Australia and Cambodia look set to agree on a deal that will see 1,000 refugees transferred from Australia to Cambodia Omar Havana—Getty Images

Poor and repressive, Cambodia is better known for generating refugees than accepting them, but under a pact with Canberra that will soon change

Australia is to ink a deal on Friday to resettle refugees in Cambodia, despite the Southeast Asian nation’s poverty and appalling rights record.

The forthcoming pact comes just months after Canberra scolded Cambodia at the U.N. for a litany of human-rights abuses including the killing of peaceful protesters, the crushing of political opposition and use of extrajudicial detentions.

The controversial arrangement — thought to be for the initial permanent resettlement of 1,000 people, although there is apparently no upper cap — will be signed in Phnom Penh between Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison and Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng.

“We are world renowned for what we do on refugee resettlement so, who better is placed than Australia to work with a country such as Cambodia to help them develop that capability to do the job as well,” Morrison told Australia’s National Press Club earlier this month.

There are unconfirmed reports that Australia will pay the Cambodian government $40 million to seal the deal; requests to Canberra from TIME for clarification went unanswered.

The UNHCR has raised “strong concerns” as the plan “goes against the whole idea of the international asylum system,” says Bangkok-based spokeswoman Vivian Tan. “We have asked both sides to reconsider, but it looks like it is going ahead.”

Australia’s new Conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott was elected partly on the back of promises to stem the flood of asylum seekers arriving by boat on his nation’s shores.

Fetid and overcrowded immigration detention centers in Papua New Guinea, and the nearby island nation of Nauru, established by the preceding Labour government, are used to house new arrivals.

Of the 1,233 asylum seekers currently detained in Nauru, 250 status determinations have been carried out, leading to 206 declarations of genuine refugee status, according to Human Rights Watch.

“In Nauru, they were identified as refugees and not just irregular migrants trying to find work,” says Tan. “These are people with a demonstrated need for international protection.”

Authoritarian Cambodia is listed as “not free” by advocacy group Freedom House, and, after decades of poverty owing to civil war, genocide and Vietnamese occupation, is better known for generating refugees than accepting them.

Even today, a sizable proportion of Cambodia’s 15 million population is driven to neighboring countries like Thailand in search of work.

According to Ou Virak, president of the Cambodia Center for Human Rights, “Everybody knows we are not well equipped to accept refugees,” pointing to the fact that “no refugees themselves are coming to Cambodia.”

There is an unavoidable catch-22, he adds, as not providing refugees with basic support would be a “gross violation” of their rights, but fulfilling their needs will enrage impoverished Khmers, many of whom struggle to survive. Already, violent attacks against Cambodia’s Vietnamese community, measuring around 5% of the total population, are relatively common.

“They will be in a state of limbo for many years, if they can integrate at all,” says Ou Virak, adding that there are huge questions over how long Canberra will keep providing financial assistance. “Giving food to refugees and sustaining their calorie needs is not enough.”

TIME Malaysia

Shari‘a Law Is Threatening LGBT Rights Across Muslim-Majority Southeast Asia

Protesters raise placards during a prote
Protesters raise placards during a protest outside a mosque in Shah Alam, near Kuala Lumpur, on Nov. 4, 2011. The demonstration was to urge the government to give recognition to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community AFP/Getty Images

Harsh interpretations of Quranic law are being used to justify violence against transgender people in particular, activists say

Growing religious conservatism is threatening LGTB rights in Muslim-majority nations across Southeast Asia, say activists, with a new report claiming serious abuses against Malaysia’s transgender community.

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published I’m Scared to Be a Woman: Human Rights Abuses Against Transgender People in Malaysia. The document makes serious allegations of physical and sexual assault committed against transgender people while in official custody.

Malaysia is a 60% Muslim nation where 13 of 15 states have invoked Shari‘a law to ban transvestism among Muslim men; three states also prohibit women “posing as men.” The statues are loosely defined and leave gaping loopholes for abuse, venality and vindictive prosecution, says HRW.

“Malaysian authorities frequently abuse transgender women at the expense of their dignity and in violation of their basic rights,” Boris Dittrich, LGBT-rights advocacy director at HRW, said in a statement. Malaysia’s Religious Department and other state officials have license to do “whatever they like” with transgender women, he added.

The 73-page report includes testimony from 42 transgender women, three transgender men and 21 other medical professionals, legal representatives, activists and outreach workers.

Victoria, a transwoman from Negeri Sembilan state, told HRW she was “completely humiliated” when Religious Department officials photographed her naked while under arrest in 2011. “They were rough,” she said. “One of them squeezed my breasts. One of them took a police baton and poked at my genitals.”

Gender-reassignment surgery was once available in Malaysia, but rising Islamic conservatism led to a ban issued by the National Fatwa Council in 1982. Thus many transgender people undergo medical transitioning in neighboring Thailand, but this leaves them in legal limbo upon their return.

Such problems are not limited to Malaysia. Brunei recently adopted a Shari‘a penal code, with draconian sanctions such as death by stoning for adulterers and flogging or even death for homosexual acts. The code applies the death penalty to both Muslims and non-Muslims in the case of adultery and sodomy, says the International Council of Jurists, despite official claims that non-Muslims will not be subjected to Shari‘a.

In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, the semiautonomous state of Aceh is also adopting increasingly harsh interpretations of Shari‘a. A draft bylaw announced this week would punish anal sex between men and “the rubbing of body parts between women for stimulation” with 100 lashes. The law would also apply to non-Muslims.

“We have studied the implementation of Shari‘a in countries like Saudi Arabia, Brunei Darussalam and Jordan to draft this law and we are happy with it,” said Ramli Sulaiman, an Aceh lawmaker who led the drafting commission, reports AFP.

Other states in Indonesia only use Shari‘a for civil matters such as divorce and alimony. But since 2006, an increasing number of districts have issued local ordinances based on Shari‘a to govern social conduct. Although many of these are unconstitutional, the central government often fails to decisively strike them down for political reasons, says Freedom House.

According to Faisal Riza, an activist for the Violet Grey LGBT advocacy group, who hails from Aceh but is now based in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, Shari‘a law makes “society feel free to take action or use violence against LGBT people, especially transgender people.”

Discrimination is “getting worse,” he tells TIME, and is exacerbated by “lack of formal education and job access, so some [transgender people] become sex workers.” Possession of condoms is often deemed evidence of prostitution, leaving another window open for abuse and corruption, as well as hampering efforts to tackle the spread of communicable disease, including HIV/AIDS.

In Malaysia, LGBT activists hope an upcoming court case may give them some legal protection. Following the arrest of 16 transgender women at a wedding party in the western coast state of Negeri Sembilan in June, four applicants are claiming that local Shari‘a law is incompatible with national and constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression, freedom of movement and equality. The Putrajaya Court of Appeal is slated to rule on the issue on Nov. 7.

“Malaysia urgently needs to scrap laws that discriminate against transgender people, adhere to international rights standards, and put in place comprehensive non-discrimination legislation that protects them,” said HRW’s Dittrich.

TIME Thailand

What the Murder of Two British Tourists Tells Us About Thailand’s Dark Side

Pictures of killed British tourists David Miller and Hannah Witheridge and a message of support to their friends and families are displayed during special prayers at Koh Tao island
Pictures of killed British tourists David Miller and Hannah Witheridge and a message of support to their friends and families are displayed during special prayers at Koh Tao island on Sept. 18, 2014 Sitthipong Charoenjai—Reuters

Savage killings on Koh Tao lay bare the dichotomy between Thailand’s palm-fringed image and its underbelly of violence and fumbling justice

The brutal murder of British tourists Hannah Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24, on the Thai resort island of Koh Tao, has reverberated around the world.

Beach cleaners discovered the Britons’ naked bodies 20 m apart by rocks on idyllic Sairee Beach on Sept. 15. A bloodstained garden hoe, commonly used by beachside bars to dig fire pits, was found nearby and has now been confirmed as the principal murder weapon, along with a wooden club.

The existence of two weapons has “made us believe that there are at least two attackers,” the deputy national police chief, Police General Somyot Pumpanmuang, told reporters Monday.

Witheridge died from severe head wounds while Miller died from blows to the head and drowning, according to the Thai forensics department. Although there were signs of sexual activity, investigators have not ascertained whether Witheridge was raped.

Thai police initially blamed Burmese migrant workers (“favorite targets,” in the words of Paul Quaglia, a Bangkok-based risk analyst). “Thais wouldn’t do this” pronounced a leading policeman, and officers started rounding up Burmese laborers for interrogation and DNA tests. Stricter rules for hiring migrant workers across the archipelago were introduced in the wake of the killings with astonishing speed.

But when no evidence emerged to pin the murder on any Burmese, the focus shifted to other outsiders: Western friends of the victims. The spotlight fell on British tourist Christopher Alan Ware, who shared a room with Miller, with police hinting at “a crime of passion.” Ware was arrested at Bangkok’s main airport with his brother James. It turned out that the latter had left Koh Tao the night before the murders and so was above suspicion. DNA tests on a cigarette butt found at the scene have now cleared the former.

Next, suspicion turned to a pair of Thai men that Sean McAnna, a 25-year-old Scottish friend of Miller’s, claims to have witnessed molesting Witheridge on the night before she was killed — an altercation from which she was apparently rescued by Miller. McAnna, a busker well known on Koh Tao as Guitarman, took a photo of the Thais and uploaded it to the Internet, after which he began receiving death threats. He has now apparently fled into hiding in fear for his life.

Police revealed that the two Thais had been interviewed but were released after refusing to provide DNA samples.

“The problem is all the distractions,” Quaglia tells TIME. “The police are getting a lot of not only domestic media coverage but also international, and are under pressure to make statements about progress.”

The case of Witheridge and Miller has, once again, laid bare the dichotomy between Thailand’s palm-fringed islands and dark underbelly — immortalized in Alex Garland’s 1996 dystopian novel The Beach. Drugs, rape and assault are an unfortunate consequence of Thailand’s reputation for hedonism, and the criminal elements it attracts.

Thailand receives over 20 million tourists each year, drawn by the pearl-white beaches, stunning temples and sumptuous food. The vast majority of them have safe and enjoyable holidays, but a few are not so lucky. A quick scan of English-language news portals for the booming resort of Pattaya — one of the country’s most popular destinations — reveals a shocking litany of muggings, phone snatchings, shootings, stabbings, fatal car crashes, drownings, and more, all involving visitors. Sexual assault and rape, much of it unreported, bedevil Koh Phangan’s world famous full-moon parties.

But far from attempting to address the issues of visitor safety, Thai army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the nation’s self-appointed Prime Minister following a May 22 military coup, has stoked outrage by pointing fingers at the victims. “We have to look into the behavior of the other party [Witheridge and Miller] too,” he said.

In a separate address, for which he has since apologized, he said that tourists “think our country is beautiful and is safe so they can do whatever they want, they can wear bikinis and walk everywhere.” The general even suggested that the only tourists who should feel safe in bikinis were those who were “not beautiful.”

He didn’t mention the fact that eight days after the killing of Witheridge and Miller, not a single suspect has been identified or remains in custody. But nobody familiar with Thailand’s feeble justice system is surprised by that.

TIME feminism

Watch Emma Watson Explain Why She’s a Feminist

"I want men to take up this mantle," said the Harry Potter star

British actress Emma Watson called on men and boys around the globe to join the movement for gender equality during a moving speech given in her role as U.N. Women global goodwill ambassador.

“I want men to take up this mantle. So their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice, but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too — reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned and in doing so be a more true and complete version of themselves,” she said at the U.N. headquarters in New York City on Saturday.

The 24-year-old actress, who gained worldwide fame for her role as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movie franchise, was speaking as part of the HeForShe global solidarity movement to promote women’s rights and equality between the sexes.

See full video of her speech below.

TIME Scotland

LIVE: Scotland Votes to Stay in the U.K.

Only four Scottish constituencies voted in favor of seceding from the U.K.

Correction appended: Sept. 19.

Scotland rejected independence in Friday’s referendum count, with around 55% of voters choosing to stay within the U.K. The 307-year-strong union has survived, although increased powers will be devolved to the nation.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, who spearheaded the Yes campaign, conceded defeat at around 6:17 a.m. local time. “On behalf of the Scottish government I accept the result and pledge to work constructively in the interests of Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom,” he said.

“The process by which we have made our decision as a nation reflects enormous credit upon Scotland. A turnout of 86% is one of the highest in the democratic world for any election or referendum in history — this has been a triumph for the democratic process and participation in politics.”

Despite a hard-fought campaign, only four of the 32 local authority districts voted for independence, including populous Glasgow, although even in this key constituency the margin was not particularly large, in a devastating blow to the Yes camp.

The final bell tolled for secession advocates after Edinburgh voted to maintain ties with the south by 61%.

“I am delighted,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron, hinting that more devolved powers would also be rolled out to other British regions. “It would have broken my heart to see the United Kingdom come to the end.”

Alistair Darling, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer who led the No campaign, admitted that the closeness of the result was a wake-up call.

“Today is a momentous today for Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole,” he said. “While confirming our place within the union, we have confirmed the bonds that tie us together — may they never be broken.”

Pubs across the country were staying open throughout the night with customers both anxious and excited to see whether the historic union would be consigned to the history books.

Greg Waddell, a doctor working in Glasgow, told TIME that he voted Yes “because disempowerment breeds dependency; because the current extent of social inequality in Scotland demeans every one of its people.”

Others among the 4.2 million registered voters were less optimistic about prospects for going it alone. Nick Allan, an oil executive from Aberdeen, said the Yes campaign promises were enticing, but he voted No as it would be impossible to pay for them — especially not with North Sea oil.

“The problem comes down to money,” he says. “How on God’s earth are you going to be able to afford all of these improvements? The country will be bankrupt in a matter of years.”

Many questions regarding what a truly independent Scotland would look like remained unanswered, including over currency, health care, defense and E.U. membership. Spain’s Prime Minister was one of several European leaders who said he would not support Scotland’s application to the bloc, as the Iberian nation was unwilling to fan separatist campaigns of its own.

These fears were echoed by Professor Michael Desch, an expert on foreign policy at the Notre Dame University.

“Ironically, a peaceful Scottish secession from the United Kingdom could open Pandora’s Box by raising unrealistic expectations about the ease of parting long-established national ways,” he said.

The vote captivated social media. Over the past 24 hours, 1.3 million people on Facebook in the United Kingdom made 3.3 million interactions regarding the Scottish referendum debate.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated where the 1.3 million people on Facebook had made 3.3 million interactions regarding the Scottish referendum debate. It was the United Kingdom.

TIME Scotland

Scotland Decides Its Fate Today

Voting in the historic independence referendum has begun. Crucially, some 8% of voters remain undecided

Scotland must decide Thursday whether to become independent from the U.K., with last-minute opinion polls putting the outcome of the referendum on a knife-edge.

Voting booths are now open and ballots will be cast at 2,608 polling stations until 10 p.m. local time. Results are expected to trickle in overnight with a final announcement at around 7 a.m. on Friday morning.

If Scotland votes yes, it will be the 61st territory to gain its independence from the U.K., which once boasted an empire upon which the sun never set.

“When people go into the polling booths tomorrow they are going to vote for … that vision of more prosperous but also a more just society,” Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, leading the Yes campaign, told supporters on Wednesday. “That’s what’s going to motivate people in the polling stations tomorrow.”

Of Scotland’s population of 5.3 million, a whopping 97% of those eligible to vote have registered, a sign of just how galvanized opinions over the 307-year-old union have become.

The voting age has been lowered to 16 for the first time in modern British history. Residence in Scotland, rather than Scottish nationality or birth, is the voting criteria, and other British, E.U. or commonwealth nationals residing north of the border can participate.

“This morning in Edinburgh it’s really quite tense,” Jan Eichhorn, a social policy expert at the University of Edinburgh, tells TIME. “There’s a feeling of entering an exam and needing to do the right thing.”

The latest YouGov opinion poll showed 52% of Scottish residents were against independence. Crucially, though, more than half-a-million voters are undecided.

Swing voters may be mulling the raft of extra powers Scotland has been offered if it rejects outright independence.

The No campaign, reeling from falling behind in opinion polls for the first time earlier this month, has dangled to Scots the carrot of increased control over health, education, employment, the economy, transport and infrastructure — but crucially not over foreign policy, defense or pensions.

“It’s a major transfer of power,” former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told CNN on Wednesday. “Never in the history of the island have we seen so much decentralization of powers from Westminster to one nation in the United Kingdom.”

Brown, who was born in the Scottish lowlands town of Giffnock, said that as a result “there has been a distinct movement” back to the No campaign, which he is spearheading. Independence “doesn’t make sense,” he added.

Scotland boasts just 8% of the U.K. population but 30% of its landmass. Scottish residents already receive more money per capita in terms of welfare spending than other Brits, but many in the Yes camp believe Scots would fare even better with independence, largely due to North Sea oil.

However, according to a recent report by Edinburgh-based oil and gas consultancy firm Wood Mackenzie, “post 2018, decline is forecast to set in once more with production dipping below 1 million barrels of oil equivalent per day by 2023, less than a quarter of the 1999 peak.”

Meanwhile, disagreement has emerged over whether an independent Scotland could keep using the British pound sterling currency. All the three major Westminster-based political parties claim that they would veto any such continuation, but the Yes campaign insists the issue remains outside of Westminister control, pointing to Panamanian use of the U.S. dollar.

Some suggest that an independent Scotland may have to wait five years before E.U. membership would be considered. This has raised the concerns of the nation’s whisky distillers, which currently account for a quarter of the U.K.’s total food and drink exports and some 35,000 jobs. “Even a temporary interruption of E.U. membership … would be damaging and difficult to manage,” David Frost, the chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, wrote in his annual review.

Defense is also a quandary. Scotland currently hosts the British fleet of Trident nuclear submarines, which Salmond says would have to relocate in the event of independence. In addition, thousands of Scottish soldiers current serve in the British armed forces.

TIME Scotland

TIME Readers Vote ‘Yes’ For Scottish Independence in Online Poll

Graffiti supporting the "Yes" campaign is painted on a road in North Uist in the Outer Hebrides
Graffiti supporting the "Yes" campaign is painted on a road in North Uist in the Outer Hebrides Sept. 17, 2014. Cathal McNaughton—Reuters

Over 16,000 people voted

Respondents to an online TIME poll have voted for Scotland to become an independent nation.

A total of 16,418 reader votes were tallied, of which 9,436 (57.5%) were for Scotland’s secession from the U.K. and 6,982 (42.5%) were for the maintenance of the 307-year-old union.

Some 4.2 million Scottish residents are eligible to vote in the real referendum on Thursday, polls for which open at 7 a.m. and close at 10 p.m. local time. Results from the 32 local authority areas are expected to trickle in during the wee hours of Friday. A nation, or possibly two, is on tenterhooks.

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