TIME Thailand

Thailand’s Military Ruler Has Been Appointed Prime Minister

Thailand's newly appointed Prime Minister Chan-ocha reviews honor guards during his visit at the 2nd Infantry Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, Queen's Guard in Chonburi province, on the outskirts of Bangkok
Thailand's newly appointed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha reviews honor guards during a military ceremony in Chonburi province, on the outskirts of Bangkok on August 21, 2014. Chaiwat Subprasom —Reuters

There wasn't exactly a lot of opposition

Thailand’s military strongman General Prayuth Chan-ocha was appointed the nation’s Prime Minister on Thursday morning, after securing a landslide vote from a legislature that was handpicked by the junta late last month.

The general, who skipped out on the parliamentary session to attend a military ceremony, was the only nominee up for the position. He received 191 votes from the 197-strong National Legislative Assembly in Bangkok.

“It was no surprise at all,” Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs, tells TIME. “There’s no other figure that the establishment would be willing to put up and that most powerful Thais today would accept.”

Prayuth must now garner an official endorsement from the aging King Bhumibol Adulyadej — a formality that is all but certain to be granted to the general, who appears to have curried favor with the palace’s inner circle.

After receiving the King’s backing, Prayuth will then hold Thailand’s three most powerful positions as the nation’s top military commander, junta chief and Prime Minister.

“I can’t think of any other time in Thai history that we’ve had a junta leader, Prime Minister and army commander all at the very same time,” says Chambers.

Prayuth has been steadily tightening his grip on the country since launching a coup in late May, ousting an interim government that had been largely eviscerated in the face of judicial rulings and mass demonstrations backed by the Thai elite.

Since seizing power, the junta — officially known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) — has promulgated an interim constitution that was labeled “a charter for dictatorship” by Human Rights Watch. It has also led a vicious crackdown on political opponents, journalists and academics critical of the putsch.

“Fundamental rights and freedoms, essential for the restoration of democracy, are still severely suppressed by the military authorities,” says Sunai Phasuk, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Thailand. “Political activity, public assembly and expression of different opinions are not tolerated. Opposition to the coup and the NCPO is criminalized and subject to prosecution.”

May’s coup was the 12th successful military putsch in Thailand since the end of absolute monarchist rule in 1932.

TIME Middle East

Hopes of Prolonged Truce Dashed as Gaza Conflict Reignites

Smoke rises as Palestinians stand atop the rubble of a house, which witnesses said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
Palestinians stand atop the rubble of a house, which witnesses said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on August 20, 2014. Ibraheem Abu Mustafa — Reuters

Talks in Cairo collapse after rockets are fired from Gaza into Israel

Fighting in Gaza continued into the early hours of Wednesday morning after talks between Israel and Hamas over a cease-fire collapsed in Cairo.

The negotiations in the Egyptian capital came to an abrupt end after three rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel eight hours before the latest truce was set to expire. Hamas denied launching the initial barrage of artillery on Tuesday night, but later claimed responsibility for rockets fired at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Israel responded to the salvos with renewed airstrikes into the Gaza Strip and pulled its negotiation team from Cairo, where it had been engaged in talks with Palestinian representatives over the establishment of a prolonged truce.

“The Cairo process was built on a total and complete cessation of all hostilities and so when rockets were fired from Gaza, not only was it a clear violation of the cease-fire but it also destroyed the premise upon which the talks were based,” Mark Regev, the spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Reuters.

The Palestinian team was also set to depart Egypt, reported Haaretz.

On Wednesday, Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson Peter Lerner accused Hamas of firing 70 rockets into Israel since Tuesday. No Israeli causalities have been reported since the hostilities reignited. Israeli officials went on to label Hamas’s actions as a “grave and direct violation” of the truce.

“This is the eleventh cease-fire that Hamas has either rejected or violated,” tweeted Regev.

Meanwhile, the BBC reported that Hamas accused the Israelis of attempting to “assassinate” one of the group’s top military commanders, Mohammed Deif, during an air raid in Gaza City that reportedly killed his wife and child. There has been no confirmation whether Deif was also killed during the strike.

Following ten days of relative calm in the battle-fatigued strip, where more 380,000 people are displaced, Hamas and Israel remain at loggerheads, with both parties continuing to make demands that neither side appears willing to accept.

“On the Israeli side, you have a demand that is not going to be implemented under any circumstance — and that’s the disarmament of Hamas,” Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program, tells TIME.

“And on the Hamas side you have a demand that is not going to be implemented under any circumstances and that’s a full lifting of the what Hamas calls the blockade or siege of Gaza.”

Approximately 2,000 Palestinians and more than 60 Israelis have been killed in the month-long war between Hamas and Israel. However, analysts suggest that the worst fighting may, at least for the time being, have passed.

“I think that there is a real sense of exhaustion with this conflict on all sides,” says Thrall. “The most likely scenario is that the most violent period of this conflict is behind us, but no one can predict for sure.”

TIME Iraq

Kurdish Fighters Partially Retake Vital Iraqi Dam

Mideast Iraq
A Kurdish peshmerga fighter patrols near the Mosul Dam at the town of Chamibarakat outside Mosul, Iraq on Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014. Khalid Mohammed—AP

Peshmerga forces appear to have partially captured the Mosul Dam from Sunni extremists, with support from U.S. air strikes and Iraqi commandos

Kurdish forces pushed deeper into territory held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) throughout Sunday and regained partial control over the strategically vital Mosul Dam as U.S. warplanes launched fresh sorties against the Sunni insurgents from the skies.

The U.S. Central Command confirmed that American aircraft launched at least 14 strikes against ISIS-manned armor, checkpoints and heavy weaponry positioned near the dam on the Tigris River in northern Iraq.

“These strikes were conducted under authority to support Iraqi security forces and Kurdish defense forces as they work together to combat [ISIS],” read a statement released by U.S. military officials. The aerial onslaught follows at least nine separate air strikes launched against ISIS positions earlier on Saturday.

It is seen as vital that the dam not be in ISIS hands, because the Sunni insurgents could either use it to choke off water supplies to the capital, Baghdad, and areas south of it, or they could destroy it and unleash catastrophic floods.

President Barack Obama authorized the use of American airpower against ISIS fighters on Aug. 8 following the group’s offensive blitz into Kurdish territory earlier this month. The strikes are the first such military incursion into Iraq since U.S. forces withdrew from the country in 2011 and were successful in alleviating the siege of Mount Sinjar.

However, analysts argue that U.S. involvement in Iraq may not be as limited as the Obama Administration hopes.

“For a President who wanted to leave [Iraq] and had the strong backing of his people, [Obama]’s now very much in Iraq, and I think the U.S. commitment and direct engagement in Iraq is going to be long term,” Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, tells TIME. “It’s not going to be easy to dislodge [ISIS], both militarily or even in the hearts and minds of Sunni Iraqis.”

Meanwhile, across the border in Syria, forces loyal to embattled President Bashar Assad launched their own strikes against ISIS’s stronghold in Raqqa.

The onslaught by the Syrian air force reportedly killed 31 militants along with eight civilians, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“The regime wants to show the Americans that it is also capable of striking [ISIS],” Rami Abdel Rahman, the group’s director, told AFP.

ISIS forces currently control vast swaths of territory along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers spanning northeastern Syria across the border into western and northern Iraq. The group is currently fighting on multiple fronts against Kurdish militias, the Iraqi army, forces loyal to the Assad regime and opposition rebels in Syria in a bid to consolidate its self-declared Islamic caliphate.

TIME movies

Sony Will Amend Seth Rogen’s The Interview After North Korean Threats

Little Kim doesn't see the funny side

+ READ ARTICLE

Executives at Japanese-owned Sony Pictures appear to have yielded in the face of increasing anger from North Korea over an upcoming comedy flick, The Interview, writes the Hollywood Reporter.

The movie stars Seth Rogen and James Franco, and much to Pyongyang’s dismay its plot follows two American broadcast journalists who are recruited as CIA agents and ordered to assassinate the communist state’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un after they score an interview with him.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, the studio plans to digitally alter thousands of buttons worn by extras so that they no longer depict the actual buttons worn by the North Korean military to honor Kim Jong Un and his father Kim Jong Il. Sony is also considering cutting a scene where Kim Jong Un’s face is “melted off graphically in slow motion.”

In June, North Korean authorities labeled the film a “wanton act of terror” and threatened a “merciless” retaliation against the U.S. if the movie was released. The Interview was originally set to hit the big screen in October; however, because of the controversy, its release date has been knocked back to December.

[THR]

TIME North Korea

North Korea Sends American Missionary Back to Labor Camp

Kenneth Bae
American missionary Kenneth Bae, second from right, arrives to speak to reporters at Pyongyang Friendship Hospital in Pyongyang on Jan. 20, 2014. Kim Kwang Hyon — AP

The State Department has asked that the ailing Kenneth Bae be released on humanitarian grounds

American officials confirmed this week that North Korean authorities sent Kenneth Bae back to a labor camp in late July to continue serving his 15-year sentence, after he was discharged from the Pyongyang Friendship Hospital.

The American missionary has been in Pyongyang’s custody for two years, after he was found guilty of committing “hostile acts” while leading a tour in the city of Rason. The U.S. State Department has repeated its demand that the physically ailing Bae be released immediately.

“We remain gravely concerned about Bae’s health, and we continue to urge [North Korean] authorities to grant Bae special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds,” read an email by State Department officials that was sent to the Voice of America’s Korean news service.

Swedish officials, who act as diplomatic interlocutors for the U.S. in North Korea, visited the American earlier this week at the unspecified camp — the 12th such meeting between Bae and Sweden’s diplomatic corps since he was arrested. Representatives from the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang were unable to comment on the matter when contacted by TIME on Thursday.

Human rights groups slammed the North Korean leadership for continuing to use harsh methods to punish the American.

“Bae, like millions of North Koreans before him, faces injury or death by a regime that systematically employs forced labor to punish anyone that it accuses of undermining the government,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, tells TIME.

Bae’s arrest appears to be part of a wider campaign aimed at curtailing any form of proselytizing in North Korea, where officials view the act as a challenge to the ruling Kim dynasty.

Earlier this summer, two American tourists were imprisoned for allegedly performing acts that undermined the state. One of the men, Jeffrey Fowle, is suspected of leaving behind a Bible at a nightclub in Chongjin, according to the Associated Press.

In May, retired NBA star Dennis Rodman, who is the only American to have met Kim Jong Un, tapped the nation’s “Supreme Leader” to release Bae as a personal favor.

“I’m calling on the Supreme Leader of North Korea or as I call him ‘Kim,’ to do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose,” tweeted Rodman.

Kim has yet to be moved, it appears.

TIME celebrities

Watch Conan O’Brien Announce Robin Williams’ Death to a Stunned Audience

“God bless Robin Williams”

+ READ ARTICLE

Late-night comedian Conan O’Brien had almost wrapped up his Monday night show when news broke that his friend and fellow comic Robin Williams had died.

A visibly stunned O’Brien then told the hushed studio audience, apologizing to them for having to do so. Co-host Andy Richter and guest Will Arnett appeared shocked.

“This is absolutely shocking and horrifying and so upsetting on every level,” said O’Brien. “We’re at the end of the show and it felt like it needed to be acknowledged.”

Arnett went on to poignantly reminisce on the kindness Williams had always shown to friends and colleagues.

“He was even better as a person,” said Arnett. “He was one of the loveliest and sweetest and kindest guys I’ve ever worked with.”

TIME Iraq

Leadership Crisis Hits Iraq as Aid Agencies Scramble to Help Refugees

Mideast Iraq
Iraqis chant pro-government slogans and wave national flags to show support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq on August 9, 2014. Karim Kadim — AP

Political discord, a humanitarian crisis in the north, and the ongoing war against Sunni extremists have rendered the situation in Iraq extremely unstable

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is resisting mounting pressure for his resignation, and has threatened to take legal action against the country’s President Fouad Massoum for failing to back his bid for a third term in office. The political discord comes as a humanitarian crisis continues to unfold in the country’s north, where tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing attacks being carried out by Sunni extremists.

Late on Sunday, Maliki accused Massoum of mounting “a coup on the constitution and the political process in a country that is governed by a democratic and federal system.”

Maliki says he is entitled to a third term because his coalition won in polls held in April. However, he has not earned support from the legislature.

“Getting the confidence of Parliament is key,” Lina Khatib, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, tells TIME. “Maliki did not get that as a result of his mishandling of the current crisis in Iraq as well as his divisive policies over the two terms he has served as Prime Minister.”

The U.S., which has begun targeting militants in northern Iraq in limited airstrikes, urged caution. “The government formation process is critical in terms of sustaining stability and calm in Iraq, and our hope is that Mr. Maliki will not stir those waters,” Kerry told reporters in Sydney on Monday.

The embattled Shi’ite premier has been accused of stoking sectarian fighting by marginalizing Sunni rivals in the government and military in order to consolidate his grip on power since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011.

“It seems that Maliki’s priorities have been centered on trying to secure a third term for himself as Prime Minister rather than security of Iraq,” says Khatib. “His leadership performance has been abysmal.”

The New York Times reported early on Monday that the Prime Minister ordered tanks and an unspecified number of additional commandos to take up key positions within the capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone on Sunday, spurring fears of confrontation with his political opponents.

Meanwhile, further north in Iraq’s Kurdish region, aid agencies continued to scramble to help the wave of refugees that was unleashed nine days ago, when forces loyal to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) launched a savage military offensive in the region, aimed at removing religious minorities from the large swath of territory between Mosul and the Tigris River to the west.

“Their target towns have been towns, villages, areas where there are substantial non-Sunni, religious minorities,” says Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. ISIS’s goal, he said, “seems rather clear.”

The U.N. Refugee Agency reports at least 30,000 people have managed to escape from the mountains near Sinjar after being trapped there without water or supplies by ISIS forces. However, humanitarian groups on the ground said the situation in the region is still critical.

“Its imperative that we do everything in our power to ensure these people receive the life-saving assistance they need,” said David Swanson, an official with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Late last weekend, U.S. forces began dropping relief supplies, and targeting ISIS positions in Sinjar in an effort to break the group’s siege of the conflict zone.

TIME Iraq

Experts Skeptical of U.S. Airstrikes in Iraq

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar west of Mosul, take refuge at Dohuk province
Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar west of Mosul, take refuge in Dohuk province on August 7, 2014. Reuters

“It maybe good for the U.S. administration to understand that the world does not stop turning and does not hold its breath while they do nothing,”

President Barack Obama had a message for the thousands of minority Yazidis under siege by militants in Iraq late Thursday night: “America is coming to help.” But despite humanitarian airdrops Thursday and American airstrikes against the militants that started Friday, many analysts remain skeptical that the U.S. can do much to help in a fluid, fast-moving and increasingly dangerous crisis.

“Things are happening very fast,” Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser, told TIME by phone from northern Iraq on Friday. “Obama’s speech [Thursday] sounded to me as though he was reacting to events that happened last Sunday. The situation can change and does change very quickly in these fluid circumstances.”

On Sunday, about 200,000 people fled from Sinjar region as militants from the group Islamic State of Iraq and Syris (ISIS) beat back Kurdish forces—known locally as the Peshmerga—from the region. Following the assault on Sinjar, humanitarian officials estimated that somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 people who failed to escape the city were trapped on the nearby sunbaked mountains, surrounded by ISIS fighters. Dozens are believed to have died due to dehydration and exposure.

“It maybe good for the U.S. administration to understand that the world does not stop turning and does not hold its breath, while they do nothing,” Rovera said.

The thousands of displaced from Sinjar who had been camped out in mosques, camps and cars began moving again on Thursday toward the Turkish border. TIME was unable to independently verify whether the border remained open on Friday. Since unleashing a blitzkrieg offensive at the beginning of the month, ISIS has beaten back the Peshmerga throughout northern Iraq. Humanitarian groups on the ground estimate that at least 200,000 people have been displaced.

“The Kurdistan region was already struggling to host such a large number of people before the latest influx,” said David Swanson, an official with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs based in Erbil, in northern Iraq. Before ISIS’ August offensive against the Peshmerga, Iraq’s Kurdish region was already home to 380,000 internally displaced persons along, with 230,000 Syrian refugees.

“The government of Kurdistan can no longer bear the burden of this influx alone and will most certainly need additional international support,” Swanson said.

As fighting continued to rage in northern Iraq, Obama also pledged to defend the Kurdish capital of Ebril if ISIS forces move on the city. But Washington’s promises may do little to repair the damage done to the leadership’s reputation in the wake of demoralizing losses on the battlefield to Islamist fighters.

Analysts say the retreat of Peshmerga troops in the face of the ISIS onslaught reveals more about the political failings of the Kurdish leadership than it does about the capabilities of what had long been considered one of the most formidable fighting forces in the region.

“This advance in Sinjar and in other areas has shown the structural weakness of the KRG, the Kurdistan Regional Government,” Kawa Hassan, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Middle East Center, told TIME.

A report presented by the parliamentary commission on the Peshmerga last week explicitly stated that, while Kurdish forces had high morale, they were still under-equipped and not being paid in a timely fashion, Hassan said. The rout of Kurdish fighters in Sinjar is also particularly damming for the administration of the Kurdish Regional Government’s President Masoud Barzani. Sinjar is considered a stronghold of the president’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, and his inability to protect the region will not likely fade from memory soon.

“This means there was no strategy planning, their intelligence was not sufficient and now its clear the Peshmerga forces in Sinjar didn’t even have enough bullets and they didn’t have enough weaponry to counter ISIS,” Hassan said. “The Kurdish leadership failed dismally.”

TIME russia

Putin’s Popularity Soars to 87% in the Face of Adversity

Vladimir Putin
President Vladimir Putin speaks at the opening ceremony of the monument to the Heroes of the World War I in Moscow on Friday, Aug. 1, 2014. Yuri Kochetkov—AP

A new survey claims Russians are more than happy with their controversial strongman at the helm

Russian President Vladimir Putin has enmeshed his nation in civil war in Ukraine, faces international sanctions for allegedly contributing to the downing of a commercial airliner last month, and has been targeted by a fresh round of financial sanctions from the West. But Russia loves him all the same.

In fact, his popularity among his fellow countrymen appears to grow with each new controversy.

A new poll released this week by the Levada Center reports that the Russian President currently enjoys an approval rating of 87% — a 4-point jump since a similar survey was completed in May, according to the Moscow Times.

Meanwhile in the U.S., where the economy is bouncing back and the White House has largely retreated from militaristic interventions abroad, President Barack Obama’s approval rating sagged to 40% this week — its lowest point to date.

TIME Iraq

Be Captured and Killed, or Risk Dying of Thirst: The Awful Choice Facing the Refugees of Sinjar

Thousands flee Iraq's Sinjar
Thousands of Iraqis flee from the town of Sinjar, near the city of Mosul, to Erbil and Dohuk after armed groups affiliated with the Islamic State seized the town early on August 4, 2014. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

Tens of thousands of Iraqis are trapped on a barren mountain without water or aid. If they descend, they risk being massacred by Sunni militia

With the world’s focus on the conflict in Gaza, little international attention is being paid to an appalling humanitarian crisis unfolding in Iraq.

In the country’s far northwest, tens of thousands of people fleeing the Sunni extremist group Islamic State have been trapped on a mountain for days without water or other supplies. The refugees, primarily from the country’s Yazidi religious sect, have begun to die from dehydration and exposure, with no relief in sight.

They face an excruciating dilemma — attempt to flee and risk being captured and killed by insurgents, or remain on Mount Sinjar in the hope that aid will somehow get through.

“A humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in Sinjar,” said Nickolay Mladenov, special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq, in a statement released earlier this week. “The Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government should urgently restore their security cooperation in dealing with the crisis.”

Humanitarian workers say there is no way to deliver supplies to the area outside of intermittent airdrops being conducted by the Iraqi Air Force.

“It’s not possible to get to them by road, obviously because ISIS controls the access roads, so nobody can go, they cannot leave,” Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser, told TIME by phone from northern Iraq on Wednesday.

“It’s going to take a few more days before things coalesce into a more coordinated response.”

On Tuesday, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that at least 40 children holed up on the mountain had died as result of dehydration.

“These children from the Yazidi minority died as a direct consequence of violence, displacement and dehydration over the past two days,” said Marzio Babille, a UNICEF representative, in a statement. UNICEF estimates that there are approximately 25,000 children still stranded in and around Sinjar.

Islamic State, which is notorious for its hatred of any group that does not abide by its fundamentalist interpretation of Sunni Islam, is particularly harsh on the Yazidi, who follow an ancient religion with resemblances to Zoroastrianism.

Reports and photos posted by Islamic State earlier appeared to show summary executions of Yazidi men.

The insurgents have “been behaving in a very brutal way with everybody,” says Rovera. “With the Yazidi, it’s worse, simply because the Yazidis’ religion [is] considered devil worship.”

Earlier this summer, Islamic State, along with a smattering of Sunni militias, launched a blitzkrieg throughout northern Iraq capturing large swaths of territory along both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Since then, the militant group has enforced its brand of draconian rule over their territory — targeting religious minorities and destroying troves of prized cultural and religious artifacts deemed heretical.

On Sunday, at least 200,000 people fled the Sinjar region as militants loyal to Islamic State routed Kurdish forces.

Thousands of refugees have made it to the Kurdish Autonomous Region in the far north of the country, but supplies are being stretched by the day as the displaced crowd into refugee camps, cramped apartments and mosques.

In the absence of strong military support from Baghdad, Kurdish militia fighters, including troops from as far away as Turkey and Syria, launched a massive counteroffensive on Tuesday in attempt to dislodge the heavily armed ISIS fighters from the northwest.

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