U.N. calls for 'rapid and unimpeded' aid access to Myanmar's Rakhine

YANGON (Reuters) – The United Nations called on the Myanmar government on Monday to allow “rapid and unimpeded” humanitarian access to Rakhine State, where fighting between government troops and autonomy-seeking rebels has displaced thousands of people.

The Rakhine State government issued a notice last week blocking non-governmental organizations and U.N. agencies from traveling to rural areas in five townships in the northern and central parts of the state affected by the conflict.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and U.N. World Food Programme were exempted from the ban, it said.

Myanmar’s president urged the military to “crush” the rebels of the Arakan Army during a rare meeting with the commander-in-chief last week. The president, Win Myint, is a loyalist of the de facto government leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Fighting has forced about 5,000 people to flee from their homes and take shelter in monasteries and communal areas across the region since early January, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“We are seriously concerned about new restrictions on humanitarian access which leave thousands of women, children and men in affected areas of Rakhine without access to adequate assistance and protection,” said Pierre Peron, a spokesman for U.N. office.

“We hope the government responds positively to our call for rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access, and to ensure the protection of civilians in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights law,” he said in an email.

The Rakhine State municipal affairs minister, whose name is also Win Myint, told Reuters the restrictions on humanitarian access were put in place for “security reasons”.

“We don’t know how long it will last,” he said, “Access will be granted again if there is no security concern.”

Rakhine state has been roiled by successive rounds of violence in recent years.

In 2017, the region was the site of an extensive military crackdown, following attacks by Rohingya Muslim insurgents, that prompted about 730,000 Rohingya to flee westwards into neighboring Bangladesh.

The Arakan Army, the group behind the recent fighting, is demanding greater autonomy from the central government for Rakhine State, where the mostly Buddhist ethnic Rakhine people form the majority of the population.

Arakan Army fighters killed 13 policemen and wounded nine in attacks on four police posts in early January, state media reported.

An Arakan Army spokesman outside Myanmar told Reuters last week the group attacked the security forces in response to a broad military offensive in the north of Rakhine State that also targeted civilians.

Myanmar governments have battled various autonomy-seeking ethnic minority insurgent groups since shortly after independence from Britain in 1948, though some have struck ceasefire agreements.

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India slaps cases against critics of plan to grant citizenship to non-Muslims

GUWAHATI, India (Reuters) – Indian police on Friday said they are investigating an academic, a journalist and a peasant leader for possible sedition for publicly opposing a proposal to grant citizenship to non-Muslims from neighboring Muslim-majority countries.

Critics have called the proposal blatantly anti-Muslim and an attempt by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to boost its Hindu voter base ahead of a general election due by May.

The cases have been filed amid a wave of protests in the BJP-governed northeastern state of Assam. A small regional party in India quit the ruling coalition on Monday in protest against the plan.

The Modi government is facing growing criticism for stifling criticism, including in the media. A television journalist in the region was jailed last month for criticizing the government on social media.

“We have registered a case against a few people based on certain statements that they made at a public rally in Guwahati,” Deepak Kumar, a police official from Guwahati in Assam, told Reuters.

The three have not been charged.

Many people fear such a move could change the demographic profile of Assam, where residents have for years complained that immigrants from Bangladesh have put a big strain on resources.

Hiren Gohain, an 80-year-old academic, peasant leader Akhil Gogoi and journalist Manjit Mahanta have been accused of criminal conspiracy and attempting to wage a war against the government, Kumar said.

The bill, which seeks to give citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, has been passed by the lower house of the parliament.

The bill will be tabled for approval in the upper house in the next session, where it is expected to face resistance from the opposition Congress party. The BJP does not have a majority in the upper house of the parliament.

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Tens of thousands of women form 385-mile human chain over temple ban

Tens of thousands of women form 385-mile human chain in protest over Indian temple’s refusal to let females ‘of menstruating age’ enter

  • Tens of thousands lined roads across the southern state of Kerala on Tuesday
  • The 385-mile human chain was in protest to a ban on women at Sabarimala
  • The Sabarimala temple authorities deem women ‘of menstruating age’ impure
  • On Wednesday two women secretly entered the temple causing outrage

Tens of thousands of women formed a 385-mile human chain over an Indian temple’s rejection of women ‘of menstruating age’.

They lined up across the southern state of Kerala on Tuesday, where there is an ongoing row over access to the Sabarimala temple – one of Hinduism’s holiest shrines – which is off limits to ‘impure’ women.

Footage shows the staggering number of the ‘women’s wall’ which even surprised its organisers, Kerala’s governing Communist Party of India.

Two women secretly entered the Sabarimala temple on Wednesday, breaching a blockade formed around the site by devotees who have been enraged by an Indian Supreme Court decision to overturn a ban on women aged between 10 and 50.

Indian women stand in a line to take part in the human chain in Kochi in the southern state of Kerala on New Year’s Day

Indian women hold out their hands as they stand in a line to take part in the ‘women’s wall’ in Kochi in Kerala on Tuesday

Men worshipping at the Sabarimala shrine in the southern state of Kerala in October 2018; the famous temple had been off limits to women between the ages of 10 and 50 who were deemed ‘impure’ until a Supreme Court ruling overturned the ban in September

Video showed the two women, Kanaka Durga and Bindu, wearing black tunics with their heads bowed as they rushed into the temple on Tuesday

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The pair entered the hilltop temple in Kerala state just before dawn under police protection and left undetected, officials confirmed.

As soon as news of the breach spread, the temple head priest ordered the shrine closed for a purification ritual – reflecting the old but still prevalent belief that menstruating women are impure. It reopened after around an hour. 

Sabarimala has been the centre of an increasingly angry showdown between Hindu traditionalists who support the longstanding ban and women activists who have been forced back several times from the temple.

Video showed the women, Kanaka Durga and Bindu, who has only one name, wearing black tunics with their heads bowed as they rushed into the temple.

Indian police escort Kanaka Durga (centre bottom) and Bindu (centre top) on December 24, 2018, after their group of women were rebuffed by hard-line activists during an effort to reach the Sabarimala temple; they entered secretly under police protection on Wednesday

Video taken by a motorcyclist shows the colossal scale of the thousands of women lining the streets in the southern state of Kerala on Tuesday

Women across the state answered the Communist Part of India’s call to the ‘women’s wall’ as the row continues over access to the Sabarimala temple

A column of thousands of women extends along the side of the road in Kerala on Tuesday

‘We did not enter the shrine by climbing the 18 holy steps but went through the staff gate,’ one of the women, who both remain under police guard, later told reporters.

Kerala state Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said: ‘It is a fact that the women entered the shrine. Police are bound to offer protection to anyone wanting to worship at the shrine.’

The defiant act is certain to set off a new furore in India over gender.

The Supreme Court on September 28 overruled a decades-old ban on women of menstruating age at Sabarimala, which is a four-hour uphill trek from the nearest village.

Repeated efforts by women to enter the temple after the ruling have been rebuffed by Hindu devotees with police having to step in to escort them out. 

In October, devotees clashed with police in a town near the temple leading to the arrest of more than 2,000 people.

On Tuesday, tens of thousands of women formed a human chain across Kerala to back the demand for women’s access to the temple. Media reports said some were heckled and stoned by right-wing activists.

The Supreme Court is to start hearing a legal challenge to its ruling on January 22.

Many Hindu groups as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fiercely oppose the court ruling.

Women of all ages joined together in a show of strength in protest to their ban from the Sabarimala temple

Women raise their hands in a pledge to fight gender discrimination as they form part of a 385-mile human chain in Thiruvananthapuram, in the southern Indian state of Kerala on Tuesday, January 1

Indian police beat a Hindu activist as he protested against a Supreme Court verdict revoking a ban on women’s entry to the Sabarimala shrine in October

Hindu devotees throng around the famous Sabarimala shrine in the southern state of Kerala after a four-hour uphill trek to access the site in November 2018

They argue that the court has ignored their beliefs that the Sabarimala temple’s deity Ayyappa was celibate.

Modi’s government did not immediately react to the women getting into the temple, but activists celebrated.

‘Watching the visuals of them making their way into the shrine makes me cry in joy – how long it has taken for us to claim space, to write our way into history,’ wrote controversial feminist author Meena Kandasamy on Twitter.

Rahul Easwar, a right-wing activist in Kerala, condemned the state authorities for helping organise the secret operation.

‘Such cheap tactics are unbecoming of a state government,’ he said on Twitter.

Women are still barred from a handful of Hindu temples in India. The entry of women at Sabarimala was taboo for generations and formalised by the Kerala High Court in 1991.

The gold-plated Sabarimala temple complex sits atop a 3,000-foot metre) hill in a forested tiger reserve.

Legend has it that Ayyappa was found abandoned as a baby. A king of the Pandalam dynasty, which still manages the temple operations, found and raised him.

At the age of 12 Ayyappa emerged from the forest riding a tigress. The boy fired an arrow which landed at the site where the temple is now located.

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Don’t wrap lunches in clingfilm: Schools to ban single-use plastic

Don’t wrap your children’s packed lunches in clingfilm: Schools urged to ban single-use plastic by 2022

  • Education Secretary Damian Hinds said he wants schools to phase out plastic
  • It would see sustainable alternatives to straws, bottles, bags and packaging 
  • Mr Hinds wants to follow lead of first single-use plastic-free school in Devon

Schools have been told to eliminate all single-use plastics by 2022.

Education Secretary Damian Hinds said he wanted headteachers to phase out plastic bags, bottles and food packaging in favour of sustainable alternatives.

It would see the straws used by children to drink milk ditched – with youngsters using reusable beakers instead.

Mr Hinds called on schools to start a conversation with pupils about the effects discarded plastics have on the environment and wildlife.

Schools have been told to eliminate all single-use plastics, including bags, bottles and food packaging, by 2022. Stock pic

And he said schools across the country should follow the lead of Georgeham Primary School in Devon which is the first school in the UK to achieve single-use plastic-free status.

He said: ‘On my first school visit as Education Secretary almost a year ago, the very first question I was asked by a pupil was what we can do to limit the damage of plastic on the environment.

‘Reducing our use of plastic clearly is an important and timely issue which has captured the interest and the imagination of everyone in society.

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‘Plastic can harm our precious environment and be lethal to wildlife.

‘The leadership shown by schools like Georgeham Primary in going single-use plastic free is an impressive example for us all – and I want to work to support every school in the country following their lead by 2022.

‘It’s not always easy but we all have a role to play in driving out avoidable plastic waste, and with more schools joining others and leading by example, we can help to leave our planet in a better state than we found it.’

Education Secretary Damian Hinds called on schools to start a conversation with pupils about the effects discarded plastics have on the environment and wildlife. Stock pic

Georgeham Primary was awarded the single-use plastic-free accolade by Surfers Against Sewage, a marine conservation charity. 

Among the most common uses of single-use plastic are the straws and packaging from the cartons of milk provided to reception pupils.

After agreeing a deal with their suppliers, Georgeham School now has its milk delivered in recyclable containers and the children drink out of washable beakers. 

Julian Thomas, headteacher at the school, said: ‘We are thrilled to hear the Education Secretary is calling on all schools to become single-use plastic free by 2022.

‘All of our pupils enthusiastically played their part in helping the school reduce excessive single use plastic consumption.

‘I am confident children across the rest of the country would also welcome the challenge.

Mr Hinds said: ‘Plastic can harm our precious environment and be lethal to wildlife’. Stock pic

‘By making relatively minor changes, such as replacing cling film for foil in the canteen we were able to significantly reduce our plastic use. We’re a small school but we think big and I’m very proud of everyone at Georgeham for what we’ve achieved.’

Last night the Department for Education said there were no plans yet to make the eradication of single-use plastics in schools mandatory. 

A spokesman said: ‘At the moment this is about asking schools and school leaders to look at what role they can play in driving out avoidable plastic waste, and can then lead by example.’

Mr Hinds has asked officials to speak to school suppliers regarding the plastic packaging of milk cartons and other day-to-day supplies for schools.

÷ Supermarkets handed out 1.2billion ‘bags for life’ in a year – undermining their claims to be reducing waste. It means the average household used 44 of the heavy duty bags last year.

Bags for life cost between 5p and 10p and typically contain more than twice as much plastic as single-use ones, on which the Government has imposed a 5p charge. 

Environmental campaigners called on retailers to increase the cost of bags for life to at least £1. 


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Bullying EU threatens to ban British planes and kick out UK citizens in No Deal Brexit plans

Jean-Claude Juncker unveiled plans for a hard line on Britain in an apparent bid to force us into accepting Theresa May's deal.

The European Commission has triggered a string of policies to stop the continent's economy crashing if we leave the EU without a deal.

But Brussels is planning to impose a punishment regime with tough curbs on British businesses and chaos for holidaymakers.

British airlines would get automatic permission to operate flights between the UK and Europe.

But they would be banned from flying between one EU airport and another, or running flights from Europe to other countries such as the US.

The Commission said: "These measures will only ensure basic connectivity and in no means replicate the significant advantages of membership of the Single European Sky."

And the EU also warned that British expats living on the continent may be forced to leave.

Officials said: "UK nationals in the EU would be subject, as of the withdrawal date, to the general rules that apply to third country nationals."

That means each of the 27 member states will be free to impose its own policy regarding British residents.

The UK has already guaranteed that Europeans living here will be allowed to stay permanently even if there's No Deal.

The EU concluded: "Today's package includes 14 measures in a limited number of areas where a No Deal scenario would create major disruption for citizens and businesses in the EU27.

"These areas include financial services, air transport, customs, and climate policy, amongst others.

"The Commission considers it essential and urgent to adopt these measures today to ensure that the necessary contingency measures can enter into application on March 30, 2019 in order to limit the most significant damage caused by a No Deal scenario in these areas."

Brussels has previously resisted No Deal planning before U-turning as Theresa May struggles to push the withdrawal agreement through Parliament.

Yesterday the Cabinet agreed to trigger contingency plans for a No Deal outcome, with medicines stockpiled and troops on the street.

The Chancellor has approved an extra £2billion of spending to ensure Britain is prepared to leave the EU come what may, while 3,500 members of the military are on standby to help if needed.

The Government is also set to commandeer a fleet of ferries to keep vital supplies moving between Britain and the continent.

But the decision to ramp up No Deal preparations has bitterly split the Tory party – with ministers threatening to quit if the scenario comes to pass.

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Trump travel ban blamed for keeping Yemeni mom away from dying son, 2: report

Ali Hassan, 22, sits with his son Abdullah, 2, who is on life support at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, Calif.

A 2-year-old boy on life support in Northern California may not be able to reunite in time with his mother from Yemen due to the Trump administration's travel ban, the boy's family said on Monday.

Abdullah Hassan, the boy who is currently receiving care at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in Oakland, suffers from a rare degenerative brain disease and does not have much time left to live.

His father, Ali Hassan, 22, is asking the U.S. government to allow his wife to see their son for "one last time," Sacramento's Fox 40 reported.

"My son Abdullah needs his mother," Hassan said, according to The Los Angeles Times. "My wife's calling me every day, wanting to kiss and hold our son…"

"I see him, he's getting worse and worse," Hassan said, according to the station.

"Doctors and physicians have told us that it’s a matter of days, not a matter of weeks, for Abdullah," said Saad Sweilem, a civil rights attorney at Council on American-Islamic Relations, Fox 40 reported.

The boy and his father are U.S. citizens, but the mother, Shaima Swileh, is a Yemeni national currently living in Egypt and has not been able to obtain a visa to enter the U.S., The San Francisco Chronicle reported.

"She was told she needs a waiver to be able to enter the country," Sweilem said, according to the station. "So for the last year, she’s been waiting on a waiver and never received one."

The Trump administration's travel ban, upheld by the Supreme Court in June, prohibits citizens from the five majority-Muslim countries, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen travel to the U.S.

“This is a very real case that really shows the effects of family separation,” said Sweilem, who is representing the family, according to The Times. “This is a United States citizen that is going to die away from his mother.”

Sweilem is calling on the government to expedite the process of receiving the waiver so Swileh could say goodbye to her son, Fox 40 reported.

“If I could take him off the ventilator and to the airplane, I would take him to her. I would let her see him. But he won’t make it,” the boy's father told The Chronicle.

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