Rachel Brown, Lincoln Davidson, Ariella Rotenberg, Gabriel Walker, and Pei-Yu Wei look at five stories from Asia this week.
1. Developer of collapsed building arrested in Taiwan. After launching an investigation to determine the reasons behind the collapse of a seventeen-story building during a 6.4-magnitude earthquake in the city of Tainan last Saturday, Taiwanese authorities have arrested developer Lin Ming-Hui. The earthquake struck around 4 a.m. local time at the start of the Chinese New Year holiday, compounding the tragedy for some. One-hundred victims have been reported killed in the earthquake thus far, and reportedly nineteen people are still missing eight days after rescue efforts began. All but two of the victims were from the Weiguan Jinlong apartment complex. As it was one of the few buildings to suffer serious damage in the earthquake, questions arose about the complex’s structural soundness. Probes have revealed multiple illegal activities that may have contributed to the building’s collapse, including the fact that there were 50 percent fewer steel stirrups to reinforce concrete beams than required in the design blueprint. Prosecutors took Lin and two other men, identified as architects who designed the complex, into custody on Tuesday, and are seeking to charge the three men with professional negligent homicide. The three are yet to be officially charged, though they are being held incommunicado. Tainan’s Public Works Bureau is currently inspecting remaining buildings linked to Lin.
2. India says “no” to free Internet. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) this week prohibited Internet service providers from offering select content to users for free, a ruling seen as a slap in the face to Facebook. For the last several months, the company has been pushing Free Basics, which offers free access to its social network and basic online services like news, health, and career information. Through Free Basics, Facebook, rather than consumers, would pay for the cost to transmit that data over wireless networks. Facebook has argued that offering basic online services for free will help bring more people online, improving the lives of millions; critics contend that Facebook is creating an uneven playing field by only letting certain services into Free Basics. However, there’s no evidence that “zero-rating,” as the practice is called, actually has the effect of giving some services an unfair advantage.
3. Indonesian court convicts seven men for Islamic State ties. This week, an Indonesian court convicted and sentenced seven men who were training, recruiting, and distributing propaganda for the Islamic State (IS). This is the first time that Indonesia has sent anyone to jail for ties with IS. The country has been on high alert since an attack in Jakarta last month that claimed eight lives, for which IS claimed responsibility. Four of the men were sentenced to three or four years in prison for violating Indonesia’s anti-terrorism laws by participating in training camps for IS fighters. The court sentenced two others to similar-length terms for acting as recruiters for the terrorist organization. The seventh man convicted will serve a five-year term for cofounding an IS website that promoted the group’s ideology and that the Indonesian government shut down in 2014. In the past two months, antiterrorism police in Indonesia have arrested nearly fifty people who are suspected of having ties with those who planned and carried out the attack in Jakarta in January.
4. Ex-leaders put pressure on Thai junta. Former Thai prime ministers and siblings Yingluck and Thaksin Shinawatra recently returned to the public view in a move that has stirred concerns among ruling Thai military leaders. In rare media interviews this week, Yingluck expressed hope that support would remain strong for Puea Thai, her family’s political party. When elections will next be held is uncertain, as a member of the Thai junta recently expressed frustration when asked if the government still planned to conduct elections in 2017. Yingluck is prohibited from taking part in politics for the next five years, but is still popular in northeast Thailand. Meanwhile, Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin, sent out books and calendars commemorating his time in office and conveyed a message for the Lunar New Year to supporters in Thailand encouraging them to mobilize. He lives abroad to avoid a two-year jail sentence on corruption charges. In mid-January a corruption trial began regarding a rice subsidy scheme during Yingluck’s administration. She could face up to ten years in prison and thus her recent efforts to raise her public profile may be an attempt to defend her image and ensure a fair trial. While the scheme proved popular with Thailand’s large agricultural population, the subsidy ultimately cost the Thai government billions of dollars and led to Yingluck’s removal in 2014. Ironically, the current junta instituted a somewhat similar scheme in January to support rubber-tree farmers in southern Thailand.
5. Slowing Chinese oil production boosts market and saps SOEs. China’s top three petroleum-producing state-owned enterprises (SOEs), Sinopec, PetroChina, and CNOOC, have reported a significant drop in crude oil production over the past year. If the trend continues, China’s overall oil output could fall by up to 200,000 barrels a day through 2016. The decline in production should be a boon for the global oil market, which has been struggling with a persistent surplus and a broadly damaging low price since mid-2014. However, the production slowdown will be harder for the SOEs to handle: because they have a political imperative to maintain stability and avoid layoffs, the companies are limited by how much they can slash unprofitable production. The Chinese government even set a $40-a-barrel price floor for oil last month in order to shield the companies from massive losses. The financial challenges facing China’s oil producers brings to light the difficult path ahead for reforming the country’s SOEs, which have been a recurrent sticking point for the country’s broader economic reform plan.
Bonus: Indian police try a spicy solution to crowd control. In India, a country with the world’s largest protests and hottest chili peppers, police have found a creative way to bring the two together. In a new approach to controlling protesters, cops in Haryana are now equipped to use marble- and chili-loaded slingshots to disperse unruly crowds. The method is seen as a safer alternative to using rubber bullets, which were linked to at least two deaths in past protests. Police typically also use methods like batons and tear gas, and have implemented pepper-spraying drones in recent years. Some critics worry that the slingshots could cause serious injuries to civilian protesters, and may not be a safer alternative to conventional approaches.