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Southern Thailand Voters Hoping for Democratic Outcome

In Southern Thailand, a high voter turnout is expected for Sunday’s election, where anti-military sentiment prevails in the region. But voters and opposition politicians are concerned that a government curb on voices of dissent will result in another term of military rule.


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New Zealand: Guns Used in Mosque Attack Banned Immediately

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced an immediate ban Thursday on semi-automatic and automatic weapons like the ones used in the attacks on two mosques in Christchurch that killed 50 worshippers.

“All semi-automatic weapons used during the terrorist attack on Friday 15 March will be banned,” she said.

The man charged in the attack purchased his weapons legally using a standard firearms license and enhanced their capacity by using 30-round magazines “done easily through a simple online purchase,” she said.

Ardern said she expects the new laws to be in place by April 11, but an interim measure means a ban on new purchases has for practical purposes already been enacted. A buy-back scheme will be established for banned weapons.

“Now, six days after this attack, we are announcing a ban on all military style semi-automatics (MSSA) and assault rifles in New Zealand,” Ardern said. “Related parts used to convert these guns into MSSAs are also being banned, along with all high-capacity magazines.”

Similar to Australia

Ardern said that similar to Australia, the new gun laws will allow for strictly enforced exemptions for farmers to conduct pest control and animal welfare.

“I strongly believe that the vast majority of legitimate gun owners in New Zealand will understand that these moves are in the national interest, and will take these changes in their stride.”

Federated Farmers, which represent thousands of farmers, said it supported the change.

“This will not be popular among some of our members but after a week of intense debate and careful consideration by our elected representatives and staff, we believe this is the only practicable solution,” Federated Farmers Rural Security spokesman Miles Anderson said in a statement.

One of New Zealand’s largest gun retailers, Hunting & Fishing New Zealand, said it supports “any government measure to permanently ban such weapons.”

“While we have sold them in the past to a small number of customers, last week’s events have forced a reconsideration that has led us to believe such weapons of war have no place in our business — or our country,” CEO Darren Jacobs said in a statement.

Regardless of the ban, the company would no longer stock any assault-style firearms of any category and would also stop selling firearms online, he said. 

​Mosque attack victims buried

Ardern’s announcement comes less than a week after the killings, as more of the dead were being buried. At least six funerals took place Thursday, including for a teenager, a youth soccer coach and a Muslim convert who loved connecting with other women at the mosque.

Cashmere High School student Sayyad Ahmad Milne, 14, was known as an outgoing boy and the school’s futsal goalkeeper. Tariq Rashid Omar, 24, graduated from the same school, played soccer in the summer and was a beloved coach of several youth teams.

Linda Armstrong, 64, a third-generation New Zealander who converted to Islam in her 50s, was also buried, as were Hussein Mohamed Khalil Moustafa, 70, Matiullah Safi, 55, and Haji Mohammed Daoud Nabi.

Families of those killed had been awaiting word on when they could bury their loved ones. Police Commissioner Mike Bush announced Thursday that authorities have formally identified and released the remains of all of the victims. Islamic tradition calls for bodies to be cleansed and buried as soon as possible.

​Friday prayer service

Meanwhile, preparations are underway for a massive Friday prayer service to be led by the imam of one of the two New Zealand mosques where worshippers were killed.

 

Imam Gamal Fouda said he is expecting 3,000 to 4,000 people at Friday’s prayer service, including many who have come from abroad. He expects it will take place in Hagley Park, a city landmark across from Al Noor mosque with members of the Linwood mosque also attending.

Al Noor workers have been trying feverishly to repair the destruction at the mosque, Fouda said.

 

“They will bury the carpet,” he said. “Because it is full of blood, and it’s contaminated.”

 

Fouda said that he expects the mosque to be ready to open again by next week and that some skilled workers had offered their services for free.

 

“The support we have been getting from New Zealand and the community has been amazing,” he said.

​Reuter and Agence France Presse contributed to this report.


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EU Leaders to Discuss Ways to Limit Chinese Influence at Summit Dinner

The European Union will discuss a more defensive strategy on China on Thursday, potentially signalling an end to the unfettered access that Chinese business has enjoyed in Europe but which Beijing has failed to reciprocate.

Caught between a new U.S.-Chinese rivalry for economic and military power, EU leaders will try to find a middle path during a summit dinner in Brussels, the first time they have discussed at the highest level how to deal with Beijing.

“We are fully open,” European Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen said of the EU’s economy. “China is not, and it raises lots of questions,” Katainen told Reuters, arguing that the world’s second-largest economy could no longer claim special status as a developing country.

Meeting as Chinese President Xi Jinping starts a tour of France and Italy, EU leaders – who have often been divided over China – want to present a united front ahead of an EU-China summit on April 9.

According to a draft April summit statement seen by Reuters, the EU is seeking to set deadlines for China to make good on trade and investment pledges that have been repeatedly pushed back, although Beijing must still agree to the final text.

That was a message delivered to State Councillor Wang Yi by EU foreign ministers on Monday. It marked a shift towards what EU diplomats say is a more “assertive and competitive mindset”.

“In the past, it has been extremely difficult for the EU to formulate a clear strategy on China, and past policy documents have not been strategically coherent,” said Duncan Freeman at the EU-China Research Centre at the College of Europe. “There is now a clear effort to do that.”

In a document to prepare the EU summit, the European Commission called China a “systemic rival”.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign to warn against Huawei telecommunications equipment in next-generation wireless networks has accelerated EU discussions about its position.

The deepest tensions lie around China’s slowness to open up its economy, a surge of Chinese takeovers in critical sectors and an impression that Beijing has not stood up for free trade.

 GERMANY IS KEY With over a billion euros a day in bilateral trade, the EU is China’s top trading partner, while China is second only to the United States as a market for European goods and services.

Chinese trade restrictions are more severe than EU barriers in almost every economic sector, according to research firm Rhodium Group and the Mercator Institute for China Studies.

Unlike the United States, which has a naval fleet based in Japan to wield influence over the region, the EU lacks any military power to confront China, so its approach is technical.

But any new EU policies could prove complicated to implement, as EU capitals continue to court Chinese investment.

Italy plans to join China’s multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road infrastructure project, while free-traders Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands are wary of any restrictions on commerce.

Germany’s views will be important as Berlin has at times pressed for a tougher response to unfair competition from Chinese rivals but also championed a closer relationship with Beijing.

“Their position needs to stabilize. At the moment it changes on almost every day of the week,” the senior envoy said.


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Indonesian President’s Lead Over Election Rival Cut in New Survey

A new Indonesian election survey shows President Joko Widodo’s big lead over his challenger, retired general Prabowo Subianto, is narrowing, just weeks ahead of next month’s vote in the world’s third-largest democracy.

The April 17 election will be a rerun of the 2014 race, in which Widodo beat out Prabowo by almost six percentage points.

A survey by pollster Litbang Kompas, which is part of Indonesia’s biggest newspaper Kompas, shows Widodo likely to win 49.2 percent of the vote, surpassing 37.4 percent for Prabowo.

Although still a double-digit lead, the electability gap in the survey between February 22 and March 5 was narrower than the Kompas survey in October that gave Widodo a 19.9-percentage point lead over his rival.

Opinion polls in January by other pollsters, including Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting and Australian-based Roy Morgan, put Widodo at an advantage of about 20 percentage points over Prabowo.

The president’s campaign team is confident he will still win by a big margin, spokeswoman Meutya Hafid said in a statement.

“There’s a number of indications why votes for Jokowi will be higher than in 2014,” she said, referring to the president by a popular nickname.

“Jokowi will be able to grab votes from places that are normally the stronghold of candidate number two (Prabowo), such as West Java,” Hafid said, referring to Indonesia’s most populous province.

The latest Kompas survey showed Widodo’s support may be shrinking among mature millennials aged between 31 and 40, as well as baby boomers.

After a slow beginning, the six-month campaign has picked up pace, with televised debates between the candidates and rallies held across the archipelago of more than 17,000 islands.

Some analysts say the debates were a missed opportunity for Prabowo, who has struggled to land any big blows against Widodo, while the president has appeared workman-like in projecting his achievements in areas such as infrastructure while in office.

But the challenger’s running mate, private equity tycoon Sandiaga Uno, has appeared to generate a buzz on the campaign trail while proving popular online, especially with women and young voters.

Uno attacked Widodo’s track record on education and healthcare last weekend, saying his government would be able to solve Indonesia’s problems in education and large deficits in health insurance.

Last week, the anti-graft agency named a prominent politician backing Widodo’s re-election campaign a suspect in a bribery case, which could further dent his campaign.


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Turkish President Stokes Anti-Western Rhetoric Over New Zealand Killings

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded Tuesday that New Zealand reinstate the death penalty and apply it in the case of the gunman who killed 50 people in two Christchurch mosques. The demand is the latest escalation in rhetoric by Erdogan in the face of Wellington’s call for moderation.

“You heinously killed 50 of our siblings. You will pay for this. If New Zealand doesn’t make you,” Erdogan told supporters during a campaign rally ahead of local elections. Erdogan also said, “The necessary action needs to be taken” by the New Zealand parliament.

Erdogan has made the mosque killings a central part of his local election campaign. A grainy video of the gunman attacking the mosques has been repeatedly played at his campaign meetings.

Lisel Hintz, an assistant professor of international relations at the Johns Hopkins University, says the broadcast of the video plays into Erdogan’s hands.

“Showing footage of the Christchurch massacre, recorded by the shooter himself, is intended to incite fears of Islamophobia and bolster Erdogan’s image as protector of Muslims in a world hostile to them,” she said. Other analysts say many Erdogan supporters are drawn from nationalist and Islamist backgrounds.

The New Zealand government has called on Ankara to stop airing the video and to turn down the rhetoric, which Wellington warns could provoke attacks on New Zealand citizens. Wellington also points out that the suspect is an Australian citizen.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters said Tuesday he is traveling to Turkey “to set the record straight.”

Erdogan again used the video of the mosque attacks, however, at two televised campaign rallies attended by thousands of people.

‘Anti-Western sentiments’

The Turkish president is seeking to build support for his religious conservative AKP ahead of local elections March 31. Analysts suggest that with the economy in recession, soaring unemployment, and double-digit inflation, Erdogan wants to change the political narrative.

“This anti-Western rhetoric pays off every time — it’s a fundamental part of Turkish politics,” said political scientist Cengiz Aktar. “He is using it this time in the forthcoming elections to galvanize his supporters who are fundamentally anti-Western.”

Hintz offered a similar assessment.

“Erdogan’s close ties with media groups and influence over an estimated 90 percent of news production allowed him to shield many Turks from the country’s debt and lira crises, but long lines and rotting vegetables make Turkey’s economic turmoil starkly apparent,” Hintz said. “Absent a narrative of growth, Erdogan resorts to stoking anti-Western sentiments in the hopes that nationalist emotions rather than pocketbook concerns will prevail at the polls.”

During a televised meeting Monday, Erdogan accused the Western media and European leaders of an “insidious” silence over the mosque attacks, accusing the European Union of being an “enemy of Islam.”

“Erdogan still plays the foreign conspiracy angle at his election rallies,” said analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners. Ankara has for decades been seeking to join the EU, blaming the delay on prejudice on the grounds that Turkey is a Muslim country. Brussels maintains the delay is due to Ankara’s failure to comply with membership requirements, in particular over human rights.

‘Reviving the battlefield memories’

Erdogan’s escalating rhetoric threatens to cast a shadow over commemorations marking the Gallipoli Campaign during World War I. The ill-fated British-led invasion of the then-Ottoman empire sought to create a bridgehead opening the way to capture Istanbul. The campaign ended in defeat with large numbers of Australians and New Zealanders, along with Turks, killed. The March remembrance ceremonies at the battle sites traditionally draw large numbers of Australians and New Zealanders.

At a Gallipoli memorial Monday, Erdogan highlighted a manifesto posted online by the gunman, in which the suspect called for Turks to be driven out of Istanbul.

“You will not turn Istanbul into Constantinople,” Erdogan said, referring to the city’s name under its Christian Byzantine rulers before Muslim Ottomans conquered it in 1453.

“Your grandparents came here … and they returned in caskets,” he said. “Have no doubt we will send you back like your grandfathers,” he added.

The Gallipoli commemorations are traditionally a symbol of goodwill among Turkey, New Zealand and Australia, with the World War I campaign widely seen as a defining moment in the formation of all three countries.

“Erdogan has managed to overturn this peaceful rhetoric of never again [a conflict],” Aktar said. “He is reviving the battlefield memories, for more antagonism against the Western world.”

Social media pushback

On social media, there is a strong pushback against the Turkish president’s rhetoric. Many Turks posted a well-known quote of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, speaking after the Gallipoli Campaign.

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives. … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies [a reference to enemy soldiers] and the Mehmets [Turkish soldiers] to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours.”

Ataturk was at the forefront of leading the defense of Gallipoli, a success that propelled him to found the secular republic.

Analysts say Erdogan likely is calculating that the current controversy can only serve as a useful distraction from the country’s economic woes.

“Whatever the potential electoral benefit, we are seeing across the globe that the societal cost of drawing on fear and hatred continues to take its polarizing toll long after polls close,” Hintz said.

The reopening of the traditional deep political divide between Erdogan supporters and critics usually consolidates the president’s voting base, which opinion polls indicate is starting to weaken over dissatisfaction from rising prices and unemployment.

VOA’s Ezel Sahinkaya contributed to this report.


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Italy Set to Join China’s Belt & Road Initiative

Italy is expected to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, when Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives Thursday in Rome.

The United States has been critical of the trillion-dollar global infrastructure project and warned about the risks of “debt-trap diplomacy.” Members of the European Union are worried the plan could add to fissures in an already strained coalition.

When Xi visits this week, analysts say Italy is expected to sign a non-binding memorandum of understanding (MoU) with China. That agreement will pave the way for construction projects and financing from the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

“The MoU is mostly perceived as a way to secure more exports to China and more chances to access financing from the AIIB,” said Alessia Amighini, co-head of Asia Center at ISPI, a Rome-based research group.

Rome expects to reduce its trade deficit with China and avoid some heavy expenses by attracting Chinese and AIIB investments in big infrastructure projects. The agreement also will give Chinese companies more access to the busy port of Trieste, and in turn, the Mediterranean.

Reports emanating from Italy suggest Rome also is looking at the possibility of inviting Chinese companies to expand or manage three other Italian seaports, which are Genoa, Palermo and Ravenna.

“Italy is eager to attract investments to improve its competitive position compared to northern European routes and ports,” Amighini said.

Clearly, China is exploiting business competition within the Eurozone and trying to wean away an important member by offering a set of attractive terms, analysts note.

The MoU signing will represent a major political achievement for China at a time of growing concerns and criticism of the plan. Italy is a founding member of the European Union and could help open up doors for Beijing to the Eurozone.

So far, the Belt and Road Initiative’s biggest projects and controversies have been tied to countries with serious financial difficulties, such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives and Greece.

With Italy’s decision to join, China is dealing with a country where there is less fear of slipping into a debt trap under the program.

But it is likely to challenge Europe’s connectivity strategy, a plan that was unveiled in September 2018 and aims to improve links within Europe and with Asia while promoting sustainability standards and rules-based practices.

Analysts are waiting to find out if Xi will offer a modified version of the program to Italy to meet European standards; but adopting those standards would take away China’s ability to cut costs and reduce its competitive edge.

“I don’t expect China to show more flexibility. In any case; I don’t see financing terms as a real issue in Europe,” Amighini said.

European disunity

Teresa Coratella, program manager at the Rome office of the European Council on Foreign Affairs, said the Italian move has the potential of creating disunity in the European Union at a time when the coalition is working out a common approach toward Chinese investments.

Both the U.S. and France have expressed discomfort about Rome’s move, while German officials reportedly have been lobbying against the MOU signing. Italy, a member of the Group of Seven most industrialized countries, is the only G7 nation to join the BRI.

“Italy is a major global economy and great investment destination. No need for Italian government to lend legitimacy to China’s infrastructure vanity project,” tweeted Garrett Marquis, spokesman for White House’s group of national security advisors.

French President Emmanuel Macron has expressed unease about Rome’s decision, and he has called for a “coordinated approach” covering all European Union members toward Chinese plans.

“It’s a good thing that China is taking part in the development of many countries, but I believe in the spirit of equality, reciprocity. The spirit of equality means respecting the sovereignty of nations,” Macron said.

Lucrezia Poggetti, a research associate with Merics, the Berlin-based research institution, said Italy is the third-largest economy in the eurozone, and an Italian signature on the BRI has wide implications.

“Italy’s decision in itself is bad news for the EU and its largest members, who are currently trying to pursue a more unified European China strategy to address challenges with the economic and political weight of the EU bloc,” she said.

Rome’s attraction toward the BRI is not new. Former Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni was the only head of government among G-7 countries to attend the first meeting of the Belt and Road Forum in May 2017.

The current government would “go much further by officially endorsing an initiative that has been criticized internationally for, among other things, creating debt traps, political dependencies and promoting exclusively the interests of Chinese companies through unfair practices that don’t meet international standards and rules,” said Poggetti.

Zhiqun Zhu, who chairs the Department of International Relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, said the United States is exaggerating the idea of a China threat in all issues, including the BRI plan.

“Italy and other countries should make their own decisions instead of being forced to choose sides between the U.S. and China,” Zhu said.

 


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In Thai Election, New ‘War Room’ Polices Social Media

In Thailand’s election “war room,” authorities scroll through thousands of social media posts, looking for violations of laws restricting political parties’ campaigning on social media that activists say are among the most prohibitive in the world.

The monitors are on the look-out for posts that “spread lies, slander candidates, or use rude language,” all violations of the new electoral law, said Sawang Boonmee, deputy secretary-general of the Election Commission, who gave a Reuters team an exclusive tour of the facility.

When they find an offending post, on, for example, Facebook, they print it out, date-stamp it, and file it in a clear plastic folder, to be handed over to the Election Commission and submitted to Facebook for removal.

“When we order content to be removed, we’ll reach out to the platforms, and they are happy to cooperate with us and make these orders efficient,” Sawang said.

Sawang said the tough electoral laws governing social media for the March 24 election, the first since a 2014 military coup, are a necessary innovation aimed at preventing manipulation that has plagued other countries’ elections in recent years.

“Other countries don’t do this. Thailand is ahead of the curve with regulating social media to ensure orderly campaigning and to protect candidates,” he said.

A Facebook representative said it reviewed requests from governments on a case-by-case basis.

“We have a government request process, which is no different in Thailand than the rest of the world,” the representative said.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

Democracy advocates, worry the social media restrictions laid out by the military government may be impeding parties from freely campaigning.

The rules require that candidates and parties register social media handles and submit a post to the commission, stating what platform it will appear on and for how long.

Parties and candidates are only allowed to discuss policies, and posts that are judged to be misleading voters or that portray others negatively could see the party disqualified, or a candidate jailed for up to 10 years and banned from politics for 20.

Pongsak Chan-on, coordinator of the Bangkok-based Asia Network for Free and Fair Election (ANFREL), said the rules go far beyond combating “fake news” and raise questions about how free and fair the election will be.

“The rules are stricter than in any recent elections anywhere. They’re so detailed and strict that parties are obstructed,” he told Reuters.

‘Doesn’t Bode Well for Democracy’

The monitoring center, with a signboard reading “E-War Room,” has three rows of computers and stacks of printouts, with half a dozen workers spending eight hours a day searching for violations of the law.

Sawang said another intelligence center scanned for violations 24 hours a day but it was “off-limits” to media.

The election is broadly seen as a race between the military-backed prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, and parties that want the military out of politics.

But the stringent rules have left anti-junta parties fretting about how to campaign online, nervous that they could inadvertently break a rule that triggers disqualification.

Up to now, the new rules have not been used to disqualify any candidates though the very threat has had a dampening effect and encouraged self-censorship.

“They create complications for parties,” said Pannika Wanich, spokeswoman for the new Future Forward Party, which has attracted support among young urban folk who have come of age on social media.

She said her party had to consult a legal team before making posts.

Some candidates have deactivated their Facebook pages while others have removed posts that might cause trouble.

Last month, Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroonruangkit faced disqualification over an allegation that he misled voters in his biography on the party’s website. The commission dismissed the case last week.

In another petition, the commission was asked to ban the party’s secretary-general for slandering the junta in a Facebook post.

“It’s very restrictive and doesn’t bode well for democracy,” said Tom Villarin, a Philippine congressman and member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR). “Putting more restrictions on social media during a campaign season defeats the purpose of holding elections in the first place.”

Fighting Fake News

About 74 percent of Thailand’s population of 69 million are active social media users, putting Thais among the world’s top 10 users, according to a 2018 survey by Hootsuite and We Are Social.

Thailand is Facebook’s eighth biggest market with 51 million users, the survey showed.

Facebook said it has teams with Thai-language speakers to monitor posts and restricts electoral advertisements from outside the country.

“Combating false news is crucial to the integrity and safety of the Thailand elections,” said Katie Harbath, Facebook’s Global Politics and Government director, during a Bangkok visit in January.

Sawang said the election commission has also gained cooperation from Twitter and Japanese messaging app Line, used by 45 million Thais.

Line Thailand told Reuters it did not monitor chats for the election commission but helped limit fake news by showing only articles from “trusted publishers” on its news feature.


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New Zealand Mosque Attacks Send Shock Waves Throughout Muslim World

Attacks last Friday on Muslims worshipping at their mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, have sent shock waves throughout the Muslim world. VOA Turkish and Urdu language service reporters visited Muslims in the Washington, D.C., area and report that their reactions range from fear and sadness to determination to stand up to terror. Mosques in the United States boosted their security during Friday prayers. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke has more.


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Muslim and Government Officials Plan Next Steps in Christchurch

VOA’s  Ira Mellman contributed to this report.

Residents of Christchurch, New Zealand, have returned to work and school, but the city of nearly 400,000 is still coming to grips with the tragic events that unfolded Friday, when a gunman entered two mosques and killed 50 people.

Throughout the city people continued Tuesday to flock to memorials to pay their respects to the members of their community who lost their lives, hoping to heal and ensure such events do not take place again.

Monday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, announced her Cabinet reached a consensus for in-principle agreements on changes to the nation’s gun laws.

“Within 10 days of this horrific act of terrorism we will have announced reforms which will, I believe, make our community safer,” Ardern told reporters at a news conference Monday.

Ardern didn’t provide details of what changes may be proposed, but altering the country’s gun laws was a topic of conversation Dr. Mohomad Anwar Sahib, chairman of the New Zealand Islamic Information Centre (NZIIC) and Imam of the center’s Masjid at-Taqwa, had with several members of the community during his daylong visit to Christchurch from Auckland.

The issue of what to do, if anything, about New Zealand’s firearm regulations “was one of the most important topics” we discussed, Anwar said.

While some have called for an outright ban on guns, Anwar notes that New Zealand’s legislative process doesn’t enable the prime minister to make instant changes to laws.

“This is a democratic country. She (Prime Minister Arden) can’t say ‘Stop the guns.’ It goes through so many channels before it can happen,” he said.

Anwar likened the debate on gun control to a “catch 22 situation” saying, “If you ban it, there are situations to it. If you allow it, there are issues with it.”

Forever changed

The alleged perpetrator of the New Zealand mosque attacks distributed a more than 70-page document before the attack. Its content called foreign immigrants “invaders,” a signal to many that the man in police custody is a white supremacist.

“I don’t think it’s (white supremacy) any longer a fringe movement, it is certainly coming of age. It is being globalized at a very rapid pace,” said Erroll Southers, a professor of national and homeland security at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Southers asserts one reason for increased white supremacist rhetoric hangs on immigration and a “notion that there’s a ticking clock down to the eventual what these extremists will call ‘white genocide’ of their respective communities in nations around the world.” 

Another factor says Southers is “the issue is one of believing that there’s no longer a place for white people [in the world], and unfortunately this is an international threat that knows no borders and they believe that the only way to combat this is now violence.”

And that is a concern for the Muslim community in New Zealand. 

Anwar explains that violent speech tends to begin in “other places and then gradually it comes down to Australia and by the time it arrives to New Zealand, it’s quite far away (been diluted and is not as intense)… that’s why what happened here is unprecedented.” 

While the history of New Zealand has changed after the attacks, said Anwar, “That doesn’t mean we, as a people, have changed. We stand united together as one, and we are supportive of each other.”

“But,” he said, “the fear will always be there. Once it’s happened, it can happen again.”

Widespread government response continues

Sarah Stewart-Black, director of New Zealand’s Ministry of Civil Defense and Emergency Management, spent the first half of Tuesday visiting several locations throughout Christchurch to understand more about the government’s response thus far.

“It was important for me to come down and connect with people on the ground to see how everyone is doing and check on the pressure points, and [how] we government can work with the community to provide the right assistance,” she said.

Stewart-Black also met with members of the Muslim community to better understand what their needs are and how they are changing, because, “as time is moving on the needs of the families are changing and we want to be responsive to that.”

Beyond addressing the immediate needs of the Muslim community, Katrina Casey from the Ministry of Education, noted that the ministry’s “traumatic incident teams are in constant contact” and visiting priorities schools (a facility that has direct connections either to victims, and/or parents of victims, and/or staff, and/or the Muslim community).

The teams, she says are working to make sure “schools and early childhood centers getting the right level of support” throughout the nation.

“This is not something where our support will be only this week, as support will remain as long as it’s needed, and we think that will be for some time to come,” Casey said.

The government’s response has been appreciated says Anwar, which is why his organization is looking to collaborate with various emergency management organizations to effectively distribute the more than $5.6 million that’s been raised online since Friday through various online donation platforms.

He says that with the funds collected, and by working with officials, “there won’t be anything missing” in terms of providing assistance, not only to those directly affected by Friday’s shooting, but to the larger community as a whole.


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New Zealand’s Leader, a Longtime Public Servant

On Friday, shortly after news of the mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the incident as one of the country’s “darkest days.”

Ardern — at 38, the country’s youngest prime minister in 150 years — has received international praise for her calmness and empathy in responding to the attacks that killed 50 people.

She took office in October 2017 but has had a long history in politics.

Ardern began to turn the Labor party’s polling numbers around so fast after becoming its youngest leader that the effect has been dubbed “Jacindamania.”

She was born into a Mormon family in the small town of Murupara. She has said seeing the town’s Maori children “without shoes on their feet or anything to eat for lunch” was what inspired her to enter public service. 

She joined the Labor Party at age 17. She remained active in the party through collage and after graduation landed a job on the staff of Prime Minister Helen Clark, the second woman to hold New Zealand’s highest office and Ardern’s political hero and mentor.

She is seen as as friendly and direct, and promised to be “relentless positivity” during her bid for the country’s highest office. Her other campaign promises included three years of free university education, free community-based mental health services, and banning of foreign speculators from buying existing homes in New Zealand.

Her popularity, especially among New Zealand’s youth, had the media dubbing her a political rock star, in the mode of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former U.S. president Barack Obama. 

She also became something of a feminist icon just hours after being chosen party leader when she slapped down media questions about whether she planned to have children. She said she had previously spoken publicly about the topic.

“But,” she said, “it is totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace. … It is a woman’s decision about when they choose to have children. It should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job, or have job opportunities.”

She again captured international attention when she let it be known that she and her live-in partner, TV personality Clarke Gayford, were going to have a baby. She also announced that Gayford would be a stay-at-home dad. She gave birth to her daughter on June 21, 2018. 

A month later she announced welfare reforms including a weekly stipend for new parents and an increase in paid parental leave from 18 to 22 weeks.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is the only other world leader to give birth while in office when she had a baby girl in January 1990.


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Memorials Offer Kindness, Place to Grieve for Shaken Christchurch Residents

Residents here are struggling to make sense of Friday’s attacks that took place at two mosques, claimed at least 50 lives, left an equal number wounded, nearly a dozen of whom remain in critical care.

While the city is planning a major vigil and memorial Thursday, several community-driven memorials have been erected near the mosques, parks and throughout the city, allowing places for people to grieve. These monuments also provide an opportunity for the community to offer its support to Christchurch’s small Muslim population.

Dozens of notes and flowers have been placed next to a tree a block from the Masjid Al Noor mosque, where at least 41 people were killed.

One note was accompanied by 50 red paper hearts reading, “We wish we knew your name to write upon your heart. We wished we knew your favourite song, what makes you smile, what makes you cry. We made a heart for you. 50 hearts for 50 lives. Rest in peace. William, Rosa, and Tommy.”

Kindness toward community

The words of kindness expressed in the note reflect the overall sentiment of Christchurch, and New Zealand overall, toward its Muslim population and immigrants, says Megan Van Tongerer, who was born and reared here.

She was working at a restaurant just a few kilometers from the Masjid Al Noor mosque on the day of the attack.

She told VOA that as police and other emergency vehicles raced down Bealey Avenue outside the establishment, she felt “on edge” as the horrific details emerged of the attack.

Van Tongerer and other servers at the restaurant couldn’t explain why, but the establishment became busier than it had in months in the wake of the shooting.

It was then that some people started “sharing the video [of the shooting] and cracking jokes.”

Van Tongerer said that management moved quickly to end that activity. “That’s not the kind of place we are. We didn’t want that here,” she said.

She also noted that several other customers voiced objections to people sharing the alleged attacker’s video.

“They aren’t representative of the larger community,” she said, “They’re a small part.”

Van Tongerer is unsure how the city will move forward and heal following the attack, but is adamant that it must. “If we don’t, we’re lost,” she adds.

Since Friday, more than $3.6 million, from nearly 70,000 donations, has been raised for victims of the shootings, according to Givealittle, an online donations site.

Disbelief

Maryam Allayar said she was in shock after the attack. She came to New Zealand three years ago as a refugee from Afghanistan and had always felt safe in her adopted home country.

“This always happened in Afghanistan,” she said, “So when I heard [about the attack], I was really shocked and I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it happened to me in New Zealand.”

Allayar, a university student, knew some of the victims, including the husband and son of a fellow classmate, and others from the school she attends.

For the past three days, she said she has been “very scared,” fearing other attacks would occur.

Allayar expressed relief, however, at the outpouring of support from the residents in Christchurch, saying she was happy that so many people are being kind.

Ann Mintram, 80, expressed similar thoughts following church services Sunday.

“Well there’s only one way to overcome it (the shooting), and that’s with love,” she told Reuters, “But at the moment, I’m feeling too numb to even feel love.”

Over the weekend, Australian Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Muslim community leaders, “This is not New Zealand. The only part of the incident and actions that we have seen over the past 24, 36 hours that is New Zealand is the support that you are seeing now. Nothing that led up to it is who we are or who this city is.”

“We need to keep having a conversation around how we ensure your ongoing safety in the aftermath of this horrific attack,” she added.

“We cannot be deterred from the work that we need to do on our gun laws in New Zealand. They need to change, regardless of what activity may or may not have happened with gun retailers. They will change,” Ardern said Sunday.

Christchurch resident Philip Smith visited one of the memorials Sunday. Speaking to Reuters news, he called Friday’s shooting “unbelievably sad.”

It’s “going to take a long time to get over this,” he added.

Not far from Masjid Al Noor mosque, a man who didn’t want to give his name said he also, was still in shock and, similar to Allayar, never thought it would happen “in a place like New Zealand.”

“The world needs more love,” he said, “It doesn’t matter what color skin you have or what religion you are. … We all bleed the same.”

Life resumes

Despite the tragedy, life in Christchurch continues. People resumed the workweek began on Monday. The City Council, however, warned of inevitable disruptions as the investigation continues.

“Please be prepared for delays when traveling in and around the city today. The key areas where you are likely to encounter delays are around Hospital Corner, Linwood/Eastgate and Deans Avenue. These delays are unavoidable so please be patient and courteous,” the council warned.

In Hagley Park, residents rode their bikes, jogged and walked their dogs — all just a few hundred meters from where one of New Zealand’s deadliest peacetime shootings took place.


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New Zealand to Begin Releasing Remains of Mosque Shooting Victims

New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush said Sunday that the body of “at least one victim” of Friday’s mass shooting at two mosques will be given to family members Sunday night.

Chief Coroner Deborah Marshall said her office is “working as quickly as possible” to make sure the office returns the right body to the right family. “There could be nothing worse,” she said than delivering the wrong body to a family.

Police Deputy Commissioner Wally Haumaha said Sunday that his office has met with leaders of the Muslim community to help them understand the lengthy autopsy process necessary for a criminal investigation, because it is traditional in Islam to bury a body within 24 hours after death.

The government hopes to return all victims’ bodies to their families by Wednesday. A preliminary list of victims has been released to families, police said.

​Manifesto sent minutes before attacks

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Sunday that she was one of more than 30 recipients of a 74-page white nationalist manifesto emailed by shooting suspect Brenton Tarrant nine minutes before his terrorist attacks on two New Zealand mosques. He denounced Muslims and called immigrants “invaders” in the manifesto.

She said that it was emailed to her office and that she did not “directly receive it” and the document did not give a location for the attacks.

Ardern said 28-year-old Tarrant, an Australian citizen and self-proclaimed white nationalist who has been charged with murder in connection with the shootings “will certainly face the justice system of New Zealand.”

Earlier Ardern called the mass shooting “an extraordinary act of violence.” She said the shooter had five guns, two of them semi-automatic. All the weapons were legally obtained.

The prime minister asserted several times during a Sunday afternoon press conference that “There will be changes to our gun laws.”

​Death toll at 50

The death toll in the mass shooting at two New Zealand mosques Friday has risen to 50 after emergency workers found another body at Al Noor mosqueas they removed the victims. Forty-two people were killed at Al Noor, seven at Linwood mosque and one person died later at a hospital.

Ardern said 34 people remain hospitalized after being wounded in the shooting. Twelve of those people are in critical condition.

Tarrant, the suspect, was led by two armed guards into a Christchurch court Saturday where a judge read one charge of murder to him. He wore prison robes and handcuffs and did not speak.

Reporters in the courtroom said the suspect smiled during his appearance. A photo shows him holding his left hand in an upside-down “OK” symbol, a gesture used by white supremacist groups.

After the suspect left the court, the judge said that while “there is one charge of murder brought at the moment, it is reasonable to assume that there will be others.”

Tarrant has not yet entered a plea. His next court appearance is set for April 5.

Others face weapons charges

Three other people, a woman and two men, were also detained in connection with the shootings. The woman has been released without charge. A man in the car with the woman received firearms charges and he will appear in court Monday.

An 18-year-old man also has a court date Monday for possessing a firearm. He is not connected to the couple.

Police officials say they do not believe the men were linked to the shootings.

Ardern said Saturday that Tarrant’s onslaught was cut short when he was apprehended.

“It was his intention to continue his attack,” the prime minister said.

​Flowers, mementos, money

Residents of Christchurch have been bringing flowers and other mementos to a makeshift memorial, and an online fund for the victims gathered $684,000 in a single day.

The victims of Friday’s shooting included immigrants from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Mass shootings and violent crime are rare in New Zealand, a country of nearly 5 million people. Until Friday, the country’s worst mass shooting was in 1990, when a lone gunman killed 13 people in the small town of Aramoana.


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