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Tentative truce shows China’s influence – and its limits – in Myanmar

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Bangkok/Taipei – China has emerged as the dominant foreign power in terms of shaping possible outcomes in Myanmar’s spiralling political crisis as Beijing seeks to exert its influence over several armed groups who have staged the biggest challenge to the generals since they seized power in the February 2021 coup.

Beijing last week pushed the three powerful ethnic armies – the Arakan Army (AA), the Mandarin-speaking Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) – to agree to a truce after fighters working with anti-coup coalitions across Myanmar pushed Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s military out of swathes of the north, overran hundreds of military outposts and seized control of border crossings with China under Operation 1027.

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China’s ceasefire announcement followed talks in its southwestern city of Kunming between the State Administration Council (SAC), as Myanmar’s coup leaders call themselves, and the Three Brotherhood Alliance, the coalition of the AA, MNDAA and TNLA, which is driving the 1027 offensive.

“China supports the peace process of northern Myanmar and has provided support and facilitation for dialogue and contact between relevant parties in Myanmar,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said in a statement on December 14, confirming that “a temporary ceasefire” had been reached.

Beijing’s prominent involvement in the truce and its armed support for both ethnic armies and the SAC makes China by far the most influential foreign actor in the turmoil in Myanmar, a strategic location where big powers have long jostled for influence and whose generals are also deepening ties with Russia.

The SAC Foreign Minister Than Swe was in Beijing at the beginning of December.

“The truce followed the junta foreign minister’s visit to Beijing where he pleaded for China’s assistance, and a flurry of Chinese government interactions with the MNDAA and its allies,” said Jason Tower, Myanmar country director at the United States Institute of Peace.

Patronage networks

The ceasefire also came days after Beijing issued arrest warrants for 10 partners and cronies of Myanmar’s military, including members of the five powerful families who collectively ruled Kokang, bordering China’s Yunnan Province. The most notable target was Bai Suocheng, a key ally of Min Aung Hlaing, an indication of the complex layers of connections and patronage between China, Myanmar’s ethnic minorities in the borderlands and the generals.

“China is really pi**ed off with the regime for the scam centres and related crime. Myanmar became synonymous with scams in China,” a source close to the Chinese government told Al Jazeera.

“The SAC underestimated how enraged Beijing is with the waves of Chinese nationals caught in the border,” the source added.

While Operation 1027 represents the most serious challenge to military rule since Min Aung Hlaing’s coup, it has taken place amid a surge in drug and human trafficking in lawless border areas, which has been felt elsewhere in the region.

Since the coup, and with Myanmar increasingly isolated by international sanctions and excluded by many of its traditional partners in Southeast Asia, the generals have moved closer to Beijing, which has snubbed the National Unity Government (NUG) – a parallel administration established by elected lawmakers, primarily from the National League for Democracy, who were removed in the coup. The NUG established the People’s Defence Forces (PDFs), armed groups made up of civilians opposed to the coup and training and fighting alongside ethnic armed organisations.

All eyes are now on the MNDAA, the de facto leader of the 1027 offensive. It was founded by Peng Jiasheng, the strongman who ruled Kokang before being overthrown by Min Aung Hlaing and Bai Suocheng in 2009 and who died last year.

Tower said the offensive’s apparent breakthrough and the unprecedented level of cooperation across Myanmar’s resistance forces, including fighters from Myanmar’s dominant ethnic Bamar, was likely to make it “extremely problematic” for the group to agree to any kind of pact with the military leadership.

“Ethnic armies in northern Shan State, including the MNDAA, have relied heavily on people’s resistance forces across Shan and central Myanmar’s Mandalay, to achieve this battlefield success,” he said. “As such, any deal with the junta will result in major costs for the MNDAA in terms of its relationships and commitments to its partners.”

PDFs in Mandalay have taken a direct part in the offensive, holding and cutting off trade routes to deny the SAC the ability to resupply itself and provide logistical support against the MNDAA, which has trained an entire brigade of non-Chinese-speaking troops.

Beijing’s dramatic turn against members of the so-called “four families” – the Bai, Wei and two Liu families – in Kokang came after they were allowed to control the region with China’s blessings for more than a decade. The Ming family rose to prominence more recently.

Pro-China news website HK01 said the families collectively “formed industrial chains of pornography, gambling, drugs, and fraud”.

“Whether the black industries of several major families that have been entrenched in Kokang for many years can be eradicated amidst China’s vigorous crackdown on electronic fraud crimes and the war in northern Myanmar has become a major focus of attention from the outside world,” said HK01, which is owned by a China-linked investment firm.

In recent weeks China has drastically changed its narrative on the Kokang leaders. By December, the five families were being chastised publicly and placed under arrest. Ming Xue-chang, the leader of the Ming family who has been accused of leading a cybercrime syndicate, reportedly died by suicide last month while in detention.

Yangon-based Chinese-language magazine Golden Phoenix, a staunch mouthpiece of China, has echoed the change in narrative, running the headline, “Is the annihilation of the four big families imminent?”

“China is fully capable of vetoing any action taken by the MNDAA. The Tatmadaw knows this,” said a Chinese academic in Yangon who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter. The Myanmar military is sometimes known as the Tatmadaw.

“In May this year, then-Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang visited Myanmar. At that time, outside observers thought China had chosen to completely side with SAC. In fact, China was putting pressure on the SAC,” they told Al Jazeera.

The source in Beijing said that now that the scam centres and criminals were largely dealt with, China’s priority would be border stability and that Beijing had not warmed up to the NUG, despite having previously developed a solid relationship with overthrown civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Fighting continues

The question is whether Beijing – which provides arms to the ethnic armies – will be able to effectively end the hostilities when resistance forces across Myanmar continue to fight, believing they have the momentum to make further gains.

Days after the ceasefire was signed, the TNLA said it had taken control of the town of Namhsan in northern Shan state as well as the so-called 105-Mile Trade Zone, a key trading area on Shan state’s border with China.

Security expert Anthony Davis pointed out that China’s role in logistical support reaching the ethnic armies, while largely indirect, was significant.

“The most important layer of plausible deniability centres on the role of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which is entirely equipped with modern weaponry and equipment produced in China and at the same time, operates as an ally of, and quartermaster for, several northern ethnic factions, not least the Brotherhood Alliance,” Davis told Al Jazeera.

The UWSA – a formidable Chinese-speaking micro-state – has been providing support to the MNDAA in the recent offensive, including by hosting refugees fleeing the fighting.

“Given its powerful influence over the UWSA, China could undoubtedly affect a major reduction in munitions reaching northern groups if it wanted to. Clearly, it is not interested in taking steps to do that,” Davis said.

The NUG, meanwhile, says it is time for Beijing to recognise the damage being caused by the military and support a path towards democracy.

“The longer the generals stay in power, the greater they pose a serious threat to China because the SAC has repeatedly proven itself to be the source of all crimes in Myanmar,” the NUG’s International Cooperation Minister Dr Sasa told Al Jazeera in an interview.

“It is time for China to embrace the will of Myanmar’s people and support their sole representatives – the NUG – to end these threats and build a federal democracy which will provide peace, stability and prosperity for China, Myanmar and the region.”

Source: Al Jazeera

France passes tough immigration bill amid Macron party rebellion

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The French parliament has passed by a wide margin an immigration bill backed by President Emmanuel Macron after a rebellion within his party over the toughened-up legislation that had secured the endorsement of the far right.

The bill had been significantly toughened since it was first introduced, with some on the left of Macron’s governing Renaissance party accusing his government of caving to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (RN) in an attempt to secure support.

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France has always welcomed and will continue to welcome foreigners, in particular asylum seekers and students, Macron said Wednesday in his first interview after the reform was voted into law.

The president said he does not agree with all elements of the new law but that it was the necessary result of a compromise.

“Political life consists of crises, of agreements and of disagreements,” said Macron, reassuring his citizenry that he has “not betrayed voters who rallied behind me to stop the far right.”

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, an ambitious 41-year-old who has spearheaded the legislation, expressed relief that the votes of his coalition and conservatives were enough to get the bill through parliament.

Some 349 members voted in favour with 186 against. The upper house had passed the legislation already.

“Today, strict measures are necessary,” Darmanin said afterwards. “It’s not by holding your nose in central Paris that you can fix the problems of the French in the rest of the country.”

An earlier version of the bill was voted down without even being debated in the National Assembly, in a major blow to Macron.

Pressure from the right saw the government agree to water down regulations on residency permits while delaying migrants’ access to welfare benefits – including for children and housing – by several years.

The amendments also introduce migration quotas, make it harder for migrants’ children to become French, and say that dual nationals sentenced for serious crimes against the police could be stripped of their French nationality.

Le Pen had said the RN would endorse the amended legislation – prompting embarrassment among more left-wing members of Macron’s party who find it unpalatable to vote in unison with the far right.

In the end, 20 members of Renaissance voted against the bill, 17 abstained and 131 voted in favour.

After the vote, Le Pen claimed an “ideological victory”.

The French have long prided themselves on having one of the most generous welfare systems in the world, granting payments even to foreign residents, helping them pay rent or care for their children with means-tested monthly contributions of up to a few hundred euros.

The far right and, more recently, conservatives, have argued these should be reserved for French people only.

Macron had made the migration bill a key plank of his second mandate and might have had to shelve it without the compromise.

Dozens of NGOs condemned the legislation before the vote.

It is “the most regressive bill of the past 40 years for the rights and living conditions of foreigners, including those who have long been in France”, about 50 groups, including the French Human Rights League, said in a joint statement.

“With this text directly inspired by RN pamphlets against immigration, we are facing a shift in the history of the republic and its fundamental values,” said French Communist Party leader Fabien Roussel.

Source: News Agencies

Analysis: Election ‘win’ for Serbia’s Vucic might yet backfire

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For 48 hours from Sunday night, the victory of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic was total, overwhelming, sweeping, crushing. His ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) had on its own secured a majority in the National Assembly with twice as many votes and seats as their closest opponent. It also swept the regional and municipal elections, winning councils in 165 cities and towns, including the capital, Belgrade. All other parties together claimed just nine cities and towns.

Vucic had won his second five-year term in 2022 by thrashing his closest competitor by 41 percentage points. As Sunday’s landslide was confirmed, the 53-year-old uncontested ruler of Serbia joined his ecstatic ministers, parliamentarians and supporters at party headquarters to claim the ultimate political achievement — dominating and winning elections in which he did not even run.

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Initially, just one little speck of dust smudged his party’s accomplishment. Although the strongest party in municipal elections in the capital, the SNS ended up short of an outright majority.

Still, its leaders were confident that with their political experience and control of money, public contracts, lucrative jobs and board memberships in public companies, they would overcome that hindrance. They would need to persuade only six first-time councillors from a newly created movement led by a 69-year-old retired doctor to lend them support. In their 10 years in power, the Progressives have learned how to satisfy the human desires of people they need.

So they boasted, gloated, denigrated and belittled their opponents and teased and mocked their humiliated erstwhile coalition partners.

Reduced to half his Socialist Party’s (SPS) previous strength, Ivica Dacic, leader of the SNS’s almost-guaranteed coalition partner, was close to tears and almost offered to resign. Almost, because admitting failure in Serbia is a sign of weakness.

Serbia Against Violence (SPN), the hotchpotch main opposition group, was convinced that its appeal to modern, sophisticated, urban and educated voters would at least secure it the crown jewel, the city of Belgrade. But seemingly paralysed by the shock of the results, opposition leaders took almost three hours to muster the courage to face the cameras, stuttering incoherently, devoid of any idea of what to do next.

Opposition supporters, who actively campaigned on social media networks, reacted furiously, openly venting their anger at such passivity and demanding their leaders get their act together and fight back against alleged electoral fraud.

Many posted firsthand accounts, videos and photos of apparent irregularities, especially in Belgrade. Videos showed “voters” being bussed in from ethnic Serb-controlled parts of neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina with new identity cards in hand but unable to find their polling stations in the city blocks where they purported to reside. Clips exposed scores of Bosnian-registered minivans converging onto the biggest sports hall in the city. Sensing that the human cargo was in town to vote for the SNS, activists demanded an explanation from the arena management, only to be told that they were extras for a film.

Still, the SPN only regained its composure on Monday. Even before the final count put the Progressives less that 30,000 votes ahead of the SPN in the capital, the opposition had charged that 40,000 ballots were fraudulent. The implication was clear: It believed that without the irregular votes, the SPN would have taken Belgrade. On Monday evening, opposition supporters took to the streets.

Nearly 10,000 protesters blocked the Electoral Commission, finally energising their leaders to take the lead and demand an annulment of the elections and a new vote for the capital.

Vucic and his party remained invisible and silent. Their likely calculation: The media they tightly control, especially national TV stations and a posse of newspapers and portals, all owned by media tycoons who depend on the president for their wealth – and often freedom – would not report on the protests. Invisible to most citizens, the protests would neither grow nor spread and a combination of freezing December temperatures, the holiday season and frustration at fruitless waiting would make them fade away just like many times in the past.

That plan might have worked but for two foreigners who within 48 hours of the Progressives’ victory parade showered it with freezing rain.

First, Stefan Schennach, a member of the Austrian Parliament and the head of the Council of Europe’s election observers, addressed the cameras. Not mincing his words, he said it had not been a fair election: “The victory in Belgrade was stolen from the opposition.” A report by observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) followed, spelling out several irregularities.

The next strike to Vucic’s hopes came from across the Atlantic. On Tuesday, United States Department of State spokesman Matthew Miller asked Serbia to investigate the irregularities, urging it to “work with the OSCE to address these concerns that have been raised”.

Meanwhile, the only international leaders to congratulate Vucic on his party’s victory were fellow strongmen: Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Azerbaijan’s Ilhan Aliyev. Even the Serbian president’s nominal allies whom he often proudly claims as personal friends, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, had lower-ranking officials send the congratulations.

The writing on the wall is clear: Whatever wider geopolitical importance Serbia might have, this time the world is unlikely to allow Vucic to trade that for manipulating democracy. The democratic world wants Belgrade to elect its City Council honestly and transparently.

Vucic might yet have celebrated too soon.

Source: Al Jazeera

US charges alleged Hezbollah member over 1994 Buenos Aires bombing

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The United States has charged an alleged Hezbollah member, Samuel Salman El Reda, with giving material support to a “terrorist group”, accusing him of providing assistance for a 1994 bombing in Argentina.

Federal prosecutors announced charges against the 58-year-old on Wednesday, linking El Reda to the truck bombing of the AMIA Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people.

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“This indictment serves as a message to those who engage in acts of terror: that the Justice Department’s memory is long, and we will not relent in our efforts to bring them to justice,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen of the US Department of Justice’s National Security Division said in a press release.

The US has long characterised the 1994 bombing as an example of the far reach of the Iran-backed group Hezbollah, which at the time of the bombing was locked in a deadly battle with Israeli forces occupying southern Lebanon.

Iran and Hezbollah denied responsibility for the attack, which sent shockwaves through the city’s Jewish community. Small commemorative tiles with the names of those killed can still be seen on sidewalks around Buenos Aires.

US authorities said El Reda, a dual Lebanese-Colombian citizen, has helped coordinate the activities of Hezbollah’s Islamic Jihad Organization in South America, Asia and Lebanon since at least 1993.

The statement from the Justice Department said El Reda is based in Lebanon and “remains at large”. The US Department of State sanctioned him in 2019 and offered $7m for information regarding his whereabouts.

The bombing remains a source of controversy in Argentina, where former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has been accused of working to shield the perpetrators of the attack through a joint investigation with Iran, which helped found and nurture Hezbollah.

Argentina has also accused Hezbollah of carrying out a 1992 attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29 people. The country froze Hezbollah’s assets and branded it a “terrorist organisation” in 2019.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

Reclaiming Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan style

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Sudhir Kothari, 36, a financial analyst and adviser based in the southern Indian city of Chennai, has ordered a special five-kilogramme (11-pound) choco-truffle cake, garlands and booked dhol (drum) players. The T-shirts, badges and wristbands that he had ordered arrived in time and Rohini Silver Screens theatre has allowed him to erect a 7.4-metre (25-foot) cutout of Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan for the special 9am “First Day, First Show” of Dunki, Khan’s new film that releases worldwide on Thursday.

A diehard “SKRian”, as Khan’s fans call themselves, Kothari told Al Jazeera that in 2013, three to four days after “SRK sir started following me, I turned my personal Twitter account into a fan club.” Today his handle, SRKChennaiFC, has 167,600 followers.

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Kothari, who prefers the appellation “The Only Fan SRK Follows” to his own name, and has written a book of the same title, was busy until late Wednesday evening overseeing the arrangements at the theatre, booked for SRK fans after submitting a support letter from SRK’s production team. After garlanding and pouring milk over Khan’s cutout, they will light fireworks and dance.

Inside the 550-seater theatre, too, they will dance, cut the cake and post videos on their handles with rapturous adjectives and hashtags like #DunkiReview, meant to tickle the interest of prospective ticket buyers.

In all likelihood, Khan, who has 43.9 million followers on X and follows 74 people, of whom five are fan accounts, will acknowledge the celebration videos with a sweet thanks and #Dunki.

Yash Paryani, the admin of SRK Universe, Khan’s biggest fan club which has 3.2 million followers on Facebook, tweeted that for December 21, fans are organising “1,000+ first day, first shows in 65 countries”.

Rishil Jogani, who said he is part of “a small group of admins of Khan’s fan clubs that takes some big decisions”, told Al Jazeera that “these numbers are not 100 percent accurate,” but fans and fan clubs post them because “euphoria is very contagious. There is FOMO [fear of missing out] and it motivates people to book tickets.”

All the fans Al Jazeera spoke with said that they “don’t get a penny” or any free tickets, and they do all this out of their love for Khan, hoping for one end result: “For SRK films to do wonders and for him to be happy”.

Dunki, unlike Khan’s two multi-star, action-packed hits released earlier this year, is riding mostly on Khan’s shoulders and will test his box-office clout. To prepare for that, he has spent months marketing it in a way that resembles the election campaign style of India’s governing right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, the very party he has had several run-ins with in the past. But it is not clear if all this effort will pay off this time.

Hopes for a hat-trick

This year has been a very happy one for Khan, 58, who returned to theatre screens after a four-year hiatus, a string of flops and a massive personal setback.

His two films — Pathaan, which was released in January this year, and, Jawan [Soldier], in September — were blockbuster hits, and have made it to the top 10 highest-grossing Indian films ever. With Dunki, industry insiders said, Khan is hoping to score a hat-trick.

The year of Khan’s last box-office hit, 2015, was also the year when he called out rising religious intolerance in the country, ruffling the feathers of the governing right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A concerted backlash followed, his films were trolled and threatened with calls for boycott, and it seemed that he had lost his box-office mojo after three flops and two that did middling business.

In 2021, during the pandemic, his then-24-year-old son Aryan Khan was arrested, along with seven others, in an alleged drug bust on board a cruise ship off the Mumbai coast. The young Khan was charged with possession, consumption and sale of illegal substances and had to spend about three weeks in jail. Seven months later, all the charges were dropped.

Khan has always been outspoken and does not scare easily. He once reportedly told off a Mumbai mafia boss who was pressuring him to act in a film, “Shoot me if you want to, but I won’t work for you. I am a Pathaan,” referring to the proud, warrior clan that he is a descendent of.

His public appearances always sparkled with his signature repartee. Well-read and sharp, he gave candid interviews and would appear regularly on reality and comedy TV shows, especially while promoting his films.

But after his son was arrested and attempts were allegedly made to extort money from Khan, he went quiet and retreated from public view. He made no statement on his son’s arrest and the allegations against him, and stopped meeting the press or making appearances on TV shows.

The only connection he continued to maintain was with his fans, online and offline and today it is one of the biggest and most active fan communities of a Bollywood star.

When Pathaan was released in January, Khan’s fans across the world bought 50,000 tickets for the first day, first show, said Paryani. For Jawan, they beat their own record and bought 85,000 tickets.

With a total gross earning of 21 billion rupees ($253m) at the box office, Khan is now being credited for reviving Bollywood, which had been struggling for a hit for the last few years.

“There’s a well thought out strategy behind what we have seen — Shah Rukh Khan as a phenomenon in 2023,” Girish Johar, producer and film business expert, told Al Jazeera. “The films were positioned, marketed and released in such a manner that his fan base, box-office numbers and his craze increases day by day, with every film,” he said.

Pathaan, a multi-star film with big Bollywood stars like Deepika Padukone, John Abraham and Salman Khan, was released on India’s Republic Day weekend in three languages on a large number of screens domestically and overseas.

Jawan, by Atlee, a leading Tamil director, had some big southern Indian stars who have a massive fan following in India and abroad.

“Hindi films used to clock [250 million to 300 million rupees; $3m-3.6m] in the south. Jawan was the first Bollywood film which has done [700 million to 800 million rupees; $8.4m-9.6m] business in the south,” Johar said.

Khan’s fans are upbeat about Dunki, whose title refers to the “donkey route” used to smuggle people from the subcontinent to Europe. “The film’s content will speak for itself,” they say and are focused on ensuring that the film, made on less than one-third of Jawan’s budget, beats it at the box office.

Industry insiders are sceptical that will happen because, unlike Khan’s two action films this year, Dunki is an emotional drama about illegal migration from Punjab to the United Kingdom, and in India these days, action scores over emotion.

2023: Shah Rukh Khan’s reinvention

In 2016, Khan, often called the “King of Bollywood”, ranked number-one with a brand value of $131.2m in Duff & Phelps’s celebrity valuation report. By 2022, he had dropped to the number-10 position with a value of $55.7m in 2022.

“2023 can be defined as the year of Shah Rukh Khan’s reinvention,” PR veteran and image guru Dilip Cherian said, explaining how Khan took charge of his “reinvention” by doing three things.

For one, Khan, known for playing romantic leads, focused on aligning his films with the mood of the nation by opting to play characters that were all about “heroism, machismo and nationalism”.

“Take any of the big marquee films in the last one year — all of the films have featured men with guns on posters,” said Rohini Ramnathan, a radio jockey who anchored Khan’s birthday celebrations on November 2 with fans.

The second thing that Khan did was to retain control of his brand, image and the narrative about him by “totally abandoning the mainstream media”, Cherian said. That ensured he did not have to answer any questions or lose his cool with journalists as had happened in the past and that it was all a one-way messaging push.

And third “is the surround sound that is created by his visits to religious shrines, to matches at the recently concluded Cricket World Cup, appearance at the premiere of his daughter’s film — this gives you [Khan] content to play with in the media” as videos of these outings have gone viral, and been covered by the mainstream media.

To promote Dunki, Khan, who is the brand ambassador of UAE’s Burjeel Hospital, toured Dubai recently, but has not done any event in India.

He has been regularly posting promotional material on social media, including on X where he interacts regularly with his fans through “Ask Me Anything” sessions. He mostly avoids critical questions, picking fawning or funny tweets to which he responds with jokes, compliments and virtual hugs. Occasionally, he will call out abusive ones with tongue-in-cheek responses. A lot of this banter ends up as stories on news sites.

“Replying to people one-on-one takes courage and a lot of thinking … That ownership is magical. And he’s doing this with regular frequency. That starts changing the vibe,” said Neeraj Joshi, head of marketing at Zee Studios, which produces, distributes and markets films and TV shows. “It is strategic and part of a larger game, but it is also real to a great extent,” he added.

Behind this echo chamber chatter, the on-ground and online promotion of his films that is seemingly entrusted to fans, is shrewd business planning backed by data, insight into consumer behaviour, a solid film distribution and exhibition plan by a team that includes his wife, Gauri Khan. She and Khan are directors of Red Chillies Entertainment, a production house.

Delhi-based Narrative Research Lab, which uses AI to study the impact of social media conversations, analysed 310 tweets by Khan from September 16 to November 12 at Al Jazeera’s request and found that the tweet with the highest number of likes was the one in which Khan posted a photo of Lord Ganesha with greetings on the occasion of a Hindu festival.

Last week, Khan visited two Hindu shrines and videos of both went viral on social media.

The tweet that had the second-highest engagement was when Khan thanked his fans for gathering outside his house to wish him on his birthday.

“In many ways,” said Sundeep Narwani, co-founder of Narrative Research Lab, “Shah Rukh Khan’s rebranding and film campaigns are similar to an election campaign…. They have learnt that they have to fight back.”

Khan has plotted his blockbuster return with the intensity, prudence and calculation usually seen in political comebacks. And there are several uncanny similarities between what he is doing and how the BJP conducts its election campaigns, from relying on loyalists on the ground, controlling the narrative by bypassing the mainstream media to building a personality-focused cult following.

‘Milk’ his fandom

In the last few months, there has been a surge in the number of clips of Khan on social media, especially Instagram. Together, they create a very specific image of Khan as a funny, intelligent and humble man, but with rockstar swagger.

There are clips of him being respectful to women, being a caring father and husband, regaling audiences with self-deprecating humour, sharing life lessons with university students and smiling as fans shower him with compliments and love.

What’s conspicuously missing from this curated gallery of videos are Khan’s political statements, bouts of anger at reckless selfie-seeking fans, fights with co-stars, and alleged affairs.

“It’s a very deliberate attempt to churn out content that makes him look very cult-like,” said Narwani.

Last month, to celebrate Khan’s birthday, his team booked an auditorium in Bandra, home to many top Bollywood stars in Mumbai, and invited about 300-400 members of his various fan clubs after vetting them.

The event was organised like any Bollywood entertainment gala, with an anchor, a script, and background dancers to accompany Khan on stage. He spent three to four hours entertaining them, talking to them and clicking photos. There was also cake, food and gifts.

“This time they gave backpacks,” Paryani said. Last year was smartwatches.

The backpack, with #SRKDay embossed on it, had a quote from Khan printed on it: “Never stop dreaming.”

“Shah Rukh Khan speaks to the aspirational essence that is inside every Indian,” said Kenneth Hopkins, the founder of BollyCon, a pop culture convention in Mumbai.

“Khan’s appeal lies in the story he tells — I came to Mumbai with nothing and look at me today, I own the industry … If his fans are buying into his brand and brand sentiment of aspiration, then you also have to express hubris … hubris against injustice, the system,” said Hopkins and added, “At the end of the day, Shah Rukh Khan is a baniya [an Indian trading community] … I don’t mean to be offensive, but he will see how to milk that … [for] conversion into ticket sales.”

While Pathaan was an overly patriotic film, Jawan was political and personal, with Khan playing a double role of a father and son.

When the film’s trailer was released, all attention was on one dialogue that was akin to the emotion famously expressed by Liam Neeson in the 2008 film, Taken: “Bete pe jane se pehle baap se baat kar [Talk to me before you touch my son].”

“What happened to his family was so, so brutal. And all of us just wanted him to win … His winning was like a personal triumph for everybody. It felt like the world is alright,” Ramnathan said.

If Dunki breaks box-office records, it’ll be a happy end to a good year for Bollywood, courtesy Khan. It it doesn’t, it won’t matter much because for Khan a battle had been fought and won.

From disapproval to admiration

Dunki is set in the north Indian state of Punjab where many homes have overhead water tanks shaped like planes, American milk trucks, or even the Statue of Liberty. They signify where a family member has migrated to.

In the film, made by Rajkumar Hirani, one of India’s leading directors, Khan plays the lead character, Hardy, who takes his four friends to London through the illegal and treacherous “donkey route”. Indians make up the world’s biggest diaspora population of about 17.9 million and the film’s theme appeals to Indians at home and abroad.

Hirani is considered infallible at the box office and has his own fan following. But Dunki’s advantage and disadvantage is Hirani.

In 2014, Hirani directed PK, starring Aamir Khan as an alien who lands in India and begins to question the blind faith and devotion to religious gurus. The film has remained one of the highest-grossing films, but is dredged up again and again by right-wing trolls to label him as anti-national and call for a boycott of his films.

In 2019, Hirani was accused by a woman who had worked with him of sexual assault and abuse over a six-month period. Hirani denied the allegations, but the woman stands by her account. Dunki is his first film since then.

The sexual harassment case against Hirani has not interested the right wing because several BJP leaders have been accused of similar abuse. But every few days there’s a call on X to boycott Hirani and Dunki over PK.

According to Narrative Lab’s analysis, on November 2, when Khan tweeted the first promotional video of Dunki, he tagged Hirani. About 7 percent of the comments the tweet received were negative.

Khan tweeted four more promotional videos over 10 days, but did not tag or mention Hirani.

“The disapproval that we had seen in comments around the November 2 tweet disappeared by the fifth tweet,” Narwani said.

Al Jazeera reached out to Red Chillies to ask if online interaction between Khan and Hirani was being avoided to minimise any negative chatter. They declined to answer.

“The right wing needs some rationale, some story for a boycott call to stick. And Shah Rukh Khan, by not talking, is not giving them anything,” Narwani said.

Source: Al Jazeera

Venezeula, US reach prisoner swap deal as tensions ease

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The United States and Venezuela have reached a deal to swap 10 American prisoners for a jailed ally of President Nicolas Maduro, the latest sign of improving relations between Washington and Caracas.

The White House said on Wednesday that the deal secured the release of 10 US citizens from Venezuela, including six people who it said had been wrongfully detained.

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As part of the agreement, US President Joe Biden granted clemency to Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman and Maduro ally who was being held in a Miami jail awaiting trial on a charge of money laundering.

Saab was released from custody and returned to Venezuela on Wednesday, the Venezuelan government said.

US prosecutors have accused Saab of siphoning off $350m from Venezuela via the US in a scheme that involved bribing Venezuelan government officials. He has denied the charge.

“The government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela celebrates with joy the liberation and return to his homeland of our diplomat Alex Saab, who until today was unjustly kidnapped in a U.S. jail,” the Venezuelan government said in a statement.

Reporting from Bogota, Colombia, Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti said Saab was seen as being “very close” to the Venezuelan leader.

“Alex Saab is a Colombian entrepreneur, a very close ally for Nicolas Maduro, a person who is seen here as a bag man for the Venezuelan regime,” Rampietti said.

The White House said Venezuela had also agreed to release at least 20 Venezuelan prisoners, including “political detainees”.

The prisoner swap talks were facilitated by Qatar, the White House said. Qatar’s chief negotiator met Maduro last week.

Six Venezuelan activists have already been freed, according to their lawyer and the wife of one of them. The longtime education campaigners were convicted on conspiracy charges this year and sentenced to 16 years but have proclaimed their innocence.

As part of the deal, all six Americans who were classified by the US as wrongfully detained in Venezuela were released, US officials told the Reuters news agency.

Venezuela also returned to the US fugitive Malaysian businessman Leonard Glenn Francis, known as “Fat Leonard”, who is implicated in a US navy bribery case, the officials said.

The White House has said in recent weeks that it expected to see progress on prisoner releases if it were to continue with sanctions relief for Caracas. The sanctions relief was unveiled in October in response to an agreement by the Venezuelan government to hold fair elections in 2024.

While relations between the US and Venezuela remain uneasy, the two nations have taken steps to ease tensions in recent months.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

Russia-Ukraine war: List of key events, day 665

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Here is the situation on Wednesday, December 20, 2023.

Fighting

Ukraine’s military said Russia launched its fifth air attack this month on the capital, with air defence systems destroying all weapons on their approach to Kyiv. “According to preliminary information, there were no casualties or destruction in the capital,” Serhiy Popko, the head of Kyiv’s military administration, said on the Telegram messaging app.Russia’s Defence Ministry said it brought down a Ukrainian drone near the capital that led to restrictions on flights at Moscow’s main airports. No casualties were reported.Ukraine said its military was holding the line in the eastern Kharkiv region, despite being outgunned by Russian forces trying to take control of the town of Kupiansk. “The situation is complicated. We have to fight in conditions of superiority of the enemy both in weapons and in the number of personnel,” said Oleksandr Syrsky, the head of Ukraine’s ground forces. Russia’s Defence Ministry said it had repelled eight Ukrainian attacks around Kupiansk with artillery.

Politics and diplomacy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the military had asked for the mobilisation of 500,000 more people in the fight to remove Russian forces from its territory and urged the United States and Kyiv’s other Western allies to maintain their support for his country. He said he also hoped prisoner swaps, which he said had been delayed as a result of unspecified “reasons” on the Russian side, would soon resume. The last exchange took place in early August.Russian President Vladimir Putin told defence and military chiefs that Moscow had the momentum in its war in Ukraine and was well-positioned to reach its goals, claiming that attempts to defeat it had failed. Putin also said Moscow was upgrading its nuclear arsenal and maintaining the military at its highest level of readiness.Italy’s cabinet passed a decree allowing it to supply “means, materials and equipment” to Ukraine in its fight against Russia until the end of 2024. Supplies will include not only weapons but also power generators and “everything needed to support military operations in defence of unarmed civilians”, a Defence Ministry statement said.Volker Turk, the United Nations’s human rights chief, said there were indications Russia had committed war crimes in Ukraine, including 142 cases of “summary executions” of civilians as well we enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment such as sexual violence against detainees.A court in Poland convicted 14 citizens of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine for being part of a spy ring preparing acts of sabotage on behalf of Moscow. They were given jail terms ranging from 13 months to six years.A former Russian soldier sought asylum in the Netherlands and said he wanted to testify at the International Criminal Court (ICC) about Russian war crimes he witnessed while fighting in Ukraine. A Dutch legal source told the Reuters news agency the man had been a member of Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and had also worked as an instructor for the Wagner mercenary group there.Chuck Schumer, the majority leader in the US Senate, said the upper house aimed to pass an agreement to provide additional aid to Ukraine and bolster US border security as soon as it returns to Washington, DC in January after the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Weapons

Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, said that since the country began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it had increased production of tanks by 5.6 times, drones by 16.8 times and artillery shells by 17.5 times. Speaking during Putin’s meeting with military chiefs, Shoigu said Russian forces had also laid 7,000sq km (2,703 square miles) of minefields in Ukraine – some of them as much as 600 metres (1,969 feet) wide – along with 1.5 million anti-tank barriers and 2,000km (1,243 miles) of anti-tank ditches.Zelenskyy said Ukraine planned to manufacture some 1 million drones next year for use on the battlefield. Ukraine and Russia use drones to scope out enemy positions, drop explosives and launch attacks on the enemy.The US charged Hossein Hatefi Ardakani, an Iranian, and Gary Lam, a Chinese national, with allegedly supplying dual-use US-manufactured microelectronics to Iran’s drone programme. “These very components have been found in use by Iran’s allies in current conflicts, including in Ukraine,” special agent Michael Krol said. Both men remain at large.The US Treasury Department, meanwhile, announced that it was imposing sanctions on a network of 10 Ardakani-linked entities as well as four individuals based in Iran, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Indonesia, for circumventing export bans to procure US components for Iranian-made attack drones.

 

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

‘Remove him’: Sudan army chief al-Burhan faces calls to go after RSF gains

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The paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has captured Sudan’s second-largest city, just a day after the army and its supporters prematurely celebrated repelling an attack.

As army soldiers retreated from Wad Madani – once a hub for hundreds of thousands of displaced people – they left civilians behind. The army has released a rare statement acknowledging that its troops withdrew too quickly and promising an investigation, yet their supporters are calling for accountability.

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“On Sunday we actually celebrated with the rest of Wad Madani,” said Noon Arbab*, a young woman now searching for a way out of the city with her family. “Now I think it was all a big lie.”

“I think we should throw the army’s entire leadership away,” she added.

Countless civilians like Arbab are calling for army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan to step down in the hope that a new leader can thwart the RSF’s advances.

Al-Burhan’s subordinates are also furious with the way he is fighting the war, according to sources close to security forces. But experts warn that a change of guard could lead to a power struggle – or vacuum – fracturing the Sudanese army.

“Despite the position that al-Burhan finds himself in, I think if he leaves – however that happens – it will leave an indelible mark on the Sudanese army,” said Kholood Khair, an expert on Sudan and founding director of the think tank Confluence Advisory.

Losing legitimacy

Since the RSF captured Wad Madani, many of the army’s supporters have taken to social media to call on generals to replace al-Burhan. The sentiment is widely shared among civilians who are terrified that the RSF could attack their towns and cities next.

The RSF tends to loot homes, markets and banks in every city it conquers, as well as subject women to sexual violence.

“All of the citizens want the removal of al-Burhan. He is the reason for all of the cities and provinces falling to the RSF,” said Yousif Ibrahim*. “I still don’t understand why the army just left Wad Madani. Wad Madani is where so many displaced people from Khartoum sought refuge.”

Hamid Khalafallah, a Sudanese analyst and PhD candidate at the University of Manchester, where he researches democratic transitions in Africa, said most of the army’s traditional supporters feel betrayed.

He added that his father had fled Wad Madani on Sunday, but soldiers told him to return after claiming that they defeated the RSF. The next day, his father fled again when the RSF stormed the city.

“Military troops in [nearby towns] were advising people to go back … what the military has done has led to a feeling of betrayal,” Khalafallah told Al Jazeera. “People [in this region] won’t support the RSF, but they feel lost. They don’t know who to turn to now.”

Coup d’etat? 

One week before Wad Madani fell to the RSF, a former army officer told Al Jazeera that most generals view al-Burhan as a weak leader. But he stressed that nobody was going to topple him to preserve a strong chain of command for the duration of the war.

“As soon as the war ends, Burhan is gone,” the former officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, told Al Jazeera.

Al-Burhan may be more vulnerable after the fall of Wad Madani, according to two Sudanese journalists who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.

“There has been some movement in the army, but nobody knows what exactly is going on,” one journalist, who has close contacts in security services, told Al Jazeera.

Another Sudanese journalist said army generals have not removed him because they cannot agree on who should replace him.

“They need someone with experience, charisma, and [who is] not tainted. Getting those three in one is hard,” the journalist told Al Jazeera.

Desperate attempt? 

Over the course of the war, al-Burhan has tried to brand himself as Sudan’s de facto head of state, with some success. As a result, experts say that any attempt to remove him could hurt the army’s political leverage over the RSF, which most Arab and Western states still widely view as an irregular militia.

“Even if [generals] managed to avoid a split in the army, any leadership change risks rocking the army’s foreign relations at a very delicate time or looking like an act of desperation,” said Alan Boswell, an expert on the Horn of Africa for International Crisis Group, a non-profit dedicated to ending and preventing conflict worldwide.

Khair, from Confluence Advisory, adds that al-Burhan remains the perfect scapegoat for an army on the cusp of losing complete control of Sudan.

“Al-Burhan has a lot of the public ire … and frankly there is a lot more public ire to come if things keep going the way they are going for the [military].”

Khair also said that generals loyal to former President Omar al-Bashir, and who are members of the Islamic movement in Sudan, may topple al-Burhan if the RSF conquers cities such as Atbara and Shendi.

Both River Nile cities are home to military and political elites who have ruled Sudan since it acquired independence in 1956.

“Al-Burhan is the perfect fall guy … but now is not the time to get rid of him,” Khair told Al Jazeera. “Army officers may wait until the RSF takes a place like Shendi and sacrifice him then.”

“My sense is that his days are numbered.”

* Some names have been changed to protect individuals from reprisal.

Source: Al Jazeera

Ireland to launch legal action against UK over Troubles amnesty law

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Ireland says it will mount a legal challenge against the United Kingdom over a new law that gives some immunity from prosecution for offences committed during three decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

Irish Deputy Prime Minister Micheal Martin said on Wednesday that “after much thought and careful consideration”, his government is launching a legal challenge against the Legacy and Reconciliation Bill, which critics say shuts down access to justice for victims and survivors.

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The law, passed in September, stops most prosecutions for alleged killings by armed groups and British soldiers during the Troubles, the three decades of violence in which more than 3,500 people died.

Many groups on the island of Ireland are vehemently opposed to the new law, including victims’ families, human rights organisations and all major political parties.

Martin said Britain had not properly engaged with people affected by the law before passing it.

“The British government enacted this legislation on September 18, 2023, shutting off any possibility of political resolution,” Martin said. “We now find ourselves in a space where our only recourse is to pursue a legal path.”

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said the case would be taken to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Ireland plans to argue that aspects of the law are incompatible with the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The United Nations and the Council of Europe have backed Ireland’s position, Varadkar said.

“It is something that we’re genuinely doing with a sense of regret and would prefer not to be in this position, but we did make a commitment to survivors in Northern Ireland and to the families of victims that we would stand by them,” he said.

The Troubles – a conflict over British rule in Northern Ireland – pitted Irish nationalist armed groups seeking a united Ireland against pro-British “loyalist” paramilitaries and the British military. It eventually came to an end in 1998 through a peace deal.

About 1,200 deaths from that time remain under investigation, according to the UK government.

Victims’ families have already been challenging the new law in the Northern Ireland courts.

Amnesty International Northern Ireland Deputy Director Grainne Teggart said the Irish government’s pushback is essential.

“The U.K. government doggedly pursued this legislation which shields perpetrators of serious human rights violations from being held accountable. It’s important that the Irish government takes this stand,” she said.

“This challenge is vital for victims here and around the world who face the prospect of similar state-gifted impunity,” Teggart said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies