Top Asian News 4:28 a.m. GMT
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealanders celebrated Christmas on Saturday in the warmth of mid-summer with few restrictions, in one of the few countries in the world largely untouched by the omicron variant of COVID-19. Ninety-five percent of adults in New Zealand have had at least one dose of the vaccine, making it one of the world’s most vaccinated populations. The only omicron cases that have been found in New Zealand have been safely contained at the border. As COVID-19 spread around the world the past two years, New Zealand used its isolation to its advantage. Border controls kept the worst of the virus at bay and by Christmas this year, New Zealand had recorded 50 deaths in a population of 5.5 million.
DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — A massive fire swept through a crowded river ferry in Bangladesh early Friday, leaving at least 39 people dead and 70 injured, officials said. Many passengers leapt from the vessel into cold waters to escape the blaze. It took 15 fire engines two hours to control the fire and another eight to cool down the vessel, according to fire officer Kamal Uddin Bhuiyan, who led the rescue operation. Afterward, the blackened hull of the ferry sat anchored at the river’s edge. Many anxious relatives gathered on the banks, while divers continued to search the waters. The blaze broke out around 3 a.m.
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Friday he will pardon his chief conservative rival and predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who is serving a lengthy prison term for bribery and other crimes. Moon’s liberal government said the pardon is meant to promote national unity in the face of difficulties brought by the pandemic. Some observers say Moon may want to ease conservative criticism stemming from Park’s health problems, or even use her to split the opposition ahead of a presidential election in March. “We should move into a new era by getting over the pains of the past.
HONG KONG (AP) — Universities in Hong Kong are removing memorials to the bloody suppression of the 1989 Chinese pro-democracy movement centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The Chinese University of Hong Kong early Friday took down the “Goddess of Democracy,” a statue based on a figure created by art students and brought to the square shortly before the crackdown in which hundreds, if not thousands, of people were killed. The removal of the monuments testifies to the ruling Communist Party’s efforts to erase the bloody events from the public consciousness. It also comes as the party snuffs out democratic challenges in Hong Kong to its rule.
TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s Cabinet approved a record 5.4 trillion yen ($47 billion) defense budget for fiscal 2022 on Friday that includes funding for research and development of a new fighter jet and other “game-changing” weapons as Japan bolsters its defense capabilities in response to China’s growing military might and its tensions with Taiwan. The 1.1% budget increase for the year beginning in April is the 10th consecutive defense spending increase and is in line with Japan’s pledge to the United States to strengthen its own defense capabilities to tackle increasingly challenging security issues in the region. The budget, which still needs to be approved by parliament, includes a record 291 billion yen ($2.55 billion) for defense research and development, up 38% from the current year.
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — A policeman opened fire on a group of fellow officers in Sri Lanka, killing three of them and wounding three others, police said Saturday. The shooting occurred Friday night inside a police station in the small town of Thirukkovil in eastern Sri Lanka, a police statement said. The town is located in the island’s former war zone, which has been largely peaceful since the civil war ended in 2009. The town is about 336 kilometers (208 miles) east of the capital Colombo. The officer in charge of the police station was among the wounded who were rushed to a hospital.
SYDNEY (AP) — Australia’s most populous state recorded more than 6,000 new COVID-19 cases for the first time Saturday, adding a somber note to Christmas celebrations. New South Wales reported 6,288 new infections over the past 24 hours, an increase of 676 cases from the previous day and by far the highest number of cases in any Australian state since the pandemic began. The number of COVID-19 patients in the state rose by six to 388, and 52 people were in intensive care. There was some good news: No deaths were reported and the number of people who have received at least one vaccine dose reached 95%.
TOKYO (AP) — Japan announced Friday it won’t send a delegation of ministers to represent the government at the Beijing Games but three Olympic officials will attend, a decision that follows a U.S.-led move to diplomatically boycott the Games to protest China’s human rights conditions. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said at a regular news conference that “we have no plans to send a government delegation.” He said Tokyo Olympic organizing committee president Seiko Hashimoto, Japanese Olympic Committee president Yasuhiro Yamashita and Japan Paralympic Committee president Kazuyuki Mori will attend. Matsuno said the three officials will attend at the invitation of the International Olympic and Paralympic Committees to represent the JOC and JPC.
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden signed a bill into law Thursday to block imports from China’s Xinjiang region unless businesses can prove the items were made without forced labor, the latest in a series of intensifying U.S. penalties against the Asian power for alleged abuses. The measure had to overcome some initial hesitation from the White House, as well as corporate opposition, to win final passage last week in the Senate, following earlier House passage. Biden also signed a separate bill Thursday funding research into a cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease. “Today, I signed the bipartisan Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act,” Biden said on Twitter, along with a photo of him as he signed the legislative text at his desk in the Oval Office.