Endangered monarch butterflies face perilous storm

As devastating storms pounded California, nature lovers feared for endangered monarch butterflies that winter there as part of a seemingly magical migration pattern.

The colorfully winged insects that travel vast distances over the course of generations have been closely watched in the US state since they neared extinction just three years ago.

As the sun rose one January morning, volunteers began counting monarch butterflies, finding them clustered atop cypress and eucalyptus trees in various sites along the California coast.

The butterflies huddled in clusters of gray colonies until one spread its wings to reveal the orange spots for which they are known.

The sight provided a bit of reassurance for Stephanie Turcotte Edenholm, who counted more than a thousand monarchs at a sanctuary in the California coastal town of Pacific Grove.

The educator spent much of the morning explaining the lives of the butterflies to young school students. They got to watch as dozens of butterflies took flight, believing — mistakenly — that the mild temperature signaled the end of winter.

“It’s too early for them to get so agitated, they’re using up their fat reserves,” Edenholm fretted.

She worried, too, that they would mate and the females would fly off in search of milkweed plants to lay eggs on. Milkweed is all that baby caterpillars eat once the eggs hatch, but it was too early in winter for the plants to be growing.

Volunteers counted more than 330,000 “western monarch” butterflies at the end of November, according to the Xerces Society conservation group.

Pesticides and climate change

That number came as a relief compared to the 2,000 butterflies counted at the end of 2020, and an encouraging step up from the 250,000 or so butterflies tallied in 2021.

But the ranks of butterflies were far from the millions observed in the 1980s, due to threats including habitat loss, pesticides and climate change, according to Xerces.

The monarch was added last year to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species and Xerces has asked the US Fish and Wildlife Service to place monarchs on its endangered list.

Such a designation would help monarch defenders fight real estate developers out to raze trees or build on terrain needed by migrating butterflies.

The question of whether to protect monarchs is a philosophical one, since the insects are known more for incredible migrations than being crucial for pollinating crops or flowers, according to Xerces biologist Emma Pelton.

“We wouldn’t lose human crops or wild plants in particular if the monarchs disappeared,” Pelton said.

But the world would lose butterflies “that perform a really incredible migration, and that people are very attached to, emotionally and culturally, throughout North America.”

Some species of monarchs travel thousands of miles, from Canada to Mexico, while the lifespan of any single butterfly is typically measured in weeks.

‘Magical’

Bill Henry remembers a childhood here filled with butterflies.

“It was kind of a magical thing to be immersed in the abundance of the natural world,” said Henry, now director of Groundswell Coastal Ecology group in Santa Cruz, not far from Pacific Grove.

“It paints a picture, it’s something that dreams are made out of.”

Flourishing monarchs are also a sign of enough milkweed and habitat along the long migration corridor, Henry said.

“Milkweed is linked to healthy landscapes, and it’s linked to healthy floodplains, which means that our rivers are doing well,” he told AFP.

“It also means that there aren’t a lot of impasses to their migration, such as swaths where the pesticides that kill them are being used.”

In 2020, the near absence of monarchs on the west Coast was a rallying cry for nature lovers, from gardeners who planted milkweed to hobbyists who raised butterflies in their homes despite the practice being illegal due.

But finding the right balance to protect nature has challenges. For example, monarchs love water-guzzling eucalyptus trees that are not native to drought-prone California.

Clearing vegetation or trees to reduce the risk of wildfires can eliminate butterfly habitats.

Monarchs being gone from our world would “suck too much,” said Santa Cruz teenager Brody Robbins, who skipped school to photograph butterflies “way cooler than Civil War classes.”

Source: Thai Public Broadcasting Service

Myanmar migrants face being exploited under Thai deportation system

Burmese political activists Cherry and Min Thura were walking to a cafe in the Thai border city of Mae Sot when they were stopped by the police.

What happened next was the beginning of a nightmare that has haunted thousands of migrants fleeing Myanmar since the February 2021 coup that toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government.

With no official documentation, they were arrested, setting in motion a chain of events and spiraling fines, which many say are bribes, to stay in Thailand.

“We just apologized and asked them to release us. But they didn’t accept that, they just wanted to send us to Myanmar or pay (the money),” former political prisoner Cherry, 27, told Radio Free Asia.

For three days, she and her boyfriend Min Thura, 26, frantically contacted their families and friends from prison cells in Mae Sot to pay the 10,000 baht (about U.S.$300) “fee” to gain their release. Both said those are not their real names because of their status in Thailand.

Their story is not unique. Naing Aung Aung, the head of the Mae Sot migrant advocacy group Arakan Workers’ Organization, pointed out that up to 75% of cases will end in deportation and the threat of imprisonment and torture.

“For migrant workers, the police department is like hell. They can’t ask for help from them because most of the police are just asking for money,” he said.

Patrick Phongsathorn, a senior advocacy specialist at Fortify Rights, an NGO specializing in Myanmar, went even further. “In all of the cases where refugees have been arrested and that we have spoken to, they have been asked for bribes – it’s very common,” he said.

Thailand to investigate

Fortify Rights reported on Thursday that the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand will investigate the Thai government’s treatment of Myanmar refugees after the group shared evidence of potential violations. They included “forced returns, arbitrary arrests, detention and extortion by Thai authorities.”

In response, RFA phoned the Thai police seeking a comment on claims of extortion. But at the time of publication there was no reply.

In an earlier Associated Press report on April 20, 2022, Thai Foreign Affairs spokesperson Tanee Sangrat said the government “categorically denied” the existence of any extortion or bribery.

Still, the cost of staying in the country comes at a heavy price and a permanent state of “legal limbo.” At the crux of the problem are “police cards” or unofficial documents allowing Burmese migrant workers to avoid arrest or deportation.

They are purchased monthly through middlemen or brokers and can now cost 300-350 baht (around U.S.$9-11), according to the Arakan Workers’ Organization. Yet buying a “police card” is still not a guarantee of not being randomly arrested on the streets or deported, Cherry and Min Thura said.

“I thought they wouldn’t arrest us if we (had a) police card. But in reality, it cannot protect us from arrest. There are no human rights for a human being, for a Burmese, and for an illegal resident. We are refugees,” said Min Thura, which is not his real name because of his status in Thailand, which hasn’t ratified the UN Refugee Convention and doesn’t officially recognize refugees.

Numbers climbing

Since the military seized power in Myanmar, advocacy group the Foundation for Education and Development has reported that arrests of Burmese migrants have at least doubled with deportations also on the rise. The Thai NGO recorded 1,400 migrants and 181 arrests in 2022.

Yet the group’s spokesman Min Oo said those figures only scratch the surface. “There are a lot of unknown cases that are beyond us, [those] that we can’t reach,” he added.

“A recent report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that between 2,000 to 5,000 people a month returned to Myanmar in 2022. Most of them were deported. For those forced into exile, the risks loom large over their lives. “

Chairman of the Migrant Workers Rights Network Aung Kyaw told RFA that the number of people crossing into Thailand has increased from 100 per day in 2020 to 2,000 per day in 2022. Thai authorities reported that 60,000 migrants were arrested last year, including up to 45,000 that fled Myanmar.

Before fleeing to Thailand, Cherry spent seven months in prison for her role in the protest movement that swept across the war-torn country. Her boyfriend Min Thura also lives in fear after being stopped five times by the Thai police. On each occasion, he paid a few thousand baht to avoid arrest and deportation.

“We are in a life-threatening situation there (in Myanmar). That is why I paid [the police] the money,” he explained.

As for the Burmese authorities, they tend to target those involved with the Civil Disobedience Movement, in which government workers have walked off the job in protest of the military coup, or other resistance groups.

High-profile detainees in Thailand have reportedly paid as much as 50,000 baht (U.S.$1,520) to stop being deported. Those that have been taken back to the border face a much riskier option by paying Burmese guards at the checkpoints 500,000 kyat (U.S.$240) to be released.

Increasingly unable to help

The Arakan Workers’ Organization said humanitarian groups have become increasingly sidelined from the deportation process. Previously, they met monthly with immigration officials and provided humanitarian aid and welfare checks. But for the last two years, the Thai government has reportedly been cooperating with the Myanmar junta in coordinating deportations.

“When NGOs can’t get involved anymore, the only people who suffer are the migrant workers,” said Naing Aung Aung of AWO. “Even [before the coup], there were so many people whose families did not know they had been arrested. But we were able to share information. Now, we can’t do that anymore.”

In response, RFA emailed the Thailand Immigration Bureau seeking a comment. But at the time of publication there was no reply.

For Cherry and Min Thura, such help would have been a welcome relief in contacting their parents as they languished in prison. For each phone call, the Thai police charged them 300 baht (U.S.$9).

“As you know, I don’t have a family here,” Min Thura said. “We all arrive alone and no one can help in this kind of situation.”

Radio Free Asia Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036

Nine missing after fishing boat capsizes in South Korea

Rescue workers were searching by sea and air for nine people missing after a fishing boat capsized in waters off South Korea’s southwestern coast, authorities said Sunday.

The 24-tonne vessel overturned in waters off the coast of Sinan county late Saturday night, according to the interior ministry.

Three crew members were rescued by a nearby boat, but nine others — including two foreigners — remained missing, the ministry added in a statement.

More than a dozen vessels and three aircraft from the coastguard and the navy had been deployed to search for the missing people, it said.

Most of the crew are believed to have left the capsized boat, Yonhap news agency reported, citing Interior Minister Lee Sang-min.

President Yoon Suk-yeol urged maximum efforts for the rescue operation, ordering the mobilisation of “all available resources” to widen the search area, his office said.

Source: Thai Public Broadcasting Service

ASEAN sets up interim RCEP bureau

ASEAN has decided to establish an interim bureau to oversee the implementation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

According to a press statement, issued by Indonesia, the decision came during the ASEAN Coordinating Council meeting and ASEAN foreign ministers’ retreat in Jakarta on Friday and Saturday. The council meeting touched on the whole gamut of ASEAN-related issues.

The interim secretariat will be established as a special unit in the ASEAN headquarters in Jakarta. It is hoped that it will gradually transition into a standalone RCEP Secretariat, with the aims of strengthening regional supply chains and contributing to the ASEAN economic integration agenda.

For the time being, the grouping has been unable to reach a consensus because there are quite a few members that want to host the RCEP permanent office, according to an informed diplomatic source. Cambodia has clearly expressed its desire to do so.

The RCEP is currently the world’s largest free trade agreement, which came into force in January last year. It has 15 members, comprising the ASEAN-10, Japan, China, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. India opted out at the last minute in 2019.

Trade among ASEAN members and with the RCEP dialogue partners has increased many fold since the agreement came into force, due to the lower tariffs and improved market access.

Source: Thai Public Broadcasting Service