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Police chief agrees to block new investigations against anticorruption agency. National Police chief Badrodin Haiti on May 4 announced that his officers must get his permission for investigating members of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). Badrodin also said he would reject requests to investigate KPK members involved in the graft case against newly confirmed deputy chief Budi Gunawan, who was originally tapped to be police chief before the KPK named him a corruption suspect. Active criminal cases against the KPK’s suspended chief, Abraham Samad, his deputy Bambang Widjojanto, and investigator Novel Baswedan will continue.
Government bans maids from work in 21 Middle Eastern countries. Indonesia’s government on May 5 announced that citizens will be prohibited from going abroad for domestic work in 21 Middle Eastern and North African countries, beginning in August. Officials cited labor and human rights violations, as well as Indonesian dignity, as reasons for the ban. Two Indonesian maids were beheaded in Saudi Arabia in April following convictions for murder. Domestic workers already in the 21 countries will be allowed to stay and renew their contracts.
Growth slows to five-year low in first quarter. Indonesia’s central statistics agency on May 5 reported that the economy grew 4.7 percent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2015—the lowest level in five years. The government had projected growth of 5.0 percent. The disappointing showing was blamed on continued weak demand from China and falling prices for Indonesian exports. The rupiah in March dropped to a 16-year low against the dollar.
Jokowi releases prisoners, lifts press restrictions in Papua. Joko “Jokowi” Widodo made his second official visit as president to the provinces of Papua and West Papua on May 9–11, during which he pardoned five Papuan prisoners and announced the lifting of restrictions on access to the provinces by foreign journalists. Indonesian security forces a week earlier made a number of arrests during a Papuan independence rally on the anniversary of the region’s annexation by Indonesia. After his visit to Papua, Jokowi traveled to neighboring Papua New Guinea, which will host a Melanesian Spearhead Group meeting on May 21 that will discuss a Papuan independence group’s bid for membership.
More executions may be forthcoming. A spokesman for the attorney general’s office, Tony Spontana, said April 30 that Indonesia is beginning to plan another round of executions of criminals, following recent executions in January and April. Both previous rounds drew international criticism and strained relations with countries whose citizens were executed, including Australia, Brazil, and the Netherlands. There are 162 people still on death row in Indonesia, including citizens of China, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom. Spontana said the date of the next executions as well as the names of those to be executed may be kept secret beforehand to minimize public outcry.
Parliament speaker Shwe Mann visits U.S. Speaker of Myanmar’s parliament Shwe Mann met with senior U.S. government officials, lawmakers, and private-sector representatives during a visit to Washington from April 30 to May 4 to discuss Myanmar’s reform process and upcoming elections in November. Shwe Mann said during a speech at a Washington think tank that he will run for president if nominated by his Union Solidarity and Development Party. Shwe Mann on May 4 met with Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who expressed concern about the proposed impact of the race and religion protection bills on Myanmar’s minority groups.
Three ethnic armed groups threaten to reject nationwide cease-fire at summit. At an ethnic summit in northern Wa State, representatives of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Arakan Army, and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army on May 4 threatened to reject a draft nationwide cease-fire agreement the government reached with a coalition of ethnic armed groups in late March. The government has refused to recognize these three groups and still engages in fighting against them. The government hopes to sign a nationwide cease-fire in May.
ConocoPhillips, Statoil sign deep-water exploration contracts. Oil companies Statoil and ConocoPhillips on April 30 signed a $300 million production-sharing contract to explore a deep-water block off the coast of western Myanmar. The block will be operated by Statoil, with each company holding a 50 percent stake. The firms, which were among a group of 19 international oil companies awarded offshore blocks in 2014, have two years to complete their research and six years to explore the deep-water block.
Myanmar businessman removed from U.S. blacklist calls for others to be delisted. Businessman Win Aung, who was recently removed from the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of Specially Designated Nationals, on April 28 urged the U.S. government to remove sanctions on other Myanmar businessmen who meet its criteria. He said doing so will allow Myanmar to do business with more U.S. companies, thereby supporting the country’s economic development. The Treasury Department cited Win Aung’s support of the reform process as the reason for his removal from the list.
U.S. envoy calls for protection of religious minorities. U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom David Saperstein on May 3 called on Myanmar’s government to increase its protection of religious minority groups. In an interview with Voice of America during his visit to Myanmar, Saperstein said that religious minorities often do not have equal rights with the Buddhist majority. Saperstein met with Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin on May 4 to discuss issues related to religious freedom in Myanmar.
South China Sea
Satellite images confirm Vietnamese reclamation at two sites. The CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative on May 7 released exclusive satellite images taken by DigitalGlobe that confirm Vietnam has carried out reclamation work at two features it occupies in the Spratly Islands: Sand Cay and West London Reef. The images show that sometime between August 2011 and February 2015 Vietnam expanded Sand Cay’s land area from about 10.3 acres to 15.6 acres. Since August 2012 it has expanded West London Reef from about 3.1 acres to 19.2 acres. China, by comparison, has reclaimed more than 220 acres at Fiery Cross Reef alone.
China says South China Sea reclamation to aid in international humanitarian efforts. Chinese navy chief Admiral Wu Shengli on May 1 told his U.S. counterpart, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, via video conference that Chinese reclamation activities in the Spratly Islands would not affect freedom of navigation or overflight in the South China Sea. Wu said China would welcome other countries to use Chinese facilities for humanitarian operations at a future date. The U.S. State Department said that while the United States supports all humanitarian efforts, it does not believe that China’s island building will contribute to peace.
Philippines says China warned off its planes at least six times. Philippine Navy Rear Admiral Alexander Lopez on May 7 told the Philippine Senate that China had recently challenged Philippine planes conducting routine patrols over the South China Sea via radio at least six times. Lopez said the Philippine aircraft were told that they were in a Chinese military security area. He also said the Philippines ignored the challenges. China’s foreign ministry responded that the warnings were within China’s rights.
Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore in talks to conduct joint patrols in southern South China Sea. Singapore Navy chief Rear-Admiral Lai Chung Han on May 8 said that Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are in talks to expand joint naval patrols in and around the Strait of Malacca to the southern region of the South China Sea. The patrols would seek to combat piracy, which has shifted to the South China Sea following the success of efforts to patrol the Strait of Malacca. Lai acknowledged that contested maritime claims further north in the South China Sea make extending the patrols more sensitive.
Japan engages in maritime engagements with Philippines, Vietnam. The Philippine Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force on May 12 engaged in joint naval training in the South China Sea that included their first-ever maritime safety exercise focused on practicing strategies under the code for unplanned encounters at sea, or CUES, which the two countries reached in January. Meanwhile the Japanese and Vietnamese coast guards collaborated during the same period on search and rescue training in waters off Vietnam.
UN warns of massive humanitarian crisis as thousands of migrants remain adrift at sea. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said May 12 that up to 7,000 migrants, mainly from Bangladesh and Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, may be drifting on rickety boats in the Andaman Sea and Malacca Strait. The migrants were abandoned by human traffickers with little food, water, or fuel after Thailand began cracking down on trafficking in camps along its border with Malaysia. One thousand migrants landed on the Malaysian island of Langkawi over the weekend and another 600 were rescued off the Indonesian coast in Aceh. In recent days, both Indonesia and Malaysia have intercepted more boats and towed them back to sea, saying they cannot handle the influx.
Authorities find two mass graves of migrant workers near southern border. Thai authorities on May 5 discovered five graves at a human trafficking camp on Thailand’s southern border, just four days after finding the remains of 26 trafficking victims, believed to be Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, at a nearby camp. Thai police have arrested a local provincial mayor and are investigating police officers for suspected involvement in trafficking. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has called for a meeting with Malaysia and Myanmar to help resolve the trafficking crisis.
Authorities launch DNA collection program to combat violence in south. Thai authorities have collected over 40,000 DNA samples from residents of the country’s southernmost provinces in an ongoing campaign to combat violent separatism, according to a May 6 New York Times article. The DNA will be used to provide evidence in any future security-related investigations. The military is attributing new tactics, including DNA collection, for the 50 percent drop in attacks since the junta took power in May 2014.
Central bank cuts interest rate in surprise move. The Bank of Thailand, in a surprise move, on April 29 dropped its benchmark interest rate by 0.25 percentage points to 1.5 percent. Thailand had lowered its benchmark rate in March 2014 by 0.25 percentage points to 1.75 percent. Analysts have attributed the recent cut to poor export figures and a slow economic recovery. The lower rate is expected to temporarily weaken the currency, boosting exports and tourist arrivals.
Credit bureau claims Thailand’s high consumer debt will not increase bad debts. Thailand’s National Credit Bureau reported that household debt stood at 85.9 percent of gross domestic product at the end of March and could reach 90 percent, according to a May 6 Nation article. But the bureau does not expect the level of bad debt in the economy to rise as a result because banks are shifting their focus to higher-income clients. Lenders have also started reviewing clients’ credit histories on a quarterly rather than an annual basis.
Thailand’s king released from hospital. Thailand’s 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, checked out of a Bangkok hospital on May 10 after an eight-month stay following the removal of his gall bladder. The widely revered monarch then made a rare appearance at Bangkok’s Grand Palace to mark the 65th anniversary of his coronation. Following the ceremony, King Bhumibol, who has struggled with ill health in recent years, left Bangkok for his coastal palace at Hua Hin to the south.
Salmon leads congressional delegation to Vietnam. Matt Salmon, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, led a congressional visit to Vietnam from May 4 to 7 to discuss remaining challenges of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and other issues critical to U.S-Vietnam relations. Salmon said during a press conference that the United States and its partners should speak with a common voice on the South China Sea, according to the Vietnamese state media. The delegation also met with human rights activists and religious leaders in Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietnam, U.S. hold human rights dialogue. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski and other U.S. officials met with Vietnamese officials in Hanoi on May 7 for the annual U.S.-Vietnam human rights dialogue. The two sides discussed a wide range of issues, including legal reforms and improving freedom of expression and religion in Vietnam. The U.S. delegation also met with prominent members of civil society ahead of the dialogue. Police reportedly detained several activists prior to the dialogue to prevent them from meeting with U.S. officials.
Kerry calls for release of Vietnamese blogger. Secretary of State John Kerry, during a speech on May 5 to commemorate World Press Freedom Day, called on Vietnam to immediately release blogger Ta Phong Tan, who is serving a 10-year sentence for reporting government corruption. Kerry’s call followed a meeting on May 1 between President Barack Obama and blogger Nguyen Van Hai, commonly known as Dieu Cay, who was released last October at the request of Washington and later deported to the United States.
Vietnam acquires land attack missiles for its submarines. Vietnam is set to operate 50 Russian-made submarine-based land attack missiles that are capable of striking the Chinese mainland as well as Chinese ports and other facilities in the South China Sea, according to an April 30 Reuters report. Vietnam expert Carl Thayer said the purchase signaled a “massive shift” in Vietnam’s deterrence tactics. The new missiles, 28 of which have been delivered over the past two years, will bolster the threat of Vietnam’s new fleet of Kilo-class submarines.
Vietnam, South Korea sign free trade agreement. The Vietnamese and South Korean governments on May 5 signed a free trade agreement that is projected to more than double bilateral trade to $70 billion by 2020. The agreement is expected to lead to a surge in Vietnam’s agricultural exports to South Korea and benefit Korean firms operating in Vietnam. South Korea is Vietnam’s largest foreign investor and played an important role in helping expand Vietnam’s high-tech exports, which were valued at over $37 billion in 2014.
Aquino visits U.S., Canada. Philippine president Benigno Aquino and Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper on May 8 launched talks to explore a bilateral free trade agreement. Harper also announced that Canada would help the Philippines strengthen its maritime security to combat terrorism. Aquino was in Canada for a three-day state visit following meetings in Chicago on May 6 with members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council.
Peace council recommends tweaks to Bangsamoro law. A five-member peace council appointed by President Benigno Aquino to review the Bangsamoro Basic Law presented its report to the president and the Philippine Senate on May 5, a week after testifying before the House of Representatives. The council found the draft law, which would implement a peace deal signed with Moro rebels in early 2013, “overwhelmingly acceptable,” but recommended some changes, especially the removal of a clause that would allow neighboring districts to join the autonomous Bangsamoro region via plebiscite at a later date. The government hopes Philippine lawmakers will pass the law before they adjourn on June 12.
MILF forces kill bomb maker Abdul Basit Usman. Military spokesperson Harold Cabunoc Jr. on May 6 confirmed that forces with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) had killed wanted terrorist Abdul Basit Usman three days earlier in a firefight in Maguindanao, southern Philippines. The Abu Sayyaf-connected bomb maker was the most-wanted terrorist in the Philippines and the subject of a large U.S. bounty. Usman survived the botched January 25 raid by police commandos in Mamasapano, which killed fellow terrorist Marwan.
Lawmakers prioritize economic legislation before end of session. Philippine House of Representatives speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. on May 3 instructed lawmakers to prioritize economic legislation, including discussions on amending the economic provisions of the Philippine constitution, before Congress adjourns on June 12. Belmonte highlighted the need to boost foreign direct investment and job growth in the Philippines. He hopes lawmakers can pass potential charter amendments in time for them to be put to voters for approval in the 2016 elections.
New election commission chairman committed to automatic voting. President Benigno Aquino on May 4 appointed lawyer Jose Andres Bautista as the new chairman of the Commission on Elections. Bautista, who will serve until February 2022, has announced plans to fully automate balloting for the 2016 national elections and plans to hold open bidding for balloting machines. The Philippine Supreme Court recently called the feasibility of fully automated voting in 2016 into question when it nullified a $7 million contract for upgrading machines that were not subject to competitive bidding.
Police arrest 59 following GST protest. More than 120 civil society groups on May 1 took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur to protest the newly implemented Goods and Services Tax (GST), which imposes a levy of 6 percent on most purchases. Police arrested 59 protesters at the end of the rally and subsequently summoned several opposition leaders and activists, including former head of the Malaysian Bar Council Ambiga Sreenevasan, to turn themselves in.
Ruling and opposition parties each win by-election by reduced margins. Candidates from both the ruling Barisan Nasional and opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalitions maintained their parliamentary seats in by-elections held on May 5 and 7. The ruling coalition held on to the seat of Jamaluddin “JJ” Jarjis, a former ambassador to the United States who died in a helicopter crash in April. The opposition’s Wan Aziah Wan Ismail won the seat vacated by her husband, jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, following his conviction for sodomy in February. However, candidates from both sides won their seats by reduced margins compared to their predecessors.
Public Accounts Committee to begin hearing on 1MDB after May 18. Malaysia’s Public Accounts Committee will begin hearings for those involved in the embattled government investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) after Parliament returns on May 18. 1MDB, whose advisory council is chaired by Prime Minister Najib Razak, has accumulated approximately $12 billion in debts, and Najib’s opponents have sought to use the fund’s financial troubles to attack him.
Anwar Ibrahim presses for top-level appeal of sodomy conviction. Jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on April 28 applied for a judicial review of his conviction for sodomy on grounds that he had received an unfair trial. Anwar was originally acquitted in 2012 but that decision was overturned in February. Anwar’s application called for the case to be reviewed under a 1995 Federal Court rule. He cited the “extraordinary swiftness and timing” of a statement from Prime Minister Najib Razak's office on the date of judgment as evidence for his appeal.
U.S. firms target over $500 million in investment in Malaysia. A delegation of top executives from 10 large U.S. companies met on May 6 with Malaysian government and business leaders in Kuala Lumpur to discuss Malaysia’s investment potential and the implications of ASEAN’s economic integration to business. The companies in the delegation, which include ACE Group, Cigna, Medtronic, and Coca-Cola, said they are considering more than $500 million in new investments in Malaysia over the next three to five years.
U.S. ambassadors to TPP member countries pen open letter to Congress. U.S. ambassadors to the 11 countries negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement with the United States on April 29 pressed members of Congress to pass Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) in an open letter to Congress in support of the TPP. The letter emphasized the importance of the TPA as a necessary first step toward completing the TPP, which the ambassadors said is necessary to promote U.S. interests in the Asia Pacific. Seven former secretaries of defense on May 7 also wrote to congressional leaders to express their support of the TPP.
Singapore, Malaysia confirm high-speed rail deal. Prime ministers Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore and Najib Razak of Malaysia on May 5 announced that plans have been confirmed to move forward with a high-speed rail link connecting the two countries. The leaders finalized the deal during an annual retreat. The new line, which will include seven stations in Malaysia and one in Singapore, will be completed after 2020 and is expected to cut travel time between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to 90 minutes.
Government shuts down website, charges editors with sedition. Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA) on May 3 suspended the operating license of news and opinion site The Real Singapore and filed sedition charges against two of its editors, Ai Takagi and Yang Kaiheng. The MDA said the two were charged with posting seditious and xenophobic articles to the site and its Facebook page. Takagi, an Australian, is believed to be the first foreigner tried for sedition in Singapore.
U.S., regional naval officers meet in Singapore. Senior officers from the U.S. Seventh Fleet and the Indonesian, Malaysian, and Singaporean navies engaged in a first-of-its-kind multilateral roundtable discussion on May 6 aboard the USS Blue Ridge, which was making a port call in Singapore. The officers discussed opportunities for increased bilateral and multilateral military cooperation aimed at increasing security in the region.
Trial of 16-year-old blogger concludes. A Singaporean court on May 12 convicted 16-year-old blogger Amos Yee, who was arrested on March 30, on charges of obscenity and hurting religious feelings. The charges stem from a YouTube video in which Yee derided recently deceased former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and Jesus Christ. Yee will be sentenced on June 2 and could face up to three years in prison.
Hun Sen says he will take over as ruling party’s president. Prime Minister Hun Sen on April 29 announced his intention to take over as president of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party if current president Chea Sim dies. Chea Sim’s health has deteriorated over the past several months, causing him to miss the party’s congress in January. In addition to chairing the CPP, Hun Sen also said that he intends to remain prime minister after the 2018 national election, which he expects the CPP to win.
Civil society criticizes draft NGO law. Representatives of nearly 270 international and domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in Cambodia said on May 4 that a draft law to regulate NGOs, if enacted, will negatively impact over 4,000 development projects and result in the loss of a million Cambodian jobs. The draft legislation requires NGOs to register with the government and submit regular financial and operations reports to authorities. Government spokesman Phay Siphan said that the law will encourage transparency in NGOs, many of which have hidden agendas.
Opposition lawmakers resummoned over 2013 anti-government protests. Authorities on May 7 summoned seven opposition lawmakers to appear in court in the coming weeks for their alleged roles in inciting antigovernment protests following the 2013 general elections. The summons followed Prime Minister Hun Sen’s leaked text message to opposition leader Sam Rainsy, in which he threatened to fire Rainsy’s deputy, Kem Sokha, and investigate opposition members who routinely “insult” the leadership of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Rainsy has asked his party to refrain from using insulting or threatening language.
Villagers protest land clearing by Vietnamese, Taiwanese developers. More than 300 villagers in northern Cambodia’s Preah Vihear Province on May 4 formed a human wall to prevent Vietnamese developer Thy Nga and Taiwanese firm PNT from clearing land that the villagers claim is legally theirs. The villagers have on numerous occasions asked the government to revoke the licenses of these developers, but Rovieng district governor E Sarou has said that the request to revoke the licenses is not feasible at this time.
U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom criticizes Southeast Asian countries. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on April 30 cited problems of repression in a handful of countries in Southeast Asia in its annual report. The commission criticized Myanmar for allowing communal violence against Muslim Rohingya, Indonesia for permitting the expansion of shari’a law in Aceh Province, and Malaysia for using its Sedition Act to arrest both religious and political dissenters. It also criticized Laos for abuses against Christians and Vietnam for restricting various religious practices. The commission recommended that Myanmar be kept on the list of Countries of Particular Concern, and that Vietnam be added to the list.
EU interested in maritime security cooperation with ASEAN. European officials attending the May 5 ASEAN–EU High-Level Dialogue on Maritime Security Cooperation expressed an interest in joining with ASEAN to enhance security in the South China Sea. Though the sea has been a source of territorial disputes, the cooperation would focus entirely on non-national interests like combatting piracy, maintaining port security, and enhancing maritime situational awareness.
Ministers asked to achieve 95 percent implementation of AEC roadmap by year’s end. ASEAN leaders, following the April 26–27 ASEAN Summit in Malaysia, tasked their economic ministers with completing 95 percent of all high-priority measures outlined in the ASEAN Economic Community Roadmap by the close of 2015. Thus far 90.5 percent, or 458 out of 506 high-priority measures, have been implemented across all 10 ASEAN nations. Measures include tariff elimination, unifying technical standards, and cutting down on red tape. The ASEAN Economic Community is scheduled to come into effect on December 31.
Southeast Asian financial markets sputter. Stock markets across Southeast Asia are off to a notably poor start in 2015, especially Indonesia’s, which has fallen 1.5 percent, making it one of the few in the world to post a loss this year. Thailand and Malaysia have made only small gains. Only the Philippines has bucked the regional trend, with the Manila stock market growing 8.1 percent. By contrast, Shanghai’s market has grown 27 percent in 2015.
Australia agrees to return documents. Timor-Leste’s government released a statement on May 3 saying that Australia had agreed to return sensitive documents it seized in a 2013 police raid on the office of Timor-Leste’s Australia-based legal adviser. The documents purportedly show that Australia bugged the office of then-prime minister Mari Alkatiri during 2004 negotiations over maritime boundaries in the Timor Sea. Timor-Leste now says Australia has been intentionally uncooperative during talks to renegotiate that boundary and is pursuing a case against Canberra at the International Court of Justice.
Laos records $640 million trade deficit in first six months. Laos recorded $1.8 billion in exports and $2.43 billion in imports during the first six months of the 2014–2015 fiscal year, resulting in a trade deficit of $640 million, according to statistics released by the Ministry of Industry and Commerce. Minerals, electricity, garments, and agricultural and timber products were Laos’s top export earners, the majority of which were sent to neighboring China, Thailand, and Vietnam. Fuel, vehicles, construction equipment, textiles, and machinery were among the country’s top imports.
ADB approves $24 million loan for infrastructure. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) in late April approved $24 million in loans for a development project to improve roads and infrastructure in the Huay Xai District of northwestern Bokeo Province. The project includes a river port upgrade, a 17-acre public park, and the construction of a road linking Huay Xai to Chiang Rai Province in Thailand across the Mekong River. The Lao government will contribute $1 million to the project.
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