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U.S. federal court summons Thein Sein over treatment of Rohingya. A U.S. federal court on October 1 summoned President Thein Sein and several of his cabinet ministers over alleged human rights violations against the disenfranchised Muslim Rohingya. The summons was prompted by a lawsuit filed by a coalition of 19 Muslim-American organizations on behalf of three Rohingya who claimed to have experienced discrimination, torture, and displacement under the current government. The U.S. embassy in Yangon on October 7 clarified that the court summons is unrelated to U.S. foreign policy toward Myanmar. Presidential spokesperson Ye Htut said the government will not respond to the lawsuit.
Ma Ba Tha monks stage rally to endorse race and religion protection laws. Thousands of monks from the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, known as Ma Ba Tha, on October 4 staged a rally in Yangon to celebrate the enactment of four race and religion protection laws, which critics say risk marginalizing ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar. The celebrations, held during the election campaign period, raised concerns about Ma Ba Tha’s expanding political role. Hardline Buddhist monk and de facto Ma Ba Tha leader Wirathu has openly endorsed President Thein Sein’s government for the November elections.
Top peace negotiator accuses China of meddling in cease-fire talks. Senior official at the Myanmar Peace Center Min Zaw Oo on October 9 accused China’s special envoy for Asian affairs, Sun Guoxiang, of meddling in the government’s cease-fire talks with ethnic armed groups. According to Min Zaw Oo, Sun discouraged two large groups located on the China-Myanmar border, the United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Organization, from signing a nationwide cease-fire deal with Naypyidaw. Sun reportedly told other groups not to join the deal unless Naypyidaw invites the Kokang army, which has been battling government troops in northern Shan State purportedly with help from Chinese actors, into the peace process.
Workers go on hunger strike to protest wage cuts. Twenty factory workers on October 5 began a hunger strike, while more than 1,000 continue to demand reinstatement of their bonus payments, which were cut following the implementation of the first national minimum wage on September 1. The new minimum wage stands at $2.70, or 3,600 kyat, per day. Factories fired more than 1,000 workers shortly after the new minimum wage went into effect and rehired half of them under a different contract with new probationary periods, effectively cutting their wages.
Military clashes with KIA after some ethnic groups refuse to sign cease-fire. Fighting broke out between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Hpakant township in northern Kachin State on October 7, after the KIA announced it would not sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement with the government. The military on October 6 attacked the headquarters of the Shan State Army-North in neighboring Shan State, another rebel group that has opted not to sign the cease-fire. President Thein Sein’s government previously assured ethnic rebels that the military would not assault them for refusing to sign the agreement.
U.S. and Philippines conduct annual amphibious landing exercise. U.S. and Philippine Marines conducted their annual amphibious landing exercise from October 1 to 9. The exercise, whose different components took place in the provinces of Palawan, Zambales, Tarlac, and Cavite, aims to improve the interoperability between the two forces in bilateral maritime operations amid rising tensions in the South China Sea. At the opening ceremony on October 1, Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy, who commands the U.S. 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, said the United States will respond “within a matter of hours” if Philippine sovereignty is challenged.
Philippines sets 70 percent emissions reduction goal. The Philippines on October 1 committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 70 percent in 15 years. The Intended Nationally Determined Contribution document, which was submitted to the United Nations ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December, outlines Manila’s plans to reduce emissions from the energy, transport, waste, forestry, and industry sectors. The pledge is conditional, however, on receiving technical and financial assistance from other countries. The Philippines is one of the countries most vulnerable to natural disaster threats arising from climate change.
Robredo, Marcos Jr. join the 2016 vice presidential race. Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, a representative from Camarines Sur, and Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, both announced their candidacies for the 2016 vice presidential race on October 5. President Benigno Aquino’s Liberal Party has pursued Robredo as a running mate for its presidential candidate, Mar Roxas, after Senator Grace Poe rebuffed the party’s offer to launch her own presidential campaign. In the Philippines, vice presidents are elected independently of presidents.
Vice President Binay faces new plunder charges in Makati City. Vice President Jejomar Binay faces fresh accusations of graft over transactions he approved during his tenure as mayor of Makati City. The charges, filed on October 6 by former vice mayor Ernesto Mercado before the Office of the Ombudsman, are the fifth in a series of corruption allegations against Binay. The accusations come as Binay’s presidential campaign for the 2016 elections intensifies, pitting him against self-declared anti-corruption champion Senator Grace Poe.
Kidnapped tourists on Samal Island surface in terrorist video. Three foreign tourists and a Filipino woman who were kidnapped on Samal Island near Davao city last month appeared in a video posted to You Tube by their kidnappers on October 12. The three tourists—two Canadians and a Norwegian—appeared held at gunpoint by masked men and asked their governments to convince the Philippine government to stop military operations in the southern Philippines. It is unclear whether the kidnappers belong to the Abu Sayyaf group, a terrorist group notorious for its kidnapping-for-ransom practice. The gunmen in the video displayed flags of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Vietnam, U.S. hold sixth defense dialogue; pledge cooperation in defense industry, war legacies. Vietnamese and U.S. defense officials held the 6th annual Defense Policy Dialogue in Washington, DC, from September 29 to October 2. The two sides agreed to step up bilateral cooperation in maritime security, the defense industry, and war legacy issues. The high-ranking Vietnamese delegation, led by Deputy Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Nguyen Chi Vinh, was the largest delegation to the defense dialogue to date. The United States and Vietnam are expected to forge closer security ties in light of China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the South China Sea.
Central committee holds 12th plenum, discusses personnel preparations for party congress. The central committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam held its 12th plenum in Hanoi from October 5 to 11 to prepare for the upcoming Party congress in early 2016. The central committee discussed social and economic development plans for 2016, and held its first round of voting on a list of proposed personnel for the body’s next five-year term. During his closing remarks, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong hailed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and called for “thorough and proper awareness” about policies that Vietnam will need to implement once the pact is in place.
Indian stealth frigate makes port visit at Danang. The Indian naval ship Sahyadri on October 2 arrived at the port of Danang in central Vietnam for a four-day visit. India and Vietnam have stepped up defense cooperation and joint training as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Look East policy and as Vietnam seeks to counter growing Chinese aggressiveness in the South China Sea. Indian warships visited the port of Hai Phong in northern Vietnam during their long-range deployments to the South China Sea last year.
Vietnamese chicken farmers to file anti-dumping lawsuit against U.S. companies. Vietnamese chicken farmers are set to file an anti-dumping lawsuit against U.S. chicken producers next month, according to an October 6 Bloomberg News report. Vietnam’s Southeastern Livestock Association has sought to have tariffs imposed on the low-priced, dark-meat chicken imported from the United Sates. Vietnam’s General Department of Customs in September publicized data showing there was no dumping of U.S. chicken in the Vietnamese market. The lawsuit follows the completion of negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, of which Vietnam and the United States are members.
Police seize over illegal 500 weapons purportedly from Indonesia. Police in the southern province of Binh Duong on October 6 seized more than 500 guns and 11 pounds of ammunition from a smuggler. Police later detained the owner of the guns, who said he acquired the weapons in Indonesia and was planning to resell them. Authorities are investigating the case.
U.S., Malaysia step up fight against ISIS during Deputy Prime Minister Zahid’s visit to U.S. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi on October 6 met with Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, and officials with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency in Washington to advance U.S.-Malaysia cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Zahid and Kerry announced that Malaysia will set up a Regional Digital Counter-Messaging Communications Center in Kuala Lumpur with U.S. assistance. The center will take the fight against ISIS propaganda to cyberspace. The two countries also signed a mutual border-screening agreement that will pave the way for Malaysia to qualify for the U.S. visa waiver program.
Diplomatic spat with China over Chinese ambassador’s comments on race worsens. Chinese ambassador to Malaysia Huang Huikang on September 25 said during a visit to Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur that China opposes any form of racial discrimination and will not tolerate violations of the legal rights of ethnic Chinese. Huang’s remarks, made before a planned pro-Malay rally, sparked concerns about China’s interference in Malaysia’s internal affairs. The ambassador did not respond to a request by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to clarify his comments. The Chinese foreign ministry denied charges of interference, but called on Malaysia to maintain ethnic harmony.
Red Shirt Rally spokesman possibly facing sedition charges. Authorities on September 25 detained Jamal Yunos, a member of the ruling United Malays National Organization and spokesman for the September 16 pro-Malay Red Shirt Rally. Jamal was arrested after he warned the government that Petaling Street in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown could see a riot if no action is taken against ethnic Chinese merchants selling counterfeit goods. Jamal was released the next day and faces possible sedition charges.
State rulers press for speedy investigation into Najib and 1MDB. The sultans and governors of 13 Malaysian states on October 6 called for a quick and transparent investigation into the scandal-ridden sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), pressing for an inquiry into Prime Minister Najib Razak’s role in the scandal. A number of senior leaders in the ruling United Malays National Organization—including former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and ousted deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin—held a press conference on October 12 demanding resolution of the 1MDB scandal and condemning the Najib government for cracking down on dissent.
Police investigate two foreign firms involved in forest fires. Police on October 4 said they were investigating two foreign firms—one of which is Chinese-owned and the other Australian-owned—suspected of being involved in haze-causing forest fires in Central and West Kalimantan provinces. Authorities said that more than 100 million acres of land have been burned by forest fires, and police have launched 238 investigations, 47 of which involve corporations in the palm oil or pulp and paper industry. Indonesia recently accepted assistance from a dozen countries to fight forest fires, after having historically rebuffed any offers of help.
Jokowi announces more stimulus packages; government clamps down on critics of president’s economic policies. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on September 29 and October 7 rolled out two new economic policy packages aimed at revitalizing the slowing economy and boosting foreign investment. Among the stimulus measures are price cuts on electricity and gas for companies, lower interest rates on loans for small businesses, tax incentives for exporters to deposit foreign currency earnings domestically, and looser regulations on commercial land permits. The government threatened to impose sanctions on JP Morgan for releasing a report on August 20 advising investors to decrease their exposure to government bonds.
Indonesia Air Asia to merge with sister carrier; missing Aviastar plane found in Sulawesi. The Ministry of Transportation’s director-general for air transportation, Suprasetyo, on October 1 confirmed that low-cost carrier Indonesia Air Asia will likely merge with another AirAsia subsidiary, Indonesia AirAsia X, if it fails to reverse its negative equity by the end of September 2016. Rescuers on October 6 recovered all 10 bodies and both black boxes from the site of a crashed Aviastar plane in Luwu Regency in South Sulawesi Province, after the plane lost contact with air traffic controllers and was declared missing on October 5.
New timber certification policy draws criticisms. The Trade Ministry’s director for agricultural and forestry exports, Nurlaila Nur Mohammad, said on October 5 that the ministry will simplify procedures for ironwood exports and relax certification requirements on 15 downstream timber products, including furniture. Environmental groups say such policies will result in rampant illegal logging. The European Union, which imports nearly 40 percent of Indonesia’s timber exports, expressed concerns that relaxed regulations can lead to deteriorated forestry governance.
Malaysia and Indonesia form palm oil council. Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Rizal Ramli said on October 3 that Indonesia and Malaysia, who together account for 85 percent of global palm oil production, have agreed to establish a Council of Palm Oil Producer Countries. The council will be tasked with coordinating palm oil production, managing stocks, and stabilizing palm oil prices. Rizal also said that a special economic zone to refine crude palm oil will be created in Indonesia. Both governments hope to attract investment in the zone.
Lawmakers say they will revise law on the Corruption Eradication Commission. Indonesian lawmakers, led by President Joko Widodo's own party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), on October 8 said they will forge ahead with revising the 2002 law on the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) so that the lifespan of the KPK would be limited to 12 years from the date the law is passed. The proposed bill also prevents the KPK from wiretapping without court approval and permits the agency to investigate only cases involving at least $3.7 million worth of state funds. PDI-P’s attempts to cripple the respected anti-graft agency have dented the president’s clean governance agenda.
Government appoints new reform council and new panel to draft constitution. The government on October 6 appointed 21 members to the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) to write a second draft constitution, and 64 members to a new reform council, called the Reform Steering Council. The Reform Steering Council succeeded the National Reform Council, which was dissolved after it voted to reject the first draft constitution on September 7. The appointments were somewhat controversial, as 40 members of the Reform Steering Council also sat on the last reform body. The CDC plans to submit a draft constitution to the public by April 2016.
Deputy Prime Minister Somkid announces pumping $4 billion into rural areas. Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak said the government plans to roll out nearly $4 billion in small loans and projects for rural communities, according to an October 4 Financial Times report. Farmers in the impoverished northeast have faced mounting debts with falling rice prices and following the end of generous rice subsidies offered by the government of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Somkid, who became the military government’s economic tsar in August, was an architect of populist economic policies under Yingluck’s brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Government scales back on single Internet gateway scheme after government websites hacked. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on October 5 said the government will examine alternatives to the single Internet gateway scheme, after government websites were attacked and went offline on October 1. The government had previously proposed a single Internet gateway allegedly on the basis of cost efficiency and cyber security reasons. The plan prompted concerns about freedom violations as it would allow the government to block, censor, and monitor websites. The current military government has shut down 392 websites since it ousted former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014.
Court rejects Yingluck lawsuit against attorney general and three prosecutors. Thailand’s criminal court on October 6 rejected former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s lawsuit against Attorney General Trakul Winitnaiyapak and three prosecutors for allegedly mishandling the corruption investigation into the rice-pledging case against her. If convicted, Yingluck faces up to 10 years in prison and $20 billion in fines. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said he will not use his power to seize the assets of Yingluck and several of her ministers should they refuse to pay the fines.
South China Sea
China protests U.S. plans to exercise freedom of navigation around artificial islands. The Chinese foreign ministry on October 9 said that Beijing will not tolerate violations of its territorial waters in the name of freedom of navigation, as the U.S. government nears a decision on deploying ships within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands China has built in the South China Sea. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, of which China is a signatory, man-made islands are not entitled to 12 nautical miles of territorial waters. U.S. officials have briefed U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region, including Australia and the Philippines, about plans to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the near term, according to an October 12 New York Times report.
U.S. holds naval exercise with six ASEAN countries, announces $100 million package in maritime law enforcement. The U.S. Navy and naval forces from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand conducted the 14th annual Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training exercise from October 5 to 10 in Singapore. The exercise included training for officers on dealing with maritime security threats in the Straits of Malacca, the Andaman Sea, and the South China Sea. The State Department on October 8 announced an assistance package of $100 million to support Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam in maritime security and law enforcement.
Indonesia considers using drones, submarines for surveillance around Natuna Islands. Indonesian coordinating minister for security, politics, and law Luhut Panjaitan on October 7 said that Indonesia is considering deploying drones and submarines off the coast of the Natuna Islands for maritime surveillance purposes. Luhut, a close adviser to President Joko Widodo, said Indonesia needs to project power in the South China Sea because of the “strong military and political effects” of China’s nine-dash-line claim, which overlaps with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone around the Natuna Islands.
Singapore supermarket suspends Indonesian supplier amid concerns over haze. Singapore’s largest supermarket chain, NTUC FairPrice, on October 7 said it has temporarily banned products from the Indonesian company Asia Pulp & Paper Group after the Singapore Environment Council ruled that the company was not using sustainable materials and may be linked to the haze-causing forest fires in Indonesia. The haze, which has blanketed Singapore and Malaysia in recent weeks, led to a public outcry in Singapore about companies in the palm oil and pulp and paper industries in neighboring Indonesia that are behind the forest fires.
Prime minister delivers speech on racial and religious harmony. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on October 4 said in a speech that Singaporeans should remember that racial and religious harmony does not come naturally. Lee told participants at the Community Leaders’ Conference that the city-state’s peacefulness is “always a work in progress” and reminded them not to take social harmony for granted.
TPP countries conclude negotiations in Atlanta. Members of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal concluded negotiations on the agreement on October 5 in Atlanta. Negotiators said they have resolved outstanding issues such as rules of origin for auto parts, market access for dairy products, and patent rights on pharmaceutical products. The official text of the agreement has yet to be released. President Barack Obama is expected to submit the agreement to the U.S. Congress in the coming weeks, after which Congress will have 90 days to deliberate on the terms of the agreement.
U.S. presidential candidates respond with mixed positions on Pacific trade deal. Presidential candidates in the United States took divergent stances on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, negotiations of which were concluded in Atlanta on October 5. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton came out publicly against the TPP during an interview on October 7. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders and Republican contender Donald Trump have both criticized the deal. The majority of Republican lawmakers supported granting Trade Promotion Authority to President Barack Obama to facilitate negotiation of the agreement.
Government raises garment sector wages to $140 per month. The Labor Advisory Committee on October 8 announced that it has increased the monthly minimum wage for garment workers to $140 from the previous $128. The decision followed months of negotiations between factory owners, trade union leaders, and government mediators. The new wage falls well short of unions’ demand of $160 per month, causing angry union representatives to storm out of the meeting when the new figure was announced. Mass strikes and protests by garment workers have forced the government to boost minimum wages by 75 percent since May 2013.
Opposition senator goes on trial in crackdown on political opposition. Hong Sok Hour, a senator with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), on October 2 went on trial for challenging in his Facebook posts the legitimacy of the map that the Cambodian government used to negotiate border demarcation with Vietnam. Human Rights Watch called his case a crackdown on political opposition. The senator, arrested in August despite his parliamentary immunity, faces up to 17 years in prison on charges of incitement and treason. The CNRP has often accused Prime Minister Hun Sen of ceding territory to Vietnam.
Minority groups call for removal of governor. Members of the Bunong ethnic group in northern Mondulkiri Province on October 5 filed a petition asking for the removal of provincial governor Eng Bun Heang, accusing him of restricting free speech and granting ancestral lands to businesses. The governor, meanwhile, has dismissed their grievances and speculated that they were manipulated into filing the petition. The heavily forested Mondulkiri Province is home to numerous minority groups, which often quarrel with lumber companies vying for concessions and business in the area.
Laos to export electricity to Singapore. Minister of Energy and Mines Khammany Inthirath said that Laos will sign a deal this month to export electricity to Singapore, according to an October 4 Lao News Agency report. The agreement will see Laos export 100 megawatts of electricity to Singapore through transmission networks in Thailand and Malaysia. The sale of electricity has become one of Laos’s main sources of revenue in recent years, accounting for over $880 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year.
EU, WWF to help Laos tackle illegal logging. The Lao government and the World Wide Fund for Nature on September 25 signed a memorandum of understanding establishing a partnership that will help Laos promote legal timber trade. The four-year scheme, which is funded by the European Union and costs about $643,000 , aims to ensure that Laos’s domestic and transboundary timber flows comply with the EU’s timber regulations. The forestry sector contributed $164 million to Laos’s economy, or 2.1 percent of gross domestic product, in 2011.
South Korea to fund Laos-Vietnam railway feasibility study. South Korea on October 6 agreed to fund a feasibility study of a proposed 300-mile railway from the Lao capital of Vientiane to Vietnam’s central Ha Tinh Province. The three-year study aims to finalize a master plan for the rail line and provide capacity building for the railway sectors in Laos and Vietnam. The project is expected to help boost bilateral trade between Laos and Vietnam and significantly improve the quality of travel between the two countries.
RCEP negotiations play catch-up after TPP talks concluded. Sixteen countries across the Asia-Pacific region on October 12 entered a new round of negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in Busan, South Korea. Following the conclusion of talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership on October 5, countries that are excluded from the trade pact, including China and India, have pushed for a swift conclusion of the RCEP, which includes the countries that have signed trade agreements with ASEAN. If successfully concluded, the RCEP would be the world’s biggest free trade area, encompassing 3.4 billion people and $10.6 trillion in trade volume.
Task force completes post-2015 vision draft for ASEAN Community. The ASEAN High Level Task Force consisting of senior representatives from each ASEAN member state and the ASEAN Secretariat on October 4 completed the post-2015 vision document laying out plans to strengthen the ASEAN Community. The vision document comprises three blueprints to realize a politically cohesive, economically integrated, and socially responsible ASEAN. These documents will be submitted to ASEAN ministers for endorsement and then tabled at the November 18-22 ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur for adoption by heads of state.
ASEAN countries expected to spend $7 trillion on infrastructure over the next 15 years. ASEAN economies are expected to spend about $7 trillion on infrastructure development between 2014 and 2030, making them an attractive investment destination amid turmoil in other emerging markets, Maybank Group’s head of global banking, Amirul Feisal Wan Zahir, told investors during a conference in New York on October 6. ASEAN states are expected to grow at an average annual rate of 5.6 percent from 2013 to 2018.
ASEAN countries adopt new renewable energy target. ASEAN member states agreed to adopt a new renewable energy target at the 33rd ASEAN Energy Ministers Meeting, which took place on October 7 in Kuala Lumpur. Countries agreed to increase the share of renewable energy in the region’s fuel mix to 23 percent by 2025, from the current 15 percent. ASEAN member states also agreed to reduce the region’s greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent over the next 10 years.
Cambodia calls for more studies on Don Sahong Dam. Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong on October 7 told his Lao counterpart, Thongloun Sisoulith, that Laos should conduct more studies on the planned Don Sahong Dam along the Mekong River. Namhong pushed for more research into fish migration and water flow, as the Don Sahong will heavily affect the livelihoods of people living along the Mekong River and specifically along the Tonle Sap in Cambodia.
Mekong Delta faces water shortage. The Mekong Delta is facing an ongoing water shortage due to drought, with water levels at two stations in southern Vietnam as of October 1 measuring between 1.3 and 2 feet lower than at the same time last year and between 7.5 and 8.5 feet lower than in 2000. Reduced rainfall and ongoing dam construction upstream have contributed to the water shortage in the delta.
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