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Leaders hold six-party talks to discuss elections, constitutional changes. The first six-party talks between Myanmar’s political, military, and ethnic leaders took place on April 10 at the presidential palace in Naypyidaw. The talks involved President Thein Sein, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, Speaker of the Lower House Shwe Mann, Speaker of the Upper House Khin Aung Myint, and representative of ethnic political parties Aye Maung. The group discussed constitutional amendments, the peace process, and the upcoming national elections in November. The next six-party meeting is scheduled for May 11.
Parliament passes population control bill. Myanmar’s parliament on April 6 passed a controversial bill that will give divisional and state governments the authority to limit women’s reproductive rights in what the government said is an effort to boost local standards of living. A provision in the bill requires women to wait three years between having children. Critics fear that authorities will use the law to target Myanmar’s vulnerable Muslim population.
Government begins collecting white cards from displaced Rohingya. Authorities have collected over 40,000 temporary identification papers, or white cards, from the country’s embattled Muslim Rohingya minority, following President Thein Sein’s announcement in February that all white cards would expire by March 31. The government expects to finish collecting the cards from the approximately 700,000 Rohingya by the end of April. White card holders will have to apply for citizenship, but not all Rohingya who surrendered their temporary identifications will be able to meet the government’s citizenship requirements.
Rohingya girls in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Myanmar. Due to communal violence, many Rohingya have become IDPs within Myanmar and live in squalid conditions in camps. The government’s program to grant Rohingya citizenship is highly controversial in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, since many view Muslim Rohingya as illegal immigrants. https://www.flickr.com/photos/69583224@N05/9013517918/in/
Lower house approves “regressive” amendments to education law. The lower house of Myanmar’s parliament on April 7 approved amendments to the country’s national education law, which activists called “regressive.” The amendments come after high-profile protests by student groups in March. Students last month accused the government of modifying the agreement that both sides had reached in February concerning issues of academic freedom and student and teacher unions. The recently passed amendments sought in part to reincorporate some of the student demands.
Aung San Suu Kyi attends rare talks with senior government leaders, does not rule out election boycott. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on April 8 attended a meeting with senior government officials, including President Thein Sein and Speaker of the Lower House Shwe Mann. The group is said to have discussed constitutional amendments and the country’s landmark draft cease-fire agreement with ethnic armed groups. Aung San Suu Kyi on April 9 said her party, the National League for Democracy, does not rule out a boycott of the general elections if the constitution remains unchanged.
Authorities rescue more than 500 fishermen from remote islands. Officials from the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries on April 3 and 9 rescued 540 fishermen stranded or being held against their will on Benjina, an island in the Malukus. The operations followed a report by the Associated Press revealing the abuse of foreign workers on the remote island, which was being used as a base of operations for Thai fishing ships in the area. The workers were forced to work against their will aboard the ships in a state of modern slavery. The rescued workers, most of whom are from Myanmar, are being kept on the nearby island of Tual until their home countries can investigate their circumstances and repatriate them.
Canadian, Indonesian convicted in Jakarta Intercultural School abuse case. A Jakarta court on April 2 sentenced Canadian guidance counselor Neil Bantleman and Indonesian teaching assistant Ferdinand Tjiong to 10 years in prison for allegedly sexually abusing three students at the city’s prestigious Jakarta Intercultural School, which enrolls the children of foreign diplomats and wealthy Indonesians. The four-month trial, held behind closed doors, has drawn intense criticism for the police’s alleged mishandling of evidence and the animosity shown by the three-judge panel toward the defense. The defendants, who are being supported by many school employees, plan to appeal the verdict.
Badrodin approved as national police chief. The House of Representatives on April 16 confirmed interim national police chief Badrodin Haiti as the permanent chief after President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on April 6 explained to a House commission why he dropped previous nominee Budi Gunawan in favor of Badrodin amid graft allegations against Budi. Many legislators had slowed Badrodin’s nomination for months over objections to Jokowi’s decision to drop Budi. Legislators on the House commission said they were now satisfied with Jokowi’s explanation.
Court rejects pretrial motion of former religious affairs minister. A South Jakarta district court on April 8 denied former religious affairs minister Suryadharma Ali’s pretrial motion to have his status as a corruption suspect thrown out. The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and its supporters hailed the ruling as a victory amid concerns that the earlier decision of a judge from the same court to accept the pretrial motion of another corruption suspect, former national police chief nominee Budi Gunawan, would open the floodgate to such motions. The KPK summoned Suryadharma for questioning on April 10 in connection with his alleged misuse of funds earmarked for the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Suryadharma was taken into custody after being questioned.
Four-billion-dollar Japanese-funded power plant to break ground in April. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced April 7 that construction would soon begin on a long-delayed $4 billion Japanese-funded power plant project in Central Java. Local landowners and environmental groups have opposed the 2,000 megawatt coal-fired plant for four years. A small group of landowners is still refusing to sell their land for the project, but Jokowi’s announcement suggests that the government may use a new eminent domain law to procure the land forcibly.
Malaysia passes controversial anti-terror bill and amendments to a security act. Following 15 hours of debate, Malaysia’s parliament passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act on April 7 and amendments to the Security Offenses Special Measures Act the next day. Both pieces of legislation are intended to curb what the government says is a growing terrorist threat in Malaysia due to rising Islamic extremism. Critics fear that the new powers granted by these laws, such as indefinite detention without trial, will be abused to curb political dissent.
Former prime minister Mahathir calls on Najib to resign. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad on April 4 called on Prime Minister Najib Razak to step down, saying his resignation is the only way the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) can remain in power. Mahathir has attacked Najib for weeks over the financial struggles of state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd, whose advisory council Najib chairs, and Najib’s alleged role in the murder of Mongolian model Shaariibuugiin Altantuyaa. Mahathir still has a significant following within UMNO, but the majority of the party’s division chiefs last month expressed support for Najib.
Government passes amendments to strengthen Sedition Act. Malaysia’s parliament on April 10 passed amendments to the country’s Sedition Act that will give the government greater authority to prosecute what it deems seditious speech. Under the revised act, offenders can be sentenced to a minimum of three years in prison and online media deemed seditious can be blocked. The amendments follow Prime Minister Najib Razak’s announcement last November that his government will retain and expand the Sedition Act. Malaysia’s decision to toughen the Sedition Act has drawn criticism from the United Nations.
Police arrest 17 suspected militants for alleged planned attacks on Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur. Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar on April 6 announced that police had arrested 17 suspects, two of whom had recently returned from Syria, who allegedly planned to carry out terrorist attacks in Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian authorities have arrested 92 people since 2013 due to suspected connections with Islamic State or other terrorist organizations. The arrests came a day before the government passed controversial new anti-terror legislation.
U.S. more than doubles troops sent to annual exercise. The United States plans to more than double the number of U.S. personnel sent to the April 20–30 Balikatan military exercises with the Philippines to nearly 6,700 troops, according to an April 8 Stars and Stripes article. The annual bilateral exercise will take place on Luzon, Panay, and Palawan,
near disputed waters in the South China Sea, and will feature a range of military exercises, including amphibious landing and naval drills and community development projects. The United States will send 76 planes and 3 ships for the drills.
Bangsamoro law faces difficult amendments. Rufus Rodriguez, head of the House of Representatives panel examining the proposed legislation to set up an autonomous region in Mindanao, southern Philippines, reiterated on April 15 that lawmakers will not pass the legislation without significant amendments. Rodriguez has singled out eight articles in the legislation as unconstitutional. The congressional panel will restart hearings on the law on April 20. President Benigno Aquino and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have both warned that failure to pass the bill could lead to renewed war in Mindanao.
Court extends restraining order on Makati mayor Binay’s suspension. The Court of Appeals on April 6 issued a preliminary injunction indefinitely blocking the government ombudsman’s suspension order against Makati mayor Jejomar Erwin Binay Jr and 15 other officials. The court issued a 60-day stay on the suspension order in March, and has dismissed a complaint from the ombudsman challenging the decision. Binay is being investigated for corruption surrounding alleged kickbacks and overpricing of city contracts, including for the construction of a parking building at a Makati City Hall building.
Tropical Depression Maysak strikes Philippines. Tropical Depression Maysak, locally known as Chedeng, made landfall on the main Philippine island of Luzon on April 5 with wind speeds of about 34 miles per hour. The storm earlier devastated the Federated States of Micronesia as a category five typhoon but lost strength over the Pacific. There were no fatalities in the Philippines, but the government evacuated more than 25,000 people from coastal villages and ordered 500 boats to remain docked in preparation for the storm.
Thailand allows foreign firms to launch IPOs and list on stock exchange. Thailand's securities regulator on April 9 announced that it will allow foreign firms to launch initial public offerings (IPOs) and list on the Stock Exchange of Thailand for the first time, effective immediately. Thailand’s military government is promoting the country as a center of fundraising for companies in neighboring countries including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam, as well as China’s Yunnan Province.
Medvedev visits Bangkok; Prawit visits Beijing. Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev visited Bangkok on April 8 to boost defense ties and negotiate potential arms sales amid a decline in U.S.-Thai security cooperation since the May 2014 military coup. That same day, Thailand’s defense minister and deputy prime minister, Prawit Wongsuwan, visited Beijing seeking to boost defense ties, negotiate possible purchases of Chinese submarines, and discuss increasing joint military exercises.
Junta denies permission for commemoration ceremony of those killed during 2010 political violence. The junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) on April 8 rejected a request by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) to hold an event to commemorate “red shirts”—supporters of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra—killed during political violence in Bangkok in April 2010. An NCPO spokesperson told UDD leaders that family members should hold private services because a public event could be politicized and hinder reconciliation efforts.
Military courts to allow appeals. The Bangkok Military Court said April 7 that since martial law has been lifted, plaintiffs and defendants in cases tried in military courts after April 1 will be able to appeal rulings by the lower military court within 15 days of a verdict. The junta is trying civilians accused of crimes that threaten stability and national reconciliation before military courts. The junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly has passed legislation extending the period for appeals to 30 days, but the military courts have not enforced that.
U.S., Vietnamese navies hold annual exercises. The U.S. and Vietnamese navies on April 6 began their annual naval exercises in Danang in central Vietnam. The five-day exercises included skills exchanges in maritime security, noncombatant exercises, and search and rescue activities. U.S. and Vietnamese ships practiced the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea for the first time. This year’s naval activities took place as the United States and Vietnam celebrate 20 years of normalization of diplomatic ties.
U.S. Navy secretary visits Vietnam. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus on April 8–10 visited Vietnam, where he met with Vietnam’s army chief of general staff Do Ba Ty and navy chief Nguyen Van Hien. Mabus said the United States and Vietnam have great potential for naval cooperation, especially in joint training, search and rescue, and maritime security. He also visited Danang, site of Vietnam’s third naval regional command and the annual naval engagement activities between the two countries’ navies.
Vietnam to remove tariffs on 3,200 Japanese goods starting April 1. The Vietnamese government on April 1 began to remove tariffs on over 3,200 categories of imports from Japan under the Japan-Vietnam Economic Partnership Agreement. The agreement covers trade issues between the two countries from 2015 to 2019 and targets goods that are produced domestically in either Japan or Vietnam. Industries that are affected by the terms of the agreement include machinery, computers, electronics, and raw materials for footwear, textile, and garment production.
Vietnam, Russia agree to deepen trade, energy ties. Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev on April 6–8 visited Vietnam to discuss ways to deepen bilateral Russia-Vietnam ties. Medvedev and his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Tan Dung, agreed to expedite the signing of a trade agreement between Vietnam and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. The two sides also agreed to step up cooperation in the energy sector and follow through with the construction of a nuclear power plant in central Vietnam. .
Thugs attack prominent Christian pastors. Pastors Le Quang Du and Nguyen Hong Quang of the Vietnam Evangelical Mennonite Church were attacked by thugs on March 25 in Binh Duong Province, just north of Ho Chi Minh City, according to a March 25 Radio Free Asia report. Quang, a human rights lawyer, said he has been the target of multiple attacks by thugs in broad daylight. When contacted by Radio Free Asia, local police chief Truong Van Duong denied the assault had occurred.
National Assembly approves creation of new election commission. Lawmakers in Cambodia’s National Assembly on April 9 voted to approve the membership of the new National Election Commission (NEC), a body that will oversee electoral reforms and monitor the next elections in Cambodia, expected in 2018. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party and opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party each appointed four candidates to the commission, with the ninth member being a neutral candidate. Prime Minister Hun Sen said that all members will have to resign from their parties and parliamentary posts before taking up their positions on the NEC.
Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy agree on release of land activists. Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy on April 10 negotiated the release of 10 land activists imprisoned during protests in November 2014 over the seizure of land around Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake. Five opposition activists, including opposition party official Meach Sovannara, are also expected to be released. A spokesperson from the ruling party called the pardon a Khmer New Year’s gift, while some government critics said the activists' release was a bargaining chip used to pressure the opposition into accepting a deal over the composition of the election commission.
Hun Sen urges passage of NGO law to prevent terrorist financing. Prime Minister Hun Sen on April 6 said that lawmakers must pass a controversial law on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to prevent terrorist group funds from entering Cambodia. The law, if passed, would require NGOs to register with the government and file reports on their activities. Hun Sen claimed that the foreign aid industry was resisting the law out of its own financial interests, and cited concerns that NGOs could be using Cambodia to launder money.
Cambodian court questions Kem Sokha. A Phnom Penh court on April 9 questioned Cambodia National Rescue Party vice president Kem Sokha for seven hours about various incidents, including Sokha’s purported role in a deadly riot by garment workers in 2014 and anti-government street protests after the 2013 national elections. The summons for Sokha came after Prime Minister Hun Sen last month threatened legal action against him for allegedly trying to illegally overthrow the government during the 2013 street protests. About 300 people turned up in front of the court to support Sokha.
Senate Finance Committee to mark up TPA on April 23. The Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee on April 16 agreed on a bill to give President Barack Obama Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), or fast track, which limits Congress to a yes-or-no vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement once it is completed. The bill includes a human-rights negotiating objective, which has never existed in trade agreements, according to an April 16 New York Times report. The Senate Finance Committee is set to mark up the bill on April 23, according to Inside U.S. Trade.
U.S. and Japanese officials meet prior to TPP chief negotiators. Acting Deputy United States Trade Representative Wendy Cutler on April 15 led a U.S. delegation to Tokyo to discuss remaining bilateral issues between the United States and Japan in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations, including agriculture and the auto industry. The two sides hope to achieve progress before President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meet in late April during the Japanese leader’s visit to Washington. Chief negotiators and working groups from TPP member countries will meet outside Washington from April 23 to 26 in what will be one of the last rounds of talks before a meeting between TPP ministers scheduled for late May.
South China Sea
U.S. leaders criticize Chinese actions in South China Sea. President Barack Obama on April 9 accused China of using its “sheer size and muscle” to bully smaller neighbors in the South China Sea, following the latest reports of Beijing’s massive reclamation work in the Spratly Islands. A day earlier, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter warned against the militarization of the disputes and expressed concern over the reclamation during an interview in Tokyo. Seventh Fleet Commander Admiral Harris said March 31 that China is "creating a great wall of sand'' with its island-building campaign.
Philippines offers to drop Sabah continental shelf objection. The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs on March 30 admitted it sent a note verbale to Kuala Lumpur offering to drop its official objection to Malaysia’s extended continental shelf claim from Sabah, which the Philippines also claims. Manila officially objected to the Malaysian continental shelf claim when it submitted it to a UN commission in 2009. The offer sparked criticism in both the Malaysian and Philippine press, which mistakenly interpreted it as an offer to drop Manila’s claim to Sabah.
Singapore cabinet reshuffled. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government on April 8 reshuffled the cabinet, appointing Masagos Zulkifli a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office—the first time Singapore’s cabinet has had two Malay ministers. The government also appointed a new second minister for defense and rotated the head of the National Trade Unions Congress, the minister for manpower, and the minister for social and family development. Analysts saw the reshuffle as a signal the government is preparing for general elections as early as late 2015.
Filipino man charged with sedition for Facebook posts. A Singapore court on April 7 charged Philippine national Ello Ed Mundsel Bello with two counts of violating the Sedition Act and three of providing false information to police. The charges were the result of two Facebook posts Ello made in January denigrating native Singaporeans. Prosecutors charged that the posts would "promote feelings of ill-will and hostility" between Singaporean citizens.
Thirteen localities in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand pledge to step up cooperation. Representatives from eight Vietnamese localities, three Lao provinces, and two Thai provinces met in Kontum Province in central Vietnam on April 2 to discuss fostering cooperation on trade and tourism. The representatives also discussed the impact of climate change on tourism and development in the region.
Laos-Myanmar bridge expected to open in May. The construction of the first bridge linking Laos and Myanmar has been completed, and authorities expect to open it to traffic in early May. Project manager Xaysongkham Manotham said construction cost approximately $26 million and was completed nearly five months ahead of schedule. The bridge will connect Laos’s Luang Namtha Province with Myanmar's Shan State.
China hosts senior officials meeting of Lancang-Mekong River Dialogue and Cooperation. Representatives from Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam met in Beijing on April 6 for the first senior officials' meeting of the Lancang-Mekong River Dialogue and Cooperation forum. The forum, which was proposed at the China-ASEAN Summit in Myanmar earlier in 2015, hopes to maintain regional peace and promote development and prosperity among the riverine countries. Senior officials at the forum discussed a concept paper on the grouping’s objectives, direction, and priority areas.
Indonesians, Malaysians, Thais most likely to be “socially responsible” shoppers. Shoppers in developing countries are more likely to consider whether a product is environmentally friendly, fair trade, or donates proceeds to charity before buying it than are their developed neighbors, according to a MasterCard survey released April 2. The survey, which was conducted in 2014, found that Indonesians (78.7 percent), Malaysians (73.8 percent), and Thais (73.6 percent) were most likely to take these factors into account. That was far higher than the percentage of like-minded consumers in more developed Australia (29.2 percent), New Zealand (33.6 percent), and Singapore (43.2 percent).
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