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U.S. temporarily removes sanctions on Yangon port owned by blacklisted company. The U.S. Treasury Department on December 7 issued a general license to suspend sanctions on Yangon’s main port—owned by blacklisted company Asia World—for six months. This decision will allow trade-related transactions such as shipment of goods to and from Myanmar, payments for shipping and handling charges, and trade finance transactions to be carried out at the port without violating existing sanctions. Asia World is owned by tycoon Steven Law, who remains on the U.S. sanctions list and whose father is deceased drug lord Lo Hsing Han. The White House said it is not yet considering a complete removal of remaining sanctions on Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi meets former dictator Than Shwe, government appoints committee to oversee transition. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on December 4 met with former military dictator Than Shwe, a meeting some observers believed was crucial to the power handover from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party to the National League for Democracy (NLD) in 2016. Aung San Suu Kyi met with both outgoing and incoming ethnic lawmakers on December 7, and asked them to work with the future government on the issue of national reconciliation. President Thein Sein on December 10 appointed an eight-member committee, six of whom are current government officials and the remaining two NLD representatives, charged with facilitating the transition.
Parliament ratifies peace accord signed with eight ethnic armed groups. Myanmar’s outgoing parliament on December 10 ratified a peace accord that the government of President Thein Sein signed with eight armed ethnic groups in October. Political dialogue between government negotiators and signatory groups is expected to start by mid-January next year, before a new government led by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) takes office next year. The future of the nationwide peace process, which began in 2011 under Thein Sein, remains uncertain as NLD chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi has not made clear her approach toward resolving Myanmar’s long-running armed conflicts.
Twelve imprisoned for alleged links to Muslim insurgent group. Authorities in the city of Mandalay in central Myanmar on December 8 handed down five-year prison sentences to 12 men for allegedly receiving training from a Muslim insurgent group. The men had been arrested between November and December 2014. Human rights groups have questioned the government’s claims about the existence of the insurgent group, the Myanmar Muslim Army, and said there was not enough evidence for the verdict. At least one of the defendants said he was tortured into confessing.
Yangon stock exchange launched with six firms listed. The Yangon stock exchange, Myanmar’s first, launched on December 10 with an initial listing of six local companies. The stock exchange is owned by Japan Exchange Group, state-owned Myanmar Economic Bank, and Japan-based Daiwa Securities. Only local companies are allowed to list in Myanmar’s currency, the kyat, in the first phase of the stock exchange. The government hopes the launch will jumpstart the development of a capital market in Myanmar.
Police to investigate U.S. ambassador for possible l?se-majest? violations. Bangkok’s police on December 9 announced they will investigate whether U.S. ambassador Glyn Davies’ remarks at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand on November 25 violated Thailand’s royal defamation laws. Davies said in his speech the U.S. government was concerned about “lengthy and unprecedented” prison terms handed down under Section 112 of Thailand’s criminal code, which makes offending the monarchy punishable with up to 15 years in prison. Davies, who is protected by diplomatic immunity, said at the “Bike for Dad” event on December 11 to celebrate King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 88th birthday he is unconcerned about reports of the inquiry.
Government cracks down on groups calling attention to corruption scandal involving park. Authorities on December 7 detained a group of 35 student activists who attempted to visit Rajabhakti Park, a new park near the resort town of Hua Hin that featured the statues of seven Thai kings, to protest the alleged siphoning of funds involving several high-level military officers during the park’s construction. The group was released the same day. The military last month cleared a number of senior officers of graft accusations following an internal investigation, but has agreed to launch a new probe under public pressure. Officials also arrested two individuals for sharing or liking a graphic about the Rajabhakti Park scandal on Facebook.
FAA downgrades rating on Thai aviation safety. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on December 1 downgraded Thailand’s aviation safety rating to Category 2 from Category 1, effectively banning Thai airlines from opening new routes to the United States. Although Thai airlines currently do not service U.S.-bound flights—flag carrier Thai Airways stopped its direct flights to the United States in October— the downgrade is expected to hurt Thailand’s tourism industry. The European Union, another major source of tourists to Thailand, decided on December 10 not to downgrade Thai airlines’ safety rating.
Thailand tables action agenda on irregular migration in the Indian Ocean. Thailand on December 3 tabled a draft action agenda to address irregular migration in the Indian Ocean during a two-day meeting in Bangkok with representatives from 17 other countries. The proposal includes launching a multimedia regional information campaign to be carried out by the five most affected countries—Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand. Participants also discussed the prospect for Myanmar’s cooperation with the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime on developing port intelligence and legal reforms, and with Bangladesh on the rescue and repatriation of migrants.
U.S. and Singapore agree on defense cooperation agreement, rotation of P-8 surveillance flights. The United States and Singapore on December 7 signed an enhanced defense cooperation agreement in Washington during Singaporean defense minister Ng Eng Hen’s visit. The agreement, reached ahead of the 50th anniversary of bilateral U.S.-Singapore ties in 2016, includes expanded military, policy, strategic technology, piracy, and terrorism cooperation; additional cooperation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, cyber security, and biosecurity; and a new high-level dialogue. Singapore, which will host a rotation of four U.S. littoral combat ships by 2017, also agreed to the rotational deployment of U.S. P-8 surveillance flights from Singapore. The arrangement provides the United States with a strategic location in Southeast Asia from which to monitor developments in the South China Sea.
Singapore to ban display of tobacco products at retail outlets by 2017. The Ministry of Health announced on December 9 that point-of-sale displays of tobacco products will be banned in retail outlets beginning in 2017. Designed to discourage non-smokers from picking up the habit and from impulse buying, the proposed regulation will be implemented following a one-year grace period for retailers. Tobacco sellers, meanwhile, have pointed to increased costs incurred, and disputed the notion that bans on product displays result in decreased smoking rates. Similar bans exist in Canada, Thailand, and the United Kingdom.
Singapore revises 2016 GDP growth estimate to 2.2 percent. A survey by the Monetary Authority of Singapore released on December 8 showed gross domestic product (GDP) growth in 2015 at 1.9 percent, down from an earlier forecast of 2.2 percent. GDP growth rates for 2016 were also trimmed to 2.2 percent from the previous 2.8 percent. The 2016 inflation rate is expected to drop to 0.5 percent from the current 1.1 percent. The new forecasts reflect the median assessment of 22 economists surveyed.
U.S. senators issue disapproval resolution on USDA inspection of Vietnamese catfish. Senators John McCain and Kelly Ayotte on December 8 introduced a resolution of disapproval that, if enacted, would overturn the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) new inspection rules on Vietnamese catfish imports. The new rules, formally announced in late November, would require the establishment of a new catfish inspection office under the USDA. McCain and Ayotte called the proposed office, which is estimated to cost $15 million per year, an “egregious waste of taxpayer dollars and a classic example of anti-free market protectionism.” The Food and Drugs Administration currently performs inspection of seafood products.
Vietnam signs FTA with EU, agreement to take effect in 2018. Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung and European Union (EU) Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on December 2 signed the EU-Vietnam free trade agreement during Dung’s visit to Brussels. The agreement, which is expected to take effect in 2018, will remove 99 percent of tariffs on goods traded between the two sides and also includes human rights provisions. Two-way trade between Vietnam and EU countries has grown threefold over the past decade to about $30 billion.
National health agency to inspect Coca-Cola, Pepsi; authorities investigate Coke for transfer pricing. Vietnam’s health inspection authorities said on December 7 they are seeking approval from the Ministry of Health to conduct safety inspections on four foreign beverage makers, including Coca-Cola and Pepsi. The other two companies are Wonderfarm—which is 80 percent owned by Japan-based Kirin Holdings—and Philippine-owned Universal Robina Corp. Ho Chi Minh City’s tax authorities also set up a task force to investigate Coca-Cola for alleged transfer pricing under which companies allegedly transfer profits to countries with lower tax rates. The U.S. beverage maker had reported losses annually since entering the Vietnamese market in 1994. Coca-Cola last year paid about $20 million in corporate taxes in Vietnam for the first time.
Vietnamese fisherman shot dead near Spratly Islands by unidentified attackers. The Ministry of Defense on November 27 ordered a probe into a deadly attack against a Vietnamese fishing boat near Alicia Annie Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands. The fishermen present said a group of five armed men boarded the ship and shot dead a crew member on November 26. The crew handed over to police four shells from what appeared to be an AR-15 rifle, according to a December 2 Thanh Nien News report. The Vietnam Fisheries Association said it believed the shooters came from a Philippine boat.
Vietnamese activist beaten for attending Human Rights Day meeting. Plainclothes police on December 6 attacked activist Nguyen Van Dai for taking part in a discussion on human rights in Nghe An Province in northern Vietnam, according to a December 10 statement by Reporters Without Borders. Dai was participating in a series of discussions held at the home of a former political prisoner to commemorate Human Rights Day on December 10. Authorities have staged similar attacks against Dai since last year for operating a web channel championing democracy.
President’s chief adviser testifies in widening probe into Freeport corruption scandal. Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Luhut Panjaitan on December 14 testified in front of the ethics council of the House of Representatives as part of a high-profile investigation into House Speaker Setya Novanto’s alleged attempt to extort Freeport Indonesia executives in exchange for a contract extension by claiming to represent President Joko Widodo and Vice President Jusuf Kalla. Setya stepped down from his post on December 17 due to growing pressure from other lawmakers. Luhut, whose name was mentioned in a recorded phone conversation between Setya and Freeport executives, denied any involvement in the scandal, saying he had consistently advised the president not to consider renewing Freeport’s mining contract in Indonesia until 2019.
Over 100 million Indonesians vote in regional elections. More than 100 million eligible Indonesian voters voted on December 9 in regional elections across 264 regencies, cities, and provinces. According to Home Minister Tjahjo Kumolo, there was no violence reported during the elections, but evidence of vote buying had been recorded at least in the city of Semarang in Central Java Province. The General Elections Commission had to postpone elections for regional heads in five regions in Central Kalimantan Province, West Papua Province, North Sumatra Province, and North Sulawesi Province due to ongoing legal processes.
Indonesia to reform aviation safety measures after Air Asia crash. The Transportation Ministry’s air transportation director-general Suprasetyo on December 3 announced the tightening of safety regulations for Indonesia’s aviation industry, following the conclusion of an investigation into the crash of an AirAsia plane off the city of Surabaya in late 2014. Among the measures are biannual emergency recovery simulations for flight crews and maintenance record inspections for all 75 Airbus A320 planes registered in Indonesia—the model of the crashed AirAsia plane—and emphasis on the use of standardized commands in the cockpit.
Police crack down on Papuan freedom rallies and flag raisings. Police in Jakarta on December 1 fired tear gas into hundreds of street protesters, most of whom were West Papuan university students, who had gathered to mark the anniversary of West Papua’s declaration of independence in 1961, two years after Indonesia took control of the region. Papuan freedom activist Benny Wenda said he received reports that the Indonesian military and police opened fire on at least eight people in West Papua Province on December 1 for raising the Papuan freedom flag; at least four of the eight were killed.
Police chief says ISIS threatened to kill six high-ranking Indonesian police officers. National police chief Badrodin Haiti on December 6 said that six high-ranking Indonesian police officers would receive extra protection after the government received tips from foreign intelligence agencies that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had threatened to kill them. The news comes three weeks after wanted terrorist Santoso—the target of intensified hunts by the police and military—threatened to attack the Jakarta police headquarters and fly the ISIS flag from the presidential palace. Indonesian security officials met on December 7 to discuss responses to the latest threats posed by ISIS.
UMNO holds annual assembly, Mahathir warns UMNO might lose 2018 elections if Najib stays in power. The ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) held its annual general assembly from December 9 to 12. Local UMNO chiefs reiterated their support for embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak, while former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and deputy UMNO chair Muhyiddin Yassin warned that UMNO might lose the 2018 general elections if Najib stays in power. Najib has been under growing pressure over his involvement in the scandal surrounding state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd.
Malaysia passes new security law that allows searches and detention without warrants. Parliament on December 3 passed a controversial security bill during its final session of the year that will permit searches and arrests without warrants and curfews to be imposed in designated security zones. Opposition politicians and human rights groups have decried the new law on grounds its widespread powers can easily be abused by authorities. Cabinet Minister Shahidan Kassim, meanwhile, said the new law enables better government coordination in the event of a security threat.
Malaysian navy chief calls for expanded use of code for encounters at sea in Asia Pacific. Malaysian navy chief Kamarulzaman Ahmad Badaruddin on December 1 called on navies in the Asia-Pacific region to step up their use of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) and expand it to include regional coast guards. Kamarulzaman said expanding the use of CUES could help prevent possible escalation of incidents at sea, especially as tensions rise in the disputed South China Sea. U.S. and Malaysian military personnel met in Guam on December 4 for a submarine demonstration and to discuss plans for joint training in 2016.
Authorities arrest five on suspected links to ISIS and Al Qaeda. Police on December 5 announced the arrests of five men suspected of having links to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al Qaeda militant groups. Three of the suspects, who were taken into custody between November 17 and December 1, were tasked with recruiting and smuggling volunteers into Syria to fight for ISIS, while one was reportedly involved with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Swiss firm under investigation for ties to 1MDB, anti-corruption agency questions Najib over 1MDB. Swiss authorities are investigating Swiss wealth management firm Falcon Private Bank AG over transactions that the firm may have made to state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd, according to a December 3 Wall Street Journal report. Malaysia’s anti-corruption commission questioned Prime Minister Najib Razak on December 5 about the $700 million in reported political donations from the Middle East found in Najib’s bank account. Malaysian investigators found that the money was transferred to Najib’s account through Falcon Private Bank.
Aquino urges Congress to pass bill implementing peace with Islamic separatists in 2015. President Benigno Aquino on December 8 met 150 members of the House of Representatives to urge passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which would implement a peace deal between the government and the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the southern Philippines. The bill has stalled in Congress for over a year due to resistance from lawmakers who worry it grants too much autonomy to the rebels. Congress has run out of time to pass the bill in 2015, prompting concerns that it may not pass before Aquino leaves office in June.
Davao mayor Duterte tops poll, Amnesty calls attention to his human rights record. The mayor of Davao city, Rodrigo Duterte, topped a recent presidential poll by the Social Weather Service with support from 38 percent of respondents, followed by Vice President Jejomar Binay and Senator Grace Poe at 21 percent. Released on December 7, the poll was conducted in late November when Duterte’s long-awaited entry into the race dominated news cycles. Duterte has also made headlines thanks to sharp criticism by Amnesty International of his human rights record. When Amnesty cited his alleged role as leader of the “Davao death squad” and linked him to 700 extrajudicial killings, the notoriously tough mayor quipped that the number was closer to 1,700.
Philippine Supreme Court delays again on U.S. defense agreement. The Philippine Supreme Court on December 16 delayed its decision on the constitutionality of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) for the second time in six weeks. The agreement, signed between the United States and the Philippines in 2014, would allow increased U.S. troop rotations and pre-positioning of equipment on Philippine bases. Philippine nationalist groups challenged the agreement immediately after it was signed, calling it unconstitutional and a return to American colonialism.
Poe files motion for reconsideration after second election commission disqualification. Senator Grace Poe on December 15 filed a motion for reconsideration before the Commission on Elections after two separate divisions of the commission disqualified her presidential candidacy. The motion requests the entire commission, rather than smaller divisions, to consider whether Poe meets the residency and citizenship requirements for president mandated in the constitution. The senator said she would take the case to the Supreme Court if necessary, but would respect any decision made there.
U.S. Marine convicted of killing Philippine transgender woman to serve sentence in Manila. Lance Corporal Joseph Pemberton, a U.S. Marine accused of killing a transgender woman in Manila, was convicted of homicide on December 1 and sentenced to 6 to 12 years in prison. The trial has been a focal point for criticism of the U.S. military in the Philippines, especially in light of Supreme Court deliberations on the constitutionality of a pending U.S.-Philippine defense cooperation agreement. Pemberton will serve his sentence in Quezon City separate from the general prison population.
700,000 evacuated ahead of typhoon. Typhoon Melor on December 14 made landfall over Northern Samar Province in the eastern Philippines, bringing intense rain and winds gusting up to 115 miles per hour. More than 700,000 people in the Bicol and Eastern Visayas regions fled to evacuation centers before the storm hit. Twenty provinces around Manila were put on alert as the storm made its way across the country. It is expected to leave the Philippines on December 18.
South China Sea
China to quadruple airstrips on artificial islands. China’s island reclamation campaign could soon see the number of airstrips available to the Chinese military in the South China Sea quadruple, according to a December 6 Associated Press report. Satellite photos showed construction on two to three new airstrips in the Spratly Islands, in addition to the already-built airstrip on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands. Observers are concerned that airstrips in the South China Sea could be used to support an air defense identification zone similar to what China declared over the East China Sea in 2013.
U.S. naval commander accuses China of eroding security around Spratly Islands. Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, on December 14 accused China of creating conditions for an arms race in the South China Sea. The admiral said that harassment of commercial ships in international shipping lanes near China’s artificial islands was forcing other countries in the region to increase their own naval presence, raising fears of eventual conflict. U.S. defense officials told Reuters on the same day that the U.S. Navy will likely not conduct another freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea before the end of the year. The U.S. Navy conducted its first FONOP in the area since 2012 in October near Subi Reef.
China threatens Vietnamese supply ship with guns, harasses BBC reporter in overflight. Vietnam on November 27 accused China of pointing deck guns at a Vietnamese supply ship in the Spratly Islands on November 13 to chase it away. Vietnam said the ship was sailing within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef—one of China’s reclaimed features that was challenged by a U.S. freedom of navigation operation in October—when two Chinese Coast Guard ships and two warships turned up to threaten it. Chinese forces also ordered a private charter plane carrying a BBC reporter over reclaimed features in the Spratly Islands to “leave Chinese airspace,” according to footage released by the BBC on December 14. The plane passed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, another feature reclaimed by China.
McConnell says TPP vote in Congress not likely before 2016 elections. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on December 10 said Congress is not likely to vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement before the U.S. presidential elections in November 2016. McConnell cited his “serious problems” with the trade agreement and “significant pushback” against it from U.S. companies, especially in the areas of tobacco and pharmaceuticals. He also opened the door for the next U.S. president to “revisit” the terms of the deal.
ITC studying economic impact of TPP, report expected to impact timing of Congress’s vote. The U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) is in the process of drafting its assessment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement and its impact on the U.S. economy, specific industry sectors, and consumer interests. The ITC anticipates providing its report to Congress and President Barack Obama on May 18. Congress is not expected to deliberate or vote on the TPP before the ITC report is completed.
U.S. Council for International Business backs TPP, urges improvement before ratification. The New York-based U.S. Council for International Business on December 8 became the first major U.S. business association to support passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. But it also encouraged the administration of President Barack Obama to make fixes to the agreement before it is sent to Congress for a vote. The council asked that changes be made to provisions that “limit or exclude certain sectors,” alluding to concessions U.S. negotiators had made in the biologics, tobacco, and financial services sectors.
USTR says side letters a mechanism for addressing congressional concerns about biologic drugs. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman on December 2 met with Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee to try to assuage their concerns about the terms of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. Froman said negotiated side letters could be a way for the United States to address issues such as the exclusivity period for biologic drugs with other TPP partners. The United States could use the letters to require that other governments implement specific measures in exchange for securing a 5-year market exclusivity for biologics—instead of the 12 years initially requested by U.S. pharmaceuticals—in their countries.
U.S., Brunei discuss security and trade ties. U.S. and Brunei officials met on November 30 in London for the U.S.-Brunei High-Level Officials’ Meeting. The two sides discussed enhancing military-to-military cooperation, stepping up bilateral trade, human rights issues in Brunei, and ways to increase the number of Bruneian students studying in the United States. The U.S. side was led by U.S. ambassador to Brunei Craig Allen and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski.
U.S. lawmakers sign letter of support for Sam Rainsy. Sixteen U.S. members of Congress on December 6 signed a joint letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen, calling on him to stop political oppression of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and its leader, Sam Rainsy. Government spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed the letter, saying the authors did not understand events in Cambodia. Meanwhile, leaders of the government and opposition met on December 10 for the first time since the beginning of the ongoing political crisis, and issued a joint statement emphasizing a continued culture of dialogue.
Hundreds hold rallies on international human rights day despite government objection. Hundreds of people gathered across five provinces on December 9 to rally in honor of International Human Rights Day. Rallies were held in Koh Kong, Siem Reap, Takeo, Kratie, and Svay Rieng provinces, after the government threatened to stop a planned human rights march in Phnom Penh set for December 10. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights released a statement in conjunction with the Phnom Penh rally that highlighted the “deterioration of an already dire human rights situation” in Cambodia.
Civil society organizations criticize large hydropower dams during Paris climate summit. A coalition of more than 300 civil society organizations from 53 countries urged governments to keep large hydropower dams out of climate initiative planning, according to a December 3 International Rivers report. Environmental experts claimed that large hydropower dams release significant amounts of methane and critically damage surrounding ecosystems and communities, rendering them more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
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