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Security forces attack student protesters north of Yangon. Police and thugs on March 10 attacked student protesters in the town of Letpadan north of Yangon as they marched toward the former capital to protest a controversial National Education Law. Student leaders had protested outside Yangon for weeks and demanded to be allowed into the city. Police initially let protesters march toward Yangon on the morning of March 10, but later stepped in to disperse the crowds as students began waving flags and shouting slogans. More than 100 students were arrested during the crackdown. The United States, European Union, and civil society organizations have strongly condemned the government’s actions.
China warns Myanmar after deadly border bomb blast. General Fan Changlong, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, on March 13 told Myanmar military chief General Min Aung Hlaing that China will take resolute measures if Myanmar fails to restrain its forces in the northern Kokang region, where fighting with rebels has raged since February. China also deployed troops to the border with Myanmar. Fan issued the warning after a bomb that was allegedly dropped by a Myanmar military plane killed five Chinese nationals and injured eight others in the border area. Myanmar publicly blamed the Kokang rebel army for the incident.
National League for Democracy to contest national elections. Nyan Win, head of the central executive committee of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), on March 13 said that his party will contest the upcoming general election despite a constitutional provision that bars its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, from becoming president. Nyan Win also said the NLD will not back Shwe Mann, the lower house speaker and chair of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, for president as party officials previously suggested. The NLD will instead consider alternative candidates.
New Zealander and business associates receive prison sentences for insulting Buddha. A Myanmar court on March 17 sentenced a New Zealand bar manager, Phillip Blackwood, and his two Myanmar business associates, Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin, to two years of hard labor for insulting Buddhism and six months in jail for disobeying a public servant. Myanmar authorities arrested the men in December 2014 over an online advertisement for their bar that showed Buddha wearing headphones. Blackwood said he will appeal the decision.
Rakhine State to resettle 100,000 ethnic Rakhine Buddhists. Vice chair of the Rakhine Literature and Cultural Association Phyu Thar Che on March 9 said the Rakhine State government will repatriate more than 100,000 ethnic Rakhine Buddhists who are currently living in Kachin State. Rising tensions between the Kachin Independence Army and government troops have made working conditions in Kachin State difficult, prompting Rakhine social organizations to urge the state government to relocate ethnic Rakhines. The state’s chief minister agreed to provide shelter and job opportunities for returnees.
Police arrest garment workers over wage protests. Myanmar police on March 4 arrested at least 20 garment workers who were protesting for better wages. Thousands of garment workers began protesting in February, but that number dwindled to about 100 by early March. State media on March 6 announced that 14 of those detained will be charged under the Rioting Act for blocking roads to Yangon during the protest. If convicted, the workers will face fines and up to two years in prison.
Myanmar issues offshore exploration permits to two international oil companies. The Myanmar Investment Commission has issued permits to the United Kingdom’s BG Exploration and Production and Australia’s Woodside to conduct offshore oil and gas exploration in two shallow and two deep-water blocks off Myanmar’s coast, according to a March 12 Myanmar Times report. The firms will sign production-sharing contracts with privately owned Myanmar Petroleum Exploration and Production before starting exploration.
Anwar’s daughter jailed for sedition. Malaysian police on March 16 arrested Nurul Izzah Anwar, the oldest daughter of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, for alleged sedition over remarks she made in Parliament about Anwar’s arrest. Nurul Izzah is a lawmaker and vice president of the opposition People’s Justice Party. The United States said it is deeply concerned with her detention and called on the Malaysian government to apply the rule of law “fairly, transparently, and apolitically.”
White House responds to petition asking for release of Anwar Ibrahim. The White House on March 11 responded to an online petition asking the United States to make the release of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim a top priority for U.S. policy toward Malaysia. The response outlines the disappointment with Anwar’s jailing, but says that the United States remains committed to developing its comprehensive partnership with Malaysia. The petition received 113,838 signatures. The White House took it down briefly on March 10 to remove more than 60,000 fraudulent signatures.
Report on missing Flight 370 finds nothing wrong with crew or aircraft. An international team of investigators on March 8 released a report that revealed no new leads about what might have caused Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 to disappear just over a year ago. The report also revealed that the battery powering the plane’s flight data recorder expired in December 2012, thereby hindering the search crew’s efforts to find it. Malaysia, Australia, and China have committed to continuing the search for the aircraft.
Official auditor to examine controversial Malaysian government investment fund. Prime Minister Najib Razak on March 4 announced that Malaysia’s auditor-general will independently verify the financial accounts of the troubled state-owned investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB). Najib chairs the advisory board of the fund, which narrowly avoided defaulting on a $560 million loan in February. 1MDB still has remaining debt totaling $11.49 billion. Najib’s political opponents have attacked him over 1MDB as leaked emails have raised allegations that hundreds of millions of dollars had been misused.
Petronas raises $5 billion via bond issue. Malaysia’s state-owned oil and gas company Petronas on March 12 sold $5 billion in bonds in what was Asia’s biggest debt offering so far this year. Petronas joins a number of oil companies that have raised money to counter the slump in oil prices. The Malaysian oil company had no problems raising the funds despite growing concerns about Malaysia’s economy and sovereign debt rating due to the uncertainty surrounding state-owned investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd.
Central bank forecasts slower economic growth and rising financial risks in 2015. Malaysia’s central bank on March 11 forecast 4.5–5.5 percent economic growth for 2015, but noted that lower oil prices pose an ongoing risk to Malaysia’s budget and currency. Malaysia may be subject to a sovereign debt downgrade as investors increasingly worry about the government’s ability to cover the debt of state-owned investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd. Meanwhile, a new goods and services tax beginning in April is expected to dampen consumer spending.
United States voices concern about Russian use of Cam Ranh Bay. The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi on March 12 told the media that the United States has communicated its concerns to the Vietnamese government about Russia’s use of the Cam Ranh Bay deep-water port to refuel its nuclear bomber flights in the Asia Pacific. Commander of the U.S. Army Pacific General Vincent Brooks on March 11 said that recent “provocative” Russian flights over Guam were refueled at the Vietnamese port. The United States has called gaining access for U.S. ships to Cam Ranh Bay a key component of U.S.-Vietnam relations.
Vietnam and U.S. finalize transfer of first six patrol ships to Vietnam. The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi on March 6 told journalists that the United States and Vietnam are finalizing negotiations for the transfer of six patrol ships to Vietnam. The ships are expected to arrive before the end of the year. The transfers are part of an $18 million package to help Vietnam improve its maritime security and law enforcement capability. The United States is expected to transfer more patrol vessels to Vietnam’s Coast Guard in the future.
Vietnam’s largest property developer bids for two of Vietnam’s largest ports. Vietnam’s largest property developer, Vingroup, has asked the government to relax rules so that it can buy an 80 percent stake in the country’s two largest ports in Ho Chi Minh City and Haiphong, according to a March 7 report in Thanh Nien News. Both ports are owned by the government. The bid requires the prime minister’s approval, as current regulations cap private ownership of seaports at 25 percent.
U.S. increases funding for clearing unexploded ordnance from Vietnam War. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller on March 5 announced during her visit to Vietnam that the United States will allocate $10 million this year to help speed up clearing of remaining Vietnam War-era unexploded ordnance (UXOs) in the north-central province of Quang Tri. UXOs have killed 42,000 people and wounded 62,000 others since the end of the war. The United States has spent $80 million to address UXOs in Vietnam since 1995.
U.S. cuts anti-dumping tariffs on Vietnamese shrimp exports. The United States on March 6 sharply cut tariffs imposed on Vietnamese shrimp exports from 6.4 percent to an average 0.93 percent. The higher tariffs had been imposed as part of anti-dumping measures following an assessment in 2013 that Vietnamese shrimp were sold in the United States for less than they were sold in Vietnam. Vietnam earned $2.8 billion from shrimp exports to the U.S. market in 2013, making the United States the largest importer of Vietnamese shrimp.
Anti-dumping duties among measures instituted to prop up rupiah. Finance Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro on March 10 said that his ministry will institute temporary taxes on imports that it believes are priced below market value. The duties, along with a series of tax cuts for exporters, are intended to contain a widening current-account deficit and halt the slide of the rupiah. Indonesia’s currency fell to 13,210 to the dollar on March 16, its worst showing since 1998. Only Malaysia’s ringgit has fared worse among Asian currencies in 2015.
New Golkar leader seeks to join ruling coalition. New Golkar party chair Agung Laksono on March 16 met with Megawati Sukarnoputri, chair of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, and said Golkar plans to join President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s ruling coalition. Agung has met with several leaders of parties in Jokowi’s coalition since first suggesting on March 10 that Golkar would break with the opposition Red and White coalition. A four-member internal party tribunal recognized Agung as chair in a split vote, presumably ending a four-month schism. But a faction loyal to former chair Aburizal Bakrie continues to challenge Agung’s selection.
Police drop investigations into all but two Corruption Eradication Commission officials. Acting National Police chief Badrodin Haiti on March 3 announced that his organization would halt its investigations of two dozen Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) officials, including two deputy chairmen. But cases against suspended KPK chair Abraham Samad and his deputy, Bambang Widjojanto, will continue. The declaration appeared tantamount to an admission that the investigations were reprisals for the KPK’s decision to name former police chief nominee Budi Gunawan a graft suspect.
Minister threatens to release “human tsunami” of asylum seekers toward Australia. Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Tedjo Edy Purdjianto on March 10 threatened that Jakarta might permit 10,000 asylum seekers currently in Indonesia to travel on toward Australia in what he called a “human tsunami” if authorities in Canberra did not stop pestering Jakarta about the pending executions of Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. The two are among 10 inmates convicted of drug offenses who are scheduled to die soon by firing squad. Australian authorities have repeatedly pleaded for clemency, to no avail.
Rebel leader captured, thousands displaced as offensives continue against BIFF, Abu Sayyaf. Philippine security forces on March 15 captured Muhammad Ali Tambako, the head of a separatist splinter group and former leader of the Bangsamoro Islam Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in the southern Philippines. The Philippine military in late February launched an offensive against the BIFF and stepped up operations against the Abu Sayyaf terrorist network. Fighting has reportedly killed hundreds of rebel fighters and displaced more than 82,000 civilians, according to a March 10 New York Times article. Separately, Abu Sayyaf on March 7 released a Malaysian police officer it had held for seven months.
U.S. Marine offered plea deal in murder case. A Philippine court on March 10 offered U.S. Marine Joseph Pemberton the possibility of a plea deal to avoid going on trial for the October 2014 killing of transgender Filipina Jennifer Laude. Prosecutors and Pemberton’s lawyers must agree on all points of a plea deal, which the chief prosecutor said could include paying damages and pleading to a lesser charge. Otherwise, the case will open on March 23 with Pemberton facing a maximum of 40 years in prison.
Key suspect in Maguindanao massacre released on bail. A Philippine judge on March 9 ordered the release on $262,000 bail of Sajid Islam Ampatuan, son of former Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Sr. and brother of Andal Ampatuan Jr., the key suspect in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre. The judge said people associated with the powerful Ampatuan clan have been accused of taking part in the massacre, during which 58 people, including 32 journalists, were killed while on their way to file paperwork for a candidate challenging Ampatuan Jr.’s bid for governor.
Reports find Aquino, former police chief Purisima culpable for raid. Senator Grace Poe on March 17 released the results of a U.S. Senate inquiry into the January 25 raid in Mamsapano, southern Philippines, in which 44 police commandos were killed. The report said President Benigno Aquino was ultimately responsible for the botched raid, opening the possibility of impeachment. The report also said then-suspended police chief Alan Purisima was guilty of usurpation of authority for coordinating the raid despite his suspension, while Special Action Force commander Getulio Napeñas, who led the raid, committed criminal misconduct. The Senate report came four days after the release of a police Commission of Inquiry report. Both found that U.S. personnel provided intelligence and training, but did not take part in the raid.
Court halts suspension order against Makati mayor Binay. The Philippine Court of Appeal on March 16 issued a restraining order against a six-month suspension meted out five days earlier against Makati mayor Jejomar Erwin Binay Jr. Both Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and the Department of Interior and Local Government have insisted that the 60-day restraining order is invalid because the suspension order was already carried out and Vice Mayor Romulo Peña was sworn in as acting mayor. The Philippines’ Ombudsman ordered Binay suspended due to a pending graft case, but the mayor has refused to vacate city hall.
National Reform Council member gives timeline for new charter, elections. Alongkorn Polabutr, a senior member of the junta-appointed National Reform Council, on March 11 insisted that Thailand would hold elections in early 2016. Alongkorn, a former deputy leader of the Democrat Party, told an audience at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Bangkok that a new constitution would be prepared by September, necessary bylaws enacted within 60 days after that, and an election held 90 days later, in about February 2015. He noted that holding a referendum on the new constitution would add another 90 days to that timeline.
Junta members to be allowed into post-election politics. Thailand’s Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) on March 13 agreed to allow members of junta-appointed bodies other than itself to participate in politics after elections expected in 2016. The decision applies to members of the National Legislative Assembly, the National Reform Council, the cabinet, and the National Council for Peace and Order. The CDC also announced that it is organizing two new bodies to continue pushing through reforms after elections.
Red Shirts get jail time for 2009 ASEAN Summit invasion. A provincial court in the resort town of Pattaya on March 5 sentenced 15 “Red Shirt” leaders—supporters of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra—to four years in jail for their involvement in storming the April 2009 ASEAN Summit venue in Pattaya. The Red Shirts’ actions forced the government to cancel the meeting and caused national embarrassment for Thailand. The convicted leaders plan to appeal the verdict.
Central bank unexpectedly cuts interest rate. The Bank of Thailand on March 11 unexpectedly cut its key interest rate for the first time in a year, to 1.75 percent from 2 percent. The rate cut coincided with news that Thailand's exports fell for a second straight year in 2014—the first back-to-back drops in at least two decades. Consumer prices declined 0.52 percent in February from a year earlier, after contracting 0.41 percent in January. Thailand last experienced deflation in 2009 when the benchmark rate was 1.25 percent.
Attorney general files charges against former commerce minister, 20 others. Thailand's attorney general on March 16 filed graft charges against former commerce minister Boonsong Teriyapirom and 20 others for their role in the costly rice subsidy program of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration. Thailand’s Supreme Court will decide in April whether to accept the case, which could result in life sentences. It will also decide this week whether to accept a criminal case filed against Yingluck over her role in the program. The junta-appointed interim Parliament impeached Yingluck in January for her role in the program.
Lee Kuan Yew’s condition worsens. Singapore’s government on March 17 announced that former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s condition has worsened due to an infection. Lee, 91, was admitted to Singapore General Hospital with severe pneumonia on February 5 and has been in intensive care since then. The government said on February 28 that Lee’s condition had improved slightly after his being placed on antibiotics and his doctors held out hope for his recovery. The city-state’s founding father has publicly said he has an advanced medical directive stating he is not to be kept on life support if he is unlikely to recover.
GlaxoSmithKline moves Asian HQ to Singapore. UK-listed drug maker GlaxoSmithKline has announced plans to make Singapore its new Asian headquarters, according to a March 11 Financial Times report. The pharmaceutical manufacturer currently runs its Asian business from its London office. It plans to add 100 new jobs to its existing 1,600-person staff in Singapore, including shifting some of its U.S. and UK staff to the city-state as part of the transition. The decision comes as GlaxoSmithKline is dealing with a Chinese court’s September 2014 ruling that the company had bribed doctors in China and must pay nearly $500 million in penalties.
German graffiti vandals ordered jailed, caned. A Singapore court on March 5 sentenced two German men, 22-year-old Andreas Von Knorre and 21-year-old Elton Hinz, to nine months in prison and three strokes of the cane for spray-painting a public train car. The two have been in prison since November 2014 and will have time served counted against their sentence. They fled Singapore after breaking into a suburban train depot and vandalizing the train car in November, but were caught later that month in Malaysia and extradited back to the city-state.
U.S.-based exchange delays Singapore launch after Chinese legal threat. U.S.-based Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) has delayed until mid-2015 the planned launch this month of a Singapore futures exchange following a threat of legal action from China-based Zhengzhou Commodity Exchange (ZCE), according to a March 10 Financial Times report. The Chinese exchange in December sent ICE a cease and desist letter over the planned inclusion of sugar and cotton futures that are copies of contracts it offers, even though such “lookalike” contracts are common practice in the industry.
U.S. unions halt political donations to lawmakers in attempt to stop trade bill. Dozens of U.S. unions plan to freeze political donations to lawmakers in an effort to pressure them to oppose the proposed Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill, according to a March 10 Wall Street Journal report. This could complicate President Barack Obama’s efforts to obtain TPA from Congress, as unions are an important constituency for the Democratic Party. Unions have been concerned that the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement will send more jobs to low-wage countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia.
U.S. lawmakers criticize investor-state dispute settlement mechanism. Senator Elizabeth Warren in a March 11 call with the media stepped up her criticism of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, especially its proposed investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism. Warren has emerged as a leading voice opposing the TPP in the Democratic Party. Warren claims that the ISDS mechanism is an opaque system that infringes on U.S. sovereignty by allowing foreign companies to challenge U.S. laws.
Negotiators hold bilateral and group talks to resolve remaining issues. Negotiators held group and bilateral negotiations from March 10 to 15 in Hawaii in an effort to resolve outstanding issues, including market access, rules of origin, textiles, and intellectual property. Negotiators are stepping up efforts to find “landing zones,” or potential compromises, for outstanding issues before sending the text to their ministers for conclusion of the talks. A final meeting of Trans-Pacific Partnership ministers is expected to take place in late May.
Lack of progress on U.S. Trade Promotion Authority bill saps momentum from TPP talks. The recent delay in introducing a Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill in the U.S. Congress has sapped momentum toward the completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, according to a March 11 Inside U.S. Trade report. Other countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations have become reluctant to compromise on sensitive issues in recent rounds as they become uncertain about whether a final deal can get through Congress.
U.S., Japan fail to make progress on autos and agricultural market access in bilateral talks. Japan’s minister of state for economic and fiscal policy, Akira Amari, on March 11 told the media that Japan and the United States had failed to make significant progress on auto and agricultural market access issues in recent bilateral talks. Outstanding issues include U.S. tariffs on auto parts and the U.S. demand for more access to Japan’s heavily protected rice market. Amari said another working-level meeting on those issues would be needed before ministers could finalize an agreement.
South China Sea
Philippines submits additional materials to tribunal. The Philippine government on March 17 announced that it had submitted over 3,000 pages of additional materials to the tribunal hearing its case against China’s claims in the South China Sea. The five-judge panel at the Permanent Court of Arbitration had given Manila until March 15 to address specific questions regarding jurisdiction and the merits of the case. China will have until June 16 to respond to the additional materials supplied by the Philippines, though it has so far refused to take part in the proceedings.
Chinese ships attempt to prevent resupply of Second Thomas Shoal. Chinese Coast Guard ships on March 10 attempted to prevent a Philippine naval vessel from resupplying eight marines aboard the derelict BRP Sierra Madre on Second Thomas Shoal, about 100 nautical miles off the Philippine coast. The Coast Guard vessels reportedly circled the Philippine ship and blared sirens, but refrained from the more dangerous maneuvers employed in March 2014 to prevent resupply of the garrison. The Chinese vessels broke off the pursuit when the Philippine ship entered shallower waters around the shoal.
Parliament passes new election law. Lawmakers on March 19 passed a new election law that has been in the works for months. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party and opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party agreed on a final draft of the legislation on March 6. Civil society groups criticized the law as unconstitutional because it prohibits nongovernmental organizations from making speeches that may be deemed insulting or biased toward any party or candidate during election campaigns.
Michelle Obama to promote education for women on trip to Cambodia. The White House on March 2 announced that first lady Michelle Obama will travel to Cambodia on March 21 and 22 after visiting Japan. Her visit is part of the Let Girls Learn initiative and will focus on issues that prevent women from attending school or completing their education, such as reproductive and sexual health, gender-based violence, and early or forced marriage. Obama will be the first sitting first lady to visit Cambodia.
Prime Minister Hun Sen announces new industrial policy. Prime Minister Hun Sen on March 6 announced the Industrial Development Policy 2015–2025, a roadmap that aims to increase the contribution of manufacturing to Cambodia’s economy. The new policy seeks to boost manufacturing from its current 24.1 percent of gross domestic product to 30 percent by 2025. The government roadmap announced four main pillars to attract more foreign direct investment, including modernizing small and medium-sized enterprises and improving the regulatory framework to boost competitiveness.
Cambodia reaches out to the producer of The Killing Fields for advice on rebranding. Commerce Minister Sun Chanthol on March 5 said that the government wants to rebrand Cambodia’s international image in an effort to attract more investors. Chanthol said the government reached out to David Puttnam, producer of The Killing Fields, a movie about the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that ruled the country in the 1970s, for advice on marketing strategy. Coca-Cola will also take part in a branding seminar in Cambodia scheduled for March 27.
WHO broadens health sector support. The World Health Organization (WHO) and Laos’s Ministry of Health on March 10 signed a 2015 annual funding plan through which the WHO will provide Laos with $4.2 million. Apart from supporting the country’s healthcare needs, the funding will also specifically target communicable disease surveillance and response, immunization, and maternal and child health.
Laos and Japan upgrade relationship to strategic partnership. Lao prime minister Thongsing Thammavong and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe on March 6 agreed to upgrade bilateral ties to a strategic partnership at a summit in Tokyo commemorating 60 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Japan is Laos’s largest provider of official development assistance, and Abe assured his Lao counterpart that his government will continue to support Laos’s development.
Laos and Vietnam sign free trade agreement. The Vietnamese and Lao governments on March 3 signed a free trade agreement that will eliminate tariffs on 95 percent of goods traded between the two countries. The agreement will come into effect once domestic ratification procedures are complete.
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