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NLD spokesperson says Rohingya entitled to human rights as government brushes off blame for boat people crisis. A spokesperson for the opposition National League for Democracy on May 18 said Muslim Rohingyas who live in western Myanmar are entitled to human rights and urged the government to give them a chance to obtain citizenship. Thousands of Rohingya, who face persecution in Myanmar, have fled by boat in recent weeks to try to reach neighboring countries, causing a crisis in the region’s seas. U.S. deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken during a visit on May 21 called on Myanmar to work with regional partners to address the situation, and the U.S. government said it is willing to take in some Rohingya refugees. Naypyidaw has blamed the exodus on human traffickers who preyed on the impoverished group.
Obama renews authority to maintain sanctions; U.S. reiterates concern over race and religion protection bills. President Barack Obama on May 15 notified the U.S. Congress that he was renewing his authority to maintain sanctions against Myanmar for another year. Obama cited ongoing conflicts and human rights abuses in ethnic minority areas, particularly in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State, as causes for concern. The State Department on May 19 expressed concern that the population control bill, which President Thein Sein has signed into law, as well as three other race and religion protection bills, could lead to further marginalization of minority groups in Myanmar.
Thein Sein pushes for political dialogue with ethnic groups before election. President Thein Sein on May 18 met with nearly 130 leaders of ethnic political parties to discuss the nationwide cease-fire process, the upcoming national elections in November, and the problem of land disputes in Myanmar. Thein Sein said that his government wants to begin political dialogue with ethnic stakeholders before the election, a position that the military has not supported. The government hopes to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement with ethnic armed groups in May.
Military blames Kokang rebels for artillery fire in China; martial law extended in Kokang region. Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing on May 18 told Chinese ambassador to Myanmar Yang Houlan that the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, also known as the Kokang, was responsible for artillery fire on May 14 along the China-Myanmar border that injured five people in Yunnan Province. Meanwhile, presidential spokesperson Ye Htut said the same day that an investigation into who caused the shelling was still under way. Parliament on May 15 extended martial law for another 90 days in the Kokang region, where fighting has raged since February.
Court sentences Letpadaung copper mine activists to four years in prison. A court on May 15 sentenced six activists who protested in front of the Chinese Embassy last year to four years and four months in prison with hard labor. The activists were demanding an investigation into the shooting death of a protester during a police crackdown last December on local farmers who objected to the environmental impact and expansion of the Letpadaung copper mine, a Chinese-backed project in northwestern Myanmar. They had previously been charged with violating the peaceful assembly act.
Indonesia, Malaysia agree to temporarily take in boat people. The foreign ministries of Indonesia and Malaysia on May 20 agreed to provide up to a year of humanitarian assistance and shelter for as many as 7,000 Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants left adrift in Southeast Asian waters. Both countries refused for days to allow migrants’ boats to reach their shores, saying they could not take in any more after rescuing about 1,600 and letting hundreds more come ashore the week before. Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s navies have since joined the search for stranded boat people in the region’s waters. Thailand has agreed to create a transit area for migrants but will not allow them to stay in Thailand.
Supreme Court declares Bakrie leader of Golkar. An Indonesian court on May 18 ruled that Aburizal Bakrie was the legitimate leader of the Golkar party, overturning a March decision by Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly in favor of Bakrie’s rival, Agung Laksono. Golkar has been split since members who were disgruntled by Bakrie’s decision as party chair to align with losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto in the 2014 election held their own party convention and selected Agung as chair. Bakrie plans to keep Golkar in the opposition. Agung had said he would bring the party into President Joko Widodo’s coalition.
Indonesia sinks Chinese fishing boat. Indonesian authorities on May 20 blew up 41 empty boats, including a large Chinese vessel, which had engaged in illegal fishing in Indonesia’s waters. President Joko Widodo’s government has launched a tough campaign to combat illegal fishing by neighboring states, the centerpiece of which has been the policy of sinking boats, but this was the first time a Chinese vessel was destroyed. China’s Foreign Ministry on May 21 voiced “serious concern” about the incident.
World Bank offers $11 billion for infrastructure projects. World Bank president Jim Yong Kim on May 20 offered Indonesia up to $11 billion in loans over three to four years to fund roads, seaports, and improvements to the Indonesian workforce. President Joko Widodo has committed to invest over $400 billion in infrastructure projects over the next five years. He secured $63 billion from Chinese companies and another $9 billion from Japanese companies during a March trip to Beijing and Tokyo.
WTO to examine U.S., New Zealand complaints against Indonesian agricultural import restrictions. The World Trade Organization (WTO) on May 20 agreed to create a panel of experts to study complaints filed by the United States and New Zealand against Indonesian restrictions on the import of agricultural products. U.S. and New Zealand authorities insist that Indonesian restrictions on fruits, vegetables, beef, and poultry violate WTO rules. The panel, which will likely take several months to reach a decision, could authorize retaliatory trade measures if it finds in favor of the United States and New Zealand.
Regional states to gather for summit on boat people. More than 20 nations and international organization have said they will attend a May 29 summit in Bangkok that the Thai government is hosting in the hopes of coming up with a regional response to the crisis of asylum seekers fleeing Bangladesh and Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Malaysian authorities on May 24 discovered a series of graves in abandoned camps along the Thailand-Malaysia border containing the remains of hundreds of Rohingya Muslims. Myanmar previously threatened to boycott the meeting if the issue of its treatment of the Rohingya minority was on the agenda, but has since said it will attend.
Deputy Secretary of State Blinken visits Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Vietnam from May 16 to 19, where he met with senior Vietnamese officials and civil society representatives. Blinken said at a press conference in Ho Chi Minh City that the upcoming visit to the United States of the head of the Vietnamese Communist Party will help create a common vision for future U.S.-Vietnam relations. Blinken on May 20 visited Indonesia, where he discussed preparations for President Joko Widodo’s first visit to the United States later this year and called on Southeast Asian countries to act jointly to assist Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar.
Vietnam and India sign five-year defense agreement. Vietnamese defense minister Phung Quang Thanh and his Indian counterpart, Manohar Parrikar, on May 25 signed a five-year joint vision statement on bilateral defense cooperation during Thanh’s visit to New Delhi. During Thanh’s visit, the Indian and Vietnamese coast guards also signed a memorandum of understanding to advance cooperation, according to the Vietnamese government. The two countries have sought to strengthen their defense ties, especially in the maritime sector, in the wake of China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Vietnam shops for U.S. military hardware in bid to diversify defense assets. Senior Vietnamese military officers on April 22 met with more than a dozen U.S. defense contractors in Hanoi, including Boeing, BAE Systems, and Lockheed Martin, in a meeting organized by the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi as Vietnam looks to beef up its maritime defenses. U.S. defense contractors have sought to engage Vietnam following the partial easing of the U.S. ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Hanoi last October. Vietnam’s military spending reached $4.3 billion in 2014, an increase of 128 percent since 2005.
Vietnam, China discuss border defense cooperation. Senior Vietnamese and Chinese defense officials held their second border exchange at the ministerial level along the shared China-Vietnam border from May 15 to 18. The two countries’ border guards conducted a joint patrol on the Vietnamese side of the Hekou border crossing and held talks on security issues in Mengzi City in Yunnan Province. The exchange was an effort to build confidence amid rising tensions in the South China Sea.
Government cracks down on activists. Authorities on May 18 briefly detained prominent blogger Dung Mai at the Hanoi airport after he returned from a workshop on citizen journalism in Singapore, according to a Radio Free Asia report. Meanwhile, plainclothes police officers on May 19 assaulted outspoken anti-China activist Nguyen Chi Tuyen in Hanoi during a weeklong U.S.-Vietnam human rights dialogue. The government has not made new arrests of bloggers since January but continues to intimidate individuals with dissenting opinions.
Cabinet agrees to charter referendum; election now expected in late 2016. Thailand’s cabinet and the National Council for Peace and Order on May 19 agreed to hold a national referendum on the draft charter. The referendum is tentatively scheduled for January 16, 2016, pending approval by the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly. The government also said the referendum would further delay elections for a return to civilian rule until August or September 2016 at the earliest.
Yingluck pleads not guilty. Former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra on May 19 pleaded not guilty to charges of negligence concerning her government’s rice-pledging scheme that allegedly cost Thailand approximately $18 billion. The Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Political Office Holders released Yingluck on nearly $900,000 bail but banned her from leaving the country without the court's permission. Yingluck could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Civil Aviation Department to be restructured following Japanese ban. Transport Minister Prajin Juntong on May 20 said that the cabinet had approved the restructuring of Thailand’s Civil Aviation Department into two new organizations in the wake of Japan’s decision to ban new chartered flights from Thailand. The National Civil Aviation Institute will act as an independent regulator, while the Airport Department will be responsible for airport management. Japan banned new charter flights from Thailand because of the Thai aviation industries’ failure to meet international standards.
Government restarting talks with insurgents in southern Thailand. Thai authorities on May 12 confirmed that the government is seeking to restart peace talks with insurgents in southern Thailand. Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said previous talks were unsuccessful because insurgent negotiators were not “genuine” representatives of rebel groups and that the government is looking into alternatives. Talks are expected to begin in June, with Malaysia continuing to act as the facilitator and with the expressed aim of reducing violence in the region.
House of Representatives debates amended Bangsamoro law. The House of Representatives ad hoc committee deliberating the Bangsamoro Basic Law, aimed at ending decades of conflict between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and government forces in the southern Philippines, opened debate on a new working draft on May 18. The new draft reintroduced six sections removed from a previous draft. The most controversial provision, which would allow neighboring districts to join the autonomous Bangsamoro region via a plebiscite, was reintroduced but reworded to allow only two opportunities for such votes, 5 and 10 years after the law is enacted. MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said he is 90 percent satisfied with the new draft.
Rubber slipper factory fire kills more than 70 workers. A fire broke out on May 13 at a Kentex Manufacturing Corporation slipper factory north of Manila, killing 72 workers in one of the deadliest industrial blazes in Philippine history. The fire started when welders accidentally ignited chemicals used in the production process. Workers fled to the second floor but were prevented from escaping by iron grills covering windows. A spokesperson for President Benigno Aquino said Kentex was compliant with occupational safety requirements as of a September 2014 inspection despite not having a sprinkler system installed.
Anti-Money Laundering Council freezes vice president’s bank accounts. The Philippine Court of Appeals on May 11 granted a petition by the country’s Anti-Money Laundering Council for a six-month freeze on 242 bank accounts, investments, and insurance policies belonging to Vice President Jejomar Binay, members of his family, and close associates. The council is investigating Binay and his associates regarding alleged irregularities in the construction of a Makati City Hall parking structure during the vice president’s term as mayor.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front moves to register political party for elections. United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP) secretary-general Naguib Sinarimbo on May 7 filed the party’s application for accreditation with the Philippine Commission on Elections. The party, which the Moro Islamic Liberation Front established in 2014, expects to take part in elections in the envisioned Bangsamoro autonomous region in 2016. The UBJP has party members throughout Mindanao, including Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
House of Representatives approves three economic measures. The Philippine House of Representatives on May 19 approved three priority economic bills that the government hopes to enact into law before the Congress adjourns in June. Lawmakers approved the Philippine Competition Act, which was first introduced in 1987 and seeks to control monopolies and unfair trade practices. Lawmakers also passed the Philippine Archipelagic Sea Lanes act, which opens routes for foreign sea and air vessels through local waters, and revisions to the national Cabotage Law to allow foreign companies to ship goods from port to port within the Philippines rather than relying on local partners.
Najib says he has support of UMNO Supreme Council, BN can win in next election. Prime Minister Najib Razak on May 11 said the Supreme Council of the ruling United Malay National Organization (UMNO) has expressed united support for him, amid efforts by Najib’s opponents to force him to resign over mismanagement of state investment fund 1 Malaysia Development Bhd. Najib also denied rumors of a split between him and Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and said that the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition can win the next general election if UMNO fully supports him.
Investigation committee begins 1MDB probe, Mahathir calls for independent body. The Public Accounts Committee, a parliamentary committee tasked with investigating the troubled state investment fund 1 Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), on May 19 began summoning key government officials for questioning. The committee, which consists of eight lawmakers from the ruling coalition and five from the opposition, will conduct its probe separately from the attorney general’s office, which is expected to release a report on 1MDB in the coming months. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad recently said he wants a body other than the attorney general’s office to handle the investigation.
Opposition party DAP sets up own shadow cabinet, PAS threatens to cut ties. The opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) on May 19 established its own shadow cabinet despite an earlier proposal by newly appointed opposition leader Wan Azizah Wan Ismail that the three parties in the opposition coalition form a joint shadow cabinet. DAP chief Lim Guan Eng refuted Wan Azizah’s call on grounds that he has lost confidence in opposition partner Abdul Hadi Awang, who heads the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). Hadi Awang on May 22 responded that he was ready to sever all ties with DAP following Lim’s announcement.
Najib unveils $72 billion economic stimulus in 11th Malaysia Plan. Prime Minister Najib Razak on May 21 tabled a $72 billion economic stimulus package as part of Malaysia’s next five-year plan in an effort to revive a slowing economy amid a drop in global oil prices. The 11th Malaysia Plan aims to boost economic growth by 5 to 6 percent annually by creating high-paying jobs and attracting investment in sectors such as public infrastructure and green technology. Parliament is set to debate the plan for six days starting on May 25.
U.S. ambassador urges careful consideration of draft NGO law. U.S. ambassador to Cambodia William Todd on May 17 urged the Cambodian government in a letter to consider the effect that a draft law to regulate nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) would have on Cambodia’s international image if it were passed. The ambassador called on the government to release the draft law for public comments, as civil society leaders have expressed concern that such legislation may be used to curtail dissent. Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong described Todd’s letter as “extremely insolent.”
Hun Sen threatens to strip Kem Sokha of his role in the National Assembly. Prime Minister Hun Sen on May 19 threatened to strip Kem Sokha, deputy president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, of his role as deputy speaker of the National Assembly in response to a speech Sokha made the day before accusing the ruling Cambodian People’s Party of trying to divide the opposition. Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy earlier agreed to refrain from harsh criticism of each other as part of a new “culture of dialogue.”
CNRP-affiliated television station will be allowed on air by end of 2015. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, during a visit to the United States on May 14, told Radio Free Asia that the government has allowed a television station affiliated with the Cambodia National Rescue Party to begin broadcasting by the end of the year. A private company will run the channel, which will also allow other political parties and nongovernmental organizations to use its airtime. Nearly all television stations operating in Cambodia are under the control of the government or ruling party.
Senate commission investigates land disputes in 11 provinces. A Senate commission on May 19 launched an inquiry into land disputes in 11 provinces, based on data provided by local rights group Licadho. A report released by the group in March and denounced by the government states that over 8,100 square miles in land concessions have been made, primarily to foreign-owned companies. The probe was welcomed by local residents, who have often been inadequately compensated for and forcibly required to vacate their land to make way for dam construction or extractive mining operations.
Singapore hosts Asia maritime defense exposition. Singapore hosted Asia’s largest maritime defense trade fair, the International Maritime Defense Exhibition and Conference, from May 19 to 21 at the Changi Exhibition Center. Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said in his opening remarks that the region’s waters face increasing risks from territorial disputes, the threat of maritime terrorism, and piracy and sea robbery. Ng called on littoral countries in Asia to embrace greater multilateral cooperation to reduce miscalculations at sea and build capacity to respond to these challenges.
China infrastructure bank founding members hold three-day meeting in Singapore. Founding members of the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank met in Singapore from May 20 to 22 to discuss operational policies for establishing the bank. Negotiators from founding member countries finalized the Articles of Agreement for the bank and agreed to sign it by the end of June in Beijing. Negotiators also discussed capital allocation for the bank based on the gross domestic product of member countries.
Opposition politician applies to establish political party. Goh Meng Seng, a former member of the opposition National Solidarity Party and Workers’ Party, on May 15 applied to register a new political party, the People's Power Party. Goh said that his party will push for a governance structure that balances social, cultural, political, and economic tenets, and seek to address what he described as the ruling People’s Action Party’s restriction of freedom of expression online.
Singapore customs seize over 4 tons of illegal ivory destined for Vietnam. Authorities on May 19 seized a shipment of over 4 tons of illegal ivory from Kenya that was being transited through Singapore en route to Vietnam. The shipment, declared as tea leaves, was valued at $6 million and was since 2002. Customs officials also discovered rhino horn and canine teeth as part of the shipment.
South China Sea
Senior U.S. officials urge China to reduce tensions, clarify reclamation. Secretary of State John Kerry on May 16 expressed concern during a meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, in Beijing that China should do more to reduce tensions in the South China Sea and seek diplomatic solutions to the disputes. Kerry also raised the South China Sea in discussions with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Three days later, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michelle Howard in a visit to Singapore called on China to clarify the purpose of its reclamation activities and offered U.S. support for Southeast Asian states taking a unified stance on the disputes.
Pentagon debates freedom of navigation operations near reclaimed features. The Pentagon is considering “freedom of navigation” operations near some of China’s reclaimed features in the South China Sea, according to unnamed officials cited in a May 12 Wall Street Journal article. Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear said during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing the next day that he could not discuss potential operations. The proposed operations would likely involve a Navy ship transiting within 12 nautical miles of reclaimed features that were originally submerged, such as Mischief Reef and Subi Reef, to assert that as artificial islands they are not entitled to a territorial sea.
U.S. naval vessel on patrol meets Chinese military vessels in South China Sea. The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth on May 13 completed a weeklong patrol of the South China Sea, including near the disputed Spratly Islands, during which the U.S. Navy said it encountered several Chinese warships and was trailed at least once by a Chinese frigate. The Fort Worth, which is on a rotational deployment to Singapore, used agreed-upon codes for unplanned encounters with the Chinese vessels.
China reinstitutes annual moratorium on fishing in part of South China Sea. China on May 16 reinstituted its annual ban on fishing in areas of the South China Sea north of the 12th parallel. The ban runs through August 1 and covers disputed waters around the Paracel Islands as well as part of a joint fishing area in the Gulf of Tonkin that Beijing and Hanoi agreed upon in 2000. Vietnam’s government strongly objected to the unilateral ban, which each year leads to sometimes-violent clashes between Chinese authorities and Vietnamese fishermen.
Senate approves TPA, “fast-track” battle moves to House. The U.S. Senate on May 22 voted to renew Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) for three years with the option of extending it for another three years, paving the way for President Barack Obama to conclude negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement with 11 other countries. The bill includes amendments that call on the U.S. government to prevent countries from manipulating exchange rates and take into account a potential trade partner’s record on religious freedom. Obama called on the House of Representatives to pass TPA as soon as possible.
Chief negotiators meet in Guam, TPP ministerial dependent on “fast-track” authority. Chief negotiators from the 12 Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) countries met in Guam from May 14 to 28 to discuss the remaining outstanding issues in the trade talks, including intellectual property, state-owned enterprises, market access, rules of origin for textiles, and the environment, according to a May 14 Inside U.S. Trade report. TPP countries initially planned to hold the final ministerial meeting in late May, but had to delay the meeting until after passage of the Trade Promotion Authority bill.
Secretary of State makes case for “fast-track” during speech at Boeing plant. Secretary of State John Kerry on May 19 urged the U.S. Congress to give President Barack Obama fast-track authority during a speech at a Boeing plant near Seattle, Washington, as the U.S. government seeks to conclude negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. Kerry said the United States cannot grow its economy without selling to foreign markets and assured the audience that the TPP will set the highest standards to protect workers and the environment. The House of Representatives is expected to introduce its version of the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill in the coming weeks following the Senate’s approval of TPA.
U.S. ambassador holds weeklong anticorruption workshop with Lao government. U.S. ambassador to Laos Daniel Clune on May 18 launched a weeklong workshop in Vang Vieng, north of the capital of Vientiane, on best investigative practices and combatting money laundering with Laosand combatting money laundering with Laosspeech was pard Anti-Corruption Authority, and the American Bar Association. Clune said that the U.S. government is ready to support the work of the agency in any way it can. Laos ranked 145 out of 174 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2014.
ADB study finds that poverty has decreased, inequality has risen. A study by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) released on May 19 found that inequality has increased in Laos even as market-oriented reforms have led to strong economic growth in recent years. Study coauthors Jayant Menon and Peter Warr estimate that the rate of absolute poverty dropped from 46 percent to 23 percent between 1993 and 2013 while the Gini coefficient—an index used to measure social inequality—increased from 0.31 to 0.36 over the same period.
Government imposes midnight ban on shops, restaurants. The municipal department of Bandar Seri Begawan on May 14 issued a circular, effective immediately, ordering all shops and restaurants to close at midnight, according to a May 15 Brunei Times report. The midnight ban will be applied nationwide and also apply to street vendors. Businesses that are found violating the ban can risk being suspended or having their licenses revoked.
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