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Kokang militia calls for dialogue as fighting continues. Tun Myat Lin, a spokesperson for the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), on February 22 told Mizzima that the Kokang militia and the Myanmar government should enter into a political dialogue as soon as possible to end the current fighting in northern Shan State. Fierce fighting has continued, with dozens killed on both sides and tens of thousands of civilians forced to flee over the border to China or to other areas of Shan State.
Upper House passes controversial population control law. The Upper House of Myanmar’s parliament on February 18 passed the Population Control Healthcare Bill, which would limit mothers in designated areas to having one child every three years. Observers fear the bill will be used to target the country’s Muslim population, especially the Rohingya in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The bill is the first of four controversial laws intended to protect “race and religion” to pass the Upper House. The Lower House must still pass the bill before it is sent to President Thein Sein.
Drug-resistant malaria discovered in western Myanmar. Malaria with complete resistance to the drug artemisinin has been discovered near the Indian-Myanmar border, according to a study published on February 19 in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal. The team that wrote the study collected 940 parasite samples at 55 treatment centers across Myanmar, finding almost 40 percent of samples to be artemisinin-resistant. Artemisinin is the primary, and most effective, drug used to combat malaria. Scientists fear that if the resistant strain spreads to India it will prove impossible to contain.
Foreign loans face tough approval process from Central Bank. The Myanmar Central Bank is carefully scrutinizing all incoming foreign loans, resulting in many being delayed or rejected, according to a February 22 Myanmar Times article. The bank implemented a new evaluation policy approximately six months ago that involves strictly evaluating a prospective loan’s interest rate, currency, and the legitimacy of the investment. Under the new system the minimum approval time is two weeks, but loans can take as long as two to three months to process.
U.N. human rights chief warns abuses could derail reform. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on February 25 issued a press release calling on Myanmar to rectify recent backsliding on reforms and get its transition to democracy and national reconciliation “back on track.” Hussein pointed to troubling restrictions on freedom of expression, peaceful protest, and minority rights. He specifically criticized government decisions to draft four controversial laws on race and religion, and prevent certain non-citizen permanent residents who hold “white cards” from voting.
Indonesia to press on with executions despite international condemnation. Indonesia on March 4 transferred Australian drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran from a prison in Bali to a facility off the coast of Java for execution. They are among 10 prisoners that Indonesian authorities on February 24 confirmed would be executed by firing squad for drug offenses despite calls for clemency. The leaders of Australia, Brazil, and France, whose citizens are among those to be executed, have appealed directly to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo for mercy, without success.
Brazil refuses credentials of Indonesian ambassador. Indonesia on February 20 recalled its newly appointed ambassador to Brazil after that country’s president, Dilma Rousseff, refused to accept his credentials. Brazil joined the Netherlands in withdrawing its ambassador to Indonesia in January after Jakarta executed a Brazilian and a Dutch national for drug offenses despite pleas for clemency. Indonesian authorities plan to execute another Brazilian for drug smuggling. An Indonesian House of Representatives commission on February 24 said it is considering canceling orders for weapons systems from Brazil.
Anti-Corruption Commission preparing for flood of pretrial motions. Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) chairman Taufiequrachman Ruki on February 25 said the commission anticipates a deluge of pretrial motions by graft suspects following former National Police chief nominee Budi Gunawan’s successful challenge on February 16. A Jakarta court threw out the KPK’s case against Budi, saying the commission lacked jurisdiction to investigate him. The day after Ruki’s warning, former state legislator Sutan Bhatoegana became the third corruption suspect to file a pretrial motion to have his case dismissed.
Jakarta court throws PPP leadership back into turmoil. A Jakarta court on February 25 struck down a November 2014 ministerial decree recognizing Muhammad Romahurmuziy as the leader of the United Development Party (PPP). The ruling reopens a struggle between Romahurmuziy and Djan Faridz for leadership of the party. The PPP split into two factions in October 2014 following the ouster of former leader Suryadharma Ali. Under Romahurmuziy the party joined President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s coalition. Djan would reverse that decision.
General Motors to close assembly plant, cut 500 jobs. U.S. automaker General Motors on February 26 announced that it will permanently shut its factory in Bekasi, outside of Jakarta, by June due to poor sales of the Chevrolet Spin that it produced for the Indonesian market. The factory, opened in 1995, restarted operations in 2013 after sitting idle since 2005. General Motors still hopes to revive its Indonesian business by partnering with China’s SAIC Motor Corp. on a smaller, more modern minivan factory near Jakarta.
Indonesia to take part in trials for better tracking of aircraft. Indonesia will take part in trial flights this summer organized by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to test technologies allowing better tracking of jetliners, according to a March 2 Wall Street Journal article. Governments and airlines from China, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, and the United States will take part in the trials, which are meant to prove the feasibility of new standards proposed by the ICAO under which aircraft will provide position reports every 15 minutes in an effort to prevent a repeat of events like the March 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Philippine army launches offensive against rebels. Philippine troops on March 2 seized a Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) camp in the southern Philippines. The camp is located near the site of the botched January 25 raid during which BIFF and Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters killed 44 police commandos. Army chief of staff Gregorio Catapang Jr. on February 25 ordered an offensive to “finish off” the BIFF. Meanwhile, between February 24 and 27, the military killed 24 members of the Islamist terrorist group Abu Sayyaf.
U.S. Special Forces pulling out of Philippines. U.S. soldiers held a flag-raising ceremony in the southern Philippines’ Zamboanga City on February 24 to mark the official deactivation of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines. The 13-year mission to help the Philippine military fight Abu Sayyaf and other terrorist groups involved between 500 and 600 U.S. troops, including Special Forces, in noncombat roles. A small number of U.S. troops are expected to remain in the Philippines to help in the fight against Abu Sayyaf.
Mizuho looks to buy a $500 million-plus stake in Philippines’ Bank of Commerce. Japan’s third-largest bank by revenue, Mizuho Financial Group, has opened negotiations to purchase San Miguel Corp.’s 60 percent stake, worth more than $500 million, in the Bank of Commerce, according to a February 18 Wall Street Journal report. The Bank of Commerce is the Philippines’ 15th largest by assets. Mizuho trails competitors like Mitsubishi and Sumitomo in efforts to expand into Southeast Asian financial markets.
Vice president’s son arrested for contempt in Senate graft investigation. Makati mayor Jojomar Erwin Binay, son of Vice President Jejomar Binay, was arrested on February 29 for contempt after repeatedly refusing to appear before a Senate committee looking into graft allegations against him and his father. The elder Binay previously served as Makati mayor as well. Former officials have filed charges against both for plunder during their terms as mayor. Meanwhile the Anti-Money Laundering Council that same week asked the Philippine Court of Appeals for permission to inspect the vice president’s bank accounts.
Former prime minister, deputy face possible impeachment. Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Commission on February 23 said former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy, Suthep Thaugsuban, will face retroactive impeachment proceedings over alleged abuse of power for ordering a crackdown on protesters in 2010 that left approximately 90 people dead. Abhisit and Suthep are prominent members of the Democrat Party, which has largely escaped the wrath of Thailand’s military regime, unlike the Pheu Thai Party of ousted prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra. Abhisit and Suthep face five-year bans from politics if impeached.
Government to indict 269 former lawmakers for misconduct. Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Commission on February 24 announced that it will indict 269 former lawmakers for misconduct for approving a bill in 2013 that would have made the country’s Senate fully elected. The commission said it will seek to impeach the lawmakers because the bill was illegally altered after it was first submitted to the House of Representatives. The Constitutional Court struck down the bill for violating a section of the former charter that bans attempts to overthrow the monarchy or illegally seize power. If impeached, the lawmakers will be banned from politics for five years.
Draft constitution calls for appointed Senate, dissolution of Parliament via confidence vote. The junta-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee on February 26 announced that under the draft charter, the 200-member Senate would be fully appointed rather than elected. The charter would also allow nonelected officials to become prime minister, and would require the House of Representatives to be dissolved and new elections held if the opposition won a no-confidence vote. Critics have widely panned the proposed charter as an attempt to weaken the power of elected officials.
Study finds 80 percent of SMEs lack sufficient understanding of ASEAN integration. More than 80 percent of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Thailand lack sufficient understanding of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) to benefit from the trade liberalization and labor migration that will follow its implementation at the end of 2015, according to a Centre for International Trade Studies survey published on February 25 by the Nation. The study found that this lack is due mostly to inadequate provision of information by the government. Local manufacturers are the least informed, followed by those engaged in trade and services.
Lee Kuan Yew in hospital in serious condition. Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, 91, was hospitalized on February 5 with severe pneumonia. He is in the intensive care unit on a ventilator, though doctors have said he could recover. Lee cofounded Singapore’s People’s Action Party and served as prime minister for over 30 years. He remains a popular if divisive figure in the city-state, with a legacy of overseeing remarkable economic growth while curtailing civil liberties.
Government to refine policies restricting hiring of foreign workers. Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said during his annual budget address on February 23 that due to a tightening labor market, the government will ease policies meant to reduce the city-state’s reliance on foreign workers. Authorities will delay by one year a scheduled increase in the levy placed on businesses that hire foreign workers and will cut the levy on hiring foreign domestic workers by half, to about $45. But Tharman insisted that the government’s overall policy of reducing the city-state’s reliance on foreign labor remains unchanged.
More support for elderly included in 2015 budget. Singapore’s government on February 23 released its proposed budget for fiscal year 2015, which includes a new scheme to provide the poorest 30 percent of elderly Singaporeans with a quarterly cash payment to supplement their social security. The payments, which will go to approximately 150,000 seniors, will average $600 each. The scheme is expected to go into effect in early 2016. Parliament is currently debating the proposed budget.
PAS to introduce Islamic law in Kelantan State, sparking showdown with DAP. The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) on February 21 reiterated its plan to introduce hudud, or the Islamic penal code, in the northern state of Kelantan, which it governs. The decision has caused a rift with PAS’s partners in the opposition coalition, the Democratic Action Party and the People’s Justice Party (PKR). Hudud laws are a controversial issue in multi-religious Malaysia. The vice president of PKR, the party of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, acknowledged PAS’s aspirations but said hudud was not on his party’s agenda.
Student activist arrested for speaking at protest in support of Anwar. Malaysian police on February 21 arrested student activist Adam Adli Abdul Halim after he spoke at a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. The rally was held at the Sogo department store in Kuala Lumpur, the site of protests 17 years ago following Anwar’s first sodomy conviction. Police claimed that Adam and other protesters did not obtain authorization to hold the demonstration.
Anwar’s family appeals for royal pardon. Nurul Nuha Anwar, Anwar Ibrahim’s daughter, told the media on February 24 that the opposition leader’s family had sought a royal pardon following his conviction for sodomy. His family said Anwar is a political prisoner and that his health could be at risk in prison. The appeal has delayed Anwar’s ban from politics, which would result from his conviction. Anwar had previously refused to seek a pardon as it would imply an admission of guilt.
Malaysia’s ruling party will not contest by-election for Nik Aziz’s seat. Prime Minister Najib Razak on February 25 said his party, the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), would not contest a by-election to fill the Kelantan State legislative assembly seat of Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the spiritual leader of the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party who died in February. Najib said UMNO wanted to express a sense of unity with the people of Kelantan, a gesture interpreted as UMNO’s outreach to members of Nik Aziz’s party who may want to break from the opposition coalition to join UMNO in government.
State-owned Petronas posts $2.7 billion loss. State-owned oil and gas firm Petronas on February 27 announced that it had posted a $2.7 billion loss for the fourth quarter of 2014. The company announced it will cut investment plans by $8.3 billion and operating expenses by 30 percent. The crude oil price in the last quarter averaged around $70 a barrel compared to $109 over the same period in 2013. The loss will likely hit Malaysia’s budget, given Petronas is expected to cut its dividend payment to the government.
Vietnam plans to sell operating rights for airports. The Vietnamese government plans to sell the operating rights of several airports, including those serving Hanoi and southern Phu Quoc Island, according to a February 26 Thanh Nien News report. The government has asked the Airports Corporation of Vietnam, which runs 22 international and domestic airports, to submit a plan by April. Vietjet Air, a private airline, was recently allowed to buy the rights to operate two airport terminals in Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport.
Access to Google’s website in Vietnam briefly disrupted in hacking attack. Access to Google’s Vietnam website was briefly disrupted on February 23 due to an apparent hacking attack on domain name system servers. No data were stolen, but users were redirected to a page that credited the “Lizard Squad” hacking group for the attack. The same group claimed responsibility for attacks against Sony and Microsoft in December and Malaysia Airlines in January.
Road accidents kill 317 during Tet holiday in Vietnam. Vietnam’s National Traffic Safety Committee on February 23 reported that traffic accidents killed 317 people and injured another 509 during the Tet, or Lunar New Year, holiday in late February. The majority of the road accidents were caused by motorcyclists who broke traffic rules, including by driving under the influence of alcohol or not wearing a helmet
Photo of former party chief removed after social media backlash. One of Vietnam’s top daily newspapers, Tien Phong, on February 23 removed a photo of former Communist Party boss Nong Duc Manh sitting on a golden, throne-like chair in his opulently decorated home. The photo quickly went viral on social media and sparked a debate about official corruption in Vietnam. The newspaper took the photo offline without any correction or explanation. The photo was published amid a campaign to crack down on corruption.
South China Sea
Philippines halts oil exploration in Reed Bank. Energy Secretary Carlos Petilla on February 23 announced that London-listed Forum Energy’s contract to explore for oil and gas in the disputed Reed Bank will be suspended until summer at the urging of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Petilla cited unspecified developments between the Philippines and China as the reason for the suspension. The Department of Energy followed up with a statement on March 2 citing Manila’s ongoing arbitration case for the delay. The department in January gave Forum permission to conduct a drilling survey in 2015. The company’s current contract to explore in the Reed Bank expires in August 2016.
U.S. deploys most-advanced surveillance plane over South China Sea. The U.S. Navy released a statement on February 26 saying it had deployed a P-8A Poseidon—its most-advanced surveillance aircraft—to the Philippines for three weeks until February 21 to fly patrols over the South China Sea. The Navy said such flights will continue. Philippine military spokesperson Col. Restituto Padilla said the United States replaced rotations of older P-3C Orions, which had been operating from the Philippines since 2012, with Poseidons in 2014 but had not announced those flights.
International Organization for Migration to facilitate refugee relocation from Nauru. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) on February 23 released a statement that it will assist with the relocation and integration of refugees from Australian detention centers on Nauru to Cambodia. The statement came after the IOM negotiated a number of key conditions for refugees who opt for relocation. These include access to education and health care, freedom to live anywhere in the country, assistance acclimating to life in Cambodia, and the possibility of Cambodian citizenship.
UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal charges two new suspects. The UN-backed tribunal responsible for trying officials of the former Khmer Rouge regime charged former district commander Im Chaem and former naval chief Meas Muth on March 3 with crimes against humanity, including persecution on political and ethnic grounds and enslavement. The announcement came a week after Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that attempts by the tribunal to charge new suspects could provoke former Khmer Rouge members to take up arms.
Prime Minister Hun Sen announces delay of dam construction amid criticism. Prime Minister Hun Sen on February 24 said that construction of the controversial Areng mega-dam in Cambodia’s southwest will not begin until at least 2018. The Cambodian government had signed an agreement to build the dam with China’s state-owned SinoHydro, but the project faced significant criticism from both opposition and environmental groups, which has apparently caused its delay.
Opposition defector becomes adviser to prime minister. King Norodom Sihamoni on February 18 signed a royal decree naming former opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmaker Van Sam Oeun as a personal adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen. Sam Oeun defected from the CNRP to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party on February 13 amid allegations of having been “bought off.” He will now hold a rank equal to that of a cabinet minister.
Authorities recommend refugee status for 13 Montagnards, deport dozens more. Cambodian authorities on March 2 announced that they had recommended that 13 Montagnards—members of an ethnic minority from Vietnam—be granted refugee status by the Home Ministry. A day earlier, the country representative for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said authorities had arrested 36 Montagnards in Ratanakkiri Province a week earlier and deported them to Vietnam. Human rights group Adhoc said a local villager who tried to help the Montagnards was also arrested and his whereabouts remain unknown. Ratanakkiri police have denied arresting the Montagnards.
U.S. lawmakers negotiate details of TPA legislation. Senior U.S. lawmakers, including Senator Orrin Hatch and Senator Ron Wyden, respectively the chair and ranking minority member of the Senate Finance Committee, have yet to reach agreement on a Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill that would allow easier passage of a final Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, according to a February 26 Inside U.S. Trade report. The senators missed their informal target of late February to introduce a TPA bill due to this disagreement.
Negotiators to meet in Hawaii in mid-March; ministers’ meeting pushed back to mid-April. Acting Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler said that the timing of a meeting of ministers from Trans-Pacific Partnership countries planned for April depends on how much progress negotiators make at an informal round of talks in Hawaii from March 9 to 15, according to a February 26 Inside U.S. Trade report. Negotiators aim to resolve as much as possible in Hawaii in the hopes that ministers will resolve remaining issues at a final meeting to complete a deal.
U.S. lawmakers hold TPP discussions during visits to Japan, Singapore, Malaysia. A delegation of U.S. lawmakers led by House Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan held high-level discussions on the Trans-Pacific Partnership during visits to Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan from February 16 to 20. The delegation met with Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, and other ministers and senior officials. A key issue for the delegation was the need for Japan to make progress on agricultural and automobile market access.
New minimum wage to take effect in April. The director general of Laos’s Labor Management Department, Phongsaysack Inthalath, on February 17 announced that a government-mandated monthly minimum wage increase will take effect on April 1. The increase will raise the minimum monthly wage to approximately $110 from $77 in light of rising costs of living. The change will not affect those working for nongovernmental organizations or the government.
Detained Christians may be released by authorities. An unnamed Lao official on February 20 told Radio Free Asia that some of the five Christians arrested in June 2014 for “illegally practicing medicine” may be released soon. Authorities arrested the five after they prayed for the recovery of a dying Christian convert. The convert died and a family member reported the five to authorities. International rights groups have condemned the detentions as a failure to protect the rights of religious minorities.
Thailand bans entry of unescorted Lao minors to combat trafficking. Thai border authorities have reportedly banned unescorted Lao teens under the age of 18 from crossing into Thailand, according to a February 24 article in the Nation. Thai authorities changed the policy to curb human trafficking, as Lao teens often end up trafficked after entering the country in search of work. According to information from the Lao Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, 75 to 80 percent of the more than 2,200 Lao victims of human trafficking rescued since 2001 were minors and 95 percent were female.
U.S. ambassador visits schools to see impact of U.S. nutrition grants. U.S. ambassador to Laos Daniel Clune recently made a trip to several Lao schools to see the effects of a $27 million U.S.-funded World Food Program school meals program, according to a February 24 Lao News Agency article. The program will feed more than 190,000 students over the next three years, and has led school attendance to increase to 96 percent in the provinces where the program is in effect.
Amnesty International takes aim at human rights situation in Southeast Asia. Amnesty International on February 24 released its annual report for 2014, highlighting a worrying trend of human rights violations in many Southeast Asian nations. Amnesty criticized, among other abuses, torture and abuse of detainees by the Philippine police; denial of bail to lèse-majesté suspects in Thailand; the arrest of peaceful protesters in Papua and the Malukus; the expansive use of Malaysia’s Sedition Act; restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly in Vietnam; mistreatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar; and land grabbing by the Cambodian government.
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