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                                                                                                                       Asean Affairs  January 10, 2014 

Biweekly Update


Protesters plan latest effort to shutdown Bangkok. Antigovernment protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban called on protesters to take to the streets of Bangkok beginning January 13 to shut down the capital and force Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign. Protesters plan to block 20 major intersections and cut power and water to key government buildings. Yingluck on December 31 called for reconciliation and a peaceful solution to the political crisis.

Election Commission confirms February 2 polls; refuses to extend registration deadline. Thailand’s Election Commission on January 3 confirmed that the polls planned for February 2 will go ahead despite calls by antigovernment protesters to postpone them. Protesters attempted to block candidate registration centers across the country and succeeded in 28 southern districts. The Election Commission refused to extend the registration deadline for those seats, telling blocked candidates to turn to the courts. Without those seats being contested, the elections will fall short of the 95 percent threshold and a new parliament will not be formed.

Army denies coup speculation. Deputy army spokesperson Winthai Suwaree on December 30 denied speculation about an impending military coup, saying rumors that the armed forces were holding closed-door meetings to discuss plans to overthrow Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra were “groundless.” Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha stoked the rumors on December 28 when he refused to rule out the possibility of a coup if the situation in the country worsens.

Economy suffers amid political crisis. Thailand’s stock index opened the new trading year on January 2 by plummeting more than 5 percent—its worst yearly start since at least 1988. The stock index has fallen more than 15 percent since political unrest began in early November. The currency meanwhile has plunged to its lowest level in four years, trading at about 33 baht to the U.S. dollar. Thailand’s tourism earnings fell by $124 million in the first half of December as about 400,000 international travelers canceled plans to visit during what should have been the height of the tourism season.


Thein Sein supports amending constitution so Aung San Suu Kyi can run. President Thein Sein on January 2 said he supports a constitutional amendment that would allow any Myanmar citizens to contest the presidency. An article in the current constitution stipulates the president cannot have foreign family members, making opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi ineligible for the job. A spokesperson for her National League for Democracy said the party will contest the 2015 elections even if the constitution is not changed to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to run.

Thein Sein announces amnesties, but political prisoners remain. President Thein Sein on December 30 ordered the release of all remaining political prisoners in Myanmar. He followed this with the announcement two days later of a general pardon, slashing by a fourth the sentences of all prisoners serving less than 40 years. Over 13,000 inmates who had already served out their reduced sentences were released, including 10 political prisoners. About 130 others facing trial for political charges had them dropped. But the Former Political Prisoners Society and the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners say that at least 36 political prisoners remain behind bars.

U.S. blacklists military official, firms with North Korea links. The U.S. Treasury Department on December 17 announced sanctions on Kyaw Nyunt Oo, an officer at the Directorate of Defense Industries (DDI), and three Myanmar companies for dealing in arms with North Korea. The companies are Asia Metal, Excellence Mineral Manufacturing, and Soe Min Htike. The head of DDI, Thein Htay, was blacklisted earlier in 2013. The Treasury Department said it will continue to monitor North Korea-related activities, but that sanctions do not target the whole Myanmar government.

Renewed offensives against Kachin threaten cease-fire talks. Government troops attacked two Kachin Independence Army (KIA) units in Mansi Township in southern Kachin state days before Christmas as the mostly Christian ethnic group celebrated the holiday. The Myanmar army has since occupied the area, which was the site of a government offensive as recently as November. The Kachin Independence Organization, the KIA’s political arm, said ongoing fighting could delay peace talks as well as a nationwide cease-fire agreement.


Four killed as security forces break up protests. Armed police shot into a crowd of striking garment workers in Phnom Penh on January 3, killing at least four. Security forces and armed thugs drove opposition and labor protesters from the city’s Freedom Park—the site of a series of recent demonstrations—the next day, and the government indefinitely suspended freedom of assembly. The government’s alarm began to build on December 22, when an opposition march drew roughly 100,000 supporters. Then tens of thousands of garment workers went on strike December 24 demanding higher wages, with the two movements supporting each other.

Cambodia encourages investment from Vietnam. Prime Minister Hun Sen announced during a December 27 visit to Hanoi that he will take steps to encourage Vietnamese investment in Cambodia. He called for more Vietnamese businesses to invest in his country and for Vietnam to assist in development efforts. Vietnam is Cambodia’s second-largest trading partner and both countries have agreed to nearly double their bilateral trade to $5 billion by 2015.

Government creates new ministry for oil, gas, and mining. The Cambodian government announced the creation of a new Ministry for Mines and Energy on December 20. The ministry was set up to manage Cambodia’s fledgling oil, gas, and mining industries, which the country intends to develop over the next several years. Cambodia has issued oil and gas exploration licenses to foreign companies, including Chevron, Singapore Petroleum Company, and China National Offshore Oil Corporation.


More than 20,000 residents flee as Mount Sinabung erupts. Mount Sinabung in Indonesia’s western province of North Sumatra has erupted more than 100 times since January 4, forcing the evacuation of almost 22,000 residents. The volcano has been erupting off and on since September, wreaking havoc on farming and economic activity in the heavily populated region. Authorities have begun to evacuate residents up to 4.3 miles from Sinabung and fear they might have to expand that distance to 6.2 miles, potentially displacing 60,000 people.

Study finds one-tenth of global mercury emissions come from Indonesia. A study by the Blacksmith Institute has found that Indonesia’s gold mining industry, especially its illegal small-scale producers, account for one-tenth of the world’s mercury emissions, according to a January 2 New York Times article. Rising global gold prices have led to a boom in small-scale gold mining in Indonesia. Small-scale miners burn mercury as part of the process of separating out gold, leading to the illegal import of more than 360 metric tons of mercury into Indonesia in 2012. These mining procedures release mercury into the air, soil, and rivers, which can cause significant health problems.

Indonesia to double imports of fruits and vegetables. Trade Ministry director general for foreign trade Bachrul Chairi on January 3 announced that Indonesia will allow the import of 600,000 metric tons of horticultural products in the first half of 2014, up from 260,000 metric tons during the same period in 2013. The increase comes in response to rising domestic demand, several ill-fated attempts to restrict imports in 2013, and the government’s bid to control inflationary pressure on the currency.

Asylum seeker boat runs aground after being turned back by Australia. A boat carrying at least 45 African and Middle Eastern asylum seekers from Indonesia to Australia ran aground in Indonesian waters after being escorted back by an Australian warship. The Jakarta Post reported the incident occurred on January 6, though other sources said December. Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa reacted angrily, saying on January 7 that Jakarta rejects Canberra’s policy of turning back asylum seekers. Indonesian army chief Moeldoko was more conciliatory, saying he understood Australia’s motives, especially since Indonesia had cut off cooperation on human smuggling in recent months amid a spying scandal.


Secretary of State John Kerry visits Vietnam. Secretary of State John Kerry flew from the Middle East to Vietnam for a December 14–16 visit as part of an effort to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the Asia Pacific. He met with top officials for discussions focused on trade and security cooperation. Kerry also toured the Mekong River and announced $18 million in maritime security assistance aimed at bolstering Vietnamese forces in their dispute with China in the South China Sea. After Vietnam, Kerry traveled to the Philippines.

Vietnam finishes 2013 with positive economic growth. Vietnam’s gross domestic product grew 5.4 percent in 2013, according to a December 23 Wall Street Journal article. The country experienced 5.3 percent growth the year before—its slowest since 1999. Vietnam’s inflation rate also improved and foreign direct investment grew 5 percent in 2013. The government has made managing inflation and fostering economic growth a top priority.

Diplomats urge Vietnam to release dying activist. A group of diplomats from the United States and the European Union sent a letter to Vietnam’s foreign minister Pham Binh Minh on December 19 urging Hanoi to release activist Dinh Dang Dinh from prison. The dissident blogger is dying of stomach cancer while serving a six-year sentence for publishing propaganda against the state. The diplomats asked the Vietnamese government to allow him to return home or to receive care in a hospital.

Government raising caps on foreign ownership of banks, other companies. Vietnam’s government on January 7 announced that foreign investors with at least $20 billion in assets will be allowed to own up to 20 percent of domestic financial institutions—up from 15 percent previously. The new cap is part of a government effort to restructure the banking system. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung is also expected to approve a law allowing foreigners to own up to 60 percent of certain companies—up from the current 49 percent—according to a December 31 Reuters article.


Kerry visits Philippines after stop in Vietnam. Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up a trip to the Middle East and Vietnam with a visit to the Philippines on December 17-18. The trip served as a prelude to an expected visit by President Barack Obama in April. Kerry met with officials in Manila and discussed ongoing talks on an agreement to increase the rotational access of U.S. forces before traveling to Tacloban to inspect damage from Typhoon Haiyan. He announced a further $25 million for typhoon recovery efforts and $40 million in military assistance.

Millions to take part in annual Feast of the Black Nazarene. Organizers of the annual Feast of the Black Nazarene in Manila expect up to 12 million people to take part in the festivities on January 9. During the annual procession, expected to take about 18 hours, a four-century-old statue of Jesus is paraded from Rizal Park to Quiapo Church. Devotees follow the route, many barefoot to commemorate the suffering of Jesus at his crucifixion. The government orders all schools and many other public buildings closed for the event.

Nine members of breakaway Moro separatist group killed. Philippine forces killed nine members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Mindanao on December 31–January 2. The clashes left two Philippine soldiers injured. The BIFF split from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2008 over the latter’s peace talks with Manila, which culminated in an initial deal in October 2012.

Two killed, hundreds injured in New Year celebrations. Philippine officials on January 1 announced that at least two people were killed and almost 600 injured by celebratory fireworks and gunfire between December 21 and January 1. That marks a 43 percent increase in injuries from a year earlier. Philippine officials and commentators regularly lament the prevalence of fireworks-related injuries during the holidays, and Health Secretary Enriqu Ona has urged lawmakers to consider a ban.


Authorities seize Bibles, deepening row over use of Allah. Islamic authorities in Malaysia seized 321 Bibles from a Christian group on January 2 because they used the word “Allah” to refer to God. The raid comes after a Malaysian court in October ruled that the word is for the exclusive use of the country’s Muslims. The National Unity Council set up in November by Prime Minister Najib Razak said it regrets the seizure and will host talks between religious and community leaders to seek a solution.

Malaysian state outlaws Muslim "cross-dressers.” Pahang state on Malaysia’s east coast has declared “cross-dressing” illegal for Muslims in what many observers fear is the latest sign of increasing Islamization in the country, according to a December 27 Bangkok Post report. The state government will punish those deemed to have worn clothes of the opposite gender by up to one year in prison. The law applies only to Muslims.

Thousands demonstrate against rising cost of living. Thousands of Malaysians wearing black swarmed Kuala Lumpur’s Independence Square on New Year's Eve to protest price hikes following recent subsidy cuts. Prime Minister Najib Razak cut fuel and sugar subsidies and raised electricity prices by about 15 percent in recent months, and will soon bump up toll fees in an effort to balance the budget by 2020.

Tens of thousands to be deported after failing health screening. Approximately 20,000 foreign workers—two-thirds of those tested recently—failed health screenings carried out by the Ministry of Health and will be deported, according to a December 29 report by the government news agency Bernama. Foreign workers must undergo two sets of health tests, one in their country of origin and one in Malaysia. Most of the workers who failed are from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, and the Philippines, according to Deputy Health Minister Hilmi Yahaya.


Myanmar takes over as ASEAN chair. Myanmar on January 1 officially took over as the ASEAN chair for the first time since joining the group in 1997. Myanmar will host numerous meetings as chair, including the ASEAN and East Asia summits and the ASEAN Regional Forum. The county was originally scheduled to chair ASEAN in 2016 but switched turns with Laos. Myanmar forfeited its previous turn to chair the group in 2006 amid international pressure to democratize and improve its human rights record.

ASEAN transport ministers agree to strengthen cooperation. ASEAN transport ministers held their annual meeting on December 19 in Laos, where they agreed to strengthen cooperation on joint oil spill preparedness and responses. They also welcomed the conclusion of a study formulating an ASEAN Single Shipping Market implementing strategy and the establishment of a task force to promote and monitor the implementation of the market. The ASEAN Transport Ministers Meeting is meant to promote cooperation as part of the establishment of an integrated ASEAN community in 2015.

ADB says ASEAN Economic Community will do little for economic integration. The Asian Development Bank in December published a report indicating that free trade agreements between ASEAN member states are weak and could discourage members from implementing real economic reforms. An article in the report by Razeen Sally, visiting associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, states there is no serious prospect that the ASEAN Economic Community, scheduled to take effect in 2015, will deepen integration in the region, as it fails to address serious regulatory and nontariff barriers.


Housing prices finally fall in fourth quarter. Housing prices in Singapore fell in the fourth quarter of 2013 by nearly 1 percent following six consecutive quarters of growth, according to a January 2 Wall Street Journal article. The prices of homes in Singapore had increased 61 percent since 2009, leading the government to intervene in what was considered a growing price bubble in the housing market. The recent dip in prices is expected to continue into 2014.

Economic growth slows to 4.4 percent in fourth quarter. Singapore’s economy grew by 4.4 percent in the fourth quarter, down from 5.9 percent in the third. The drop was caused mainly by declines in biomedical manufacturing output and transport engineering, according to a January 2 Channel NewsAsia report. Singapore is estimated to have finished 2013 with a 3.7 percent annual growth rate, well within the government's forecast.


U.S., Canada to assist in unexploded ordnance clearance. The U.S. government has pledged continued support to the nonprofit Mines Advisory Group to assist in the clearance of unexploded ordnance in Laos with a grant of over $2 million, according to a December 25 Vientiane Times report. Canada has pledged $500,000 to fund the group’s efforts. Washington provided about $9 million for clearance of unexploded ordnance in Laos in 2013.

Media should work to expose corruption, says prime minister. Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong told the National Assembly that the media and public should help expose the corruption and financial leaks that are partly to blame for the government’s revenue shortfall in fiscal year 2013, according to a December 26 Vientiane Times report. Thongsing also said the government welcomes comments and concerns from the general public related to revenue collection and the performances of various financial units.

Government to revise mining policy. The Lao government will revise its mining policy with the aim of generating more revenue from mine concession projects, according to a December 30 Vientiane Times report. The decision came after the government learned that many approved projects have either stalled or resulted in little revenue being collected. Vientiane suspended the granting of new mining concessions in June 2012.

Trans-Pacific Partnership

Philippines to discuss joining Trans-Pacific Partnership. U.S. secretary of state John Kerry and Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario announced on December 17 that the Philippines would send a delegation to Washington in January to discuss joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Joining the TPP would require the Philippines to undertake significant economic reforms, including constitutional amendments allowing foreign investment in more sectors of the economy.

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This year in Thailand-what next?

AseanAffairs   04 January 2011
By David Swartzentruber      

It is commonplace in journalism to write two types of articles at the transition point between the year that has passed and the New Year. As this writer qualifies as an “old hand” in observing Thailand with a track record dating back 14 years, it is time take a shot at what may unfold in Thailand in 2011.

The first issue that can’t be answered is the health of Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol, who is now 83 years old. He is the world's longest reigning monarch, but elaborate birthday celebrations in December failed to mask concern over his health. More






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