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Asean Weekly: Ending 11 May 2012
EU opens office in Myanmar; World Bank, Britain to follow. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton April 28 officially opened the European Union’s first Myanmar office in Yangon in a sign of the group’s intention to engage the country after suspending sanctions. The World Bank announced April 26 it will open an office in Myanmar in June. The bank’s experts will analyze the country's development needs and capacity to manage its budget and economy. Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague announced the same day that the British government plans to open a new branch of its foreign office in Naypyidaw, the country’s remote official capital, to demonstrate its intention to step up engagement with Myanmar.
UN chief travels to Myanmar, calls for lifting sanctions. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon visited Myanmar April 29 to encourage further reforms and help normalize UN operations in the country. Ban addressed the parliament during his visit, praising the "vision, leadership, and courage" of President Thein Sein. He also urged the international community to go further in lifting, suspending, or easing trade restrictions and other sanctions. Myanmar also received a visit from German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle April 29–30.
Vice president reportedly resigns; president considers cabinet shakeup. President Thein Sein appears to have strengthened his position in recent weeks against those in his government less supportive of reform. Reuters reported May 5 that one of Myanmar’s two vice presidents, hardliner Tin Aung Myint Oo, resigned his position May 3, citing poor health. The Financial Times reported April 19 that Thein Sein is considering a cabinet reshuffle to remove anti-reformists from the government. The president has also ordered an overhaul of the government’s peace negotiation team after six rounds of talks with Kachin leaders failed to reach a cease-fire. The country’s two negotiating teams will be combined into one, led by ethnic Shan vice president Sai Mauk Kham and including army chief General Min Aung Hlaing, and Railways minister Aung Min, who has successfully negotiated several cease-fires in the last few months.
Myanmar plans first census in three decades. Myanmar April 30 announced plans to conduct its first census in 31 years by 2014. Minister of Immigration and Population Khin Yi said in a letter the census will adhere to global standards, include "all national races," and give census workers access to all areas of the country. The United Nations will provide technical assistance and help mobilize financial support for the census.
Japan cancels billions in debt owed by Myanmar. Japan waived billions of dollars in debt owed by Myanmar and agreed to restart full economic aid to the country for the first time since 1987. The debt and aid agreement was announced April 21 during Myanmar president Thein Sein’s visit to Japan. The agreement cancels more than half of the $6.25 billion owed to Japan by Myanmar, with the rest to be repaid through a low-interest loan. Part of the waiver is conditional on further democratic reforms.
Health minister Endang Rahayu Sedyaningsih dies. Former health minister Endang Rahayu Sedyaningsih, 57, died May 2 from lung cancer. Endang was diagnosed in October 2010 and resigned from her post last month due to failing health. Endang was appointed health minister in October 2009. Earlier in her career, she conducted research on AIDS among sex workers in Jakarta and studied the spread of bird flu.
Democratic Party lawmaker arrested for corruption. Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission April 27 detained Democratic Party lawmaker Angelina Sondakh for her role in a construction bid rigging scandal. The commission May 2 signaled the possibility of leniency for Angelina if she provides information on other officials involved in graft. Any plea deal may create legal complications, as Angelina already testified under oath in the corruption investigation and trial of Democratic Party treasurer Muhammad Nazaruddin.
Indonesia’s first floating storage and re-gasification unit comes online. Indonesia recently put its first floating storage and re-gasification unit, the Nusantara Regas facility near West Java, into operation. The facility received its first shipment of liquefied natural gas April 27 from energy giant Total’s Indonesian subsidiary. The Nusantara Regas facility and several other floating units planned or under construction are meant to supply gas to Indonesia’s state-run electric utility more cost effectively than would seabed pipelines.
Papua elections set for August 14. Indonesia’s Home Ministry, the Papuan Legislative Council, and the Papuan People’s Council May 1 reached an agreement to hold gubernatorial elections August 14. Papua’s caretaker governor, Syamsul Arief Rivai, was appointed in July 2011 and charged with breaking a deadlock between the institutions and scheduling elections in the troubled province. Accusations of incompetence by Syamsul have been growing since July 2011 as preparations for the election have stalled.
government agreed to nearly triple its military assistance to the Philippines to $30 million in 2012. The United States also agreed to share “real-time” data on the South China Sea, although it also reiterated its neutrality on territorial claims in the contested area.
Philippine Supreme Court upholds breakup of President Aquino’s family estate. The Philippine Supreme Court April 24 upheld a November decision ordering the breakup of the family estate of President Benigno Aquino III. The court ordered the 12,000-acre sugarcane estate owned by Aquino’s relatives parceled out to 6,296 registered farm workers. The farmers are represented by four different groups that are divided on how to make the land profitable.
MILF, Philippines agree to framework for final peace agreement. The Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have agreed to a framework for a peace agreement. The breakthrough in the negotiations came April 24 during the 27th round of exploration talks between the Philippine government and the MILF in Kuala Lumpur. Both parties stressed that outstanding issues remain, but there is new optimism that a peace agreement can be reached by the end of 2012.
Communist rebels step up attacks in the Philippines. More than 14 Philippine soldiers were killed in separate attacks by Communist rebels in late April. The New People’s Army, the militant wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, killed 10 soldiers in an ambush April 29 in the northern province of Ifugao. Four more soldiers and a civilian were killed April 29 in the central province of Camarines Norte. Violence has flared recently after talks to resolve the 43-year-old Communist insurgency stalled following the government’s refusal to release captured guerillas.
Chinese and Philippine hackers engage in skirmishes in cyberspace. The ongoing standoff between Philippine and Chinese ships at Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea has spilled into cyberspace as skirmishes between Philippine and Chinese hackers disrupted websites in both countries. Chinese hackers have been blamed for defacing the website of the University of the Philippines April 20 and attacking presidential websites April 22. Philippine hackers retaliated by defacing several Chinese websites with slogans asserting Philippine ownership of Scarborough Shoal. Both governments have denied involvement in the cyber-attacks.
Malaysia introduces minimum wage legislation. Prime Minister Najib Razak May 1 announced Malaysia’s first minimum wage legislation in a televised speech. The legislation sets two different minimum salaries: $300 a month for workers on peninsular Malaysia and $262 a month for those in the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak. Najib said the minimum wage will help Malaysia reach high-income status by 2020. He did not announce a timetable for implementing the legislation.
U.S. trade representative drops Malaysia from intellectual property watch list. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative released its annual Special 301 Report May 1 listing countries that fail to protect intellectual property rights. Malaysia has been taken off the watch list in recognition of the country’s significant strides in the protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights. Thailand and Indonesia remain on the U.S. priority watch list, while the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, and Vietnam remain on the watch list.
Malaysia Airlines share-swap deal with AirAsia canceled. Khazanah Nasional, the Malaysian government’s investment arm, said May 2 it was canceling a much-anticipated share-swap deal between state-owned Malaysia Airlines and the holding company of privately owned AirAsia. Internal resistance to the share-swap deal within Malaysia Airlines and the posting of record losses by the airline in February 2012 had become a distraction to the management’s attempts to turn the airlines around. The agreement between the two airlines was reached in August 2011. This is the fifth time that a deal between the two has failed.
Australian senator misquoted denigrating Islam to sue New Straits Times. Nick Xenophon, senator for South Australia, was incorrectly quoted by Malaysia’s New Straits Times as denigrating Islam. The incident followed Xenophon’s trip to Malaysia as part of an international observer group monitoring the April 28 Bersih rally. The newspaper took a parliamentary speech the senator made against Scientology in 2009 and substituted the word “Scientology” with “Islam.” The paper’s editor issued an apology, but Xenophon has said he plans to sue.
OIC leaders to visit Thailand to discuss conflict in south. Leaders of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) will visit Thailand May 7–13 to receive an update on the situation in the Thai south. The delegation will meet with the foreign minister, the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center, and Army Commander Region 4, which oversees troops in the south. Delegation members will also visit the three southern provinces. There has been an uptick in violence in the Thai south in recent months. Fourteen people were killed and more than 300 injured in April in the largest coordinated bombing incidents since 2008.
South China Sea
Chinese military says U.S.-Philippine exercises risk armed conflict. China’s military mouthpiece, China’s Liberation Army Daily, warned April 21 that joint military exercises between the United States and the Philippines April 10–27 raised the risk of armed conflict in the South China Sea. The paper accused the United States of “meddling” in the South China Sea dispute and pushing the region toward “military confrontation and resolution through armed force.” It warned that U.S. intervention would have a “massive impact on regional peace and stability.”
Vietnam hosts U.S. and Chinese navies. A Chinese naval vessel arrived in Ho Chi Minh City April 23 for a three-day visit to carry out "professional exchanges to share experience and foster friendly relations," according to Vietnamese state media. The visit coincided with the third day of joint U.S.-Vietnam noncombatant naval exchange activities in Danang, which included disaster control training aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Chafee.
Vietnamese-American activist detained for plotting to disrupt independence day celebration. Vietnamese-American Nguyen Quoc Quan, a member of the pro-democracy group Viet Tan, was detained April 17 upon arriving in Ho Chi Minh City. He will be held for at least four months on charges of organizing terrorist activities to disrupt Vietnam’s April 30 independence day festivities. The 58-year old California resident served six months in a Vietnamese prison in 2008 for alleged terrorism.
Embattled Vietnamese business tycoon and National Assembly deputy holds illegal press conference. National Assembly deputy Dang Thi Hoang Yen held an illegal press conference April 21 to address charges she made false statements on her application to run for a seat in the legislature. Yen and her brother Dang Thanh Tam, both non-Communist Party members and among the wealthiest business persons in the country, became the first business tycoons to be elected to the party-controlled National Assembly. They have come under personal attacks since being seated. Some analysts say Vietnam’s one-party Communist state has struggled to incorporate the growing class of well-connected business elite.
USS Blue Ridge concludes port visit to Sihanoukville. The U.S. 7th Fleet’s flagship, the USS Blue Ridge, May 5 concluded a weeklong port visit to Sihanoukville. The visit, which began April 30, was intended to enhance military ties, provide a gesture of goodwill, and discuss Cambodia’s participation in Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises this year. Sailors visited local schoolchildren, volunteered at a university, and put on a concert by the 7th fleet band.
Cambodia’s trade up 19 percent in first quarter, but imbalance grows. Cambodia’s total trade in the first quarter of 2012 grew 19 percent year on year, from $2.7 billion to $3.2 billion. Imports accounted for 56 percent of the total. Supreme National Economic Council adviser Mey Kalyan attributed the trade imbalance to lower demand in Europe, the United States, and Canada, as well as increased investment in Cambodia. She warned that if the trade imbalance continues to grow it could be detrimental to the economy, and said Cambodia should seek alternative export markets like China.
Cambodian soldier shot near Preah Vihear temple. Cambodian and Thai forces briefly exchanged gunfire April 30 in An Ses, about 19 miles from the Preah Vihear temple. The temple and surrounding area are claimed by both countries. Cambodian troops were sent to the area to stop illegal loggers from entering Thailand. The exchange of fire lasted about 20 minutes and resulted in one Cambodian soldier being shot in the leg.
Singapore announces $80 million program to help low-wage workers. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the Singapore labor movement May 1 the government will help low-wage workers by implementing an “Inclusive Growth Program.” The government has set aside about $80 million for the program and plans to retrain 100,000 low-wage workers. The program is Lee’s alternative to a prominent Singaporean economist’s proposal in April to drastically increase the salaries of low-wage workers by up to 50 percent over three years.
United States and Singapore become Hague Abduction Convention Partners. The 1980 Hague Abduction Convention entered into force May 1 between the United States and Singapore. The convention is the primary civil law mechanism for parents seeking the return of and access to abducted children who have been taken to other treaty partner countries. The U.S. Department of State said May 3 in a statement that it was pleased to see Singapore serving as a role model in the region on the issue of child abduction.
ASEAN Trading Link to launch in June. ASEAN CEOs announced April 27 that the ASEAN Trading Link, which aims eventually to connect all of the region’s stock exchanges, is on track to be launched in June. The announcement came during the 16th ASEAN Exchanges CEOs meeting in Singapore. The Malaysian and Singaporean exchanges will be the first to be linked in June. The Thai exchange will join them in August. Magnus Bocker, CEO of the Singapore exchange, said the trading link is key to breaking down barriers to cross-border trade and will provide investors with easier access to investment opportunities.
U.S. donates $10 million for school lunches in Laos. The United States April 30 donated $10 million to the World Food Program (WFP) to fund meals for more than 1,500 schools in Laos. The donation is expected to help boost childhood nutrition and education in Laos. WFP country director for Laos Eri Kudo said, "School meals have been shown to be an effective way to encourage parents to send their children—especially girls—to school." The rate of childhood stuntedness due to malnutrition is as high as 50–60 percent in rural Laos. The Lao government hopes to reduce that to 34 percent by 2015.
Lao authorities detain drug kingpin implicated in Chinese sailor murders. Thai deputy prime minister Chalerm Yubumrung confirmed April 27 that Lao authorities arrested ethnic Shan drug kingpin Jai Norkham for involvement in the killing of 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong River in Chiang Rai in October 2011. Those murders prompted greater cooperation and joint patrols along the river by China, Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos in an effort to control crime in the notorious “Golden Triangle” area.
Dozens arrested in Dili in May Day protests. Protests May 1 in observance of International Workers Day turned violent in Dili, with some protestors smashing the windows of a hotel and clashing with police. Officers responded by shooting into the air and arresting several dozen protestors. Two police were attacked and injured. AFP initially reported that 84 people were arrested, but the Timor-Leste police said May 4 that the number did not exceed 60. Approximately 500 people participated in the protest to demand higher wages and better working conditions.
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