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The Biweekly Update
U.S. blacklists general over North Korea arms trade. The United States Treasury Department added Myanmar’s Lt. Gen. Thein Htay to its Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list on July 2, charging he purchased weapons and materials from North Korea. Thein Htay’s inclusion on the SDN list prohibits U.S. entities from engaging in any business with him. The Myanmar government denied knowledge of the general’s involvement with North Korea, though some experts believe it would be improbable for him to engage in such trade without higher-level permission.
Key ministers resign from ruling party leadership posts. Myanmar’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party announced in late June that three ministers in the Prime Minister’s Office—former minister for national planning and economic development Tin Naing Thein, chief government peace negotiator Aung Min, and former chairman of the Myanmar Investment Commission Soe Thein—had resigned their posts on the party’s central executive committee. The three stepped down from their party leadership posts after an opposition parliamentarian called attention to constitutional provisions banning members of government from involvement in party activities. Aung Min and Soe Thein are key members of President Thein Sein’s inner circle of reformers.
Four homes torched in Rakhine State in anti-Muslim violence. Anti-Muslim mobs set fire to four homes in the southern town of Thandwe in Rakhine State on June 30 following the alleged rape of a Buddhist woman by a Muslim man. Officials set up a curfew in the city on July 1. Thandwe had been largely spared from the communal violence that engulfed Rakhine State in 2012, killing nearly 200 people and displacing thousands from their homes.
Government to resettle more than 100,000 displaced persons in Rakhine. Rakhine State government officials said in early July that they will rehouse by the middle of July more than 100,000 individuals, mainly Muslim Rohingya, displaced by 2012’s sectarian violence. The central government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have constructed more than 1,500 shelters in eight townships, according to a July 3 Myanmar Times report. The internally displaced persons are currently housed throughout the state in temporary structures provided by UNHCR.
Parliament passes controversial regulations on freedom of assembly. Indonesia’s Parliament passed a bill on July 3 restricting the activity of nongovernmental organizations. The bill, which has drawn fire from many labor and religious groups, levies numerous obligations on organizations, including requiring government operating permits. Hundreds of activists demonstrated on the streets of Jakarta in the days leading up to the vote. Opponents say the bill will undermine freedom of expression and association in the country.
Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore agree to trilateral smog mitigation efforts. The foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore agreed during a June 29 informal meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Brunei to jointly address the problem of trans-boundary smog. Counterparts from other ASEAN nations agreed to the decision on June 30. Smog caused by forest fires in Indonesia engulfed Singapore and much of southern Malaysia in June, straining relations between the neighbors. Government officials have not confirmed details of the agreement, but pledged to submit a progress report at the ASEAN Summit in October.
Major palm oil exporter to cut ties with Indonesian suppliers illegally burning forests. The world’s largest palm oil exporter, Wilmar International, said in late June that it will cut ties with Indonesian suppliers that use illegal forest fires to clear land. The move was announced after smog from forest fires in Indonesia caused record levels of pollution in Singapore and Malaysia. Refiners are now facing pressure to adopt no-burning policies in Indonesia. The country is the world’s leading producer of palm oil.
Earthquake in Aceh kills 35 people, injures hundreds. A July 3 earthquake in Indonesia’s Aceh Province killed 35 people and left hundreds of others injured or missing. The 6.1-magnitude tremor left thousands homeless. Rescuers cleared blocked roads and the Red Cross reported that aid began to trickle in to affected villages on July 4. Natural disasters frequently strike Aceh, which was hit in 2004 by an earthquake that took 170,000 lives.
Yudhoyono calls for regional summit on asylum-seekers. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said following a July 5 meeting in Jakarta with Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd that he plans to hold a regional summit on asylum-seekers in July. Rudd, who has criticized the Australian opposition’s plan to turn back boats carrying asylum-seekers from Indonesia, welcomed the announcement. Indonesia is the primary transit point for persons from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Afghanistan seeking asylum in Australia.
Manila to grant United States, Japan greater access to bases. Secretary of National Defense Voltaire Gazmin announced on June 27 that the Philippines will allow foreign allies like the United States and Japan greater access to the country’s existing military bases. The Philippine government, which is preparing the access agreement, is considering expanding access to the former U.S. naval base at Subic Bay, according to Gazmin. President Benigno Aquino said on July 2 that such access will be for troop rotations, not permanent basing, and will allow the Philippines to forge a “credible alliance” with its allies.
Peace talks with Muslim separatists resume. The Philippine government resumed peace talks with the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Kuala Lumpur on July 8. MILF vice chairman Ghadzali Jaafar said the discussions focused on the contentious issues of wealth and power sharing. The government and the MILF exchanged notes on a wealth-sharing annex to their initial 2012 peace deal before the resumption of talks. The latest round of negotiations was originally scheduled to take place immediately following the Philippines’ May 13 midterm elections, but was repeatedly postponed.
Government personnel accused of sexually exploiting overseas Filipinos. Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz announced on June 18 that the Philippine government has launched an investigation into a sex-for-repatriation scheme in which Philippine embassy staff in the Middle East are accused of sexually exploiting overseas Filipino workers. Embassy personnel Mario Antonio and Blas Marquez have been identified as running prostitution rings in Jordan and Kuwait, respectively, and a government official from the embassy in Syria was caught having sex with an overseas worker at an embassy shelter. President Benigno Aquino said on July 4 that those found guilty in the scheme will not be spared.
United States, Philippines hold joint exercises. U.S. and Philippine forces conducted joint naval exercises, called Cooperation Afloat Readiness Training, near the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea from June 27 to July 2. The training included exercises in jungle warfare, marksmanship, combat medicine, small boat operations, search and seizure, and diving and salvage. More than 600 U.S. sailors and marines participated, along with the guided missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald, according to the U.S. Embassy in Manila.
Government pledges more guns for national police force. President Benigno Aquino visited the national headquarters of the Philippine National Police on July 2 and pledged that the government will distribute more than 75,000 semiautomatic pistols to police officers. The distribution of guns is part of a new program to relieve the national police of administrative work so police officers can focus on fighting crime. Through the $207 million program, the government will hire 5,000 “non-uniformed personnel” to handle the force’s administrative duties and aims to have a police-to-pistol ratio of about one to one. Nearly half of national police officers did not have firearms in 2010, according to Aquino.
Yingluck reshuffles cabinet, takes over as defense minister. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on June 30 reshuffled her cabinet for the fourth time in two years, with changes to 18 posts, including key positions in the Ministries of Defense and Commerce. Chalerm Yubumrung, who served as deputy prime minister overseeing national security, has been reassigned as labor minister in a move many see as a demotion. Boonsong Teriyapirom, formerly the commerce minister in charge of Thailand’s controversial scheme to purchase rice from farmers at above-market prices, was also removed from his post. Yingluck took over the Defense Ministry herself, becoming Thailand’s first female defense minister.
Government reverses rice subsidy cuts after protests. Thailand’s National Rice Policy Committee (NRPC) announced on July 1 that it was reversing a planned 20 percent cut to prices paid to farmers for subsidized rice. The NRPC vowed to keep prices at $439 per ton until the end of the crop season, September 15 for most of the country and November 30 in the south. The reversal is intended to appease hundreds of farmers who protested against the cut in front of government offices on June 25.
Bomb attack kills eight soldiers in the south. A roadside bomb in Thailand’s southern Yala Province killed eight soldiers and wounded two soldiers and two civilians on June 29. The soldiers were in a truck returning home from patrol when the 132-pound bomb exploded and destroyed their vehicle. The attack came four days after the government formally rejected the demands of the separatist group Barisan Revolusi Nasional for the army to retreat from southern bases in exchange for a cease-fire during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began on July 10.
Yingluck visits Turkey, Poland to open up new European markets. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra embarked on a three-day visit to Poland and Turkey on July 3 to strengthen mutual relations and open up new markets for Thai exports. Thai business executives in the food, energy, green economy, tourism, construction, and automotive sectors accompanied the prime minister on her trip. Yingluck offered to play a coordinating role in strengthening Turkey’s relations with ASEAN countries in exchange for Turkey’s help in accessing markets in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe.
Kerry reassures about U.S. commitment to Asia. U.S. secretary of state John Kerry, speaking during the July 1 U.S.-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Brunei, sought to reassure ASEAN leaders that the United States remains strongly committed to deepening engagement with the Asia Pacific. Many commentators have expressed worry over Kerry’s focus on the Middle East since taking office, concerned that it signals a turn away from the U.S. rebalancing to the Asia Pacific. Kerry told his counterparts gathered for the ASEAN Regional Forum and related meetings in Brunei that the United States will “increase the effort” in Asia, while reiterating that the U.S. presence in the region does not seek to “counterbalance” any one country, indicating China.
United States, China, ASEAN united on denuclearizing North Korea. South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-Se remarked after the July 2 ASEAN Regional Forum in Brunei that officials present had “sent a very strong message” to North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program. U.S. secretary of state John Kerry emphasized a day earlier that the United States, China, South Korea, and Japan are all united on the issue. North Korean foreign minister Pak Ui-chun defiantly responded to the foreign ministers’ demands and blamed the United States for tensions at the forum.
ASEAN increasingly attractive to foreign investors. Southeast Asian economies are increasingly attractive to foreign investors as China and India lose their luster due to market access limitations and excessive red tape, according to the Asia Pacific Investment Climate Index 2013 released by Vriens & Partners on July 4. Singapore retained its number-one ranking as the most attractive country for foreign investment in the region, while the Philippines, Cambodia, and Myanmar made significant gains. Indonesia and Vietnam dropped due to increasingly protectionist policies.
Vietnamese, Indonesian presidents discuss strategic partnership. President Truong Tan Sang visited Jakarta on June 27–28 to discuss strengthening Vietnam’s and Indonesia’s strategic partnership with his counterpart, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The two leaders signed agreements on repatriation, mutual assistance in law enforcement, and cooperation in the finance, fisheries, agriculture, and energy sectors. Sang, who was accompanied by representatives from Vietnam’s top 20 companies, also met with 10 Indonesian CEOs. Indonesia and Vietnam signed a Strategic Partnership Action Plan in 2011.
Head of Communist Party meets with Thai prime minister. General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong met with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of Thailand in Bangkok on June 25 to discuss an upcoming strategic partnership agreement between their two countries. Trong and Yingluck said the partnership focuses on regional and international cooperation on political and sociocultural issues, economic relations, and national defense and security. The strategic partnership agreement will be signed at a joint cabinet meeting scheduled to take place in Thailand in October.
United States, Russia remove uranium from Vietnam. U.S. energy secretary Ernest Moniz said at an International Atomic Energy Agency conference on July 2 that the United States and Russia have removed the last batch of Cold War-era uranium from Vietnam’s Dalat National Research Institute. Vietnam is now the 11th country from which all highly enriched uranium has been removed in the last four years. Russia and the United States removed a total of 35 pounds of uranium from Vietnam. Moniz said nearly all highly enriched uranium has now been removed from Southeast Asia.
Najib pledges to repeal Sedition Act. Prime Minister Najib Razak repeated a pledge on July 2 to repeal Malaysia’s colonial-era Sedition Act, which gives the government wide-ranging powers to arrest those deemed a threat to the state. Najib had previously promised to repeal the law in July 2012 but did not follow through. Critics have expressed skepticism over his current intentions to repeal the act, citing the government’s decision to use it to bring charges against opposition figures in June. Najib has said the government will replace the Sedition Act with a new, National Harmony Act.
Malaysian exports down on weak demand from west. Malaysia’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry reported on July 5 that exports fell 5.8 percent in May compared to the same period in 2012. Weak demand from western markets has pushed the country’s exports down for the fourth consecutive month. Similar downward trends have hit neighboring countries, with Singapore’s non-oil exports down 4.6 percent in May, Indonesia’s down 4.5 percent, and Thailand’s down 5.25 percent.
Malaysian consortium's massive UK real estate project launched. Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak and his British counterpart, David Cameron, officiated at a July 4 groundbreaking ceremony for the Malaysian-funded Battersea Power Station residential and commercial real estate redevelopment project in London. Malaysian investment consortium partners Sime Darby, SP Setia, and Employees Provident Fund purchased the 39-acre former power station for $596 million and expect the project to be worth close to $12 billion when completed in 2024.
Government withdraws bill allowing unilateral religious conversion of children. Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on July 5 announced the withdrawal of a controversial bill requiring only one parent to give consent for the conversion of a child to Islam. The government withdrew the bill after intense pressure from members of both opposition and ruling coalitions who cited concerns that it was unfair to non-Muslims. Muhyiddin indicated that the bill’s withdrawal was necessary to ensure that cases involving religious conversion in Malaysia are settled fairly.
South China Sea
China agrees to September discussions with ASEAN. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and his 10 ASEAN counterparts released a joint press statement on June 30 announcing that they will hold two meetings in China in September to discuss key documents related to the South China Sea disputes. Wang said that China is willing to work with ASEAN to push forward the process of developing a code of conduct for parties to the disputes. The meetings will be the sixth by senior officials and the ninth by a joint working group on the implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
John Kerry calls for progress on code of conduct. U.S. secretary of state John Kerry pressed China and ASEAN to act on a proposed code of conduct in the South China Sea during a July 1 news conference at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Brunei. Kerry said that the United States has a “strong interest” in maintaining stability in the region and is keen to see progress on a "substantive" code of conduct for the disputes. “We have a strong interest in the manner in which the disputes of the South China Sea are addressed, and in the conduct of the parties,” Kerry said.
Official Chinese newspaper warns of “counterstrike” in South China Sea. A June 29 editorial in the overseas edition of the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, warned the Philippines to be cautious of a potential “counterstrike” for committing “seven sins” against China in the South China Sea. The seven sins include the “illegal occupation” of parts of the Spratly Islands, strengthening control over disputed coral reefs, inviting foreign companies to develop oil and gas resources in disputed waters, and promoting the "internationalization" of the dispute, according to the article. The People’s Daily is less hawkish than some other state-owned media in China and often reflects official thinking.
Singapore coroner reaffirms Shane Todd suicide. State coroner Chay Yuen Fatt released a report on July 8 reaffirming that U.S. engineer Shane Todd committed suicide, capping a two-month investigation into the cause of his death. Todd’s parents, who hired a pathologist in the United States who claims his death may have been a homicide, believe that their son was murdered due to sensitive work he did at Singapore's Institute of Microelectronics. The U.S. Embassy in Singapore called the inquiry into Todd’s death “comprehensive, fair, and transparent.”
Internet giants say revised rules could have negative impact on industry. Facebook, eBay, Google, and Yahoo said in a letter addressed to Minister of Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim that revised Internet rules have “negatively impacted Singapore’s global image as an open and business-friendly country,” according to a July 8 Reuters report. Google separately expressed concern about the long-term implications of the revised rules. The government’s new licensing criteria, which apply so far to only 10 news sites, require the sites to put up a $39,300 bond and take down any story that authorities deem objectionable within 24 hours. Yaacob tried to allay critics’ fears in Parliament on July 8, saying that the new rules are only meant to ensure responsible reporting.
Chinese company to build new aviation training center. China-based aviation company Haite Group announced on June 28 that it is investing about $74 million in a new training center at Changi Business Park in Singapore. The new facility will be larger than 2,700 square miles in size and will feature two new flight simulators, with plans to add another four to five, according to the company. The training center is the first major investment by a Chinese company in the aviation sector in Singapore. About 2,500 aircraft will be delivered to the region over the next decade, creating demand for 44,000 pilots, according to aviation consultancy SH&E.
Openly gay politician advocates for decriminalization of homosexuality. Treasurer of the Singapore Democratic Party Vincent Wijeysingha, the first openly gay politician in the city-state, told the Associated Press on July 1 that he believes Singapore’s law criminalizing homosexuality will eventually be repealed. Singapore has a “gross indecency” law, which sentences men to up to two years in prison for homosexual behavior. Government data show that 185 men were convicted under the law between 1997 and 2006. Wijeysingha recently revealed his sexuality through his Facebook page.
U.S. lawmakers push for aid cuts ahead of elections. Lawmakers in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives are preparing to introduce resolutions to cut foreign aid to Cambodia, according to a July 5 Associated Press report. The moves come in response to recent restrictions on opposition parties and activists ahead of Cambodia’s July 28 national elections, including an early June decision by Cambodian lawmakers to strip all 27 opposition parliamentarians of their status and salaries. U.S. aid to Cambodia totaled $1.2 billion over the last two decades, less than half the amount given by China during the same period.
Cambodia reverses foreign media ban following international pressure. The Cambodian government on June 30 quickly reversed a decision made two days earlier to ban foreign radio broadcasts during the run-up to the country’s July 28 national elections. The ban, which sparked an immediate international outcry, would have affected Khmer language content from popular independent outlets including Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America. Official bans on foreign radio are common ahead of elections in Cambodia.
Protests over land rights erupt in violence. Land rights protests in Phnom Penh erupted in clashes between demonstrators and security forces on July 2–3 after allegations surfaced that police had beat a pregnant protester, causing her to miscarry. Demonstrators called for Prime Minister Hun Sen to fulfill government promises to allocate land to families evicted from their homes near Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake in 2011. Those evictions have led to a series of run-ins between activists and the government over the last two years.
Laos and Vietnam complete border demarcation, accelerate cooperation. Lao prime minister Thongsing Thammavong and his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Tan Dung, attended a ceremony on July 9 to celebrate the demarcation of the last stretch of the Laos-Vietnam border. The two countries agreed in 2003 to review existing boundaries and provide additional clarity on their shared borders. Leaders on both sides said the new demarcation will help promote security and socioeconomic development along the shared boundary. The initiative is widely seen as a landmark in cooperation between the two countries.
Multinational crackdown seizes $400 million worth of drugs. Chinese authorities said on July 2 that a two-month multinational campaign to crack down on drug trafficking along the Mekong River had concluded after seizing $400 million worth of drugs and detaining more than 2,500 suspected traffickers. It was the latest in a series of joint crackdowns by China, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand since the 2011 murder of 13 Chinese sailors on the river. Chinese officials said future collaboration between the four countries will focus on reducing poppy cultivation and promoting subsistence crops.
Bruneian students moved to secure location in Cairo. Sixty-eight Bruneian students were moved to a secure location near the Bruneian Embassy in Cairo on July 5 due to massive protests. Supporters of Egypt’s recently ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, gather near Nasr City’s Rabiah Al-Adawiyah Mosque, where most Bruneian students stay. Brunei’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade issued a statement on July 4 saying that all Bruneian citizens in Egypt are safe and secure. The ministry also vowed to continue to monitor the security situation on the ground to determine possible next steps for its citizens.
Timor-Leste, New Zealand sign defense agreement. New Zealand and Timor-Leste signed a Status of Forces Agreement on June 26 creating a legal basis for reciprocal defense and security activities by their respective armed forces. The new agreement will streamline bilateral security cooperation, which previously required individual agreements be signed for each activity. The New Zealand Defense Forces and police have provided support and technical assistance to Timor-Leste since 1999.
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