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Asean Weekly ending 15 Mar 2013
Separatists kill eight soldiers in Papua. Eight Indonesian soldiers were killed by members of the armed wing of the separatist Free Papua Movement (OPM) on February 21 in Puncak Jaya district. Gunmen first attacked a military outpost, killing one soldier. Another group attacked a platoon of unarmed soldiers an hour later, killing seven. Gunmen also fired on a military helicopter whose crew was attempting to retrieve the bodies the next day, injuring three crew members and damaging the helicopter. The incidents were the deadliest in Papua’s low-level insurgency in two years.
Democrat Party chief resigns amid corruption allegations. Anas Urbaningrum, chairman of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s ruling Democrat Party, resigned from his position on February 23 amid an investigation by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). Urbaningrum is accused of accepting a $75,000 bribe in connection with the construction of a sports complex used for the 2011 Southeast Asia Games. He faces a minimum of four years in jail and has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Democrat Party members met February 24 to select a new chairman but have not yet reached a decision.
Myanmar government holds peace talks with ethnic groups in Thailand. The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an umbrella organization of 11 ethnic rebel groups including the Kachin Independence Organization, met with government negotiator Aung Min for peace talks on February 20 in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The two sides released a five-point statement outlining a framework and timeline for political dialogue and, for the first time, mechanisms to advance livelihoods in ethnic areas. The next round of talks will be held in Thailand by the end of April.
Draft budget allocates 20 percent of government expenditures to military. Myanmar’s parliament on March 1 approved the country’s 2013–2014 budget, which allocates a fifth of government spending to the military. The amount spent on the military is 5 percent less than in 2012–2013, but is still be the largest allocation to any one sector. Several members of parliament, including Pe Than of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, expressed concern that the government provided little explanation for the allocation request. Under Myanmar’s 2011 Special Funds Law, the armed forces chief can secure military funding without parliamentary consent if he chooses.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce leads major business delegation to Myanmar. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce led a 50-person business delegation to Myanmar from February 24 to 28 to explore opportunities for trade and investment. The delegation, which included executives from Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Yum! Brands, participated in the U.S.-Myanmar Trade and Investment Conference on February 25 in Yangon that brought together business leaders and government officials. The delegation was the largest since President Barack Obama lifted import sanctions on Myanmar ahead of his November 2012 visit to the country.
Incumbent Bangkok governor wins second term. The Democratic Party's Sukhumbhand Paribatra won the Bangkok gubernatorial race on March 3 by an unexpectedly wide margin. The incumbent governor beat out Pheu Thai Party challenger Pongsapat Pongcharoen, former deputy commissioner of the Thai police. Sukhumbhand garnered a record 1.26 million votes to Pongsapat’s 1.07 million, though pre-election polls indicated a close race. Pheu Thai is the party of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and is affiliated with her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. No Thaksin-affiliated party has ever won the Bangkok governorship.
Explosion in southern Thailand injures six. A motorcycle bomb exploded on March 1 in Narathiwat Province, just a day after Thailand agreed to peace talks with the rebel group Barisan Revolusi Nasional. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra denied that the attack was in retaliation for the deal and said it would take time for violence to subside. The attack was one of several across Thailand’s southern provinces in the past several weeks. Nearly 30 bombs went off throughout Pattani Province on February 23–24, injuring 10.
Financial Action Task Force removes Thailand from high-risk countries list. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental body that combats terrorist financing, removed Thailand from its blacklist on February 22. The FATF upgraded Thailand’s status in response to the parliament’s recently passing the Anti-Money Laundering Act and the Anti-Terrorism Act. The decision should ease Thai businesses’ ability to conduct financial transactions abroad.
Najib’s and ruling party’s popularity continue to drop. Voter approval of Prime Minister Najib Razak and his ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition sank to 61 percent and 45 percent, respectively, in a January 23–February 6 public opinion survey by the Merdeka Center. The poll was the latest challenge to Najib ahead of general elections that must be held by June 27. Support for BN fell not only among the general population, but also among the Malay majority—from 77 percent to 73 percent. The upcoming elections are expected to be the closest in Malaysia’s history, and some analysts say they offer the first real possibility of an opposition victory.
Lynas Corporation produces first rare earths in Malaysian plant. Australia’s Lynas Corporation has produced the first rare earths in its Malaysian plant, according to a February 27 Australian report. After years of protests and court battles over health and environmental concerns, Lynas is operating the controversial plant under a temporary license it received in September 2012. Malaysia’s opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, has promised an immediate halt to Lynas’ operations if elected, according to a February 25 Bernama report.
State-owned firm plans post-election IPO. Malaysia’s state-owned UMW Holdings Bhd. is planning an initial public offering (IPO) worth up to $500 million, according to a February 25 Wall Street Journal report. UMW has appointed bankers from Maybank, CIMB, Credit Suisse, and Goldman Sachs as managers to prepare for the second-quarter IPO, while Standard Chartered will act as the primary underwriter. Malaysia ranked fifth in the world in the total value of its 2012 IPOs.
IMF praises Malaysia’s economic policy. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) praised Malaysia’s economic policies in a February 28 consultation paper, giving Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government a much-needed boost ahead of upcoming elections. The IMF lauded the Economic Transformation Program, a series of reforms started in 2010 to transform Malaysia into a high-income economy. It also cited the country’s public and private investments, commitment to reduce the budget deficit, minimum wage increase, new goods and services tax plan, and replacement of universal fuel subsidies with a targeted aid program.
Singaporean manufacturing unexpectedly declines. Singapore’s industrial production fell 0.4 percent in January from a year earlier due to low demand for electronics and pharmaceuticals, according to a February 26 Bloomberg report. The city-state continues to suffer from the slow global economic recovery due to its dependence on exports, and its economic woes have been exacerbated by rising living costs. Authorities announced plans on February 26 to raise taxes for luxury homeowners and investment properties in order to curb price speculation that is driving record-high housing prices.
Real estate company’s IPO is Singapore’s largest in two years. Singapore’s Mapletree Greater China Commercial Trust, a real estate investment trust backed by Temasek Holdings, raised $1.3 billion in its recent initial public offering (IPO), according to February 26 Wall Street Journal report. The IPO was Singapore’s largest in two years. Mapletree priced its shares at $0.75 each, above the predicted price range. Singapore is known as a regional hub for real estate investment trust listings, and the recent IPO was Mapletree Investments’ fourth.
Singapore’s new LNG hub to reduce regional prices. Singapore’s new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal will help keep Asian LNG prices low, according to a February 26 International Energy Agency (IEA) report. IEA head Laszlo Varro said that Singapore will soon become a maritime gas-trading hub, overtaking Shanghai, which has a more extensive pipeline network and greater demand. Singapore’s LNG terminal will begin operations in 2013 and will receive its initial LNG from Qatar.
U.S. engineer’s death could be linked to cyber espionage. U.S. engineer Shane Todd’s June 2012 death in Singapore could be linked to cyber espionage, according to a March 1 CBS report. Todd’s family believes that he was under pressure from his Singaporean employer, the Institute of Microelectronics (IME), to deliver sensitive U.S. technology to China. Todd was found dead in his apartment and the cause of death was originally believed to be suicide. Singaporean authorities continue to investigate and have asked for assistance from the FBI.
Aquino signs bill giving $200 million to victims of martial law. President Benigno Aquino signed landmark legislation on February 25 to recognize and compensate victims of martial law under the administration of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, which ended in 1986. The new law sets aside $200 million to be distributed for those who were murdered, tortured, or suffered injustices at the hands of law enforcement and the military during Marcos’ 20-year presidency. Lawmakers have pushed for the law’s passage for 14 years. Congressman Walden Bello says the law passed this year because victims are aging, sickly, and close to dying in some cases.
Vietnam, Laos, Thailand discuss trilateral transportation cooperation. The transport ministers of Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand gathered at a conference in Hanoi on February 21 to enhance trilateral transport cooperation. The three ministers agreed to complete procedures for an agreement that will open new routes for cross-border movement between the countries. They also signed an agreement to add national roads to the Greater Mekong Sub-region Cross-Border Transport Facilitation Agreement, which will allow for easier transit of goods between northeastern Thailand, central Laos, and Vietnam’s Vung Ang and Hon La ports.
Vietnam, United States near agreement to resume adoptions. U.S. senator Mary Landrieu told reporters during a visit to Vietnam on February 20 that Vietnam and the United States are close to an agreement that will allow Americans to adopt Vietnamese children after a five-year ban. The senator said that Vietnam now has the necessary safeguards in place, including a central authority that will closely monitor the adoption process. Washington imposed the ban in 2008 after a U.S. investigation that examined allegations of baby-selling without parental consent.
Journalist fired for criticizing Communist Party chief. Vietnamese journalist Nguyen Dac Kien was fired by state newspaper Family and Society on February 26 for writing a blog post on his personal Web site criticizing a speech by Communist Party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. The general secretary said that public discussions about constitutional revisions should not question the role of the party. Kien said that Trong’s words did not reflect the views of the general public and he therefore felt compelled to speak out. The paper said that Kien must be held accountable because he “violated the operating rules” of the publication.
Thailand and Cambodia to demilitarize disputed Preah Vihear temple. Cambodian defense minister Tea Banh and his Thai counterpart, Sukumpol Suwanatat, agreed on February 26 to replace border troops stationed around the disputed Preah Vihear temple with police. The two ministers met to cool tensions ahead of the decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the temple’s ownership, expected in April. Both sides claim rights to the area, which the ICJ first awarded to Cambodia in 1962, prompting sporadic clashes. The demilitarization is a positive step in Thai-Cambodian relations, which have warmed since Thailand’s Pheu Thai Party came to power in 2011.
Government orders urgent action to combat bird flu. Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a directive on March 1 for ministries and law enforcement to take “strict measures” to stop the spread of avian flu. The government reported February 26 that an eighth victim had died of the virus, bringing the total number of reported cases in Cambodia to nine in just two months. Cambodia has not yet introduced preventative measures, such as utilizing an effective flu vaccine, to stem outbreaks as neighboring Thailand and Vietnam have done.
Khmer Rouge trial suspended as unpaid workers go on strike. Translators and interpreters at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) went on strike in early March, forcing the tribunal to indefinitely suspend ongoing trials against former Khmer Rouge leaders. The workers, who are among 270 trial staff unpaid since November, say they will not return to work until they receive wages. The suspension is the latest setback for the cash-strapped tribunal, said to be $7 million short on funds for 2013.
OPIC supports historic $5 million loan to expand microfinance opportunities. The United States’ Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) announced on February 27 that it had issued $5 million to Cambodian microfinance institution Thaneakea Phum (TPC), its first loan in Cambodia. The deal will expand TPC’s portfolio with low-income borrowers by supporting at least 5,000 new loans. At least 50 percent will be allocated to TPC’s home improvement loan program.
Timor-Leste might end Woodside Petroleum’s involvement in gas project. Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Alfredo Pires said on February 21 that Timor-Leste might carry out natural gas exploration in the Timor Sea on its own and end its partnership with Australia’s Woodside Petroleum due to differences about how to process the gas. Timor-Leste plans to process the gas itself by building a pipeline to the mainland, while Woodside Petroleum wants to set up a processing platform at sea. The agreement between Australia and Timor-Leste to share resources in the Timor Sea ended on February 23, but might be revised in the future if the two sides reach a new agreement or establish new sea borders.
Dili hosts International Conference on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Dili hosted the G7+ International Conference on the Post-2015 Development agenda on February 25–28. The conference was opened by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao and was concluded by the declaration of the Dili Consensus, which advocates for the needs of fragile and conflict-affected countries in the United Nations’ Post-2015 Development Agenda. The G7+ is a group of countries that aims to monitor, report, and draw attention to fragile states’ challenges.
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