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The Biweekly Update
One of most powerful typhoons on record devastates Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan, or Yolanda as it is locally known, devastated the Philippines after making landfall on November 8, leaving an estimated 10,000 dead in what may be the most powerful typhoon in recorded history. The storm, which packed winds of up to 200 miles per hour, inflicted serious damage across the central Philippines, especially Tacloban City, before moving on to strike Vietnam and southern China, where it caused further deaths. U.S. defense secretary Chuck Hagel directed the U.S. Pacific Command to deploy rescue teams, helicopters for airlifts, logistics officers, and cargo planes to assist in relief efforts in the Philippines.
Gazmin says Philippines, United States disagree on access to U.S. facilities. Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said on November 6 that Manila and Washington have hit an impasse in negotiations to allow an increased rotational presence for U.S. troop in the Philippines. He said one issue of contention is the level of access to U.S. facilities that Philippine troops will be allowed. Gazmin stressed that Manila is pushing for an agreement in which both countries have “equal access” and “equal opportunity,” and that he remains optimistic that the remaining issues will be resolved.
Anonymous hacks Philippine government Web sites. Alleged members of the group Anonymous hacked at least 37 government Web sites, including those of the Office of the Ombudsman, the National Bureau of Investigation, and the Philippine Senate, on November 3–5. The attacks were carried out in connection with the November 5 Million Mask March, a public protest in Quezon City against government corruption and the Cybercrime Prevention Act, which opponents say would impose restrictions on freedom of speech and information.
Philippines makes UN list for top investment destinations. The Philippines ranked 19th out of 20 nations on the UN list for top investment destinations worldwide—the first time it has made the list in three years, according to a report released on November 6. The ranking was determined by a survey of more than 200 promotion agencies worldwide. The Philippines shares the 19th spot with Hong Kong and Turkey. Fellow ASEAN countries Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam also made the list. China and the United States ranked first and second, respectively.
Government allows Kachin political party. Former vice president of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) Manam Tu Ja announced on October 31 that his bid to form a new political party has been approved by Myanmar’s Union Election Commission. Tu Ja will be the chairman of the new Kachin State Democracy Party, which has 17 founding members, including politicians, women, and youth, as well as an official flag and emblem.
International oil companies bid for rights on offshore fields. Many international oil companies are competing for exploration and production rights in Myanmar’s 30 untapped offshore oil and gas blocks, including 19 in deep water, ahead of a November 15 bidding deadline. More than 60 businesses, including ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and Statoil, have been prequalified to bid. France’s Total, Thailand’s PTT, South Korea’s Daewoo, and the United States’ Chevron are among the handful of multinational companies currently operating in Myanmar.
Murder sparks communal violence in Rakhine state. A group of three unidentified Muslim men killed a Buddhist woman and injured others on November 2 in Pauktaw township in Rakhine state, according to a local government representative. The attack was reportedly in retaliation for the discovery of a Rohingya man’s body in nearby Sin Thet Maw village. The Rakhine state attorney general said that the cause of the Rohingya man’s death is unknown and that local police are investigating the case.
Aung San Suu Kyi to visit Australia. Myanmar’s opposition party leader Aung San Suu Kyi is scheduled to visit Australia from November 27 to December 2, according to Australia’s Foreign Ministry. Suu Kyi will attend a number of public events, including a meeting on UN aid for HIV/AIDS patients and another for members of the Myanmar community in Australia. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will welcome Suu Kyi to Australia.
Refugee doctor wins Sydney Peace Prize. Cynthia Maung, founder of the Mae Tao Clinic on the Thailand-Myanmar border, received the Sydney Peace Prize in Australia on November 5 in recognition of her quarter century of work. The clinic, which is located in Mae Sot, Thailand, provides medical care to Myanmar refugees. Maung, who is originally from Karen state, fled Myanmar during the 1988 uprising. Her clinic has more than 600 health workers and treats around 150,000 people annually.
Senate rejects contentious amnesty bill. Thailand’s Senate on November 11 rejected a contentious amnesty bill that would have covered all those involved in political violence from the time of a September 2006 military coup to May 2012 and would have opened the door for former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to return to the country. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra pledged that the government would not revive the bill after the Senate’s rejection. The opposition Democrat Party called a three-day nationwide strike beginning November 13 to urge Yingluck to step down.
Two separatist groups to join postponed peace talks. Deputy Prime Minister Pracha Promnok said on November 6 that representatives of the Pattani United Liberation Organization (Pulo) and the Barisan Islam Pembebasan Pattani (BIPP), both separatist organizations in southern Thailand, are expected to join the next round of peace talks between the government and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) in early December. The government had postponed planned peace talks with the BRN after a series of bomb blasts rocked Thailand’s southern provinces on October 9.
Court upholds Prachatai editor’s lèse-majesté conviction. A Bangkok court on November 8 upheld the May 2012 conviction of Prachatai news Web site editor Chiranuch Premchaiporn on charges of lèse-majesté. Chiranuch was found guilty of failing to promptly remove anti-monarchist comments from the Web site. The court also upheld an eight-month suspended prison sentence that Chiranuch received at the original trial. Reporters Without Borders condemned the decision, saying that the ruling “sets a dangerous precedent for editors [in Thailand], who could now be held responsible for the comments that visitors post on their sites.”
Indonesia to cosponsor UN resolution against U.S.-led spying. Indonesia on November 4 backed a UN draft resolution by Germany and Brazil highlighting concerns about U.S.-led spying around the world. The resolution follows leaks by fugitive Edward Snowden revealing that the U.S. and Australian embassies in Jakarta were collecting data on the Indonesian government. Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters that the recent revelations could have “potentially damaging impacts” on his country’s relationships with Australia and the United States.
Indonesia to allow more foreign companies into some sectors. Investment Coordinating Board chairman Mahendra Siregar on November 6 announced plans to open up at least five previously closed sectors of the economy to foreign investors. Under the proposed regulation, foreigners would be able to invest in airport and seaport transportation services and management, vehicle roadworthy testing services, film distribution, telecommunications, and nature tourism management. The move comes as Indonesia tries to improve its investment climate in the midst of slowing economic growth.
Economic growth slows to lowest level since 2009. Indonesia’s economy grew just 5.6 percent in the third quarter of 2013, marking its weakest growth since the height of the global recession in 2009. The data highlights the vulnerability of Indonesia’s economy, which faces rapidly rising inflation, a depreciated currency, and diminishing foreign capital inflows. The World Bank warned in October that the downsides to Indonesia’s economic outlook are sizeable, as higher borrowing costs and inflation could have a greater impact on domestic demand than previously expected.
Trial begins for Indonesian man accused of plotting to bomb Myanmar Embassy. The South Jakarta Higher District Court on November 6 opened the trial of Separiano, a suspected extremist accused of planning an attack on the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta in retaliation for violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Police arrested Separiano and another suspect on May 3 while the two were riding to the embassy on a motorbike with five homemade bombs and other explosive materials in their backpacks. Separiano, who goes by one name, is believed to have been radicalized after attending sermons by an extremist preacher at a central Jakarta mosque.
U.S. Navy officials implicated in bribery scandal involving Malaysian contractor. Two U.S. admirals were stripped of their access to intelligence materials on November 8 after they were implicated in a contracting scandal in Asia. Vice Adm. Ted Branch and Rear Adm. Bruce Loveless, directors of naval intelligence and of intelligence operations, respectively, were accused of “inappropriate conduct” related to a scandal under investigation in which Navy officers accepted prostitutes, trips, and cash from Malaysian contractor Leonard Francis. Francis, who heads up Glenn Defense Marine Asia, is charged with bribing Navy officials in an effort to move service calls by warships to ports where he could provide overpriced services. U.S. Navy Commander Jose Luis Sanchez was arrested November 6 for accepting bribes for fraudulent or inflated services that cost the Navy an estimated $10 million.
Christians fight back with legal battle over use of “Allah.” A church in Malaysia’s Sabah state is seeking a court ruling allowing it to buy and use Malaysian translations of the Bible and other religious materials that refer to the Christian God as “Allah.” The church says it needs clarification after conflicting statements by cabinet ministers following an October 17 court ruling that the Catholic newspaper The Herald could not use the word. Some government officials have said that the ruling does not apply to the states of Sabah and Sarawak.
Court rules Malaysiakini news portal can go to print. A court ruled on October 30 that the popular news portal Malaysiakini, which is often critical of the government, has the right to issue a print edition. A panel of three judges in Malaysia's Court of Appeal unanimously upheld an earlier decision that the government cannot deny the news outlet a permit to print. Free press advocates are cheering the ruling as a victory in a nation where most media outlets are connected to the government.
Malaysia, China to conduct joint military exercises. Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein on October 30 announced that Malaysia and China have agreed to hold landmark military drills in 2014 despite their ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The drills will be the first time the two countries have held joint military exercises since establishing formal defense ties in 2005. Hishammuddin also said that he had invited his Chinese counterpart to visit a Malaysian naval base in the South China Sea.
Malaysia gathering evidence to prove U.S., Australian spying. Malaysia is gathering evidence to prove that the United States and Australia have conducted spying activities on its soil, Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar told Channel News Asia on November 6. Malaysia's intelligence unit, he warned, is now in the midst of gathering the necessary evidence, but he stopped short of saying what actions it would take if the allegations of U.S. and Australian spying were found to be true.
Pirates seize oil tanker in Strait of Malacca. Pirates hijacked an oil tanker in Malaysian waters in the Strait of Malacca on November 7, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). Ten armed pirates boarded the Panamanian-flagged vessel and emptied the cargo into another ship before disembarking. An IMB report found that piracy in the strait has dropped significantly since 1999 due at least in part to coordinated patrols by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, but pirate attacks have surged in 2013, with this being the third attack in two months.
ICJ ruling confirms Cambodian sovereignty over land near Preah Vihear. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) on November 11 confirmed Cambodia’s sovereignty over a long-disputed strip of land surrounding the 1,000-year-old Preah Vihear temple along the Thai-Cambodian border. Both countries said they accepted the ruling and agreed to work together to maintain peace at the temple. Cambodia asked the ICJ for an interpretation of an original 1962 ruling on ownership of the temple after an outbreak of violence in 2011 killed about 20 people and displaced thousands.
Sam Rainsy wants opposition to have power to appoint governors. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy said on November 3 that as part of a deal to end Cambodia’s post-election standoff, he wants his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to have a say in the appointment of regional governors. Rainsy later added that the CNRP should be able to have a say in provinces the party won in the July national elections. The opposition won Phnom Penh and the four surrounding provinces of Kampong Cham, Prey Veng, Kampong Speu, and Kandal.
Scot Marciel visits Cambodia. U.S. principal deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs Scot Marciel arrived in Cambodia on November 3 for a two-day visit. Marciel told reporters that the United States supports efforts to strengthen democracy in Cambodia and encouraged a “Cambodian solution” to the current political impasse between the ruling and opposition parties. Marciel met with both opposition and government leaders during his trip as well as with rights groups and business leaders.
Russian oil firm seeks partnership to help Thai company build refinery in Vietnam. Russian oil company Rosneft sent a delegation to Vietnam on November 1 to seek a partnership with PTT Public Company Ltd, Thailand’s state oil company, to build the Nhon Hoi oil refinery complex in Vietnam’s Binh Dinh province. Rosneft officially announced it would be one of PTT’s strategic partners in the refinery’s development. The oil refinery will be built in the Nhon Hoi economic zone and, when completed, will be one of the largest in Asia.
After 50 years, a public memorial for South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. Members of Vietnam’s Catholic community were permitted by the government to hold a mass on November 1 in memory of former South Vietnam president Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem was assassinated on November 2, 1963. The mass was held at Diem’s gravesite north of Ho Chi Minh City and marks the first time a public gathering has been allowed to honor the former president since the North Vietnamese regime consolidated power throughout the country in 1975.
Putin to travel to Vietnam for energy talks. Russian president Vladimir Putin is set to make his third official visit to Vietnam on November 12 to focus on developing energy ties between the two countries, especially Vietnam’s ambitious plan to build 13 nuclear reactors. Russian oil company Rosneft and Vietnam’s national oil company, Petrovietnam, are expected to sign deals relating to joint offshore exploration and an agreement under which Rosneft would provide Petrovietnam with crude oil for the next three years.
Vietnam opens four extra sites to search for missing U.S. troops. Vietnam advised senior U.S. Defense Department officials on November 2 that it would open four more sites to investigators looking for the remains of U.S. soldiers killed during the Vietnam War. The sites are located in southern Vietnam where certain wartime incidents are believed to have occurred. The Department of Defense POW/MIA office says 1,275 American servicemen who fought during the Vietnam War are still unaccounted for.
“Friends of the TPP Caucus” established in Congress. A bipartisan group of U.S. members of Congress has established a “Friends of the TPP Caucus,” which was announced on October 29. On the same day, several ambassadors from Trans-Pacific Partnership member countries released statements welcoming the creation of the caucus. The caucus supports the negotiation of the trade pact, reaffirming that the pact will create jobs in the United States and open up new markets for agriculture and business.
Chief TPP negotiators to meet in the United States November 19–24. The Office of the United States Trade Representative announced on October 31 that chief negotiators from the 12 Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiating countries will meet in Salt Lake City from November 19 to 24. The negotiators will discuss market access issues and tariff reductions. The Salt Lake City meetings precede a crucial ministerial session to be held in Singapore December 7–9 in an effort to try to complete negotiations on the trade agreement by the end of 2013.
Singapore boosts cyber security in response to threats from hackers. Government officials in Singapore announced on November 4 that they were in a state of “heightened vigilance” after hackers threatened to attack Web sites belonging to the government and pro-government media. In response, Singapore took measures to enhance the security of its information technology systems. Despite the threats, few attacks were reported and a number of problems with government Web sites were attributed to security maintenance.
Police, military conduct 10-day joint security exercise. Singaporean police and defense force personnel launched “Exercise Highcrest,” a joint counterterrorism and disaster response exercise, from October 29 to November 7. The exercise simulated a ship fire incident, a seaborne terrorist attack, and hostage situations. The joint exercise is one of the largest organized by Singapore’s government.
Taiwan, Singapore sign free trade pact. Taiwan and Singapore signed a free trade agreement on November 7 after three years of negotiations. Past efforts by Southeast Asian countries to establish free trade deals with Taiwan have been extinguished by China, which views Taiwan as part of its territory. Singapore is Taiwan’s fifth-largest trading partner, and trade between the two countries grew to $28 billion in 2012. Taiwan media sources estimate imports from Singapore will grow by $719 million after trade liberalization.
South China Sea
Taiwan announces plans to build up Itu Aba. The Taiwan Area National Expressway Engineering Bureau (MOTC) announced on November 5 that its plans to boost infrastructure on Itu Aba island in the Spratlys beginning in 2014. The construction project, which Taipei originally approved in July, will cost about $111 million. MOTC will build a new pier on the island and reinforce an existing runway built by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense. The projects are scheduled for completion by the end of 2015.
Malaysia, Vietnam agree to maritime intelligence-sharing in South China Sea. Malaysian defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein and his Vietnamese counterpart, Gen. Phung Quang Thanh, agreed on November 1 to establish an intelligence-sharing link between their countries’ naval bases in the South China Sea. The link will connect Malaysia’s Maritime Region 1 Base in Kuantan and Vietnam’s Southern Command in the event that problems arise during operations at sea, according to Hishammudin. Malaysia and Vietnam first signed a defense cooperation agreement in 2008.
New labor law amendments discussed in Vientiane. Industry leaders, government officials, and civil society organizations are holding discussions on amendments to Laos’s labor law to ensure it meets international standards and complies with regional integration requirements, according to a November 2 Vientiane Times report. The current labor law does not fully comply with International Labor Organization treaties that Laos has ratified, according to the deputy minister of labor and social welfare. The organization will also discuss changes to the minimum wage and salary protection.
Ministry of Health looks to health insurance. The Ministry of Health is investigating how to improve and develop Laos’s health insurance system as part of efforts to reach the Millennium Development Goal of 90 percent insurance coverage by 2025, according to an October 30 Vientiane Times report. The Lao government, with the help of the World Health Organization, ran a workshop October 30–31 for government officials to learn from the health insurance development experiences of China, South Korea, and Vietnam.
Laos signs six cooperation agreements with China. Lao and Chinese officials signed six agreements in Vientiane on October 30, including a Chinese grant for economic and technical aid worth $16.4 million, a revision of a plan to build an international convention center, and an agreement on resurfacing the main northern highway in Laos. China also agreed to give Laos two MA60 aircraft, 10 industrial drying kilns, and $200,000 to assist with dengue prevention.
Record numbers of Lao students enrolled in Vietnam. More than 7,600 Lao students are enrolled at universities and other higher education institutions in Vietnam for the 2013–14 academic year, up by 1,200 from the previous year, according to the Lao Embassy to Vietnam. Counsellor Bounthat Lathipanya credits the increase to the Vietnamese government’s open scholarship program for Lao nationals. Despite the high enrollment rates, however, the number of graduates is strikingly low, with just 192 graduating during the 2012–13 academic year.
Journalists form first press council, code of ethics. More than 150 Timorese journalists voted for their first code of ethics and formed a seven-person press council during a historic congress held from October 25 to 27. A press law currently before Timor-Leste’s parliament is rumored to include a journalist licensing system. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão congratulated the parliament for its latest efforts and said that press freedom was important to democracy.
New texts boost Timor-Leste’s legal capacity. The Timor-Leste Legal Education Project (TLLEP) plans to release its newest textbook in early 2014, according to an October 30 report by the Asia Foundation. TLLEP works to develop the country’s domestic legal capacity by providing specialized textbooks and facilitating dialogue between Stanford University law students and students at the National University of Timor-Leste (UNTL). In many areas of law, TLLEP’s texts are the only available Timor-specific materials. The texts are authored by Stanford law students and reviewed by Stanford faculty, UNTL faculty, and Timorese legal professionals.
Laos invites neighbors to visit dam site. Lao government officials organized a November 10–11 visit for more than 100 officials and experts from neighboring countries to see the location and merits of the planned Don Shong hydropower project, according to a November 10 Vientiane Times report. The Lao government claims the dam will not be built on the Mekong mainstream and therefore will comply with the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which neighbors have accused the country of violating.
Brunei hosts Cyber Security Awareness Week. Brunei on November 9 opened a four-day Cyber Security Awareness Week to raise understanding about online safety and promote standards of appropriate behavior on the Web, especially on social media platforms. Mariyani binti Abdul Wahab, head of Brunei’s Women and Children Abuse Investigation Unit, said that more than half of rape and exploitation victims under the age of 16 in Brunei met their abusers online, mostly through Facebook. She also pushed for the country to adopt new methods, such as covert investigations, to combat exploitation more effectively.
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