ASEAN KEY DESTINATIONS
United States partially lifts sanctions on Myanmar. U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton on February 6 signed a partial waiver of restrictions imposed on Myanmar under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). The waiver, which runs through September, will allow assessment missions and limited technical assistance in Myanmar by international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Myanmar was sanctioned under the TVPA after receiving a Tier 3 ranking, the worst possible, on the State Department’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report.
Report says Myanmar remains worst place for investors. British risk analysis group Maplecroft issued a report February 8 saying Myanmar has the world’s worst legal system for doing business, retaining the position it has held for the last five years despite recent reforms. The report serves as a warning to foreign investors attracted by the prospects of Western sanctions against the country being lifted. Other poor performers on the annual ranking of 197 countries included North Korea and Afghanistan, but the report singled out Myanmar for posing “significant operational and strategic risks.”
Myanmar mulls civil service pay hike. The speaker of Myanmar’s Lower House, Shwe Mann, proposed a rise in civil service wages February 7 to combat widespread graft. Shwe Mann said pay for government workers, including teachers, police, and soldiers, was not enough to cover "basic daily expenses." As a result, many resort to asking for small bribes to survive. The raise, which will be debated by the parliament, is expected to come into effect on April 1, the same day that the country holds by-elections.
Myanmar rebel group denies cease-fire agreement. Three weeks after Myanmar announced a cease-fire with the Karen National Union (KNU), leaders of the prominent rebel group on February 3 denied signing the cease-fire, saying further discussions are needed. KNU officials said the about-face reflects disagreement within the organization. The government meanwhile signed an initial cease-fire February 2 with the New Mon State Party and held preliminary talks February 5–6 with several armed groups, including the Karenni National Progressive Party, and February 9 with the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front.
Myanmar reveals foreign debt figures. Myanmar February 2 revealed it owes a higher-than-estimated $11 billion in foreign debt. Officials said $8.4 billion of the external debt was run up between 1962 and 1988 under the socialist administration of General Ne Win. Japan was Myanmar's biggest creditor with loans of $6.4 billion. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank were also big creditors. Myanmar has started talks on the debt with several countries and institutions.
The government hopes to see GDP growth hit 6.7 percent in 2012, with new infrastructure projects fueled by a recent upgrading of the government’s credit rating by two international credit rating agencies.
Organized labor strikes disrupt production near Jakarta. About 20,000 workers in the Jakarta suburb of Bekasi walked out of factories and protested January 27, blocking a major thoroughfare. Some reports indicated there was a nationalist or racist element to the protest, possibly aimed at the Korean owners of many of the factories in the area. More than $4.5 billion of goods per year are manufactured in the Bekasi industrial estates, driving Indonesia’s exports, but workers there receive some of the lowest wages in the region.
Indonesia delivers its Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty instrument of ratification to the UN. Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa deposited the legislature’s ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty terms with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon February 6. The treaty requires ratification by eight more nuclear-capable states (out of 44) before coming into force. Indonesia has pressed hard for nuclear disarmament in the international community in recent years and is eager to finalize negotiations to create a Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone.
Government plans to peg fuel subsidies to market prices. Indonesian finance minister Agus Martowardojo said February 9 the government will consider alternative schemes to shrink the cost of fuel subsidies. The announcement came in response to criticism of a plan to restrict the use of subsidized fuel to motorbikes starting April 1. The government currently subsidizes the entire cost of fuel above 50 cents per liter, which does not promote efficient fuel use. The policy change announced was welcomed by legislators and industry representatives.
Trial starts for alleged bomb maker in 2002 Bali bombing. Umar Patek, the bomb maker allegedly responsible for the device that killed 202 people in a Bali nightclub in 2002, was arraigned on charges in the West Jakarta District Court February 13. The charges could result in the death penalty. Patek was caught in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in January 2011, after spending time in the Philippines with the group Abu Sayyaf. He is believed to be the last significant suspect in the 2002 bombing to be charged.
Democratic Party trails Golkar and PDI-P in latest polling. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party is lagging behind both major opposition parties in polling released February 4. Golkar is polling at 18.9 percent popularity and the Indonesian Party of Democratic Struggle (PDI-P) at 14.2 percent, while the Democratic Party trails at 13.7 percent. Yudhoyono’s approval rating stands at 49 percent. The Democratic Party has been plagued by recent corruption scandals, but it hopes to regain its anticorruption reputation before presidential elections in 2014.
Violence continues near Freeport-McMoRan’s Grasberg mine. A car carrying several contractors who work at U.S.-based Freeport-McMoRan’s Grasberg mine in restive Papua province was shot at February 9. Two of the workers were injured but are recovering. The incident follows the death of a local police officer who was shot while patrolling an area near the mine February 7. The Grasberg mine, one of the world’s largest gold and copper mines, was the site of a months-long, sometimes violent labor strike that was resolved in December after the company agreed to a salary hike.
31st Cobra Gold joint military exercises begin. Military exercise Cobra Gold 2012 began in Thailand February 7 with more than 13,000 troops participating. This year’s Cobra Gold is the largest multinational joint exercise in the Asia Pacific to date, with troops from the United States, Thailand, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and South Korea taking part. The exercises are intended to enhance military relations and interoperability between participating nations. Cobra Gold 2012 will conclude on February 17.
Probe, criticism following paramilitary rangers’ killing of four Pattani civilians. A group of Thai army rangers shot and killed four villagers January 29 in a truck in restive Pattani province. Two investigative panels have been formed to review the incident: one by Governor Theera Mintharasak and another by the 4th Army Region, which controls security in Thailand’s south. The incident has sparked widespread criticism, and Deputy Prime Minister Yuthasak Sasiprapha admitted January 31 that the rangers acted inappropriately.
Pheu Thai Party moves forward with efforts to amend constitution. Pheu Thai member of parliament Udomdej Ratanasathien submitted a draft bill to Thailand’s Speaker of the House February 8 that seeks to create a drafting assembly to amend the country’s constitution. Red Shirt chairwoman Thida Thavornseth, along with 400 supporters, submitted a draft of proposed amendments to the speaker. Under Pheu Thai’s proposed amendments, a 99-person assembly—22 legal experts and one representative from each of Thailand’s 77 provinces—would meet to amend the current constitution, which was established after the 2006 military coup that toppled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Philippine military reports killing three militant leaders. The Philippine military claimed to have killed three senior militant leaders in a U.S.-backed airstrike February 2 on the Philippine island of Jolo. Government officials reported that two Jemaah Islamiah (JI) leaders, including Malaysian Zulkifli Bin Hir, known as Marwan, and one Abu Sayyaf leader, Gumbahali Jumdail, known as Dr. Abu, were killed along with 12 others. Despite the government reports, only the bodies of Dr. Abu and his son have been identified. Malaysia said it will aid in identifying the bodies of the JI leaders.
Solicitor general resigns to return to “private practice,” denies split with Aquino. Philippine solicitor general Jose Cadiz resigned February 6 after expressing his desire to return to private life. He denied a split with President Benigno Aquino over criticism that Cadiz mishandled the 2011 Supreme Court case involving the Aquino family’s Hacienda Luisita and lost the country’s bid to defend its duties and taxes on imported alcoholic products before the World Trade Organization.
Aquino pushes for hasty passage of Freedom of Information Bill. The government of Philippine president Benigno Aquino expressed optimism February 4 that its proposed Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill will be approved by legislators. The FOI legislation would disclose records of government transactions, meetings, and other dealings while penalizing officials for denying access to information. Freedom to public information is a right enshrined in the Philippine constitution. Political opponents have derided Aquino’s proposal as too watered-down, noting that it includes 16 exception clauses.
United States to give Philippines second Coast Guard ship. The U.S. Congress on February 10 approved the transfer of a second Coast Guard cutter to the Philippine Navy in order to boost its capabilities. The United States previously transferred a retired cutter to the Philippines in May 2011 after removing much of the ship’s sophisticated equipment. The Philippine Navy has requested that this time the ship’s communication equipment, sensors, and radar not be removed, but the United States has not yet responded to the request. The ship transfer comes two weeks after officials from the Philippines and the United States discussed increasing joint exercises and training between the two countries, and increased U.S. ship and aircraft visits to the Philippines.
U.S. House pushes bill to block increases in aid if Vietnam does not improve human rights record. The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee subcommittee on human rights approved a proposal February 8 that would block any increase in non-humanitarian assistance to Vietnam unless the country makes progress in respecting freedom of religion and ending human trafficking. The draft bill calls on Vietnam to release its political prisoners and voices concern about the treatment of Buddhist clergy and Christian churches, including those of the minority Montagnard and Hmong ethnicities. The House has approved the bill twice in previous sessions, but it has died in the Senate.
Vietnamese prime minister dismisses chairman of state-owned electricity monopoly. Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung has dismissed Dao Van Hung, chairman of Vietnam’s state-owned Electricity Group of Vietnam (EVN). Under Hung’s leadership, EVN sunk millions in investments into non-core sectors such as securities, banking, and real estate, while the power industry faced a capital shortage. EVN suffered a total loss of nearly $816 million in 2011. Vietnamese state-owned enterprises have been under increasing scrutiny in recent years for incurring massive losses in non-core business interests.
Duch was sentenced in 2010 to 35 years in prison, later reduced to 19, for running the infamous Tuol Sleng prison during the Khmer Rouge regime.
He admitted overseeing the torture and killing of more than 12,000 individuals. Both Duch and the prosecution had appealed the original sentencing.
Garment workers hold a “people’s tribunal,” criticize major manufacturers. The first “Permanent People’s Tribunal” on conditions and wages for garment workers released its findings February 8. The tribunal featured Cambodian and international panelists and was held over two days. It declared that a “living wage” was a human right and called on the government to create and implement standards for garment factories. Major manufacturers that were criticized by the tribunal include H&M, Gap, and Urban Outfitters. The tribunal is influential but not binding.
Sam Rainsy party accuses Cambodian People’s Party of vote buying. Opposition party Sam Rainsy (SRP) said February 6 that nearly every SRP elector was approached by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and offered between $500 and $5,000 to vote for CPP representatives in the country’s recent Senate elections. The SRP’s accusations include a taped conversation in Battambang province. Some 179 SRP councilors cast ballots for the CCP in the Senate elections, in which only members of the National Assembly and 11,300 local officials vote. Election results have not been officially released.
Cambodia pursues non-permanent Security Council seat. The EU and British ambassadors to Cambodia pledged February 8 to take Cambodia’s bid for a non-permanent UN Security Council seat in 2013 and 2014 to their respective governments. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Koung said Cambodia’s deputy prime minister had met with the ambassadors to discuss the country’s bid. Foreign Minister Hor Namhong also held talks with U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs Kurt Campbell, though it was unclear whether they specifically discussed U.S. support for Cambodia’s bid.
Singapore tourist arrivals hit record high. Singapore welcomed a record 13 million overseas visitors last year, up 13 percent from 2010. The majority of visitors arrived from Asia, including Indonesia, China, Malaysia, and Australia. Tourism industry revenue jumped 17 percent to a record $17.8 billion. Revenue from sightseeing and entertainment, which includes gambling, soared 37 percent to $4.4 billion. Singapore’s shopping malls and its two casino resorts have helped attract visitors since they opened in 2010.
Singapore mulls “no censorship zones.” Singapore’s government-sponsored Arts and Culture Strategic Review released a report February 6 aimed at improving the vibrancy of the country’s arts scene, including a suggestion to “relax rules and regulations” governing artistic expression at designated areas and times. Another recommendation was for “no censorship zones” where censorship would be abandoned in favor of creativity and free expression. The review is tasked with encouraging the arts and tracking the country’s cultural development until 2025.
Rare foreign workers strike ends with agreement to pay back wages. Construction workers from Bangladesh protested unpaid wages in eastern
Singapore February 6. Their employers, Singapore-based Sunway Concrete Products and Techcom Construction & Trading, which build government housing across the island, had not paid the workers since November 2011. The workers also took issue with the food they were being served. The wage dispute was resolved and the 200 workers ended their sit-in after eight hours.
Singapore's ruling People's Action Party founding member Toh Chin Chye dies. Toh Chin Chye, one of the founders of Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and its first chairman, died February 3 at the age of 90. Together with old guard leaders Lee Kuan Yew, S. Rajaratnam, and Goh Keng Swee, Toh is credited with helping to guide Singapore through its post-independence period. In addition to serving as PAP chairman, Toh served as Singapore’s deputy prime minister and in several cabinet positions. One of his most notable legacies is helping to design Singapore’s national flag.
Malaysian exporters halt palm oil shipments to Iran. Most palm oil exporters in Malaysia have stopped supplying Iran with palm oil since the end of 2011, according to a February 8 Reuters report. Exporters have halted the flow of palm oil because international sanctions have made it difficult for Iranian importers to pay for shipments. Malaysia supplies Iran with an average of 33,000 tons of palm oil per month, roughly half the country’s demand.
Anwar’s Israel statement causes stir. Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said in an interview January 26 with the Wall Street Journal that he supports “all efforts to protect the security of the state of Israel.” Anwar’s statements have caused a stir in Malaysia. Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin called for Anwar to clarify his remarks and said his statements ignored the plight of the Palestinians. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said that Anwar’s statements are no surprise and that he has always been sympathetic to Israel.
Malaysia awards Australia’s Lynas rare earth plant temporary operating license. The Malaysian government approved a temporary license February 2 for Australia’s Lynas Corporation to build a rare earth plant in Kuantan despite opposition from local residents and environmental groups.
Malaysia’s Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) approved the license but imposed five safety-related conditions. AELB spokesman Ghazli Ismali said if the company does not comply with the conditions imposed, the license will be either suspended or revoked.
ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office opens in Singapore, considers doubling Chiang Mai Initiative. The ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office (AMBRO) officially opened in Singapore January 31. AMBRO is the independent macroeconomic surveillance office of the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI), a currency swap arrangement between ASEAN, China, South Korea, and Japan. The CMI was established after the 1997 Asian financial crisis and draws from the foreign exchange reserves pool of its members to support regional currencies in the face of future financial crises. AMBRO director Wei Benhua said the ASEAN+3 members are considering doubling the CMI reserve pool from $120 billion to $240 billion.
ASEAN and UN conclude peace and conflict prevention workshop. A two-day ASEAN-UN workshop on sharing best practices for conflict prevention, peacemaking, and peacekeeping concluded February 8 in Jakarta. The workshop was the first of its kind since the adoption of the ASEAN-UN declaration on cooperation in November 2011. Sayakane Sisouvong, deputy secretary-general for ASEAN’s political security community, said the workshop helped identify possible new joint activities to help increase ASEAN’s capacity in these fields.
Crew of stray Vietnamese fishing boat released. Nine crew members from a Vietnamese fishing ship detained by Brunei were released February 13 following a personal visit to Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah by Vietnamese foreign minister Pham Binh Minh. The crew, from Vietnam’s Binh Minh province, were taken into custody January 20 while fishing in Brunei’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). A Brunei court fined each member of the crew and ordered them to serve a month in jail if they could not pay. Vietnam and Brunei claim overlapping EEZs in the South China Sea.
Laos investigates sale of babies for foreign adoption. Laos has suspended foreign adoptions and is investigating a retired justice ministry official for allegedly selling babies to Americans, Canadians, and Australians for up to $5,000 each, according to a February 6 Radio Free Asia report. While the U.S. State Department praised Laos’s efforts to combat trafficking, it added that the Lao government had never prosecuted or punished any public official for complicity in trafficking in persons, and that corruption and a weak, ineffective judiciary contribute to the problem.
Foreign Minister da Costa visits Thailand, seeks support for ASEAN bid. Timorese foreign minister Zacarius Albano da Costa met with Thailand’s prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, during a visit to Thailand February 8 in a bid to strengthen ties between the two countries. He requested that Thailand support his country’s preparations to join ASEAN and invited representatives of Thailand to visit Timor-Leste May 20 for independence celebrations.
Prepared by The Southeast Asia Program, CSIS
Letters that do not contain full contact information cannot be published.
Letters become the property of AseanAffairs and may be republished in any format.
They typically run 150 words or less and may be edited
submit your comment in the box below