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The Week That Was
First U.S.-ASEAN Business Forum concludes in Siem Reap. A group of high-level government and business leaders from the United States and Southeast Asia met July 13 in Siem Reap, Cambodia, for the inaugural U.S.-ASEAN Business Forum organized by the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The conference, entitled “Commitment to Connectivity,” stressed recommendations for strengthening ASEAN’s ambitious plan to boost transport, information technology, and institutional connections among members, as well as fostering ties between the U.S. and ASEAN business communities. It featured keynote speeches from U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen.
ASEAN postpones signing of nuclear weapon-free zone treaty amid major power concerns. ASEAN postponed the signing of the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone Treaty by the five recognized nuclear states—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—that was expected to take place on the sidelines of ASEAN meetings in Phnom Penh the week of July 9. All five expressed reservations over the language of the treaty. The three documents that were to be signed would have secured their agreement not to violate the treaty or threaten to use nuclear weapons within the zone. The signing will now be put off until the 21st ASEAN Summit in November.
ASEAN navies conduct first-ever exercises on maritime security information sharing. The Singaporean and Indonesian navies cohosted the first-ever ASEAN Maritime Security Information-Sharing Exercise July 8-10 in Singapore. Approximately 60 personnel from ASEAN navies participated in the inaugural exercise, which aims to enhance regional maritime security and promote information sharing to tackle various challenges, including piracy and robbery at sea.
ASEAN Regional Forum
Myanmar to open telecommunications sector. Myanmar announced July 11 that it was beginning the process of liberalizing its telecommunications sector, which could bring affordable mobile and Internet access to most of the country. Officials called for consultants to help organize a bidding process that would open up the market to foreign businesses to form joint ventures with state-owned telephone operator Myanma Posts and Telecommunications and Internet provider Yatanarpon Teleport. Current mobile phone and Internet connectivity in the country is among the lowest in Asia.
Military nominates ex-general for vice president. Myanmar’s military July 10 nominated an ex-general and suspected hardliner, Myint Swe, to serve as one of the country’s two vice presidents. Myint Swe was previously chief minister of the Yangon region and is believed to have been involved in the 2007 crackdown against protesting Buddhist monks. The nomination disappointed observers who were hoping for a more reform-friendly candidate after hardliner Tin Aung Myint Oo vacated the post earlier this month due to health problems.
Myanmar detains, then frees activists. Myanmar July 6 detained more than 20 student activists ahead of a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of a military crackdown on student protests, before freeing them a day later. The incident raised concerns that the government had not shied away from using repression despite groundbreaking reforms launched over the past year. Other groups, including the opposition National League for Democracy, commemorated the anniversary July 7 despite the arrests.
Asylum boats issue sinks Indonesia-Australia talks. Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono met Australian prime minister Julia Gillard July 2 for two days of talks in Darwin, Australia. Both leaders pledged to increase cooperation on a number of fronts, but the issue of asylum seekers remained sticky. Two boats holding hundreds of asylum seekers headed from Indonesia to Australia have capsized in the past three weeks, resulting in nearly 90 deaths. Australia has criticized Indonesia’s efforts to stop the flow of immigrants as insufficient. Yudhoyono meanwhile called on Australia to release 54 Indonesian teenagers who have been arrested while crewing asylum boats.
U.S. Export-Import Bank looks to fund Sunda Strait bridge project. The Export-Import Bank of the United States is looking to finance a part of the Sunda Strait Bridge project, which would connect Java and Sumatra via an 18-mile-long suspension bridge. The project is one of the more ambitious parts of Indonesia’s plan to improve connectivity, and several foreign investors have voiced interest in funding the project, including South Korean and Japanese firms. The project is in its initial stages, as funding for the feasibility study is still being worked out by the Finance Ministry.
49 Thais arrested in Myanmar over land encroachment. Myanmar authorities July 4 arrested 49 Thais for encroachment in the Koh Song area of Myanmar where they reportedly cleared forest areas in order to plant rubber trees. Thai supreme commander Tanasak Pratimapakorn said negotiations for the release of the prisoners are under way, and that they are safe and unharmed. An initial investigation showed that the Thais arrested bought the land through brokers and were unaware that it was in Myanmar. Both countries expect the issue to be resolved peacefully and quickly.
Thailand to become home to regional IMF technical assistance office. The Bank of Thailand and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) July 12 signed an agreement for the creation of an IMF technical assistance office in Thailand. The office will assist in monetary policy and financial institution oversight in Southeast Asia via technical assistance and capacity building. The office will primarily support Laos and Myanmar, as both countries are undergoing dramatic changes. Operations will begin in September.
New U.S. military attaché arrives in Hanoi. Vietnamese deputy defense minister Nguyen Chi Vinh July 2 welcomed new U.S. military attaché Colonel Ernest Lee to Hanoi. Vinh spoke highly of the contributions of the outgoing attaché, Colonel Patrick Reardon, to U.S.-Vietnam defense ties, and said he hoped Lee would uphold recent achievements in defense cooperation. Lee previously served as a Korea desk officer at the U.S. Pacific Command.
Vietnam takes steps to clean up state-owned enterprises, land law violations. Vietnam’s Ministry of Finance July 6 said it is seeking permission to set up a department to oversee the use of capital and assets in state-owned enterprises. Eighty ministry officials will staff the new department. In another cleanup move, the city of Hanoi July 7 announced the confiscation of 20 acres of business properties found to be in violation of land laws, while Ho Chi Minh City July 9 publicized the names of real estate firms that operate unlawfully.
Private investment in Laos surges between October and March. Laos’s Ministry of Planning and Investment announced July 9 that the value of private investment projects between October 2011 and March 2012 was 30 percent higher than originally forecast. The Lao government attributed the rise to upgraded investor services. Laos launched a one-stop registration service in October that has made obtaining investment permissions easier for both domestic and foreign investors. Mining, hydropower, and agriculture remain the three industries of choice for investors.
Lao president receives Chinese state councilor. Lao president Choummaly Sayasone and defense minister Douangchai Phichit July 9 hosted Chinese state councilor Meng Jianzu in Vientiane for talks that underscored close China-Laos bilateral relations and pushed for more joint cooperation on law enforcement and security on the Mekong River. Choummaly took the opportunity to thank China for providing assistance to Laos in preparation for its hosting of the ninth Asia-Europe Meeting this November.
Laos launches online trading portal. The Lao Ministry of Industry and Commerce launched a trading portal June 22 with funding from Australia, Germany, and the European Union. The portal contains all laws, regulations, and procedures concerning the import and export of goods. The new trading portal will help Laos comply with technical standards of the World Trade Organization and the future ASEAN Trade Repository.
Two Malaysians arrested for insulting Johor sultan on Facebook and Twitter. Malaysian authorities July 4 arrested Syed Abdullah Syed Hussein Al-Attas under the country’s lèse-majesté law for allegedly insulting the sultan of Johor state on his blog. Authorities arrested Ahmed Shukri Kamarudin several days later for doing the same. The arrests have elicited condemnation from international human rights groups, who fear they may mark a hardening of Malaysia’s enforcement of lèse-majesté laws.
Malaysia seizes $18 million worth of drugs in decade’s largest narcotics bust. Malaysian authorities announced July 9 that they had made their largest drug bust in a decade on June 30, confiscating 3 million illegal pills of the prescription drug nimetazepam. The pills were seized from an Indian cargo container at Malaysia’s Port Klang. It was the 67th narcotics bust at Malaysian ports and airports this year. Malaysia imposes a mandatory death penalty on drug traffickers and has placed 51 drug traffickers on death row this year.
Singapore tightens immigration laws. Singapore’s parliament July 9 proposed a law making marriages of convenience by foreign nationals a criminal offense. The law, if passed, would be the latest sign of tightening immigration laws in the country. The parliament recently raised the minimum level of monthly income for foreign workers who wish to bring their families with them to the country from $2,200 to $3,150. The new policy will take effect September 1, 2012. The legislature has also cut health-care subsidy rates and increased the costs of attending public schools for foreigners.
South China Sea
ASEAN presents to China draft code of conduct in South China Sea. The 10 ASEAN member states reached agreement during ASEAN meetings the week of July 9 on a draft code of conduct (COC) for parties in the South China Sea. The COC is meant to provide a legally binding framework to manage territorial and maritime disputes in the sea. The draft COC was presented to Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi, though it remains to be seen what changes China will seek to the draft.
Aquino signs executive order on new mining policy. Philippine president Benigno Aquino signed an executive order July 7 laying out a new policy on mining that he said moves the country a step closer to lifting a contentious moratorium on new mining projects in the Philippines. The moratorium has been in place since January 2011. Under the new policy, lawmakers are urged to pass a law allowing the state to gather more revenue from mining to counter the industry’s negative environmental impacts. Once such a law is passed, the government will begin approving new mining contracts.
Philippines increases budget for 2013 to address poverty. The Philippine government July 10 announced a proposed budget for 2013 of $47.8 billion, or approximately 10 percent more than the 2012 budget. The larger budget is meant to address the country’s high poverty rate, which is estimated at more than 26 percent of the population. The proposed budget also seeks to improve social services such as education and public infrastructure. Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said this “empowerment budget” is meant to benefit the people, especially the poor.
Cambodian officials say French citizen linked to Bo Xilai wants to go to China. French citizen Patrick Devillers, arrested in Cambodia June 13 at Beijing’s request, is considering returning to China, according to Cambodian authorities. Devillers is linked to ousted Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai and is suspected of involvement in the murder of British national Neil Heywood by Bo’s wife. China has requested that Devillers be extradited to help with the investigation and has guaranteed he will not be prosecuted. Cambodian deputy prime minister Hor Namhong announced July 10 that this will happen only if all parties involved, including the Chinese and French embassies, Cambodian authorities, and Devillers himself, reach consensus.
Timor-Leste claims oil companies underpaid taxes by billions. Secretary of State Agio Pereira said July 11 that legal action was being taken against oil companies operating in the Timor Sea following audits that indicated 28 instances of the companies underpaying taxes. The unpaid taxes could total billions of dollars. The companies include U.S.-based ConocoPhillips, which was specifically named by Pereira, and Australia’s Santos, which confirmed it was working with the government on the issue. The companies operated in an area jointly administered by Timor-Leste and Australia.
United States announces new funding for the Lower Mekong Initiative. U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton July 13 announced $50 million in new funding for the Lower Mekong Initiative, a subregional program that aims to boost development in mainland Southeast Asian countries along the resource-rich Mekong River. The funding will be part of a new Asia Pacific Security Engagement Initiative dealing with pressing bilateral and transnational issues in the region. The funds will be devoted to projects such as malaria control, environmental programs, women’s leadership, and boosting the capacity of the embattled Mekong River Commission.
Brunei opens defense attaché office in Washington. Brunei’s Ministry of Defense on July 11 set up a defense attaché office at the Brunei Embassy in Washington for the first time. Brunei’s ambassador, Hj Yussof Hj Abd Hamid, said the establishment of the office would improve bilateral cooperation in defense relations. The two countries recently strengthened military ties by signing an arms sales contract for 12 Blackhawk helicopters and increasing the number of joint training courses in the United States.
Brunei signs communications agreement with Sabah. Brunei and the Malaysian state of Sabah signed an agreement July 10 to cooperate on information and communications technology (ICT). The agreement aims to improve bilateral governance, cooperation, and development of ICT, and to promote greater multimedia collaborations in the region. Brunei hopes to use the agreement as a stepping-stone to become a communications gateway and transit hub for maritime Southeast Asia.
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