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Asean Affairs   21 December   2012

Asean Weekly; Week ending 21 Dec 2012


Mine protests sweep Myanmar; president appoints inquiry commission. Buddhist monks and sympathizers across Myanmar held rallies December 12 demanding an apology from President Thein Sein for a November raid on protesters at the Letpadaung copper mine in northwestern Myanmar. The demonstrations were the latest in a series since November 30. Authorities have responded with a wave of arrests, including of former Saffron Revolution leader U Gambira, who was released on bail December 10. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is chairing a commission of inquiry to decide the mine’s fate. The commission will submit its report to the president January 31.

Parliament approves census bill. Myanmar’s parliament December 9 passed the Population and Housing Census Bill to guide the government in conducting a nationwide census in April 2014. Myanmar has not held a census since 1983. Estimates of its population vary from 48 to 64 million, and statistics for ethnic and remote areas are extremely outdated. The United Nations in May agreed to provide technical assistance and financial support for the census.

Observers are watching closely for signs of whether the government will count the Rohingya, a disenfranchised minority, as citizens in the census.

Thousands detained in Rakhine after UN humanitarian chief’s visit. Myanmar’s Border Affairs Ministry December 8 said more than 1,100 people suspected of taking part in communal violence in Rakhine state since June have been detained, and nearly 5,000 weapons seized. More than half of those detained were Rohingya Muslims, who make up most of those killed and displaced by the violence. The announcement came three days after UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos’s visit to Rakhine. Amos described conditions for over 100,000 displaced persons in the state as “dire” and called on Myanmar and the international community to provide more support.

Fighting in Kachin escalates. Fighting between the Myanmar army and Kachin rebels has escalated in recent weeks, beginning November 28 with an alleged army raid on a Kachin refugee camp. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) claimed 60 Myanmar soldiers were injured or killed during heavy fighting December 8–9. The army launched air attacks on December 14 against KIA positions near the rebels’ headquarters at Laiza. The KIA has said it recovered Swedish-made weapons used by Myanmar troops in violation of a European Union ban on arms sales to Myanmar. Sweden has launched an investigation.

Government signs landmark deal with Chin. Myanmar’s chief peace negotiator, Aung Min concluded a landmark agreement December 9 with representatives of the Chin National Front (CNF) and other Chin political parties in Yangon. The 27-point agreement addresses a range of military issues, economic and infrastructure development, and sociocultural issues. It is the first cease-fire agreement to explicitly recognize an ethnic group’s right to "equality and self-determination consistent with” the 1947 Panglong Agreement between the government and several ethnic groups. The CNF signed a preliminary cease-fire with officials in January and has held a series of talks with the government since May.

Police, companies top list of human rights violations. Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights December 11 named the police force and corporations as the country’s top human rights violators. Police committed 1,625 of 5,442 reported violations in 2012, most commonly involving discrimination and abuse during investigations. Mining and plantation companies accounted for 1,009 violations, mostly involving land, employment, and environmental disputes. The overall number of reported abuses rose more than 20 percent in 2012, from 4,502 in 2011.

Indonesia, Australia air rescue plan pushed back to early 2013. Indonesia and Australia inked a deal December 11 allowing Australian planes to enter Indonesian airspace without prior permission to rescue asylum seekers in danger, but they delayed finalizing procedural details until February 2013. Most asylum seekers bound for Australia leave illegally from Indonesia by boat, and hundreds have drowned in 2012 during the crossings. The agreement is expected to help cut the number of deaths, as Australian forces assisting poorly equipped Indonesian rescuers had previously been slowed by the need to obtain permission from the Indonesian government.

Jakarta governor pushes “radical” solution to congestion. Jakarta governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo December 7 announced a “radical” solution to the capital’s infamous traffic congestion: allowing drivers to use certain major roadways only on alternating days, depending on their license plate numbers.

The unpopular plan will go into effect by March 2013 and will eventually be followed by the implementation of electronic tolls and the completion of the Jakarta Mass Rapid Transit System. Jokowi claimed the plan will reduce gridlock by 42 percent while lowering pollution and fuel consumption.

Democrats on defensive after resignation of youth and sports minister. The ruling Democratic Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono saw its hold on the House of Representatives weaken with the December 7 resignation of Youth and Sports Minister Andi Mallarangeng. The powerful Corruption Eradication Commission named Andi a suspect in a major graft investigation. His departure is the latest corruption scandal to hit the Democratic Party, whose treasurer, Muhammad Nazaruddin, was convicted of graft in April. Andi’s resignation fueled speculation that Yudhoyono will reshuffle his cabinet before the end of the year in a bid to bolster his administration’s tarnished image.

Bumi likely to side with Bakries over Rothschild. The board of London-listed coal giant Bumi Plc announced December 12 it will likely agree to a plan by Indonesia’s powerful Bakrie family to sell its 23.8 percent stake in the company, despite opposition from financier Nat Rothschild and minority stakeholders. The Bakries plan to sell their stake in Bumi Plc in exchange for one-third of the company’s 29 percent stake in Bumi Resources, Indonesia’s largest thermal coal miner. The Bakries will then buy the remainder of Bumi Plc’s stake for $278 million, divorcing the two companies after a troubled year in which Bumi Plc’s share price plunged more than 70 percent.

Former prime minister, deputy deny murder charges. Former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy, Suthep Thaugsuban, December 13 formally denied murder charges brought against them by the Department of Special Investigation. The two are being charged in the death of a cab driver during the government’s 2010 crackdown on “red shirt” protesters. They are also charged with violating Thailand’s Political Party Act over flood donations given out during their term in office, according to a December 14 report by the Nation. Abhisit and Suthep were not detained and are expected to remain free during the legal proceedings.

Parties plan to amend constitution amid fears of violence. Thailand’s ruling Pheu Thai Party, along with the Chartthaipattana, Palang Chon, and Chart Pattana parties, December 14 reiterated their opposition to the 2007 post-coup constitution. They said they would organize a referendum on amending the constitution—a move for which ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra voiced support during a December 11 speech at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center. Nearly three-quarters of Thais believe that the push to amend the constitution will lead to further violence, according to a December 9 survey by the ABAC Poll Research Center.

Thailand to deport migrant workers who miss verification deadline. More than one million illegal migrants in Thailand face deportation if they cannot obtain legal documentation through the county’s national verification system by December 14. The government introduced the system to allow illegal migrants to obtain legal status, but critics charge the system is plagued with corruption, making it troublesome and costly for poor workers to participate. Many immigrants are ineligible for verification because they lack required documents.

Typhoon Bopha causes widespread devastation in Mindanao. Super typhoon Bopha made landfall December 3 on the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao, hitting the two eastern provinces of Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental hardest and affecting over 5 million people. The storm left over 1,000 confirmed dead, close to half a million homeless, and nearly 20 percent of Mindanao’s banana export industry destroyed. In a sign of humanitarian concern, the Communist New People’s Army agreed December 10 to a temporary truce with government forces in Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental. Donations can be made to the Philippine Red Cross.

Philippines, United States hold Bilateral Strategic Dialogue. The United States and the Philippines held their third Bilateral Strategic Dialogue December 11–12 in Manila, agreeing to cooperate on a broad range of global, regional, and bilateral issues. The most important deliverable for U.S. negotiators was an agreement to boost the number of U.S. ships, aircraft, and troops rotating through the Philippines. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and Assistant Secretary of Defense Mark Lippert led the U.S. team, and Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Erlinda Basilio and Undersecretary of Defense Pio Lorenzo Batino represented the Philippines.

Legislature passes reproductive health bill, “sin tax” reform. Both chambers of the Philippine Congress December 17 passed a controversial reproductive health bill on its third and final reading. The bill mandates free contraceptives, family planning, and reproductive health classes in schools. It met staunch opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and numerous conservative groups. The House and Senate versions of the bill are expected to be reconciled December 19 before going to President Benigno Aquino for approval. A bicameral conference December 10 also approved a long-sought “sin tax” reform bill, which seeks to raise nearly $1 billion in government revenues from higher taxes on alcohol and tobacco products.

Government, Moro rebels resume peace talks in Malaysia. Negotiators from the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) met December 12 in Kuala Lumpur with the goal of finalizing a comprehensive peace agreement for an autonomous Moro region in Mindanao, to be called Bangsamoro, by the end of 2012. MILF leaders December 14 ordered rebels to abstain from wearing military uniforms or carrying guns in public while the negotiations move forward. Professor Miriam Coronel-Ferrer assumed the role of the government’s new chief negotiator, replacing Marvic Leonen, who was recently appointed to the Supreme Court.

Vietnam shutting foreign firms out of domestic shipping market. Vietnam’s Ministry of Transportation announced December 4 it will not grant or renew transport licenses for non-Vietnamese shipping fleets to use Vietnam’s domestic routes beginning in January 2013. The new policy aims to protect Vietnamese shipping companies, which have long been unable to compete with foreign firms in Vietnam’s domestic shipping market. Manufacturers worry the policy will increase shipping costs and lead to a monopoly.

World Bank warns of economic risks. The World Bank warned December 5 that Vietnam’s economy shows no signs of recovery and said that inflation, bad debt, and low foreign exchange reserves threaten to cause instability in the medium term. It added that investors expect the government to take actions, such as reducing the budget and disclosing information on state-owned enterprises. The Ministry of Finance on December 13 proposed cutting corporate tax rates from 25 percent to 23 percent in 2014 to boost economic activity.

Vietnam building coal-fired power plant in Mekong Delta. State-owned Vietnam Electricity began construction December 8 of a $1.4 billion coal-fired electricity plant in the Mekong Delta province of Tra Vinh. Vietnam wants to take advantage of its abundant coal reserves while reducing hydropower use, its overreliance on which is blamed for power shortages during the dry season. The plant will use nearly 4 million tons of domestic coal a year. Vietnam is the second-largest coal producer in Southeast Asia after Indonesia.

Authorities investigate foreign firms for tax avoidance. Vietnam’s General Taxation Department is investigating several foreign companies over concerns that they have avoided paying taxes by employing "price transferring," according to a December 14 Wall Street Journal report. “Price transferring” involves two related companies artificially establishing prices for transactions between one another, in this case allegedly by overpricing imported materials to make it appear that a company suffered losses when it actually earned a profit. Authorities named Coca-Cola and PepsiCo as targets of the investigation.

Canada approves Petronas takeover bid. The Canadian government December 7 approved a $5.3 billion bid for Progress Energy Resources Corp. by Malaysia’s state-owned oil company Petronas. Canada also approved the $15.1 billion acquisition of Nexen Inc. by state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp. Canada’s industry minister, Christian Paradis, had initially rejected Petronas’s bid in October, arguing that the takeover would not benefit Canada. Industry observers have closely tracked the debate over the Progress and Nexen deals, viewing them as bellwethers for Canada’s comfort with foreign state-owned corporations buying into the country’s energy reserves.

Malaysia accepts Myanmar refugees after Singapore refuses. Malaysian authorities accepted the transfer December 18 of 40 Myanmar refugees from the Nosco Victory, a Vietnamese cargo ship that had been denied entry by Singapore on December 12. The ship was originally scheduled to dock in Singapore on December 17, but authorities said the refugees could not legally enter the city-state. The Nosco Victory rescued the refugees, who are believed to be Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state, after their vessel sank December 5 in the Bay of Bengal. All but 9 of the other 210 people aboard the vessel are presumed dead.

Government orders Lynas to export rare earths waste. Four government ministers December 10 demanded that Australia’s Lynas Corp. either export waste from its controversial rare earths processing plant near Kuantan or have its operating license revoked. The ultimatum came after Lynas’s Malaysia operations chief, Mashal Ahmad, said that international restrictions prevent the company from exporting its waste as previously agreed. Lynas has faced months of protests and court battles due to citizen concerns about the environmental and health effects of the plant.

Malaysia ranks last in bribery survey. Transparency International’s 2012 Bribe Payers Survey found that companies say they are more likely to pay a bribe in Malaysia than anywhere else, according to a December 11 Wall Street Journal report. The study asked 3,000 executives from 30 countries whether they lost business in the last year because a competitor paid a bribe. Almost half of respondents in Malaysia said yes. The study is a disappointment for Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, who has pledged to eradicate corruption. Indonesia earned the second-worst score, with 47 percent reporting that a competitor had paid a bribe.

Industrial output sees rapid growth. Malaysia’s industrial output grew 5.8 percent year-on-year in October, the fastest pace in five months, according to a December 11 report by the country’s Department of Statistics. The higher than predicted growth allowed Malaysia’s central bank to announce it will hold interest rates at 3 percent until mid-2013. The economy will also receive a boost from high government spending ahead of general elections expected early next year, according to a December 11 Wall Street Journal report.

Speaker steps down amid sex scandal. Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer announced his resignation December 12 from the legislature and from the ruling People’s Action Party following revelations that he had an extramarital affair with a staff member of the People’s Association, a government body tasked with promoting racial harmony. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will nominate a new speaker during the parliament’s next session. Deputy Speaker Charles Chong will serve as acting speaker in the meantime. Opposition parties are urging Lee to call a by-election to fill Palmer’s vacant seat from Punggol-East.

Singapore, European Union complete free trade talks. Singapore and the European Union completed talks on a free trade pact and plan to sign the agreement in spring 2013, according to a December 16 press release from the European Commission. The agreement now awaits approval from the two sides’ parliaments. European automakers and financial institutions and Singaporean exporters are expected to particularly benefit from the agreement.

EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht said he hopes the pact will encourage other ASEAN members to forge similar agreements with the European Union.

Singapore tops surveys on infrastructure, desirability for millionaires. Singapore’s infrastructure is the best in the world, according to the December 4 Mercer City Infrastructure Ranking 2012. The survey ranks 221 cities around the world on electricity supply, water availability, telephone and mail services, public transportation, traffic, and international flights from local airports. The city-state is also the most desirable place in Asia for millionaires to live, according to a December 10 joint survey by RBC Wealth Management and the Economist Intelligence Unit. That survey cited Singapore’s higher quality of life for the wealthy.

Trans-Pacific Partnership
Latest round of Trans-Pacific Partnership talks held in Auckland. Negotiators met in Auckland, New Zealand, from December 3 to 12 for the 15th round of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. Canada and Mexico joined the negotiations for the first time, increasing the group’s membership to 11 countries. Differences over state-owned enterprises, intellectual property rights, tariffs on agricultural goods, and rules of origin for textiles and apparel reportedly remained sticking points between the parties. Observers expect the next round of negotiations, from March 4 to 13 in Singapore, to prove key in determining whether the leaders’ goal of finalizing an agreement in 2013 is achievable.

South China Sea
Anti-China protests erupt in Vietnam over South China Sea. Vietnamese police December 9 dispersed rare anti-China protests in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City that stemmed from renewed tensions between the two countries over territorial claims in the South China Sea. Police arrested 20 people in Hanoi after ordering roughly 200 demonstrators to disband. No one was detained at the smaller protest in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam accused Chinese fishermen of cutting seismic exploration cables on a Vietnamese survey ship November 30.

Philippines postpones bids on three South China Sea blocks. Philippine energy secretary Carlos Jerisho Petilla announced December 11 that Manila would temporarily suspend the process for awarding contracts for three oil and gas blocks in the South China Sea. He said the process would remain on hold until the Department of Foreign Affairs gave its approval. Six Philippine companies submitted bids for the blocks, the last two of which were opened for bidding July 31. The companies expressed disappointment over the decision, with one saying it contradicted earlier assurances from the government that the areas were within undisputed Philippine territory.

Laos extremely vulnerable to trafficking by crime groups. UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) executive director Yury Fedotov said during a December 5 visit to Laos that the country is extremely vulnerable to exploitation by organized crime groups due to its unique position at the center of the Mekong region and its shared borders with Cambodia, China, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. Fedotov met with Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong to reiterate UNODC’s commitment to help Laos reduce illicit opium poppy cultivation, increase food security, and fight organized crime and corruption.

South Korea to build hydroelectric plant in Laos. South Korea’s Export-Import Bank announced December 12 it will provide $420 million for the construction of a hydroelectric power plant along a Mekong tributary in Laos. The 32-year project will be conducted in partnership with the Asian Development Bank, and two Korean companies–SK Engineering & Construction and Korea Western Power–will participate as contractors. The plant has an estimated construction cost of $1 billion and will supply electricity to Thailand and Laos.

Mekong River

Lao National Assembly supports construction of Xayaburi dam. Members of Laos’s National Assembly were invited during the December 6–7 legislative session to debate the government’s decision to move forward with construction of the Xayaburi mega-dam on the Mekong River, but no lawmakers opposed the decision. The government began construction of the dam in November, drawing criticism from neighboring countries and international environmental groups. The Xayaburi project is the first attempt in Southeast Asia to dam the main branch of the Mekong.

Greater Mekong Subregion ministers review development priorities. Ministers from the six members of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS)—Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam—met in Nanning, China, from December 11 to 12 to review the progress of the Regional Investment Framework. The framework, which is to be finalized in 2013, lays out a comprehensive investment pipeline for the GMS, including funding for urban development, transportation infrastructure, power grids, food handling, sustainable tourism, environmental management, and human resources.

Sweden commits $8.3 million to support Mekong environment program. The Swedish government December 7 committed $8.3 million to the second phase of an Asian Development Bank–administered program to help the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) achieve environmentally friendly economic growth. Sweden earlier provided $11 million for the project’s pilot phase. The project, the Core Environment Program and Biodiversity Conservation Corridors Initiative, was launched in 2006 to address environmental concerns arising from rapid economic growth in the GMS.

Hun Sen speaks out against discrimination following Human Rights Day crackdown. Prime Minister Hun Sen December 11 urged Cambodians not to discriminate against homosexuals, citing the spirit of International Human Rights Day. Critics labeled the statement a cynical ploy, coming just a day after a government crackdown on roughly 2,000 protesters who marked Human Rights Day by gathering in Phnom Penh to call attention to issues including land evictions, labor rights, and freedom of assembly.

International consortium finalizes deal for gas pipeline in Timor-Leste. Malaysia’s Petro-Mekong finalized plans December 10 with international partners from China, the United States, Europe, and Timor-Leste to begin construction of a deep-sea gas pipeline off the coast of Timor-Leste. The pipeline will supply gas from Timor-Leste’s offshore gas fields to a planned liquefied natural gas processing plant onshore. Petro-Mekong and Timor-Leste–based Nexus Meridian agreed to launch a scholarship program for Timorese students studying in oil- and gas-related technical and scientific fields.

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This year in Thailand-what next?

AseanAffairs   04 January 2011
By David Swartzentruber      

It is commonplace in journalism to write two types of articles at the transition point between the year that has passed and the New Year. As this writer qualifies as an “old hand” in observing Thailand with a track record dating back 14 years, it is time take a shot at what may unfold in Thailand in 2011.

The first issue that can’t be answered is the health of Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol, who is now 83 years old. He is the world's longest reigning monarch, but elaborate birthday celebrations in December failed to mask concern over his health. More






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