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Asean Weekly, ending 22 Feb’2013
Government denies hacking journalists’ e-mails. Deputy Minister of Information Ye Htut on February 11 denied allegations that the government hacked into the e-mail accounts of several Myanmar- and Thailand-based journalists. In early February, Google warned at least 12 reporters, including the Myanmar correspondent for the Associated Press and several employees of the prominent Eleven Media outlet, that attackers may have hacked into their accounts. Ye Htut said government policy did not include hacking and that he had received the same Google warning on his own account, dated a week after the alerts to reporters
Myanmar urges Thailand to expedite registration of undocumented migrants. Deputy Labor Minister Myint Thein visited Bangkok on February 9 and urged Thailand to complete its registration of undocumented Myanmar migrants living in the country. Officials have registered and provided temporary passports to 1.2 million workers under Thailand’s nationality verification project, but an estimated 1 million workers and 200,000 children remain in the country without proper paperwork. Migrants lacking documentation by the initiative’s March 16 deadline face possible deportation.
Myanmar to grant foreign press expanded access. Deputy Minister of Information Ye Htut announced in early February that the government of Myanmar will soon provide expanded visa and access privileges to foreign journalists. Beginning in mid-April, foreign journalists will be able to apply for short-term, multi-entry, and long-term visas to report in the country. The government will also permit journalists to speak directly with ministers and other government officials, as well as travel freely within the country. Journalist groups welcomed the announcement, though watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch expressed concern that laws prohibiting criticism of the state remain in effect.
Myanmar and Malaysia sign science and technology cooperation agreement. Malaysian minister of science, technology, and innovation Maximus Ongkili and his Myanmar counterpart, Ko Ko Oo, signed an agreement in Malaysia on February 5 pledging greater cooperation in science and technology. The agreement emphasizes cooperation on health, agriculture, and information and communication technology, and establishes opportunities for public-private partnerships and university collaboration between the two countries.
Bangkok governor hopeful linked to police scandal. Bangkok governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra released evidence February 11 alleging that his rival, Pongsapat Pongcharoen, was involved in an ongoing police corruption scandal. The document, a contract combining 396 police building initiatives into a single bid and awarding the project to PCC Development and Construction Company, bears Pongsapat’s signature of approval. Pongsapat has maintained that he was not involved in the scandal. A late January poll places the Pheu Thai Party-backed Pongsapat ahead in the gubernatorial race.
Cabinet approves 2014 draft budget. The Thai cabinet on February 12 approved an $85 billion draft fiscal budget for 2014. The budget includes a deficit of $8.38 billion and a roughly 5.2 percent increase in government spending. The approval comes amid debates in Thailand on appropriate levels of public spending. The cabinet will review a $67 billion infrastructure package in mid-March that is expected to push the debt-to-GDP ratio from 40 percent to 50 percent.
U.S. Consulate on high alert after terrorist threat. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra ordered police to increase security around the U.S. Consulate in Chiang Mai in mid-February after receiving warnings of a planned al-Qaeda and Salafist terrorist attack on the building. Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung said drug traders perpetrated the plot in response to the consulate’s anti-drug trafficking initiatives. Police increased security personnel around the consulate and established a checkpoint. The United States did not request increased security but suspended nonurgent U.S. citizen services on February 12 and 14.
United States, Thailand host Cobra Gold multilateral military exercises. Cobra Gold, an annual series of multilateral military exercises, kicked off in Chiang Mai on February 11. More than 13,000 military personnel from the United States, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore will participate in the exercises, with several other countries observing, including Myanmar for the first time. Cobra Gold is the largest exercise of its kind in the Asia Pacific. Troops will engage in amphibious assault demonstrations, small-boat and helicopter raids, and other exercises.
Yudhoyono takes over Democrat Party leadership amid corruption scandals. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono assumed leadership of the Democrat Party on February 8 while party chairman Anas Urbaningrum is being investigated by the Corruption Eradication Commission for allegedly accepting bribes related to the construction of the Hambalang Sports Complex in West Java. The president’s son and Democrat Party secretary-general, Edhie Baskoro Yudhoyono, subsequently resigned from the House of Representatives on February 14, citing the need to focus on helping to rebuild the party’s credibility ahead of the 2014 national elections.
Investment in road infrastructure fails to keep pace with growth. Indonesia’s $7 billion annual spending on roads has failed to keep up with the country’s increasing economic growth, despite accounting for 40 percent of total infrastructure spending, according to a February 14 World Bank report. The World Bank says that Indonesia could meet its road building and maintenance needs in a decade by repealing its costly fuel subsidies and imposing a modest gasoline tax. Government spending on national roads increased threefold from 2005 to 2011, but led to only a 20 percent increase in roads built due to unusually high maintenance and development costs.
Foreign minister visits Japan to discuss strategic dialogue. Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa and his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, met in Tokyo for the fourth Japan-Indonesia Strategic Dialogue on the sidelines of the February 13–15 Conference on Cooperation among East Asian Countries for Palestinian Development. The meeting brought no significant deliverables but signaled increasing bilateral and regional cooperation between the two countries. It followed Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s January 18 visit to Indonesia.
House considers taking over human rights body amid internal dispute. The House of Representatives threatened on February 12 to select new commissioners for Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) unless it resolves an internal dispute over the length of the chairman’s term in office by mid-March. The House has proposed that the term be reduced from two-and-a-half years to one year. Four of 13 commissioners, including the chairman, opposed the proposal while 9 supported the move. Komnas HAM is considered Indonesia’s leading human rights watchdog, but the impasse has raised questions about its effectiveness.
Japan to give Philippines 10 coast guard patrol boats. The Japanese coast guard will donate to the Philippines 10 patrol boats worth $11 million each, according to a February 11 report by the Japanese business daily Nikkei. The vessels will be used to prevent intrusions in waters claimed by the Philippines in the South China Sea. Some of the new boats are actually refurbished 40-year-old cutters bought from the U.S. Coast Guard. Tokyo plans to include the donation of the vessels in its 2013 budget. Manila expects to receive the boats in eighteen months.
Aquino makes historic visit to separatist base in Mindanao. President Benigno Aquino visited the base of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) at Sultan Kadarat, Maguindanao Province, on February 11 to launch a social welfare program. The program aims to deliver basic goods and services that will help improve the health, education, and livelihood of 12,000 MILF and Moro communities. Aquino is the first Philippine president to visit the MILF camp on peaceful terms.
Aquino signs measure to amend Anti-Money Laundering Act. President Benigno Aquino on February 15 signed the Act Strengthening the Anti-Money Laundering Law, which amends the Philippines’ existing Anti-Money Laundering Act. Under the new law, money changers, real estate dealers, and jewelry dealers are required to report suspicious transactions. By passing the law, the government hopes to keep the Philippines from being blacklisted by the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which imposes restrictions on the financial activities of countries whose laws are deemed insufficient to combat transnational financial crimes and the funding of illicit organizations.
Congress passes landmark bill to protect rights of internally displaced persons. The Philippine Congress passed a bill on February 8 to protect the rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country. The law protects IDPs against arbitrary displacement and guarantees their rights in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees hailed the law as a model for other countries. The Philippines is the first country in the Asia Pacific to adopt such comprehensive legislation protecting IDPs.
Philippines receives record foreign investment in 2012. Trade Secretary Gregory Domingo said on February 13 that foreign investment in the Philippines in 2012 climbed to a new record of $400 million, about half of which came from Japan. Japanese companies like Canon Business Machines and Murata Manufacturing Company moved their operations to the Philippines because of improving cost effectiveness. Domingo said Japan is now the Philippines’ largest investment source and trading partner.
Malaysia imposes two-year moratorium on new private colleges. Malaysia’s Ministry of Higher Education imposed a two-year moratorium on new private higher-education institutions, beginning February 1, arguing that their number outstrips demand and is therefore unsustainable. The moratorium does not affect new institutions whose applications are currently being processed, existing universities that have applied for status upgrades, or branches of highly ranked foreign universities. Malaysia previously imposed a five-year moratorium on new medical courses in May 2011 for the same reason.
Najib visits Penang for Chinese New Year. Prime Minister Najib Razak celebrated Chinese New Year on February 10 during a two-day visit to the opposition-held state of Penang. Najib spoke at an event sponsored by his ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, promising to improve Penang’s transport system, provide affordable housing, and upgrade the status of local Han Chiang College so it can confer its own degrees. South Korean rapper Psy also performed during the event. Penang is heavily Chinese and is considered the opposition’s main stronghold. Najib has visited the state twice in two months as the ruling coalition prepares for upcoming national elections.
Australian senator deported from Malaysia. Australian independent senator Nick Xenophon was detained at and deported from the Kuala Lumpur airport on February 16 for being a security risk. Xenophon, an outspoken critic of Malaysia’s human rights record, was scheduled to meet with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a senior government minister, the Election Commission, and electoral reform group Bersih to discuss electoral reforms ahead of elections expected in March or April. Ruling coalition politicians accused Xenophon of interfering in Malaysia’s domestic politics and defended the government’s decision to deport him.
Refugee deal with Australia in limbo over human rights issues. Progress on a deal to swap refugees between Australia and Malaysia remains stalled over the latter’s refusal to strengthen human rights protections for asylum seekers, according to a February 11 Australian report. The two countries agreed in July 2011 to exchange 4,000 processed refugees from Malaysia for 800 unprocessed asylum seekers from Australia, but Australia’s High Court ruled the agreement unconstitutional due to unaddressed human rights concerns.
U.S.-trained human rights lawyer freed from jail. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry on February 7 announced the early release of U.S.-trained human rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh from jail. Dinh was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to five years in prison on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government. He served three and a half years of his five-year sentence. Officials claim that Dinh was freed for his good behavior, according to online newspaper VnExpress.
Ailing banking system seeks foreign investment. The Vietnamese government is looking to foreign investors to take 49 percent ownership of state-owned banks in order to fix the poorly performing banking system, according to a February 13 report by the Wall Street Journal. Ivan Tan, a director at Standard & Poor’s, says that selling stakes in state-owned companies will attract the necessary foreign capital and expertise that Vietnamese banks need. Foreign investors are currently allowed to own 20 percent of a Vietnamese bank as an individual or 30 percent with a partner.
Singapore police pledge to aid Interpol in soccer match-fixing investigations. Singapore’s police force said February 8 that it is working with Interpol and sending officers to Europe to investigate an international soccer match-fixing scandal operating out of the city-state. Singapore has come under embarrassing scrutiny since news of the match-fixing ring broke on February 4. Singapore legalized gambling on local matches in 1999 and on international matches played locally in 2002.
China names ICBC the sole renminbi clearing bank in Singapore. The People’s Bank of China approved the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) Singapore branch as the only institution in the city-state permitted to clear renminbi-denominated transactions, according to a February 8 Bloomberg report. The move took place the same week that an offshore renminbi market began operating in Taipei, marking a new stage in China’s attempts to internationalize its currency. Singapore will now become the world’s third offshore renminbi center.
Changi Airport announces plans for Terminal 4 construction. Changi Airport Group announced February 1 that it will begin construction of a new terminal in 2013, to be completed in 2017. The approximately $1 billion project is designed for quick flight turnaround. It aims to meet the operational needs of both regional full service and low-cost carriers and to provide capacity for 16 million passengers annually.
Terminal 4 will be comparable to Changi Airport’s Terminals 1 and 2 and will have aerobridges, unlike the Budget Terminal.
Government and bar association issue regulations on lawyer-media relations. Cambodia’s Ministry of Information and the Cambodian Bar Association announced new regulations on February 8 limiting the interaction of lawyers and the media. Information Minister Khieu Kanharith released orders instructing media personnel to seek approval from the national bar association before speaking with lawyers. The bar association issued a letter to lawyers at the same time, warning them against speaking to press outlets without obtaining prior consent. The Cambodia Center for Human Rights and others sharply criticized the regulations.
Charges dropped against prominent rights investigator. The Cambodian government on February 8 dropped secessionist charges against Chan Soveth, an investigator with the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, better known as ADHOC.
Authorities had charged Chan Soveth on August 7 with intent to foment secession after he provided shelter and money to Ma Chhang, who was accused of leading an uprising in a village in Kratie Province. Tensions remain high in the village, where security forces killed a 14-year-old girl during a crackdown on an eviction protest in May 2012.
South China Sea
EIA releases report on potential resources in South China Sea. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) released a report on February 7 estimating that the South China Sea holds about 11 billion barrels of oil resources and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
The report also includes a study conducted by the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) in November 2012 that estimates the South China Sea’s hydrocarbon resources at about 125 billion barrels of oil and 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The EIA has not conducted studies to independently assess CNOOC’s estimates.
John Kerry voices support for Philippines’ push to take China to UN tribunal. Newly confirmed U.S. secretary of state John Kerry expressed support for Manila’s decision to take Beijing’s extensive South China Sea claims to a UN arbitration tribunal during a February 15 call with Philippine foreign minister Albert del Rosario. The two agreed to strengthen defense and security ties between Washington and Manila, including by enhancing joint military exercises and helping build the Philippines’ defense capacity. The U.S. government officially takes no side in the overlapping claims in the South China Sea, but it has insisted that the disputes be resolved according to international law.
Phommarat was detained in October 2012 for leading a group of villagers in seeking better compensation for land that was confiscated for road expansion. Lao authorities gave no public explanation for her sudden release.
European Parliament urges Laos to address concerns about Sombath disappearance. The European Parliament passed a multipoint resolution on February 7 expressing deep concern about the disappearance of Lao agronomist Sombath Somphone. The parliament called on the Lao government to cooperate in investigating his disappearance and to respect human rights and international law.
Sombath, a U.S.-educated agronomist and winner of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, has been missing since the evening of December 15.
Timor-Leste establishes “No Take Zones” to boost local fisheries. Secretary of State for Fisheries Rafael Periera Goncalves on February 7 announced the establishment of Timor-Leste’s first “No Take Zones” to allow the replenishment of fish stocks and the protection of coral reefs, which are essential for the country’s food security and economic development. The announcement follows an August 2012 marine survey that found coral reefs in Timor-Leste among the healthiest and most diverse in the world. Conservation International carried out the survey using USAID’s Coral Triangle Support Partnership award.
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