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                                                                                                                           Asean Affairs  22 February 2013  

Asean Weekly, ending 22 Feb’2013

Thein Sein calls for committee to assess political prisoner status. President Thein Sein announced the formation of a committee on February 7 to review the country’s remaining political prisoners and possibly grant their release. The government has invited the opposition National League for Democracy and civil society organizations to send representatives to serve on the commission. The organizations have compiled a consensus list of 234 prisoners for government review. Myanmar has released several hundred political prisoners since the civilian government took office in 2011.

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.

Military base attack and deadly car bomb mark uptick in southern Thailand violence. Thai marines foiled an attack on a marine military base in Narathiwat's Bacho district on February 13, killing at least 16 Muslim insurgents. The attack followed the detonation of a car bomb in Yala on February 10 that killed five Thai soldiers. Experts say the base attack was the deadliest in Thailand’s deep south since violence erupted in 2004, and that the two incidents indicate an escalation in the conflict. The central government is considering imposing a curfew in parts of the region.

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.

Asia Pulp and Paper pledges end to deforestation in Indonesia. The world’s third-largest paper producer, Singapore-based Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), announced on February 1 that it and its suppliers will stop cutting Indonesian rainforests, use only plantation-grown trees, and hire groups to monitor implementation. The move is a victory for environmental groups like Greenpeace that have lobbied APP and other companies since 2011 to preserve biodiversity and reduce carbon emissions in Indonesia, the world’s third-largest carbon emitter due to deforestation.

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.
The Philippines

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.

Three terror suspects arrested under Security Offences Act. Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein announced February 7 that three Malaysians had been detained under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA) for suspected involvement in terrorism and militancy. The government passed the controversial SOSMA in 2012 to replace Malaysia’s draconian Internal Security Act (ISA). It allows police to detain suspects for up to 28 days before bringing them to court. Yazid Sufaat and Halimah Hussein, both of whom had previously been detained under the ISA, were charged on February 8. The third suspect, Mohamad Hilmi Hasim, has not been charged but remains in detention.

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.

Government to unveil plans to overhaul 52 state-owned enterprises. Deputy Finance Minister Truong Chi Trung said in an interview on January 5 that the government plans to unveil an economic road map by June for overhauling 52 state-owned enterprises (SOEs). He said the proposed plans include selling all nonessential units from SOEs by the end of 2015, reducing them to between 50 and 75 percent of their current size. Vietnam’s SOEs currently account for about 53 percent of the banking system’s bad debt, according to the Finance Ministry.

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.

Parliament passes White Paper on Population despite backlash. Singapore’s Parliament passed a controversial White Paper on Population on February 8 by a decisive vote of 77 to 13, despite significant backlash from citizens. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised during a live broadcast before the vote to control the influx of foreigners into Singapore and said that he expects the city-state’s 2030 population to remain below the 6.9 million cited in the White Paper. A crowd of 3,000–4,000, remarkably large by Singaporean standards, gathered on February 16 to protest the government’s population policies.

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.

Khmer Rouge tribunal overturns decision to separate trials. The Supreme Court Chamber of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) on February 8 overturned a decision by a lower court to separate charges against former Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, and Khieu Samphan. The lower Trial Chamber had decided in 2011 to hear the numerous charges discretely in a series of mini-trials. Given the defendants’ advanced age and poor health, the prosecution and trial observers worried that the decision to separate the charges meant the tribunal would never prosecute the more egregious charges. The recent Supreme Court decision requires the defendants to face all charges simultaneously.

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
China rejects Philippine motion for UN arbitration in South China Sea dispute. Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Ma Keqing on February 19 submitted a note to the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) saying that China rejects Manila’s motion for UN arbitration of some aspects of the South China Sea disputes. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei argued that the Philippines’ decision to seek arbitration violates the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and that China is committed to negotiating the disputes bilaterally. The Philippine DFA issued a statement dismissing China’s objections and saying arbitration will move forward “with or without China.”

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.

Activist freed after three months of detention. The Lao government released land activist Sivanxay Phommarat from prison on February 3 after she paid an $88 fine and promised that she and her husband would refrain from taking part in any more “unlawful” actions.

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 Telecom worries about new competitor Telin. The competitive advantage enjoyed by PT Telekomunikasi Indonesia International (Telin) is preventing it from reaching agreement with local firm Timor Telecoms, according to a February 8 Telecompaper report. Timor Telecom is demanding that Telin guarantee it equal bandwidth, fair pricing, and access to land connectivity. Timor Telecom is also preparing to sign an interconnection agreement with Vietnam’s Viettel. Timor-Leste ended Timor Telecom’s monopoly in May 2012 and awarded licenses to Telin and Viettel two months later, making them the first foreign telecommunications firms to operate in the country.
Timor-Leste and Thailand to cooperate in oil sector. Timor-Leste and Thailand signed an agreement on February 1 to boost cooperation in exploration and development of Timor-Leste’s oil resources. The cooperation is expected to focus on Timor-Leste’s Tasi Mane project along the country’s southern coast. The agreement includes information sharing on oil policy, oil-related institutions, business opportunities, and legal preparations, as well as specialized training for professionals. It follows a 2009 agreement to create a Timorese energy plan and perform studies of the oil sector.

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.

PACOM commander visits Brunei to reinforce maritime cooperation. U.S. Pacific Commander Admiral Samuel Locklear met with Bruneian leaders, including Defense Minister Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, on February 7–10 to discuss regional transnational security challenges ahead of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercises sponsored by Brunei. Locklear extended U.S. support for the exercises, which will be held as part of the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus on June 16–20, by offering a logistics ship, medical teams, and planners. Brunei assumed the chairmanship of ASEAN in January.

Mekong River
Laos signs land lease to develop Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam. Laos’s deputy minister of natural resources and the environment Akhom Tounalom signed a 32-year land lease contract on February 1 for the Thai-funded Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydroelectric project. Construction on the dam will begin in July, and commercial operations are expected to start in February 2019. Ninety percent of the electricity generated by the project will be sold to Thailand. Laos also signed an agreement on the same day with Russia’s Regional Oil to develop three hydropower dams along Mekong River tributaries, with construction to begin in 2014.

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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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