ASEAN KEY DESTINATIONS
Home >> Daily News >> ASEAN ANALYSIS
Parliament to review military-drafted constitution. Myanmar’s parliament agreed on March 15 to form a committee to review the country’s controversial 2008 constitution. Two senior members of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party proposed the review. The military-drafted constitution reserves 25 percent of parliamentary seats for military officials and prohibits individuals with a foreign spouse or foreign children from running for president or vice president. The latter clause bars opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose late husband was British, from holding the presidency. It remains unclear which articles of the constitution will come under review.
Myanmar and Kachin rebels meet, agree to further talks. Myanmar chief peace negotiator Aung Min and representatives from the Kachin Independence Organization met for their second round of talks March 12 in the Chinese border town of Ruili. The two sides pledged to continue meeting until a cease-fire is reached. They agreed to coordinate on troop movements and to meet again before April 10 for further negotiations. The government issued a unilateral cease-fire in January, but fighting continues on both sides.
Government commission recommends continuing controversial Letpadaung mine project. The Letpadaung Inquiry Commission, a government-appointed committee led by Aung San Suu Kyi, released a report in early March recommending that the controversial Letpadaung copper mine project, in which a Chinese company is a major investor, continue. The report found that police used phosphorous to break up a November protest against the mine by villagers, and called for the government to boost the environmental and safety standards of the project. Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to communities near the mine to explain the commission’s findings, but was met by often-harsh criticism from villagers.
Government admits to restructuring press censorship board. President Thein Sein has restructured Myanmar’s now-shuttered press censorship board, according to a March 6 Democratic Voice of Burma report. Government spokesman Zaw Htay confirmed Thein Sein created a press regulatory committee on January 23 after announcing the abolishment of the press censorship board, and appointed the former board’s officials to the new commission. Zaw Htay said the purpose of the new board was to register journalists and media outlets, and maintained that official censorship no longer exists in Myanmar.
Former top State Department official’s firm joins bid for major contract in Myanmar. U.S. investment group ACO announced on March 11 that the Asia Group, a consulting firm founded by former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, has joined its bid to upgrade the Yangon International Airport. Campbell, who left his post at the State Department in February, will lead a delegation to Myanmar in April to promote ACO’s bid. ACO is one of only 11 firms preapproved to bid on the lucrative deal, planned to double the airport’s passenger capacity amid surging international travel to Myanmar.
Yudhoyono to adjust Indonesia’s bloated fuel subsidies. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the National Economic Committee, a state-owned think tank, will release a plan on March 28 to reduce Indonesia’s fuel subsidies. The new policy aims to cut the $31 billion subsidy—roughly 13 percent of the government’s budget—within two years, shifting it toward development and infrastructure. The proposal will face opposition from a parliament that is gearing up for 2014 elections and has twice rejected reducing the subsidies due to public backlash. The fuel levy that would be needed to cover necessary road maintenance in Indonesia would cost only about 5 cents per liter, according to a recent World Bank report.
Indonesian officials sign forestry management reform pact. Eight cabinet ministers and four heads of state institutions, including the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), signed an agreement on March 11 to better manage Indonesia’s forests. The pact is expected to lead to a working mechanism to monitor and evaluate Indonesia’s forestry sector. Indonesia remains the world’s third-largest carbon emitter, largely due to its environmentally destructive palm oil industry, and the KPK’s participation suggests a move to crack down on corruption in the lucrative industry.
Yudhoyono concludes European trip with focus on trade and investment. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited Berlin and Budapest from March 4 to March 8, meeting with Presidents Joachim Gauk and Janos Ader to highlight trade, investment, and tourism ties with each country. Yudhoyono met on March 5 with Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he established an advisory group to strengthen Indonesia’s economic and people-to-people ties with Germany. Yudhoyono also met with the CEOs of Volkswagen, Siemens, and Ferrostaal, an industrial service company that agreed on March 11 to build a $2 billion petrochemical facility in West Papua.
Rights body commissioners oust chairman following prolonged infighting. Commissioners from Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) voted on March 6 to oust the commission’s incumbent chairman following an internal spat over a regulation allowing the annual turnover of the chairmanship. Four of the 13 commissioners walked out in protest, while 9 supported the move recommended by the parliament. Activists claim the vote was a political attempt by the parliament to undermine the effectiveness of Komnas HAM, which is considered Indonesia’s leading human rights watchdog, ahead of the 2014 elections.
Import restrictions cause garlic shortage, spike in prices. A garlic shortage has led to a roughly 31 percent price spike in the Indonesian staple. The trade ministry has responded by fast-tracking import licenses for 92 companies to bring in 134,600 tons of garlic to stabilize the market. The trade ministry blamed the shortage on a lack of supply from China and declining local production, but part of the problem is the government’s protectionist trade measures—in this case the inclusion of garlic on a list of vegetables and fruit whose import is restricted. Indonesia imports 95 percent of its garlic from China.
Indonesian soccer leagues to merge to avoid international ban. Indonesia’s two rival soccer leagues voted on March 17 to merge by 2014 to avoid being banned from international participation by soccer’s global governing body, the International Federation of Association Football (better known by its French acronym FIFA). Poor management led to a leadership change within the federation in 2012 and the formation of a breakaway league that caused Indonesia’s national team to drop 40 places in global rankings. Officials hope the deal will stick, but a walkout following discussion of off-the-agenda items suggests rifts between the two sides remain.
Malaysian government accused of fabricating charges against Anwar, paying U.S. bloggers to tarnish his image. Azlan Mohd Lazim, the father of the man who has accused Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim of sodomy, said March 8 that his previous statements in support of his son were orchestrated by an official in the office of Prime Minister Najib Razak. Azlan joined Anwar’s People’s Justice Party on March 11. His statement followed revelations on March 1 that the
Malaysian government had paid conservative U.S. journalists and bloggers to write articles tarnishing Anwar in the American media.
Islamic Financial Services Board conducts Islamic finance studies with European Central Bank. Malaysia-based Islamic Financial Services Board (IFSB) is conducting a joint study with the European Central Bank on policies that affect Islamic finance in Europe, and will hold its annual forum, hosted by the Bank of Italy, on April 9 in Rome, according to a Reuters report. Islamic finance has gained attention since the start of the eurozone crisis because of its religious principles that ban interest and pure monetary speculation. IFSB is one of Islamic finance’s global standard-setting bodies.
Parties split over latest amnesty bill. Thailand’s political parties are again split over the question of a general amnesty for those involved in recent political violence. Worachai Hema, a lawmaker with the ruling Pheu Thai Party, introduced a new bill on March 7 that seeks amnesty for those facing charges related to political actions taken between September 19, 2006, and May 10, 2011. Members of the opposition Democrat Party are refusing to discuss the bill because of fears that its real purpose is to clear the name of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and allow his return to Thailand.
Sailors accused of shooting at Rohingya asylum seekers. Thai sailors are accused of firing on a boat carrying about 20 Rohingya refugees on February 22 off the southwest coast of Thailand, resulting in two deaths. The navy has denied the claims, but both the Rohingya and Thai villagers from a nearby community corroborated the accusations. Thailand’s government has promised an investigation and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is probing the claim. Thailand’s navy often tows asylum seekers’ boats out to sea rather than let them land in Thailand, and a group of soldiers was recently implicated in selling Rohingya refugees to human traffickers.
Sixteenth round of TPP negotiations concludes in Singapore. Negotiators made progress during the 16th round of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade talks held from March 4 to March 14 in Singapore. A statement released after the talks said "solid progress" was made in bridging differences on topics including regulatory issues, telecommunications, customs, and development. Significant hurdles remain in areas like agricultural goods, intellectual property rights, competition and state-owned enterprises, pharmaceuticals, environment and labor, and textiles. TPP members are considering holding an additional meeting in July to meet the increasingly elusive goal of concluding an agreement by the end of 2013.
Singapore stock exchange to help develop Philippine derivatives market. The Philippine Stock Exchange and Singapore Exchange Ltd. announced on March 13 that they have agreed to cooperatively develop a Philippine derivatives market. The two exchanges plan to launch Philippine index futures in Singapore by the fourth quarter of 2013. Fund managers say the introduction of the Philippine index futures will address the demands of international investors.
Election commission appointees refuse positions. Macabangkit Lanto, a representative from Lanao del Norte Province, announced on March 11 that he was declining his appointment to the Philippine Commission of Elections (Comelec). Lanto’s decision came just two days after election lawyer Maria Bernadette Sardillo withdrew her name from consideration. Both Lanto and Sardillo said their families advised them to turn down the positions. With legislative elections set for May 13, the government is rushing to fill vacancies left on the commission by the February retirements of two members.
Supreme Court rejects anti-dynasty measure. The Supreme Court of the Philippines on March 5 rejected a motion asking the justices to review whether Congress is failing in its duty to uphold Article XIII of the Philippine constitution, which forbids political dynasties. The court ruled in early February that the constitutional provision requires an enabling law before it can be executed. Critics have long campaigned against the Philippines’ concentration of power in the hands of a small number of influential families and their clients.
Phuong Tay Bank plans merger with PetroVietnam Finance. Phuong Tay Bank, which is partially state-owned, alerted shareholders on March 12 that it will merge with PetroVietnam Finance Corp (PVFC) as part of the government’s plan to restructure banks to address the problem of bad debt. Phuong Tay Bank and PVFC will be combined into a single mid-sized bank with equity of $438 million. The merger, to be completed in 2013, is expected to rescue Phuong Tay Bank from its bad debts, make PVFC more competitive, and cut PetroVietnam’s stake in PVFC.
Coffee farmers curb sales in anticipation of drought. Coffee farmers in Vietnam have cut sales by 57 percent in an effort to boost prices ahead of pending drought, according to trader and shipper estimates in a March 7 Bloomberg report. Vietnam’s government warned on February 26 that the drought expected to hit the country’s central highlands might damage rice and coffee crops. Vietnam is the world’s largest producer of robusta coffee beans, which are used by Nestle and Starbucks.
Rare protest held in Hanoi on anniversary of China naval clash. Twenty activists gathered in Hanoi on March 14 in remembrance of the 25th anniversary of the Johnson South Reef clash between Vietnam and China in the South China Sea. The activists laid wreaths around a statue of Hanoi’s founder and nationalist figurehead Ly Thai To, played patriotic music, and chanted anti-China slogans. The 1988 battle over a contested feature in the Spratly Islands left 64 Vietnamese dead.
Hanoi seeks to improve public image of police. Hanoi traffic police chief Col. Dao Vinh Tang reported on March 6 that short and overweight police officers have been banned from traffic duty as part of a government initiative to improve the force’s image. Authorities have not specified the new height and weight requirements, but are compiling a list of police officers that do not meet them. A recent World Bank survey found that the public considers Vietnam’s traffic police force the most corrupt institution in the country.
ASEAN human rights body asked to look into abuses in Sabah. The UN Commission on Human Rights on March 11 requested that the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) investigate alleged abuses against Filipinos in Malaysia’s Sabah State. Victims claim that Malaysian forces threatened, beat, and extorted money from them during operations to root out Filipinos in Sabah who have aided an armed group from Sulu still engaged in ongoing clashes with security forces.
Japan seeks stronger defense ties with ASEAN. Japanese and ASEAN deputy defense ministers met in Tokyo on March 13–14 in the first meeting of its kind since Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe took office in December. They discussed greater defense cooperation, including coordination on their respective disputes with China in the South and East China Seas and building capacity to combat nontraditional security threats.
ADB says no country in Southeast Asia is water-secure. The Asian Development Bank warned of a potential water crisis in the Asia Pacific in a report released on March 13. The report finds that no country in South or Northeast Asia is water-secure. Among ASEAN members, Singapore, Brunei, and Malaysia were ranked highest but still one tier short of secure. The report did, however, find that access to proper toilets has expanded to at least 64 percent of the population in Southeast Asia. The report calls for Asian nations to increase investment to improve water supply and sanitation mechanisms.
CSIS to promote U.S. governors’ engagement with Southeast Asia. The Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies is reaching out to U.S. governors whose states either would or already do benefit most from greater economic and people-to-people interaction with Southeast Asia. Once a team of key governors is assembled, CSIS will lead them in delegations to the region and help explore opportunities for greater interaction with Southeast Asia. The chair hopes to help build a state-level political constituency to mirror the federal government’s commitment to ASEAN as part of the rebalance to Asia.
South China Sea
Chinese surveillance vessels drive Vietnamese ships out of waters near Paracels. Two surveillance vessels from the Chinese Marine Surveillance (CMS) fleet drove two Vietnam-registered fishing ships out of waters around the Paracel Islands on March 13. The Chinese vessels accused the Vietnamese of illegal fishing in the disputed waters, according to Xinhua. The CMS fleet, which consists of three ships and a helicopter, has been conducting regular patrols since February 18 in the South China Sea.
Taiwan discovers gas deposits south of Pratas Islands. Marine geophysicist Hsu Shu-Kun of Taiwan’s National Central University reported on March 13 that his oceanic research team discovered gas hydrate deposits in the South China Sea south of the Pratas Islands. The area in question is claimed by both China and Taiwan. Hsu said further investigation will be needed to determine the size of the deposits. The research team had embarked on a 19-day exploration trip that ended on March 8.
Foreign Minister Shanmugam concludes visit to Washington. K. Shanmugam, Singapore’s minister for foreign affairs and minister for law, visited Washington on March 12–15, meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry and other officials. Talks resulted in no significant deliverables but reinforced bilateral ties between the United States and Singapore, particularly through their joint Third Country Training Program, cooperation in boosting ASEAN infrastructure, and the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. Shanmugam met with Attorney General Eric Holder and with members of Congress on March 14, to whom he pledged a full investigation into the death of Singapore-based U.S. researcher Shane Todd.
Singapore to open Cyber Security Lab to train law enforcement. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Teo Chee Hen said March 8 that Singapore will open a Cyber Security Lab in 2014 to enhance law enforcement personnel’s cyber security competencies. Boosting cyber security is a priority for Singapore due to the growing frequency and complexity of cyber-attacks. Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim during the same briefing said that the government plans to double the speed of Singapore’s free public Wi-Fi network to two megabytes per second.
Senators seek to cut funding to Singapore institute over Shane Todd investigation. U.S. Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester in mid-March filed legislation to halt U.S. funding for Singapore’s Institute of Microelectronics unless the city-state’s authorities give the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) full access to evidence surrounding the death of U.S. engineer Shane Todd. Baucus and Tester both represent Todd’s home state of Montana. Singapore has promised to share only "relevant evidence." Police originally suspected Todd’s death was suicide, but his family believes it was related to work allegedly linked to Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei that he did at the Institute of Microelectronics.
Cambodia denies responsibility for landmine explosion near disputed border with Thailand. Cambodia on March 8 denied responsibility for a landmine that exploded and seriously injured three Thai rangers on March 5 in Thailand’s Surin Province. Thailand accused Cambodia of planting the mine, located near the Preah Vihear temple to which both sides lay claim. The dispute comes just weeks after both countries agreed to replace soldiers stationed around the temple with police. The International Court of Justice will rule on ownership of disputed land near the temple in mid-April.
Court overturns sentence of jailed editor. Cambodian authorities released independent radio station owner and editor Mam Sonando on March 15, the day after a Phnom Penh appeals court overturned his conviction. A municipal court convicted Mam Sonando, 71, and sentenced him to 20 years in prison in October 2012 for his station’s coverage of a military crackdown on eviction protests that killed a 14-year-old girl. Cambodian and international rights groups such as Amnesty International praised the decision as a positive step for freedom of expression in Cambodia.
Foreign ministers adopt strategic action plan during regional integration meeting. Foreign ministers from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam adopted a 2013–2015 strategic plan to promote regional economic integration during a meeting of the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy group on March 12–13 in Vientiane. The plan aims to create a single regional market for trade and investment, agriculture, energy, transportation linkages, tourism, human resource development, health, and the environment. Other deals forged in sideline meetings included an agreement between Thailand and Laos to build an additional bridge linking the two countries.
Laos and Thailand agree on border cooperation accord. Lao security minister Thongban Sengaphone and Thai interior minister Jarupong Ruangsuwan announced March 8 that the two countries had agreed on a six-point accord to bolster border cooperation. The two reached the agreement during a meeting of provincial governors from both countries held in Thailand. The accord pledges joint collaboration on combating drug trafficking, improved border checkpoints, improved cooperation on imprisonment of each other’s citizens, better cross-border communication, promotion of border peace, and maintenance of country boundaries.
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