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Asean Affairs   23 November  2012

Week ending 22 Nov 2012
The Week That Was


ASEAN Summit, EAS, and U.S.-ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting held in Cambodia. Leaders from around the Asia Pacific traveled to Phnom Penh November 17–20 for the annual ASEAN Summit and related meetings. President Barack Obama attended the fourth U.S.-ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting November 19 and joined 17 other heads of state November 20 for the East Asia Summit (EAS). Leaders discussed the need for greater regional cooperation on a range of economic and security issues, including ongoing disputes in the South China Sea. The 10 ASEAN members signed a long-anticipated human rights declaration, but critics argue that it contains loopholes for rights abuses. Most of the EAS members, except the United States and Russia, also used the meetings to launch negotiations on a new vehicle for trade liberalization, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

World Bank to promote Thailand as ASEAN insurance hub. The World Bank and Japan November 14 announced plans to promote Thailand as ASEAN’s insurance center. The World Bank believes that the initiative, capitalizing on Thailand’s central location in ASEAN, will help upgrade less developed insurance industries in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam in preparation for the planned 2015 launch of the ASEAN Economic Community. The World Bank and Japanese insurers pledged to provide technical assistance to Thai personnel and insurance companies.

Lagarde visits Malaysia, Philippines, Cambodia as region cuts reliance on IMF. International Monetary Fund (IMF) managing director Christine Lagarde visited Malaysia, the Philippines, and Cambodia November 14–20 in an effort to boost the fund’s waning influence in Southeast Asia and solicit insights on how to solve the eurozone crisis. The three countries did not need IMF assistance during the 2008 global financial crisis, and the Philippines posted an impressive growth rate of 6.1 percent in the first half of 2012. Since taking office in 2011, Lagarde has visited two other ASEAN member countries, Indonesia and Thailand.

Obama visits Myanmar, meets Thein Sein and Suu Kyi. President Barack Obama met with Myanmar president Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on November 19 in Yangon. The visit came three days after the United States lifted its nearly decade-long ban on imports from Myanmar, excluding jadeite and rubies. Obama lauded Myanmar’s progress in launching political reforms, but also raised the issue of political prisoners and treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority. During the visit, Myanmar’s government released 51 political prisoners and promised further reforms, including joining the International Atomic Energy Agency’s “additional protocol” to allow inspections of nuclear sites and considering citizenship for the Rohingya. Obama is the first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar.

Group breaks away from National League for Democracy ahead of party convention. About 130 members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) from central Myanmar resigned from the party November 6 following disagreements with the NLD’s central leadership over the selection process for party delegates. Leaders of the breakaway group accused the NLD of undemocratic practices and established a new community organization that the group hopes will eventually become a new political party. The NLD is expected to hold its first party convention in December or January.

Suu Kyi calls for more troops in Rakhine; UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urges countries to open borders to Rohingya. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic minority politicians November 7 called on the country’s military to station more troops in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State to ensure stability and the rule of law in the midst of ongoing violence between Buddhist and Muslim communities. Tensions in Rakhine continue to escalate and threats of violence have prevented aid workers from working at refugee camps and medical centers. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights November 13 called on neighboring Bangladesh and countries in ASEAN to open their borders to fleeing Rohingya Muslims.

Proposed telecoms bill to ban social media use. A proposed telecommunications bill that was made public November 7 could ban the use in Myanmar of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as the use of unregistered mobile devices. The bill is said to authorize the government to intercept data transmissions, suspend telecommunications services, and suspend the use of equipment by telecommunications companies. Circulation of the draft bill at the same time that Myanmar is introducing democratic reforms prompted critics to decry the bill’s alleged oppression of freedom of speech. If passed, the legislation would replace Myanmar’s 1985 Telegraph Act and 1943 Wireless Telegraphy Act.

Suu Kyi visits India; urges caution regarding pace of reforms. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi visited India November 13–18 at the invitation of Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of India’s ruling coalition, the United Progressive Alliance. Suu Kyi met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who praised Suu Kyi for her struggle for democracy. She said in a lecture that her country still has a long way to go to achieve democracy, and hopes India will stand by Myanmar as it proceeds toward that goal.

Obama begins Southeast Asia trip in Bangkok. President Barack Obama November 18 arrived in Bangkok for meetings with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The Office of the White House Press Secretary the same day released a joint press statement by Obama and Yingluck reaffirming both nations’ commitment to maintain and strengthen high-level and multidimensional engagement. After leaving Thailand, Obama made a historic visit to Myanmar and then concluded the first international trip of his second term at the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh.

Panetta visits Thailand, Australia, Cambodia. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta embarked on a tour of the Asia Pacific November 11–17 to reinforce U.S. commitment to the region. After attending the annual U.S.-Australian Ministerial Consultations in Perth, Australia, on November 15 Panetta became the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Thailand since 2008. Panetta and his Thai counterpart, Sukampol Suwannathat, signed the 2012 Joint Vision Statement for the Thai-U.S. Defense Alliance, aimed at reinvigorating military-to-military ties that had cooled in the wake of the 2006 Thai military coup. Panetta ended his regional tour by attending the November 15–17 ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting in Phnom Penh.

Yingluck Shinawatra visits United Kingdom to boost trade, strategic dialogue. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra November 14 met with her UK counterpart, David Cameron, and British business leaders in an effort to enhance trade and investment and establish a bilateral strategic dialogue. A day earlier, Yingluck was granted an audience with Queen Elizabeth II, becoming the first Thai leader to meet the British monarch in nearly 20 years. The trip was Yingluck’s first to the United Kingdom as prime minister.

Constitutional court orders BPMigas disbanded. Indonesia’s constitutional court November 13 ordered the national upstream oil and gas regulator BPMigas disbanded. The decision further shakes legal predictability across Indonesia’s energy and mining sectors following a November 5 verdict that annulled parts of a government ban on the export of unprocessed minerals. BPMigas was responsible for negotiating contracts with major oil and gas companies such as BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a decree November 14 transferring BPMigas’s functions to the Ministry of Energy and

Mineral Resources.
Indonesia considers increasing minimum wage. Industry Minister Mohammad Hidayat announced November 12 that Indonesia may increase the country’s average minimum wage by up to 50 percent. The decision comes in response to several large-scale strikes across the country in recent months. Labor groups across Java nonetheless continue to protest for better enforcement of labor laws, the amendment of a ban on contract jobs, and the inclusion of variables like inflation and labor market conditions in determining the wage increase. Jakarta, seen as a barometer for wages in nearby regions of Indonesia, on November 15 set its 2013 minimum monthly wage at about $230, up from $160 in 2012

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights denounces increasing violence against religious minorities. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay November 13 condemned increasingly frequent violence against Shiite, Christian, and Ahmadiyah minority groups in Indonesia. Pillay urged predominantly Sunni Indonesia to repeal its 1965 blasphemy law and a 2008 ministerial decree declaring the Ahmadiyah religious deviants. She also warned that the denial of identification cards and forced displacement of religious minorities endangers Indonesia’s reputation as a tolerant society. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono did not respond to the statement.

Candidates register for 2013 West Java gubernatorial elections. Candidates registered November 13 for the West Java gubernatorial elections, to be held February 24, 2013. A victory in West Java, the most densely populated province in Indonesia, will augur well for political parties competing in Indonesia’s 2014 legislative and presidential elections. Candidates include Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle lawmaker Rieke Diah Pitaloka; incumbent deputy governor Dede Yusuf, who is being supported by the Democratic and Gerindra parties; and West Java Golkar Party head Yance.

Electronics exports shrink trade deficit, overtake garments as largest source of export revenue. Data released by Vietnam’s General Statistics Office November 8 showed that electronics overtook garments as the country’s largest source of export revenue in the first 10 months of 2012. Rising production costs in neighboring countries and a trend toward diversification away from China led many technology companies to shift manufacturing to Vietnam. Electronics exports have earned $16 billion year to date, helping narrow Vietnam’s trade deficit to $357 million, compared to $8.9 billion at the same time in 2011.

U.S. Commerce Department leads business mission to Vietnam. U.S. undersecretary for international trade Francisco Sanchez led a business delegation to Vietnam November 13–16 to explore opportunities for U.S. businesses in infrastructure development. Sanchez met with Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who expressed gratitude for the United States’ support of Vietnam in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations. Sanchez said that U.S. companies are keen to help Vietnam develop its infrastructure and that the Commerce Department will work to boost cooperation between U.S. and Vietnamese businesses.

Lawmakers call for independent anticorruption agency, prime minister’s resignation. Lawmakers in Vietnam’s National Assembly November 2 called for the creation of a specialized, independent anticorruption agency. The present anticorruption steering committee had operated under the Office of the Prime Minister until earlier this year and is now under the control of the Communist Party. In a further sign of the legislature’s increasing independence, a lawmaker November 14 called for Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to resign for alleged economic mismanagement. The National Assembly is meeting through November 22.

Vietnam, Russia to start free trade agreement talks, accelerate cooperation. Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, agreed on November 8 to start talks in early 2013 for a bilateral free trade agreement and to step up bilateral energy and military cooperation. The agreement came during a trip by Medvedev to Hanoi. The two leaders stressed the importance of the Russia-Vietnam comprehensive strategic partnership. Medvedev also met with Vietnam’s Communist Party secretary-general Nguyen Phu Trong and president Truong Tan Sang, and expressed hope that Vietnam could help Russia engage further with ASEAN.

Malaysian economy outperforms expectations. Malaysia registered 5.2 percent economic growth in the third quarter, exceeding the government’s 5 percent target, according to a November 19 Sun Daily report. Strong domestic demand has contributed to Malaysia’s economic resilience, compensating for shrinking exports amid the global slowdown. Government officials have also credited Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Economic Transformation Program, which seeks to boost investment in key economic areas, including energy and infrastructure. Observers now expect Malaysia’s total 2012 growth to surpass the official estimates of 4-5 percent.

Petronas revises energy bid. Malaysia’s state-owned oil company, Petroliam Nasional (Petronas), the week of November 5 submitted a revised offer for Canada-based Progress Energy Resources to the Canadian government , according to a November 18 Wall Street Journal report. Canada’s government rejected Petronas’s original bid in October and is preparing new investment guidelines specifically for foreign state-owned entities, which Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said would soon be made public. Observers are closely watching Canada’s evolving approach to foreign investment by state-owned enterprises, as a takeover bid for oil company Nexen by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation is also under review.

Malaysian activists lose bid to block Lynas rare earths plant. A Malaysian court dismissed applications filed November 8 and 13 by activists seeking to block Australia-based Lynas Corporation’s planned rare earths processing plant in Kuantan, Malaysia. The court ruled that the applicants’ fears of environmental and health damage from the plant are premature and said they failed to prove that they would suffer imminent harm. The plant would be the first outside of China to process rare earths, which are crucial for high-tech manufacturing. Lynas expects to begin operating the plant by the end of 2012, though activists have already filed an appeal against the court’s decision.

Malaysia will not ratify UN Refugee Convention, citing “conflicts.” Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said Malaysia will not ratify the UN Refugee Convention because it would require the government to treat refugees better than it treats Malaysian citizens. The government has said Malaysia treats refugees fairly despite not ratifying the treaty, and remains interested in working with Australia to establish a refugee swap agreement, according to a November 13 Radio Australia report. Malaysia agreed in July 2011 to exchange processed refugees for asylum seekers from Australia, but the deal was scrapped after the Australian High Court ruled it unconstitutional, citing Malaysia’s refusal to ratify the UN convention.

U.S. Navy contractor dumps toxic waste into Subic Bay. The Philippine Daily Inquirer November 9 revealed an ongoing investigation by the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority into toxic waste dumping by Glenn Defense Marine Asia, a Malaysian company contracted by the U.S. Navy during joint U.S.-Philippine military exercises held October 8–17. Glenn Defense has claimed its activities are protected under the Visiting Forces Agreement between the United States and Philippines, and said that the waste should have already been treated by the U.S. Navy before being handed over to Glenn Defense.

Philippines records region’s largest export growth for September. The Philippines’ Department of Trade and Industry November 13 reported that the country’s exports grew 22.8 percent year-on-year in September—the strongest growth rate in East Asia. Exports rose from $3.9 billion in September 2011 to $4.8 billion in September 2012. Bureau of Export Trade Promotion officials said the government is optimistic it can reach its target of doubling annual exports to $100 billion by 2016.

Canada, Philippines ink deal to strengthen defense ties. Visiting Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper and Philippine president Benigno Aquino witnessed the signing of an agreement November 10 to boost bilateral defense cooperation. The two countries agreed to expand government-to-government defense trade and facilitate procurements between the Philippines and the Canadian Commercial Corporation. Aquino said the agreement would help the Philippines modernize its outdated military hardware. The meeting follows recent bilateral defense talks by the Philippines with Australia and New Zealand as the country looks to boost its strategic partnerships.

Singapore’s economy shrinks more than expected. Singapore’s government November 16 announced that the economy shrank more than previously expected in the third quarter. Officials blamed a decline in exports during October, noting that the country’s small domestic consumer base and close links to international trade make it vulnerable to the ongoing global economic slowdown. The government is now predicting that 2012 growth will be just 1.5 percent.

Singapore tightens criteria for personalized employment pass despite rising demand. Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower has revised its personalized employment pass (PEP) criteria in order to reduce the number of unemployed foreigners in the country, according to a November 7 Channel News Asia report. The PEP allows high-earning foreigners to remain in Singapore for up to six months while looking for a job. Under the revised criteria, set to take effect in December, only foreign professionals with an annual salary of more than $117,000 will be eligible for the PEP, which will be valid for three years. Singaporean nongovernmental organizations and businesses expressed concern about the new regulations, citing rising demand for foreign employees.

Singapore upholds death penalty despite reforms. Singapore’s parliament November 14 amended the country’s Misuse of Drugs Act, Penal Code, and Criminal Procedure Code to allow low-level drug couriers and unintentional murderers to be exempted from the death penalty. Singapore has long imposed mandatory capital punishment for a variety of crimes, including drug offenses. The government has said that despite the reforms, it will not abolish the death penalty because it is necessary to deter serious crimes. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean stressed that the government is not budging from its zero tolerance policy against drugs.

Singapore telecoms, casinos see revenue fall. Singapore Telecommunications (SingTel) November 14 forecast its first annual revenue drop in 14 years. Tough competition in Australia, which accounts for two-thirds of SingTel’s revenue, and lower profits in India, Indonesia, and Thailand due to a strong Singapore dollar pulled down the forecast despite increased revenue at home. The Genting Singapore and Las Vegas Sands casinos also saw revenues drop to their lowest levels in 18 months due to slower regional economic growth and tighter regulations, according to a November 14 report by Bloomberg Businessweek.

Singapore government to boost ability to counter cyberattacks. Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs announced plans November 12 to amend the country’s Computer Misuse Act to allow the government to act preemptively to prevent cyberattacks on the country’s critical information infrastructure. The proposed amendments would allow authorities to act against planned cyberattacks before they are initiated once officials receive credible intelligence. The amendment also broadens the definition of critical information infrastructure.

South China Sea
China announces large gas find in South China Sea. China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) chairman Wang Yilin November 9 announced the discovery of a “big” gas field in the Yinggehai basin in the South China Sea. CNOOC is still appraising the basin’s total resources and Wang did not offer specifics, but industry analysts said he could be referring to block Dongfang 13-2, which CNOOC in August said contained one of China’s largest offshore gas finds. Dongfang 13-2 lies in undisputed waters in the northern South China Sea.

China to increase development on contested island. Luo Baoming, Communist Party secretary of China’s Hainan Province, announced plans November 11 to intensify development of Sansha, a city on Woody Island in the disputed Paracel Islands chain. Luo discussed improving infrastructure, water supply, and the drainage system, claiming they are necessary steps for China to enforce its “legal rights” in the South China Sea. China earlier this year declared Sansha the administrative capital for all land features in the South China Sea. Vietnam and Taiwan also claim the Paracels and have protested previous Chinese moves to increase development.

National Election Committee revokes Sam Rainsy’s eligibility to vote. Cambodia’s National Election Committee November 6 upheld the removal of opposition leader Sam Rainsy from the voter registration list, revoking his eligibility to vote. The nine-member committee declared the move legal due to Rainsy’s status as a convict. Rainsy, sentenced in absentia in 2010 to 12 years in prison for various alleged political offenses, lives in self-imposed exile in Paris. The committee also removed Rainsy’s wife from the voter registration list.

Timor-Leste, Australia, Indonesia hold historic trilateral meeting. Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and Timorese prime minister Xanana Gusmão agreed to boost people-to-people ties and discussed greater cooperation in infrastructure, transport, communications, and capacity building during a November 9 trilateral meeting in Bali, Indonesia. Gillard said the meeting, the first of its kind between the three neighbors, illustrated the progress made in regional peace and democracy in recent years. Australia played a pivotal role in Timor-Leste’s independence struggle with Indonesia.

Construction to begin next year on railway linking Laos and Vietnam. The Bangkok Post November 14 reported that construction of a $5 billion high-speed railway linking Laos and Vietnam is scheduled to begin in January 2013. Malaysia’s Giant Consolidated Limited was awarded a 50-year concession November 5 to construct and operate the railway, which will span 137 miles from Savannakhet on Laos’s western border to Lao Bao in Vietnam. The railway is part of an initiative to transform Laos from a landlocked to a “land-link” country, according to the Vientiane Times.

Mekong River
ADB, AusAID announce aid package to reduce drought and flood risks. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) will provide $87 million in grants and loans to improve flood and drought preparedness in Laos and Vietnam, according to a November 7 Thanh Nien News report. The project aims to equip the Greater Mekong Subregion with community-based disaster risk management and enhanced regional forecasting. It will include funds to build infrastructure, collect data, design mitigation measures, assess transboundary flood management, and establish a National Early Warning Center in Laos.

Minister of Energy announces task force on wages in oil and gas sector. Minister of Energy at the Prime Minister’s Office Pehin Yasmin November 14 announced the creation of a task force to ensure that lower-skilled employees in the oil and gas industry receive reasonable wages. The task force will address benefit discrepancies between local workers and expatriates, particularly by extending commuting allowances to Bruneians and ensuring that their pay grade is implemented accordingly.

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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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