ASEAN KEY DESTINATIONS
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Asean Weekly ending May 26, 2012
The announcement followed a meeting between Clinton and Myanmar foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin. President Barack Obama the same day appointed U.S. special envoy to Myanmar Derek Mitchell as the first U.S. ambassador to that country in more than 20 years, pending Senate confirmation.
Conflict in Kachin State worsens following breakdown of cease-fire negotiations. Myanmar army troops in early May moved into positions around the Kachin Independence Organization’s (KIO) headquarters in Laiza on the Chinese border, and Kachin officials fear that an offensive is imminent. Up to 40,000 refugees displaced by fighting in Kachin State since June 2011 are believed to be taking shelter in Laiza. Fighting between the army of Myanmar and the KIO’s armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army, has escalated since the last round of peace talks failed in April. Separately, the United Nationalities Federal Council, which represents 12 ethnic groups in Myanmar including the KIO, said May 10 it would review its cease-fires with the central government if the fighting does not stop by June 10.
Land grabs on the rise as laws fail to keep up with changes. The Irrawaddy reported May 15 that illegal evictions and land confiscations are on the rise in Myanmar as powerful domestic firms and officials prepare to welcome Western investment. The Democratic Voice of Burma reported that in one recent incident, farmers outside Yangon squared off with employees from the Zaykabar Company when they began bulldozing farmland. One farmer claims to have lost 50 acres of land in the incident. The main areas being affected by land grabs are along the southern coast, the areas around Yangon and Mandalay, and northern areas close to the border with China. Farmers have little recourse as laws and institutions for dispute resolution remain weak in the state that has launched so many reforms over the past year.
Investor interest grows as Myanmar opens up. David Bondman, cofounder of U.S.-based private equity group TPG, became the first high-profile American investor to visit Myanmar since reforms in that country last year under President Thein Sein. The Financial Times reported that Bondman, who visited the week of May 7, hoped to understand potential business opportunities and the regulatory framework currently being developed in Myanmar. TPG currently manages $49 billion in capital and is known for its early entry into emerging markets, particularly in Southeast Asia.
South Korean president visits Myanmar, government says it will abide by UN sanctions on North Korea. South Korean president Lee Myung-bak met with Myanmar president Thein Sein and other officials during a visit to the country May 14–15. Lee’s trip was the first visit by a South Korean head of state since 1983, when an assassination attempt by North Korean agents on then-president Chun Doo-hwan in Yangon killed 17 South Koreans. Thein Sein told Lee May 14 that Myanmar would comply with UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea, including the ban on importing North Korean weapons.
Government battles rising cost of living. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said May 6 that Thailand’s rising cost of living following last year’s devastating floods is a concern. The government May 8 announced a series of anti-inflation measures, including new energy prices and transportation fares. The Commerce Ministry May 15 urged 200 manufacturers to hold their retail prices steady until September 15. Thailand also increased the minimum wage 40 percent in April. Leaders of the opposition Democrat Party have said the government’s populist measures do not address the roots of the problem.
Political shake-up looms as banned politicians prepare to return. A five-year ban on political participation by 111 Thai Rak Thai party members will expire May 31, triggering speculation that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra will reshuffle her cabinet to accommodate them. Thai Rak Thai is the party of Yingluck’s brother, ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Yingluck has said a shuffle is unlikely as her government focuses on the economy, but she welcomed anyone who wants to work for the betterment of Thailand to join her Pheu Thai Party. Pheu Thai spokesperson Prompong Nopparit said that as of May 18, 40 of the 111 Thai Rak Thai politicians have contacted him about joining Pheu Thai.
Unresolved issues from 2010 violence flare in amnesty debates. Thailand’s People's Information Center released a statement in early May criticizing the government for failing to take action against the perpetrators of street violence that rocked Bangkok and killed 92 people in 2010. The Department of Special Investigation meanwhile released a report May 18 that said at least 25 deaths were attributed to security forces, while 12 were caused by members of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, known as “Red Shirts.” The statement and report came just before 20,000–40,000 “Red Shirt” supporters gathered May 19 in Bangkok to commemorate the second anniversary of the violence. The government is considering a controversial proposal to grant blanket amnesty to all involved in the 2010 violence as a means of national reconciliation.
“Red Shirt” village attacked, Prayuth warns villages could cause problems. A pavilion in a “Red Shirt” village in Songkhla Province was burned to the ground May 15, one day after the village’s opening ceremony. There are currently 10 “Red Shirt” villages in the province, supported by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). Songkhla is traditionally a stronghold of the rival Democrat Party. The UDD has said the villages are meant to spread democracy and participation in government, but Democrats have criticized them for sowing division and violence. Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha May 16 warned that such villages could create further problems in Thailand’s already-restive south.
Jatuporn disqualified as MP, but lèse-majesté charges dropped. Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled seven to one May 18 that Pheu Thai member of parliament (MP) Jatuporn Prompan was disqualified to run as a party list MP and must give up his seat. Jatuporn was disqualified from party membership because he was arrested during the 2011 general election and failed to cast a vote, according to the ruling. He is a leader of the “Red Shirt” movement and was arrested in connection with 2010 street violence. The Department of Special Investigation said May 11 it would not pursue charges of lèse-majesté against Jatuporn and 19 other “Red Shirt” leaders accused of the crime.
Gender equality bill opposed by Islamic groups stalls in House. At least six Islamic groups torpedoed a gender equality bill in Indonesia’s parliament because it conflicted with their views of gender roles prescribed by Islam and Islamic law. The bill was intended to bring Indonesia into line with the United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The bill would have made it easier for women to inherit property and choose whom to marry regardless of religion. Critics charged that it would lead more women to search for employment outside of the home and weaken the institution of marriage.
Islamists interrupt book launch, cause police to withhold permit for Lady Gaga concert. Protesters from the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) interrupted a May 4 event where Irshad Manji, an outspoken critic of conservative Islam, was discussing her new book Allah, Liberty and Love. A similar event scheduled for May 8 at Gadjah Madah University was called off in response to planned protests. Indonesia’s National Police May 17 refused to issue a permit for a Lady Gaga concert scheduled for June 3 after FPI and other groups protested the singer’s “worship of Satan” and threatened to prevent her from disembarking at the airport. After widespread criticism, Coordinating Minister for Law, Politics, and Security Djoko Suyanto said the National Police had not made a final decision.
Port of Jakarta to receive $2.5 billion expansion. Indonesia Port Corporation announced plans May 4 to invest $2.5 billion in Indonesia’s largest port, Tanjung Priok. The new investment will more than triple the port’s capacity by adding three new container terminals and two new tanker terminals. Expansion will begin in July and will be completed by 2014. Foreign business leaders and Indonesia’s Chamber of Commerce have both blamed the country’s poor transportation and energy infrastructure for preventing the Indonesian economy from achieving its full investment and growth potential.
Judges threaten to strike if salary increase cannot be negotiated. Representatives of judges from across Indonesia met with government officials May 9 and threatened to strike if a pay raise promised four years ago does not materialize. Junior judges in Indonesia are currently paid about $215 per month, which is less than most civil servants earn. Judges launched the campaign under the slogan “Better to strike than take bribes.” Good-governance groups have backed the judges, viewing a well-paid judiciary as key to strengthening the rule of law and fighting corruption in the courts.
World Bank extends $2.5 billion to Indonesia to avoid debt crisis. The World Bank has extended a $2.5 billion line of credit to Indonesia as a safeguard against financial shocks. The funds will be used only if government financing costs become “prohibitively high.” Indonesia’s government requested the line of credit to insulate its borrowing costs from volatile market conditions. Moody’s and Fitch upgraded Indonesia’s debt rating earlier this year, but Standard & Poor’s refused to follow suit after the parliament, at the last minute amid political pushback, rejected a plan to reduce expensive fuel subsidies.
Vietnamese Communist Party conference establishes anti-corruption body. The fifth conference of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam concluded May 15 with the formation of an anti-corruption steering committee under the Politburo and the re-establishment of a permanent internal affairs commission. Widespread corruption is still considered the party’s most serious issue and a threat to its legitimacy. Members also committed to revising land laws to address growing conflicts over land use rights.
Vietnamese government lodges complaint over Dow Chemical sponsorship of Olympics. Vietnam’s minister of Culture, Sports, and Tourism submitted a letter May 2 to the International Olympic Committee protesting U.S.-based Dow Chemical’s planned 10-year, $100 million Olympic Games sponsorship because of its production of Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese government claims Agent Orange has resulted in birth defects and environmental damage. The letter cites Dow’s refusal to compensate victims of Agent Orange or help clean up contaminated areas. Representatives for Dow claim the letter is misguided.
U.S. government expresses concern about human rights situation in Vietnam. U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor Michael Posner said during a May 16 hearing held by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission that the human rights situation in Vietnam has deteriorated for several years. He referred to the situation as “discouraging and unacceptable.” Posner added, “We’ve made it clear to the government of Vietnam that our joint desire to have a closer strategic relationship is dependent on their making substantial progress on human rights.”
Vietnamese radio station demands explanation for police beating of reporters. Vietnam’s state-run radio station Voice of Vietnam submitted a letter May 9 to the Communist Party and local authorities requesting an explanation for the police assault of two of its journalists in April. The journalists were covering the mass eviction of farmers in Hung Yen province, where more than 4,000 villagers have been told they must move to accommodate the construction of a satellite city. The protests were captured on video and posted on YouTube, but local authorities accused anti-government activists of posting fake video clips.
Vietnam launches second satellite. Vietnam May 16 launched its second satellite, VINASAT-2, from the European Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. The $300 million, three-ton telecommunications satellite constructed by U.S.-based Lockheed Martin is able to cover all of Southeast Asia and adjacent areas and follows the first satellite, VINASAT-1, launched in 2008. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung proclaimed the satellite an important part of building the nation’s information technology.
Najib seeks to strengthen UK-Malaysia ties during trip. Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak visited the United Kingdom on a two-day working visit May 14–15. Najib delivered a speech at London’s O2 arena, attended a ceremony with the United Kingdom’s Prince Charles commemorating Malaysia’s contribution to the Oxford Center of Islamic studies, and launched the “Friends of Barisan Nasional UK” initiative. The initiative will seek to build closer ties between Malaysia and Britain and to disseminate accurate information to Malaysians living in the United Kingdom.
Malaysia’s CIMB acquires stake in Philippines’ Bank of Commerce. Malaysia’s second-largest bank, CIMB, May 8 purchased a 60 percent share of the Philippines’ 16th-largest bank, the Bank of Commerce, for $283 million. Foreign ownership of banks in the Philippines is capped at 60 percent. The CIMB Group has expanded its Asian operations over the past several months following its acquisition of some of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Asia-Pacific assets.
Najib visits the United States. Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak arrived in New York May 16 for a four-day visit to the United States. He chaired the second meeting of the Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council May 17 and announced an alliance between the Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education, the State University of New York, and the New York Academy of Sciences that seeks to facilitate cooperation in education and science and technology.
The prime minister also attended a roundtable meeting with leaders of Fortune 500 companies in New York, after which it was announced that U.S.-based ConocoPhillips will invest $1.5 billion in an offshore oil production facility in Sabah, Malaysia.
South China Sea
CNOOC starts first deep-sea drilling project. CNOOC, China’s largest offshore oil producer, has started its first ever deep-sea drilling project in the South China Sea. CNOOC 981, China’s first domestically manufactured deepwater drilling rig, has begun preliminary work to drill three wells, and the company says it is optimistic that it will find oil. The drilling area is reportedly situated about 200 miles southeast of Hong Kong in waters that are claimed by China and Taiwan.
India to exit controversial South China Sea oil block. India is set to exit an oil block it leases from Vietnam in the South China Sea. Indian officials say the decision is based purely on “techno-commercial considerations,” as its state-owned oil company, ONGC Videsh Limited, has failed to drill wells in the block due to the hard seabed in the area. India’s decision to jointly explore oil in block 128 with Vietnam had earlier enraged Beijing as it was seen as an infringement of its sovereignty. ONGC gave up its controlling stake in neighboring block 127 in 2011 after failing to discover oil.
South Korea to open ASEAN diplomatic mission in July. A senior Korean official May 14 said that South Korea will officially open its diplomatic mission to ASEAN in July and will appoint Baek Seong-taek as ambassador to ASEAN. Baek was previously councilor and counsel general in Tokyo and Istanbul. South Korea’s diplomatic mission to ASEAN will be based in its embassy in Jakarta.
U.S. firm Axway tapped for ASEAN customs link. Nathan Associates announced May 11 that U.S. software firm Axway has been chosen to facilitate the ASEAN Single Window (ASW) pilot project. The ASW pilot project will electronically link the customs systems of seven ASEAN countries, excluding only Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. The ASW is part of ASEAN’s larger integration and connectivity plans, and will seek to streamline the import and export processes between the ASEAN states and their partners.
Myanmar to host ASEAN human rights meeting. The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) said in a press release, following a series of meetings in Bangkok, that the fifth meeting on the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration will be held June 3–6 in Yangon. AICHR is in the process of drafting the grouping’s declaration on human rights. The declaration is expected to be adopted by the ASEAN leaders during their summit in November.
Singapore number one in logistics performance; most other ASEAN countries in middle of pack. The World Bank’s Logistics Performance Index (LPI), released May 16, ranks Singapore number one out of 155 countries in logistics performance, edging out rival Hong Kong. The LPI measures the relative ease and expense of moving goods through a country, among other criteria. The other ASEAN countries are spread widely through the middle of the pack, although three—Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar—did not crack the top 100.
USNS Mercy sets off on four-month humanitarian mission to Southeast Asia. The U.S. Navy’s hospital ship USNS Mercy left San Diego May 3 on a four-month humanitarian tour to Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines. The USNS Mercy will serve as the platform for the 2012 Pacific Partnership Mission, which brings together experts from the United States and partner countries to carry out humanitarian and civic activities in Asia-Pacific nations.
Funding for Khmer Rouge Tribunal to dry up by end of June. Officials announced May 15 that funding for the international side of the Extraordinary Chambers of the Court of Cambodia, or ECCC, will run out by the end of June. The ECCC is a joint United Nations-Cambodian tribunal established to try former Khmer Rouge officials for crimes against humanity when they ruled the country in the late 1970s. The tribunal has faced problems in recent months, including the resignation of two international investigating judges over the court’s lack of independence. Legal affairs spokesperson Lars Olsen said that the international side of the court would not be able to pay salaries after June, although he declined to speculate on how this would affect the court’s current case, which is only the second to reach trial.
Gallup poll reflects broad support for Hun Sen as elections near. Cambodians will go to the polls June 3 to select local representatives, called commune councilors, for the third time. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has predicted an overwhelming win in the elections. According to a May 11 Gallup poll, 93 percent of Cambodians approve of the CPP’s leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen. However, an April Gallup poll revealed that only 2 percent of Cambodians think of themselves as thriving, suggesting that they might seek to oust incumbent councilors in the upcoming election.
Hun Sen pushes “edible exports.” Prime Minister Hun Sen in a speech May 14 at the opening of Khmer Brewery in Phnom Penh urged companies to export food and beverage products. The food and beverage industry has been growing relative to other sectors of the economy since a 2009 slump in the garment industry. Food and beverage products contributed $1 billion to Cambodia’s GDP in 2011, of which about 40 percent came from breweries. International organizations have urged Cambodia to diversify its exports, but acquiring the capital to do so remains a barrier for many smaller firms.
Dengue outbreak hits Zamboanga City. The mayor of Zamboanga City, Celso Lobregat, May 14 declared a dengue fever outbreak following a 50 percent increase in the number of reported cases from 2011. The local government has responded by canceling leave for health personnel, releasing an emergency fund, and organizing citywide fumigation, public awareness, and cleanup drives. Increasing numbers of cases are anticipated with the onset of the rainy season in the coming months.
Ex-president Arroyo’s request for overseas medical treatment sparks debate. Controversy has erupted over whether Philippine ex-president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo should be able to seek medical treatment overseas. Arroyo has been diagnosed with bone disease and is currently under hospital arrest on charges of electoral sabotage. Some claim her ailment is so rare that it needs the attention of medical experts abroad. But representatives of the Commission on Elections and the Philippine Medical Association say there are domestic treatment options. Arroyo previously requested permission to leave the country for treatment in late 2011.
Prime Minister Lee, Myanmar foreign minister pledge to enhance bilateral relations. Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong met with Myanmar foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin during the latter’s introductory visit to the city-state May 13–15. The two leaders discussed recent reforms in Myanmar and pledged to further enhance bilateral relations. Wunna Maung Lwin also met Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam, who reaffirmed Singapore’s desire to help Myanmar prepare for its chairing of ASEAN in 2014.
Foreign Minister Shanmugam makes introductory visit to India. Singaporean foreign minister K. Shanmugam met with Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh during his four-day introductory visit to India May 7–10. The two discussed future bilateral cooperation in labor, education, public-private partnerships, and people-to-people exchanges, as well as regional and global issues like India’s Look East Policy. Shanmugam also visited several Indian states, including Assam and Gujarat.
North Korea looks to Singapore for economic lessons and investment. North Korea’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam visited Singapore May 10–12 for his first overseas trip since Kim Jong Il’s death last year. Kim was accompanied by two top economic officials in what some view as an attempt by the regime to shore up foreign investment and learn from Singapore’s successful growth model after fresh sanctions were recently imposed on North Korea. Kim visited several places in Singapore, including a food factory and an electronics manufacturer. He visited Indonesia after departing the city-state.
Thai government approves loans to Laos for airport and road construction. The Thai government has approved two soft loans to Laos to pay for the second phase of development of Pakse Airport and to build a road from the Phudu checkpoint in Uttaradit Province to Paklai in the Lao province of Xayaburi. The road will help improve transport for trade along the East-West Economic Corridor connecting Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, and between northern Thailand and southern China.
Lao government aims to graduate from least-developed countries list by 2020. The Lao government May 17 made public its goal of graduating from the United Nations’ list of Least Developed Countries (LDC) by 2020. A UN official said the announcement was unprecedented, as most LDC countries try to remain on the list because loss of LDC status would negatively affect the overseas development assistance (ODA) and preferential trade status they receive.
Laos received $413.79 million in ODA in 2010. Nearly 28 percent of the country’s 6.5 million inhabitants still live below the poverty line.
Election secretariat will increase voting centers as number of parties rises. The Secretariat for the Administration of Elections (STAE) announced May 9 it would increase the number of voting centers throughout Timor-Leste as the number of political parties participating in the July parliamentary elections increased from 24 to 26. The STAE hopes a greater number of voting centers will increase voter participation. The election will take place on July 7.
Russian senior official for APEC speaks at CSIS, lists Russian priorities. CSIS on May 14 hosted Russia’s senior official for APEC, Ambassador Gennady Ovechko, to discuss Russian plans for the APEC summit in Vladivostok in September. Ovechko presented Russia’s four priorities for this year’s summit, which he said would be useful to all APEC economies: trade and investment liberalization, strengthening food security, establishing reliable supply chains, and intensifying cooperation to foster innovative growth.
Fourth joint patrol of Mekong River to begin at end of May. China, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar will begin their fourth joint patrol of the Mekong River at the end of May. The joint patrols are meant to combat drug and human trafficking problems in the Golden Triangle area where 13 Chinese sailors were murdered in October 2011. The patrols start from Guanlei Port in China’s Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture and end at Chiang Saen Port in Thailand. A Chinese security official said the fourth patrol will include more police officers and advanced equipment.
Courtesy: “This post originally appeared on the Center for Strategic and International Studies cogitASIA blog.”
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