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U.S., Philippines reach security agreement ahead of Obama visit. U.S. and Philippine officials concluded negotiations for an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement a day before President Barack Obama landed in the country for a two-day visit as the last leg of his four-nation trip to Asia. The agreement will allow U.S. troops, planes, and ships greater rotational access to Philippine bases. In addition to touting the agreement, President Barack Obama and his Philippine counterpart, Benigno Aquino, reaffirmed the strategic relationship between the two treaty allies and the importance of people-to-people interactions.
Manila mayor apologizes to Hong Kong families for 2010 bus hostage deaths. Manila mayor Joseph Estrada flew to Hong Kong on April 22 to apologize to the families of eight tourists killed during a bungled bus hostage incident in 2010 involving a former police officer. Hong Kong had ended its visa-free policy for Philippine government officials in February and threatened to revoke work privileges for nearly 160,000 Filipinos in Hong Kong because of the incident. Officials on both sides have declared the case settled.
UNESCO chief denounces killing of journalist. Irina Bokova, director general of the UN Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, has called on the government of the Philippines to open an investigation into the death of prominent journalist Rubylita Garcia, who was killed in her home by two gunmen on April 6. Garcia, 52, worked as a reporter and radio talk show host in Bacoor City just south of Manila. Bokova has previously called on the Philippines to investigate the late 2013 deaths of three journalists in southern Mindanao.
Executive branch receives draft Bangsamoro law; prepares to submit to Congress. The Philippine executive branch on April 23 received the final version of a draft law to implement the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, a peace deal with the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front finalized on March 27. The executive will now submit the bill, which would set up an autonomous entity called the Bangsamoro in Mindanao, to the Philippine Congress. The law is expected to face some opposition from lawmakers, but congressional leaders have said they expect to pass it by the end of 2014.
Obama visits Malaysia; does not meet with opposition. President Barack Obama on April 26–27 became the first U.S. head of state since Lyndon Johnson to visit Malaysia. He and Prime Minister Najib Razak touted the growing partnership between their two countries, and Obama welcomed Malaysia’s endorsement of the international Nonproliferation Security Initiative. President Obama did not meet with Malaysia’s opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who plans to hold a mass rally in Kuala Lumpur on May 1. Instead, National Security Advisor Susan Rice met with Anwar on April 28. Obama also spoke to youth leaders at the Malaysia Global Innovation and Creativity Center and met briefly with 10 prominent Malaysian civil society figures.
Veteran opposition leader Karpal Singh dies in car crash. Democratic Action Party (DAP) chairman Karpal Singh, 73, died in a car crash on April 17 while traveling from Kuala Lumpur to Penang in northwest Malaysia. Singh joined the opposition DAP in 1970. He was removed from Parliament several times and spent nearly a year in prison without trial on allegations of inciting racial tensions. He was a lifelong human rights advocate and gained fame for defending opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim against sodomy charges in 1998. Karpal was recently convicted of sedition on February 28. Thousands attended his memorial service on April 20.
Malaysia to boost military capabilities with new purchases. The Malaysian military is preparing to purchase more military equipment as it seeks to expand its capabilities in the wake of the difficult search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370, according to an April 16 article in the Wall Street Journal. Kuala Lumpur hosted a defense exhibition from April 18 to 21 with contractors and suppliers from around the globe. Despite its intentions, the government is finding it difficult to purchase advanced military equipment as it also tries to trim its budget. Malaysia’s 2014 defense budget is a lean $5 billion.
Government moves to contain MERS virus. Authorities have tracked down nearly 200 people in Malaysia, including the passengers of two Turkish Airlines flights, who came into contact with a man who recently died from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which has recently spread from the Middle East. The man had been on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia when he contracted MERS. His was the first recorded death from the virus in Southeast Asia.
Aid groups except MSF, Malteser can resume operations in Rakhine State. Local officials in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State announced April 21 that most international nongovernmental organizations that were forced to halt their work in the state due to rioting on March 26 have been allowed to resume operations. The only exceptions are Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, and Malteser International. Both were at the center of recent protests by local communities, and authorities said they are concerned about the safety of employees of the two organizations.
Journalist and opposition leader Win Tin dies. National League for Democracy (NLD) cofounder Win Tin, 84, died from multiple organ failure on April 21 in Yangon. He served 19 years in prison, where he suffered torture for his political activities and refusal to leave the NLD. As a journalist and editor, Win Tin was known for actively criticizing the military, providing alternative views on domestic politics, and inspiring younger activists. Thousands attended his funeral in Yangon on April 23.
Violence escalates in Kachin and Shan states. Clashes between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) since April 10 have killed more than 30 soldiers and displaced nearly 5,000 people in northern Myanmar’s Kachin and Shan states. Fresh fighting between the military and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army has also killed at least 10 soldiers in Shan State. The fighting coincided with KIA deputy commander-in-chief Gun Maw’s 12-day visit to the United States, during which he urged the United States to lend more support to the peace process and act as a witness to negotiations between the Kachin and the government.
Reporter arrested for organizing press freedom protest in central Myanmar. Authorities on April 26 charged Mizzima reporter Yae Khe with violating Myanmar’s Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law for organizing a protest a day earlier in response to the recent arrests and convictions of journalists from the Democratic Voice of Burma, Weekly Eleven, and Unity. Police rejected Yae Khe’s protest application, but about 20 journalists and 80 media activists participated in the march in central Myanmar anyway. Police did not interfere during the demonstration. A similar protest proceeded without difficulty in Mon State.
Court sentences two teachers for negligence leading to 2013 mosque fire. A Myanmar court on April 24 sentenced two Muslim teachers to eight years in prison for negligence related to a fire that killed 13 children at a downtown Yangon mosque on April 2, 2013. The court ruled that an electrical short circuit caused the fire, which many speculated was intentionally set by Buddhists as part of an ongoing cycle of violence against Myanmar’s Muslims. Authorities originally arrested the two teachers shortly after the fire.
National Democrat, United Development parties give their support to Jokowi. Indonesia’s National Democrat Party (NasDem) on April 12 announced that it will support Jakarta governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s bid to run for president in July. The Islamist United Development Party (PPP) also announced its support for Jokowi on April 23 after days of party infighting. Together, NasDem, PPP, and Jokowi’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle garnered roughly 32 percent of the vote in the April 9 legislative elections, breaking the 25 percent threshold to nominate a presidential candidate.
Indonesia to sell rescued Bank Mutiara. The Indonesian government plans to sell its 99.9 percent stake in PT Bank Mutiara, according to an April 23 Wall Street Journal article. Jakarta rescued the bank from collapse with a $750 million buy-up in 2008. Four previous attempts to sell it for the government’s original purchase price failed to attract a buyer, and Jakarta now plans to sell Bank Mutiara for the highest price offered, even at a loss. The government expects to recoup just under $500 million from the sale.
More than 1,000 people attend organized anti-Shia demonstration. The Anti-Shia National Alliance attracted more than 1,000 people to Indonesia’s first organized anti-Shia demonstration on April 20. The leader of the group, Athian Ali, said during the demonstration that he supports the use of violence to prevent the spread of heretical teachings, and he called on Indonesia’s majority Sunni population to fight the proliferation of Shia influence. Shia account for approximately 1 percent of Indonesia’s population.
Government loosens mineral export ban on those constructing smelters. Deputy Finance Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro announced on April 23 that the government will revise its controversial mineral export tax to better reward firms that commit to building smelters in Indonesia. The revision will impose a 20 percent tax that decreases as firms make progress on constructing smelters. The changes are expected to allow the resumption of mineral exports that froze in January after the government instated a progressive tax on unprocessed ore that was set to reach 60 percent by 2016.
Constitutional Court extends deadline for Yingluck to present defense. Thailand’s Constitutional Court approved a measure on April 23 giving caretaker prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to submit evidence in her defense against allegations of unlawful conduct in the 2011 removal of National Security Council chief Thawil Pliensri. But the court rejected Yingluck’s request to call additional witnesses. It will hear the testimony of four witnesses on May 6 to determine whether Yingluck had cause to transfer Thawil. If she is convicted, the court will likely disband Yingluck’s government.
Abhisit calls for meeting with government to find compromise. Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva on April 24 called for talks with top political, opposition, and military figures to try to broker an end to the country’s political crisis. Caretaker prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra agreed the next day to meet with Abhisit, but Suthep Thaugsuban, Abhisit’s former deputy who now leads protests aimed at toppling the government, snubbed Abhisit’s offer.
New elections to be held in late July. Thailand’s Election Commission on April 22 announced that new national elections will be held in late July. The commission reached its decision after meeting with dozens of political parties. Thais last went to the polls on February 2, but the Constitutional Court nullified those results because protesters blocked candidates in parts of the country from registering. The Election Commission has guaranteed that voting will go smoothly this time around.
Thai authorities thwart terror attack on Israeli tourists. Thai authorities detained two suspects on April 22 in a foiled plot to attack young Israeli tourists. A spokesman for the Thai police said that security around Bangkok and throughout the country has been increased since the incident. Authorities denied claims that as many as nine additional suspects with links to Lebanon-based Hezbollah may still be at large.
Thirty-two Chinese migrants detained, five killed at border. Vietnamese authorities detained two different groups of Chinese citizens trying to enter the country on April 18 and 20. A gunfight broke out between Vietnamese border guards and 16 migrants, whom authorities believe may be ethnic Uighurs, along the border with China on April 18, leaving two guards and five Chinese nationals dead. On April 20, authorities detained another group of 21 trying to enter the country by sea. The Vietnamese government has returned the 11 surviving detained migrants from the first group, along with the bodies of the five killed.
Vietnam sees vaccination rush as measles deaths hit 123. Vietnam’s government on April 24 reported that the country has seen a record 123 deaths from an ongoing measles outbreak since December. Tran Dac Phu, head of the Ministry of Health's preventive medicine department, said the outbreak is showing signs of easing after its peak in March. Nearly all of those infected had not been vaccinated, according to Phu.
Vietnam commemorates troops who died in Spratly battle. Vietnam held a memorial service in the disputed Spratly Islands on April 22 to honor 64 sailors who died in a 1988 skirmish with China over Johnson South Reef. Overseas Vietnamese from more than 20 countries joined former sailors and families of those who died in 1988 and during the 1974 battle for the Paracel Islands, according to an April 23 Thanh Nien News report.
Vietnam pulls out of hosting 2019 Asian Games. Vietnam announced on April 17 that it will no longer host the 2019 Asian Games. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said in a press statement that Vietnam does not have enough experience at hosting large sporting events and faces economic difficulties. Members of the Olympic Council of Asia have confirmed that Indonesia, which originally lost out to Vietnam, is now the leading candidate to host the games.
Pirates rob oil tanker in the Malacca Strait. A group of pirates stopped a Singaporean oil tanker bound for Myanmar in the Malacca Strait on April 23 and stole an estimated 800,000 gallons of diesel fuel. A group of eight or more armed pirates boarded the ship and transferred the diesel to two unidentified tankers. The captain and two crew members are missing but no ransom demand has been made, leading authorities to suspect they were involved in the robbery.
Singapore announces program to boost nuclear technology expertise. Singapore’s National Research Foundation on April 23 announced the launch of a 10-year Nuclear Safety Research and Education Program aimed at increasing the number of nuclear technology experts in the city-state. Authorities expect to use the program’s $50 million five-year budget to train more than 100 scientists and engineers. The foundation said that Singapore needs the expertise to keep abreast of nuclear technology developments in the region.
Gunvor Singapore sets up $350 million credit facility for investments in Asia. Swiss-owned trading house Gunvor Singapore on April 27 launched a $350 million revolving credit facility aimed at financing investments across the Asia-Pacific region. The new credit facility is part of the firm’s strategy to diversify its financing activity in Asia, according to an April 28 Straits Times article.
Thousands of garment workers strike. An estimated 20,000 garment workers from 30 Cambodian factories participated in strikes on April 28 demanding a $50 bonus that had allegedly been offered to them in return for their abstaining from launching a planned strike earlier in the month. The Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia denied that factories had offered any bonuses. Opposition-aligned trade unions have been organizing strikes demanding a wage increase for garment and footwear workers since December 2013.
Cambodian workers deported from Thailand. More than 120 Cambodian migrant workers were detained and deported from Thailand on April 27, according to the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok. The Cambodians were detained at a market while waiting for assigned work. Cambodian and Thai border authorities are attempting to curb a recent increase in the flow of illegal migrants crossing into Thailand in search of work.
India appoints first resident ambassador to ASEAN. India’s Ministry of External Affairs on April 23 officially appointed Suresh Reddy as the country’s first resident ambassador to ASEAN and the East Asia Summit. The country’s ambassador to Indonesia previously doubled as its envoy to ASEAN. Reddy has served as India’s ambassador to Iraq and as joint-secretary for India’s multilateral economic relations with ASEAN. India is the seventh non-ASEAN country to post a dedicated resident ambassador to the organization.
ASEAN, China officials discuss South China Sea and economic integration. Representatives from 10 ASEAN members and China attended the ASEAN-China Senior Officials Meeting in Thailand on April 22 and agreed to push forward a more institutionalized ASEAN-China dialogue. They agreed to ask the Joint Working Group on Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to propose concrete steps to move forward on negotiations for a binding code of conduct. Officials also proposed upgrading the ASEAN-China free trade agreement to further enhance economic integration.
Japan viewed as most reliable partner by ASEAN countries. ASEAN countries see Japan as their most reliable partner, according to an Ipsos Hong Kong poll undertaken for the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and released on April 18. One-third of respondents ranked Japan as their country’s most reliable non-ASEAN partner, compared to 16 percent for the United States, 6 percent for the United Kingdom, and 5 percent for Australia and China. Overall, 91 percent identified Japan as a reliable friend to their country.
Asian Development Bank urges ASEAN to create natural disaster risk management fund. The Asian Development Bank on April 22 urged ASEAN countries to create a risk management fund and other financial instruments to better insulate national economies from the effects of natural disasters. A bank official noted that the average cost to ASEAN nations of a natural disaster between 2011 and 2013 was double what it had been between 1991 and 2010. He also said that only 7.6 percent of losses from disasters between 2011 and 2013 were covered by insurance, inhibiting recovery efforts.
South China Sea
Pacific navies approve code of conduct for unplanned encounters at sea. Representatives from the 20 member states of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, including China and the United States, finalized a code of conduct on April 22 for unplanned encounters between naval vessels at sea. The agreement was first proposed over a decade ago and China remained the lone holdout following the 2012 symposium. China called the code a “milestone document” after signing it, but noted that Beijing reserves the right to decide when and where it will apply the agreement’s nonbinding principles, including in disputed waters.
No breakthrough in U.S.-Japan talks during Obama visit. The United States and Japan failed to reach a deal on lowering agricultural and automotive trade barriers as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership during President Barack Obama’s April 23–25 visit to Tokyo. Obama and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who had ordered negotiators to push for a breakthrough before and during the trip, put a positive spin on the disappointment with a joint statement saying that significant progress was made.
Polls show support for TPP among young Americans. The Pew Research Center released a poll on April 9 showing that 65 percent of Americans under 30 have a positive view of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, compared to 49 percent of seniors. A similar split appears along party lines, with a surprising 59 percent of Democrats supporting the agreement versus only 49 percent of Republicans, usually the proponents of free trade, supporting it. Researchers speculated that the divide may be due to young people’s inclination to view international interactions more favorably in the digital age.
Lao exports up 6 percent in 2013. Laos's exports reached $2.4 billion in 2013, up 6 percent from the previous year, with minerals taking up the largest share, according to an April 18 Vientiane Times report. Mining products accounted for 41 percent of all exports in 2013, but are expected to decline in 2014 following the closure of gold mines in southern Laos owned by Australia-based MMG. Hydroelectricity accounted for 21 percent of exports.
Lao coffee producer to expand to Thailand, double sales. Dao-Heuang Group, a leading coffee producer in Laos, will expand production to northern Thailand in 2015, according to the company’s vice president on April 21. He said Dao-Heuang plans to boost its production capacity to meet expected rising demand from the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community. The company hopes to double its revenue from $160 million in 2014 to $320 million by 2018.
Authorities delay implementation of shari’a law. Jauyah Zaini, assistant director of Brunei’s Islamic Legal Unit, announced on April 22 that the government will delay the planned implementation of shari’a law for an unspecified amount of time. He said the implementation process was delayed by “unavoidable circumstances,” but will begin “in the very near future.” Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s decision to impose shari’a law in Brunei has sparked unusual online criticism from the country’s citizens, as well as condemnations from the United Nations and human rights groups.
Jurists insist Australia allow former spy to testify on behalf of Timor-Leste. A panel of three jurists presiding over an arbitration case at The Hague in mid-April ordered Canberra to allow a former Australian spy to testify on Timor-Leste’s behalf. The arbitration case involves a dispute over revenues from oil and gas projects in the Timor Sea. The spy is the key witness to Timor-Leste’s claim that Australia spied on its officials during the 2006 negotiation of the treaty. Australia previously refused to allow the former spy to leave the country.
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