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Thailand holds elections, but results on hold. Thailand on February 2 successfully held elections in 89 percent of national districts. The polls were marred by some disruptions, but did not spark the wide-scale violence that many observers had feared. Polling proceeded smoothly in 59 of Thailand's 77 provinces, but antigovernment protesters forced the Election Commission to completely cancel polling in 9 of 14 southern provinces and in individual districts elsewhere, including in Bangkok. Election results will be withheld until after February 23, when those whom protesters blocked from early voting will be able to cast their ballots. The Election Commission will then organize by-elections in those districts that were unable to hold elections, a process the commission has said will take three to four months.
Bank of Thailand cuts economic forecast. Prasarn Trairatvorakul, governor of the Bank of Thailand, on January 31 downgraded the country’s 2014 growth forecast to less than 3 percent, from an initial forecast of 4 percent. The reduced forecast is due to the country’s continuing political crisis. Prasarn warned that private investment will suffer if an elected government is not established soon. The bank released data showing that business sentiment in the country has fallen for six consecutive months to a two-year low.
Anticorruption agency to investigate Yingluck over rice pledging scheme. Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Commission on January 28 resolved to open a preliminary investigation of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s role in managing a program through which the government purchases rice from farmers at a fixed price about 40 percent higher than the global market rate. The inquiry will seek grounds to open a formal criminal investigation and initiate impeachment proceedings against the prime minister. Commerce Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan on February 4 said that China had canceled an agreement to purchase 1.2 million metric tons of rice from Thailand because of the probe.
Thai police rescue Rohingya refugees in raid on suspected traffickers’ camps. Police Colonel Kan Tammakasem on January 27 announced that Thai police had detained 531 Rohingya refugees following a raid on a suspected human-trafficking camp in the southern province of Songkhla. Police said they acted on media reports that Rohingya refugees fleeing sectarian violence in Myanmar were falling into the hands of people smugglers who ransomed them to relatives across the border in Malaysia. The Rohingya men have reportedly been taken to detention centers and the women and children to local shelters, where they will be interviewed by Thai police.
Chinese tourists avoid Bangkok during Lunar New Year. Chinese tourists taking advantage of a weeklong holiday to celebrate the Lunar New Year are avoiding Bangkok, according to a January 29 Wall Street Journal report. A Bangkok-based tour group operator told the paper that Chinese package tours to the capital were down 90 percent compared to 2013 levels. The tour operator also expressed concerns that Thailand’s political crisis will continue into April, when tourists are expected to flock to the country to celebrate the Songkran, or traditional New Year, festival.
Committee advises against most major changes to constitution. The Constitutional Review Joint Committee in Myanmar’s parliament on January 31 issued its long-awaited recommendations on proposed amendments to the constitution. It proposed giving greater political power to states and regions—a key demand of ethnic armies with which the government hopes to finalize a nationwide cease-fire. But the committee recommended against most other major changes demanded by the ethnic armies and the political opposition, including changes to existing clauses that mandate a unitary army, reserve 25 percent of seats in the parliament for the military, and bar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president.
World Bank offers $2 billion in aid for energy, health sectors. The World Bank on January 26 offered Myanmar $2 billion in new loans, grants, and investment in recognition of the country’s ongoing reforms. Half of the assistance will go to improving electricity generation and transmission, with the goal of achieving universal access to electricity. The bank dedicated another $200 million of the aid to helping Myanmar achieve universal healthcare by 2030.
Ethnic leaders to sign cease-fire agreement, conditional on political dialogue. A four-day meeting of ethnic groups in Kayin, also called Karen, state in eastern Myanmar came to a close on January 23 with most of the groups indicating that they will likely sign a nationwide cease-fire with government negotiators during a planned meeting in the Kayin state capital, Hpa-an, in February. Many of the groups insist that signing the cease-fire will be conditional on the government agreeing to quickly launch a political dialogue, as they are concerned they may lose their political leverage if there is a lag between the cease-fire and dialogue.
Myanmar refuses calls for independent investigation into alleged massacre. Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin on January 28 rejected calls by the United Nations and others for an independent, international investigation into the alleged massacre of dozens of Rohingya villagers in western Myanmar on January 14. He said that the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission and the local Rakhine Investigation Commission will look into the matter. The Myanmar government continues to deny reports that more than 40 Rohingya Muslims were killed by Buddhist Rakhine civilians, allegedly with the complicity of local security forces.
Lower house passes changes to human rights commission. The lower house of Myanmar’s parliament on January 23 passed a bill that would alter the way members are appointed to the National Human Rights Commission. The bill would mandate that two of the commission’s nine members be drawn from independent civil rights groups, increasing the commission’s independence. The bill would also alter the makeup of the committee that selects those representatives and would mandate a 30-day time limit for the commission to address complaints. The bill must now be passed by the upper house before being sent to the president for his signature.
PDI-P announces Jokowi, Megawati as potential presidential candidates. The secretary general of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Tjahjo Kumolo, on January 29 said the party is considering both Jakarta governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and former president Megawati Sukarnoputri for its ticket in the July presidential elections. Tjahjo said PDI-P will nominate only Jokowi if it wins fewer than 20 percent of the seats during legislative elections in April. He did not say who will be the presidential and who the vice presidential nominee on a joint ticket if PDI-P secures more than 20 percent of seats, the minimum required to nominate a candidate without a coalition partner. Analysts say it is unclear if Jokowi would accept the vice presidential nomination.
Heavy rains cause two deadly landslides in East Java. Two separate mud slides buried five houses in East Java's Jombang district on January 28, causing 19 deaths and leaving 11 people missing. The Indonesian National Disaster Mitigation Agency reported that the landslides were triggered by persistent rainfall in the area. Heavy seasonal rains have caused destructive landslides and flooding in many parts of Indonesia in recent weeks. Annual rains displace thousands and kill dozens each year in the archipelago.
Government seeks to lower birth rate. Indonesia’s government has said that it intends to boost family planning programs to lower the population growth rate to 2.1 percent annually from 2.6 percent annually in an effort to prevent a potential doubling of the population by 2060. The announcement followed the Indonesian Statistics Agency’s prediction on January 29 that the nation’s population will reach 305 million by 2035, up from 247 million in 2012. The government is concerned that a rapidly increasing population will raise the cost of social services and put pressure on Indonesia’s already-inadequate infrastructure and weak job market.
Indonesia boosts military presence on southern borders. The Indonesian military has bolstered the assets it has positioned in the country’s southern waters and bases in response to the Australian Navy’s breaching of Indonesia’s maritime borders on or about January 17, according to the Guardian. Australian ships entered Indonesian waters while escorting asylum-seeker vessels back to the archipelago. The Australian government officially apologized for the incident, and on January 28 Prime Minister Tony Abbott speculated that the breach may have occurred because the Australian sailors were distracted by the wind or tides.
Cyber attacks originating from Vietnam target dissident bloggers. Activists and analysts are concerned about the growing number of cyber attacks carried out against ethnic Vietnamese dissident bloggers outside the country, according to a January 20 Associated Press article. Democracy advocates outside Vietnam have had their websites attacked by malware, and hackers have compromised their personal information. The hackers use multiple servers around the globe to launch attacks and change servers before service providers can respond—an expensive undertaking that has prompted fears that the Vietnamese government is behind the attacks.
Court sentences 30 people to death for drug smuggling. A Vietnamese criminal court sentenced 30 people to death on January 20 for trafficking heroin from Laos into Vietnam. All 21 men and 9 women were tried in the same proceedings in the northeastern coastal province of Quang Ninh. Vietnam’s criminal justice system is frequently criticized for its rapid, opaque trials and the harsh penalties given out for many offenses. The country currently has about 700 people awaiting execution.
Vietnamese stock market expected to be best performer in the region. Analysts expect the Vietnam Stock Index to grow 8 percent and top 600 points by the end of 2014, making it the best-performing stock market index in the region, according to a January 27 Bloomberg article. Pro-investment policies, such as allowing more foreign ownership of companies, and renewed economic growth will contribute to the booming stock market.
Vietnam experienced trade surplus in 2013. Vietnam had a $10 million trade surplus in 2013, according to customs data released on January 20. It was the second year that Vietnam reported a small trade surplus since joining the World Trade Organization in 2007. UK-based HSBC Bank highlighted the downside of the surplus in a recent report, saying that it indicates low demand within Vietnam. The country still has underdeveloped supporting industries and needed to import $19 billion in capital resources in 2013.
Government, Moro rebels sign final annex to peace deal. The Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on January 25 signed the fourth and final annex to the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro, which aims to bring peace and economic development to the southern island of Mindanao after more than four decades of insurgency. A bill establishing the legal basis for a new autonomous government in Mindanao is expected to be finalized in May. The Philippine military launched an offensive against an MILF splinter group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, two days after the signing, killing at least 52 rebels.
Philippine police grapple with torture allegations. The Philippine National Police on January 30 relieved 10 officers of duty after human rights officials accused them of playing a “wheel of torture” game to determine punishments for suspected criminals under interrogation. The officers are undergoing training on human rights laws while an investigation into their actions continues. The chair of the Philippine human rights commission, Loretta Ann Rosales, said that the allegations reflect “the government’s lack of control over the police force.” The government is awaiting the commission’s findings before commenting.
Hong Kong imposes sanctions on Philippines over 2010 hostage crisis. The Hong Kong government on January 29 announced that it was imposing sanctions on the Philippines because of the latter’s failure to apologize for a deadly hostage crisis aboard a Manila bus in 2010 that left eight Hong Kong tourists dead. Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying said that beginning February 5, holders of Philippine diplomatic passports will no longer have the right to visit Hong Kong for up to 14 days without a visa. The Philippine government on January 30 reiterated that it will not apologize for the actions of the mentally unstable hostage taker.
Philippine economy grows 7.2 percent in 2013. The Philippine economy grew 7.2 percent in 2013, beating the government’s projection of 6–7 percent, despite the country’s battering by natural disasters. Reports indicate that Typhoon Haiyan and other disasters, including an earthquake on the central island of Bohol, spurred government spending and sparked increased remittances from Filipinos working overseas. Economists believe that the impact of the calamities could still slow growth in the first quarter of 2014, but resurgence in manufacturing and industrial production will sustain the country’s economic momentum.
Najib launches price reduction campaign. Prime Minister Najib Razak launched a nationwide price reduction campaign on January 29, announcing discounts of 15–70 percent on about 4,000 “daily necessity” items in 10 supermarket chains. The cuts are meant to lessen the burden of Malaysia’s rising cost of living on ordinary citizens. Gas prices in the country jumped 10 percent in September 2013 when the government cut back on subsidies, and electricity prices increased 15 percent in January when the government implemented its new budget.
Malaysia faces economic challenges in 2014. Malaysia is facing economic headwinds going into 2014, according to a January 29 Wall Street Journal article. Investors are shying away from the country, the currency is at its weakest level in more than three years, yields on government debt are higher than at any time since 2010, and the stock market is down 4.5 percent from a record high in early December. In addition, prices are rising at their fastest rate since 2011, due to government policy changes meant to plug a wide budget deficit.
Anwar seeking seat in Selangor state assembly. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on January 28 announced he will contest the by-election for a seat in the state assembly of Selangor—Malaysia’s richest state, just south of Kuala Lumpur—after a member of his People’s Justice Party (PKR) vacated the seat. The move has sparked controversy between members of PKR and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), both members of the opposition coalition, over speculation that Anwar, after an all-but-assured victory, plans to replace PAS’s Khalid Ibrahim as Selangor chief minister.
New car policy relaxes rules for auto manufacturers. Malaysia’s government on January 20 announced that it will open up the country’s auto industry to foreign manufacturers of more energy-efficient cars in order to better compete with neighboring Thailand. The change in policy, effective immediately, allows foreign automakers to build energy-efficient cars with 1.8 liter or smaller engines. Previously, foreign companies could only manufacture vehicles with larger engines, while production of cars with smaller engines was reserved for Malaysia’s Proton and Perodua.
Crackdowns continue as government enforces suspension of freedom of assembly. Military police in Phnom Penh continued to violently enforce a ban on demonstrations, injuring 10 people while dispersing protesters from Freedom Park on January 26 and from in front of the Information Ministry on January 27. Opposition leader Kem Sokha warned that the Cambodia National Rescue Party will not negotiate with the government to end a months-long political standoff if it continues to use violence against protesters and prevent opposition gatherings. A citywide ban on public assembly has been in force since early January, when security forces violently cracked down on striking garment workers and opposition protesters.
Textile company to offer second-ever IPO on Cambodia’s stock exchange. Taiwanese-owned textile manufacturer Grand Twins International plans to offer 8 million new shares through the Cambodian stock exchange, according to a January 27 article in the Wall Street Journal. The initial public offering (IPO) will likely take place in April, bringing a needed boost to Cambodia’s stock market, which has not seen an IPO in two years. The exchange has had only one successful IPO since its inception; two planned offerings stalled in 2012.
South China Sea
Filipino fishermen defy new Hainan rules. Philippine defense secretary Voltaire Gazmin on January 25 said that Filipino fishermen are ignoring regulations announced by China’s southern province of Hainan requiring foreign vessels to seek permission from Chinese authorities before conducting fishing or surveying activities in waters claimed to be under the province’s jurisdiction, including most of the South China Sea. Gazmin said that seven Philippine fishing boats were sighted on January 23 fishing near Scarborough Shoal in the presence of three Chinese Coast Guard vessels. The Philippines says the new regulations are “a gross violation of international law.”
Malaysia denies claims of Chinese encroachment in its waters. Malaysian naval chief Abdul Aziz Jaafar on January 29 denied a report that three Chinese navy ships had patrolled in the waters around James Shoal, about 50 miles from Malaysia. Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported on January 26 that an amphibious landing craft and two destroyers patrolled near the shoal, which is claimed by Malaysia, China, and Taiwan. Aziz said that the exercises in question actually took place about 1,000 nautical miles away from Malaysia's exclusive economic zone and that both Malaysia and the United States were informed beforehand about the visit by Chinese ships.
Beijing to intensify aerial surveillance of disputed islands. China’s State Oceanic Administration will begin to conduct regular aerial patrols over all of the country’s claimed islands, according to a January 26 South China Morning Post article. The recently announced patrols will include high-resolution aerial photography and video and a new aerial remote sensing technology. The most important islands, within the air defense identification zone Beijing announced in late 2013 over the East China Sea, will be surveyed at least twice a year, while islands elsewhere, including in the South China Sea, will be monitored once a year by radar remote sensing.
Obama encourages Congress to work on fast track. President Barack Obama called on Congress during his January 29 State of the Union address to work toward granting him Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). But his message was undercut by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who less than a day later said he would not support the TPA bill currently being discussed by the Senate Finance Committee. TPA allows trade deals to be passed without amendments by a simple majority in Congress. It is considered crucial to the completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. The next round of TPP negotiations are expected to take place in February.
Nina Hachigian nominated as ambassador to ASEAN. President Barack Obama on January 16 nominated Nina Hachigian to replace David Carden, who stepped down in December after serving since 2011 as the first U.S. ambassador to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and was previously the director of the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy. If confirmed, she will manage U.S. efforts to help boost the secretariat’s capacity and strengthen ASEAN.
British wealth fund manager flees Singapore after receiving death threats. Anton Casey, a British wealth fund manager in Singapore, fled to Perth, Australia, on January 24 after receiving death threats for comments he made on Facebook mocking the poor. His wife and son left Singapore as well. Casey worked for financial company CrossInvest, which has since released a statement saying, “CrossInvest Asia and Mr. Casey have parted ways with immediate effect.”
Chinese automaker to develop driverless cars in Singapore. Chinese automaker BYD and Singapore’s Institute for Infocomm Research on January 28 signed an agreement to develop 100 driverless electric cars in the city-state. The cars will use autonomous vehicle sensors to control the driving systems, according to a Business Standard article. The two companies are also partnering to develop a computerized management system that will automatically track and control the fleet.
Hundreds protest public transit fee hikes. About 400 people gathered at Singapore’s Hong Lim Park on January 25 to protest a 3.2 percent increase in bus and rail fares set to take effect in April. Hong Lim Park is the only location in the city-state where demonstrations are legal. The last large-scale protests in Singapore were anti-immigration rallies in 2013 in which thousands took part. The smaller number that came out to protest the transit fee hikes suggests that the demonstrations might not have much momentum.
Rice farmers defy orders to give up land to Chinese firm. About 50 rice farmers in northern Laos on January 17 refused to budge when armed police ordered them to vacate land seized from them by a Chinese company. The company wants to build an airport on the land as part of a casino-driven special economic zone, according to a January 22 Radio Free Asia report. This is the second attempt by the company to clear the villagers' rice fields, which cover nearly 2,500 acres. Negotiations over compensation for the farmers are ongoing.
Advocate for Hmong rights awarded Medal of the Order of Australia. Kay Danes, an advocate for the rights of Hmong in Laos, was honored with the prestigious Medal of the Order of Australia on January 31 for her social justice and human rights work. Danes is an outspoken voice for the victims of the extrajudicial abductions and killings, torture, and forced repatriation of the Hmong people in Laos, where she was formerly a political prisoner.
Laos to curb tariff-free imports. The Lao government plans to restrict the importation of duty-free goods to those needed for “necessary development projects,” according to a January 29 report in the Bangkok Post. The change targets tariff-free gasoline in particular because some businesses import more than they need and then sell off the excess, which has led to a shortfall in government revenue.
Timor-Leste rejects Australia's claim that seized documents cannot be returned. Timor-Leste’s government on January 22 rejected Australia’s claims that it cannot return documents seized from Timor-Leste’s lawyer in Canberra because doing so would threaten Australia’s national security. Timorese officials said the timing of the documents’ seizure indicates that it was intended to preempt the documents’ use as evidence in Timor-Leste’s case against Australia before the International Court of Justice. Timor-Leste is asking the court to abrogate an agreement with Australia over the sharing of revenue from offshore oil and gas fields, alleging that Canberra spied on Timorese officials, giving it an unfair advantage in negotiations.
Timor-Leste sends first-ever delegation to Winter Olympics. Timor-Leste has sent its first-ever representative to the Winter Olympics, which will kick off in Sochi, Russia, on February 7. Skier Yohan Goutt Goncalves is the first Timorese athlete to qualify for the games. He is a dual French-Timorese citizen and decided to seek independent qualification rather than a spot as a wild card. Goncalves has said he hopes that his participation will help boost Timor-Leste’s international reputation and lessen the negative perceptions that linger from the country’s war for independence.
Timor-Leste passes $1.5 billion budget for 2014. Timor-Leste’s government on January 28 approved its largest-ever budget of $1.5 billion. The national budget has grown significantly over the past decade as a result of increased oil and gas revenue. Critics say that the government is too reliant on the oil and gas sector and has not invested sufficiently in other areas of the economy, despite recognizing that its revenue surplus will fall approximately 40 percent in mid-2014.
Chinese company launches oil refinery project in Brunei. China’s Zhejiang Hengyi Petrochemicals signed an agreement on January 26 to launch a large integrated oil refinery project on Brunei’s Muara Besar Island. The 642-acre project, which will include a refinery and aromatics cracker, will be one of the largest foreign direct investments in Brunei’s history, according to the Global Times. The initial stage of the project will cost an estimated $4 billion and involve the construction of necessary infrastructure, including a bridge to the island.
Malaysian, Bruneian ministries agree to boost relations. Malaysia’s Domestic Trade, Cooperatives, and Consumerism Ministry and Brunei’s Industry and Primary Resources Ministry agreed on January 28 to expand bilateral cooperation focused on trade, halal food, education, and tourism. Officials reached the agreement during the ministries’ first joint working group meetings. The working group was launched as part of a larger December 8 agreement to boost cooperation between the two countries.
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