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Southeast Asia

Tag Archives | Southeast Asia

Dim Prospects for Peace in Southern Thailand

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A soldier stands guard on the Thai side of the river as people prepare to cross into Malaysia in Sungai Kolok in southern Narathiwat province, March 8, 2013.  Source: Reuters

Since February of this year the Malaysian government has sponsored talks in Kuala Lumpur (KL) with the aim of ending the bloodshed that has plagued southern Thailand for nearly a decade.

A soldier stands guard on the Thai side of the river as people prepare to cross into Malaysia in Sungai Kolok in southern Narathiwat province, March 8, 2013. Source: Reuters

At the negotiating table are Thai government officials and the rebel group Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C). The talks have, thus far, failed to achieve their objective, as there remains a wide gap between both sides’ demands. The absence of leadership or political cohesion within the insurgency raises question about which rebels are being represented in KL, and to what extent the BRN-C fully represents or can influence all entities that comprise the insurgency. Events on the ground indicate that the insurgency has entered a new phase of enhanced violence and human rights abuses that now target children. Within this context, prospects for success in KL appear dim.

Three-quarters of Thailand’s population is ethnically Thai and 95% are Buddhist. Yet, in the southern provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Satun, and Yala the majority of citizens are ethnic Malays who practice Islam. All of the provinces, except Yala, were previously governed by the Malay-Muslim sultanate of Pattani, which ceased to exist after the state of Thailand (then known as “Siam”) annexed the territory over a century ago.

While under Bangkok’s rule, many Muslims in southern Thailand have complained of an oppressive and corrupt political order that suppresses their ethnic, religious and linguistic identities, while subjecting them to second-class citizenship and marginalization. The Muslim-majority provinces of southern Thailand are indeed the poorest in this comparatively rich nation. Since the 1960s, a number of Malay-Muslim currents have resisted Bangkok’s control over southern Thailand in pursuit of the re-establishment of an independent state based on the Malay-Muslim identity. In 2004, an insurgency grew under the banner of jihad, symbolizing a new Islamist identity of the Pattani people.

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Minority Report: Suu Kyi’s Silence over Violence against the Rohingyas

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Buddhist Nationalist leader U Wirathu leaving after giving a sermon, at a monastery in Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma) on May 22, 2013.  Source: Tumblr

“No, no- it’s not an ethnic cleansing” - stated Burma’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi when was asked for her views on the mistreatment of Rohingya Muslims in an interview with BBC Radio 4.

Buddhist Nationalist leader U Wirathu leaving after giving a sermon, at a monastery in Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma) on May 22, 2013. Source: Tumblr

Given the contradictory claims, Suu Kyi’s public denial may not help assuage the fear of the human rights activists across the globe that the Rohingya Muslims fell prey to a state-sponsored racial purification campaign.  Rather, Suu Kyi’s interview with the BBC’s Mishal Husain implicitly, if not overtly, revealed her stance on a number of issues. Unfortunately, when the question of the mistreatment of ethnic minorities is raised, her unflinching ideology to uplift the great cause of democracy and humanity seems to be at stake.

On April 22nd New York-based Human Rights Watch published a detailed account in which it accused the Burmese government of conducting a highly orchestrated ethnic cleansing. “The Burmese government engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues [today] through the denial of aid and restrictions on movement,” said Phil Robertson, the watchdog’s Asia deputy-director. Although Suu Kyi remained noncommittal after these claims surfaced, Suu Kyi’s latest comments apparently exposed her bias.

In the BBC interview, Suu Kyi remained in the driver’s seat by labeling the ongoing problem as a “new” one. She added, “This problem arose last year”. Suu Kyi bypassed the root of this ongoing problem which commenced when the ultranationalist military junta amended the constitution in 1982 suspending the citizenship rights of the Rohingya Muslims. Thenceforth, waves of stateless Rohingya Muslims are scattering in the region from Bangladesh to Thailand to Malaysia as they are often the targets of racial hatred and violence. Nonetheless, Suu Kyi coined a brand-new ‘fear theory’ saying, “the fear is not just on the side of the Muslims but also on the side of the Buddhists as well”. She also added, “Muslims have been targeted but also Buddhists have been subjected to violence.”

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Foreign Direct Investment in Myanmar will Increase Stability

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Monk U Wirathu acknowledges that he is a Buddhist nationalist but says he has tried to prevent fighting. He is pictured here in Mandalay, Myanmar. Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

Monk U Wirathu acknowledges that he is a Buddhist nationalist but says he has tried to prevent fighting. He is pictured here in Mandalay, Myanmar. Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

Tensions in Myanmar are expected to ease over the next several weeks. In the past months, a series of violent conflicts between various ethnic groups in the country drew a concerned response from international observers. A number of positive events this week, however, may lead us to consider that a period of calm is likely to follow. In particular, we are likely to see an increase in the level of trust between Myanmar’s leadership and the international community.

An agreement was signed this week by Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and Yukiya Amano, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This agreement will allow international inspectors wider access to facilities thought to have the potential to develop nuclear technology. According to the IAEA, this move will help clear lingering suspicions that Myanmar had been trying to develop nuclear weapons during the country’s long military rule that ended last year.

The World Bank also announced the approval of a 140 million dollar loan to upgrade the country’s power supply. France’s newspaper, Les Echos, reports that the loan will double the capacity of Myanmar’s main power plant, while reducing its overall CO2 emissions.

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ASEAN, EU and the French Connection

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France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.  Mark Garten/UN

France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. Mark Garten/UN

During his recent visit to Jakarta for a bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, France’s top diplomat, Laurent Fabius, dropped by the ASEAN Secretariat and announced to a regional audience that his country had made a “pivot” to Asia. Smart move. Explained the French foreign minister: “France wants to be present where tomorrow’s world is (being) built.” That’s savoir-faire.

France, he stressed, is part of the Asian-Oceania space through its history. At least one million French citizens have Asian origins. And more than half a million more live in its Pacific territories. The French pivot looks fairly more sophisticated than the American model. The US pivot is primarily made up of a military component. Perhaps that can’t be helped. The US has been global cop for so long that people have forgotten it’s also an economic player. And they take its cultural influence for granted.

The French also have a military presence in Asia but since the demise of Napoleon, their reputation for soldiering has been eclipsed by their fame for concocting sauces. And they’re taking care to emphasize that their pivot is diplomatic, economic and “human,” meaning sociocultural. They affirm that no global problem can be solved without China’s participation, or at least its acquiescence. They want to strengthen their already strong security relations with India. They seek to re-engage with Japan and South Korea.

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Myanmar’s Two-Child Policy

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A Muslim child lies in a hammock at a refugee camp outside of Sittwe. Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

A Muslim child lies in a hammock at a refugee camp outside of Sittwe. Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

Recent comments by Myanmar’s Immigration and Population Minister, supporting Myanmar’s two-child policy have been controversial. The regulation, adopted in 2005, targets Rohingya Muslims in the country’s northwestern Rakhine State, subjecting them to punitive measures should they fail to comply with the recently reaffirmed two-child limit.

Alongside mounting international concern over the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, some have called for the abolishment of the two-child policy, declaring it incongruous with international human rights. Although Myanmar has no national laws limiting reproduction, it’s ethnic state governments can introduce regulations in accordance with national security demands. Exacerbating this is Myanmar’s penal code, which prohibits women from having abortions except when their life is threatened. These obstacles acutely affect Rohingya women, who often are forced to furtively resort to unsafe and self-induced abortions to avoid suffering fines or imprisonment, jeopardizing their physical and mental health.

This isn’t the first-time that policies pertaining to involuntary population management have been attempted. Famously, China’s ‘one child policy’ introduced in 1978 restricted urban couples from having more than one child. And despite varied implementation, it can be argued that China’s family planning policy has helped to alleviate the social, environmental and economic stress that over-population can induce.

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Days in Bangladesh

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Dhaka, Bangladesh

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Education Reform in Indonesia Likely to Backfire

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Students in Central Jakarta. Photo: Charles Wiriawan

Students in Central Jakarta. Photo: Charles Wiriawan

The decision by the Indonesian government to radically alter its current primary school curriculum by replacing science with classes focused on religion and courses that strengthen nationalism will have a generational impact that may prove to make the country less economically competitive and less attractive to foreign direct investment in the years ahead. The drastic changes in primary school curriculums in Indonesia’s public school system, slated for implementation this summer, could lead to greater persecution of the nation’s Catholic, Buddhist, and Protestant religious minority groups.

With religious violence on the rise and the declining effectiveness of the educational system in Indonesia, reform efforts to address these issues are a logical pursuit. However, the decision to remove science and social sciences classes will likely backfire and create a lost generation, which will lead to economic decline, social instability, and religious radicalization.

In November, Indonesia’s deputy minister of education, Musliar Kasim, explained that changes in the Indonesian educational system curriculum was an absolute necessity because, “Right now many students don’t have character, tolerance for others, empathy for others.” The need for augmentation was in response to concerns that students were becoming overwhelmed with the workload, and that instances of student violence were increasing as a consequence. Government officials asserted that students needed to learn how to become better citizens and that it could only be achieved by instilling character and a greater sense of morality.

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Patience and Doubt amidst Gradual Reforms in Myanmar

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Aung San Suu Kyi with Prime Minister David Cameron in London. Photo by Roger Harris

Aung San Suu Kyi with Prime Minister David Cameron in London. Photo by Roger Harris

Myanmar has been called a country frozen in time, usually in reference to Bagan’s historic temples or Yangon’s state-run taxi fleet of 1980s automobiles. Five months after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won forty-three of forty-five seats in a parliamentary bi-election, the phrase fits the country’s politics as well.

Long-time military ruler Than Shwe has given way to reformist Prime Minister U Thein Sein. Suu Kyi has made formerly unimaginable appearances in European capitals. The United States and the European Union have suspended economic sanctions effective since the military regime’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988. Yet with the next concrete step toward democratization promising parliamentary elections in 2015, Myanmar finds itself on the frustrating precipice of a still unrealized democracy.

Some are not waiting for democracy to come to them. In the National League for Democracy’s Nyaung Oo headquarters, men in polo shirts and customary longyis sort through stacks of party registration papers. U Myant Khine, a 63-year old retired police officer and NLD volunteer, eagerly explains that the party is using the time before the elections to build a rural base outside its traditional stronghold in Yangon.

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Does India have the Potential of Besting the Chinese?

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A Chinese soldier gestures as he stands near an Indian soldier on the ancient Nathu La border crossing between India and China. Diptendu Dutta/AFP

A Chinese soldier gestures as he stands near an Indian soldier on the ancient Nathu La border crossing between India and China. Diptendu Dutta/AFP

In China’s struggle to rise to its perceived natural place at the “center of the earth,” its key competitor is not the United States but India. Of China’s neighbors, only India can challenge China as a regional hegemon. This regional conflict has the potential of escalating into a military confrontation over the sovereignty of the South China Sea.  India’s civilian government has made clear that it views balancing against China a high priority. In late 2011, Vietnam sold blocks of oil and gas rights in the South China Sea to India’s state-owned oil company (ONGC Videsh Limited or OVL).

Disregarding a warning from China, India followed through on the purchases. In response, the Chinese energy company CNOOC then auctioned off nine energy blocks in the South China Sea, including those already purchased by India.  Vietnam stated that China’s actions violated international law because the disputed area is less than 200 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast, well within its exclusive economic zone. Vietnam declared the action illegal, saying, “This is absolutely not a disputed area. (CNOOC’s move) is illegal and of no value, seriously violating Vietnam’s sovereignty.”

China claims not simply an exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, but full sovereignty of the area as part of its territorial water. If China’s claims were enforced, it would restrict free passage by vessels of other nations. The Obama administration has argued that “freedom of navigation” is at stake. With this sale of energy rights, China has forced a confrontation with India over Oil Block 128. Despite some initial hesitation, India has refused to back down.  At the same time, China also initiated disputes with Pacific neighbors Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines over other remote islands in the region, creating several confrontations at the same time. In the past, these states have given in to Chinese pressure but this time may be different. The Philippines stood up to Chinese fishing vessels with the quiet backing of the United States. Japan is currently negotiating to buy uninhabited islands from a Japanese family, which China claims will be “illegal and invalid”.

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Burma: Legacies of Political Activism and Authoritarian Rule

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Source: State Department

In the past 18 months, Burma, also known as Myanmar, unexpectedly released more 600 political prisoners including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Laureate and de facto leader of the opposition movement. Internet websites such as the BBC and Gmail have ceased to be blocked. Parliament passed legislation that included a labor law that allows unions, illegal since 1974, and laws outlawing forced labor. The Press Censorship Board no longer requires publications to have all articles approved in advance. The National Human Rights Commission was established by President Thein Sein to investigate current incidences of rights violations by the government.

And while the security apparatus that can incarcerate anyone who speaks out against the government – rules, regulations and the authorities that enforce them—remains intact, such laws are currently not being enforced in Rangoon and Mandalay. These are important signals, not yet institutionalized, that demonstrate that political space is broadening in Burma’s core areas. Less change is seen in the ethnic periphery areas of the country. Recent anti-Rohingya rioting, continued active military conflict in Kachin state, and lack of political freedoms outside of large cities, continues and is at odds with this new Burma.

Read the rest of Linnea M. Beatty’s dissertation by clicking here.

‘Democracy’ and Slaughter in Burma: Gold Rush Overrides Human Rights

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Aung San Suu Kyi talks with Hillary Clinton in Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi talks with Hillary Clinton at her home in Burma

The widespread killings of Rohingya Muslims in Burma – or Myanmar - have received only passing and dispassionate coverage in most media. What they actually warrant is widespread outrage and decisive efforts to bring further human rights abuses to an immediate halt. “Burmese helicopter set fire to three boats carrying nearly 50 Muslim Rohingyas fleeing sectarian violence in western Burma in an attack that is believed to have killed everyone on board,” reported Radio Free Europe on July 12.

Why would anyone take such fatal risks? Refugees are attempting to escape imminent death, torture or arrest at the hands of the Ethnic Buddhist Rakhine majority, which has the full support of the Burmese government.

The relatively little media interest in Burma’s ‘ethnic clashes’ is by no means an indication of the significance of the story. The recent flaring of violence followed the raping and killing of a Rhakine woman on May 28, allegedly by three Rohingya men.

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Women’s Rights in Malaysia

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Zainah Anwar, the founder of Sisters-in-Islam.  Image via U.S.-Islamic World Forum

Zainah Anwar, the founder of Sisters-in-Islam. Image via U.S.-Islamic World Forum

The mostly Muslim nation of Malaysia has always walked a fine line between protecting the rights of Malay women and acknowledging the role that Islam plays in the daily lives of its citizens. Yet many of the obstacles facing Malaysian society disproportionately affect women. These include endemic poverty, human trafficking, environmental degradation, a rise in the numbers of refugees, civil unrest, crime and a resurgent Islamic movement. Nonetheless in this mostly Muslim country of nearly 30 million people, by comparison with other Islamic nations, the fight for greater protection of Malaysian women’s rights has had some success.

This balance between a secular and sectarian society has largely been the result of Malaysia’s former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad. In contrast to Malaysia’s largest neighbor, Indonesia, Mr. Mohamad did make significant concessions to Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), Malaysia’s largest Islamic party, to placate religious conservatives.

The emergence of politicized Islam has posed a challenge to civil society groups determined to uphold democracy, human rights, and women’s rights. Women groups in many Muslim countries are at the frontline in challenging the religious establishment and their justification of the subordination of women and discrimination against them. Yet their efforts are constrained by religious norms that make even basic women’s rights appear radical.

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Disaster Management in Southeast Asia: Issues and Challenges

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Damaged coastline from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Photo: Samuel Lippke

Damaged coastline from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Photo: Samuel Lippke

When several countries in Southeast Asia announced their intention to develop nuclear power recently, many inhabitants of that region were spooked. Even as developed countries are shutting down their nuclear power plants, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam have indicated that they will be building their first nuclear power plants. The biggest concern is that Southeast Asia is prone to frequent natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis.

If a major earthquake or tsunami set off a nuclear disaster equal to that which struck Japan in March 2011 were to hit any one of those countries mentioned above, the devastation for the region as a whole will almost certainly be much greater since countries in Southeast Asia are located in close proximity to one another. For example, a nuclear disaster in Malaysia or Indonesia will almost certainly place the five million inhabitants of Singapore in serious peril. Even worse, Southeast Asian countries have yet to develop the capacity to mount effective disaster relief operations.

Southeast Asia is made up of 11 countries and in terms of landmass, the region is roughly half the size of the United States. With a total population of approximately 620 million and an average per capita GDP of US$2,500 (in 2009), Southeast Asia has experienced two major natural disasters in the last decade: the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and the 2008 Cyclone Nargis. The two natural calamities claimed the lives of more than four hundred thousands and caused tens of billions in damages in an already impoverished region. But despite the devastation, most Southeast Asian countries remain ill-prepared today to deal with major calamities for three crucial reasons.

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Burma’s Reform: An Opportunity or a Threat?

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Aung San Suu Kyi in Oslo. Photo by Sjur Stølen via Aktiv I Oslo.no

Aung San Suu Kyi in Oslo. Photo by Sjur Stølen via Aktiv I Oslo.no

Luminaries smelled blood. Hillary Clinton, Kevin Rudd, and David Cameron came and went, openly advocating for continued democratic reform. All met with Ms. Aung Sun Suu Kyi. In the aftermath of grandiose state visits from such luminaries to Burma (officially known as Myanmar), Aung Sun Suu Kyi and military leaders face a long and difficult task to bring about political, social, and economic reforms in a country that has remained under a brutal military junta and isolated from most of the world since 1960.

In politics, relationships matter less. Interest matters most. U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, a high-ranking Republican, recently expressed his glowing enthusiasm and hopes for the reform in Burma. He thought Burma is on the path to achieve something that once seemed impossible. Ironically, Sen. McConnell is also the “architect” of the economic sanctions against Burma.

The U.S. and Western interest in Burma is palpable in light of Burma’s strategic geographic location, its ties with China, and its natural resources. The integrity of this interest must be tested against what is really at skate for Burma.

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A Need for Pan-Asian Institutions in Asia

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President Barack Obama is photographed with other leaders for the official photo prior to the APEC dinner at the Pacifico Yokohama Conference Center in Yokohama, Japan, Nov. 13, 2010. Pete Souza/White House

President Barack Obama is photographed with other leaders for the official photo prior to the APEC dinner at the Pacifico Yokohama Conference Center in Yokohama, Japan, Nov. 13, 2010. Pete Souza/White House

For over a decade, many relevant academic journals have prophesized the 21st century as the Asian century. The argument is usually based on impressive economic growth, increased production, trade and booming foreign currency reserves. Undoubtedly, the fact that Asia holds nearly 1/3 of the total world population doesn’t hurt its chances from overtaking the United States and Europe in many areas.

However, history serves as a powerful reminder by warning us that economically and/or demographically mighty geographic centers run into problems, especially when the periphery is weakened by several factors. This means that any (absolute or relative) shift in economic or demographic strength will inevitably put additional stress on the existing power equilibriums that support this balance in the particular theater (implicit or explicit structure).

Thus, what is the state of Asia’s security structures? What are the existing capacities of Asian countries of preventive diplomacy and what instruments are at their disposal when it comes to conflict prevention and resolution, exchange mechanisms, reconciliation, capacity and confidence in the Asian theater?

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