Southeast Asia from Scott Circle: Aung San Suu Kyi Sets Out to Find “Practical Solutions” in Rakhine State, and the World Should Help
June 9, 2016
Two months after the National League for Democracy (NLD) government took office, State Counselor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi embarked on a process to start addressing the plight of stateless Muslims in Rakhine State, one of the most intractable—and internationally contentious—challenges facing Myanmar. In a joint press conference with U.S. secretary of state John Kerry on May 22, Aung San Suu Kyi asked that she be given “enough space” to tackle the problem.
The new government announced May 31 that a 27-member Central Committee for the Implementation of Peace, Stability and Development of Rakhine State, chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi and including ministers at both the union and state levels, has been established. Seven members of the committee took their first inspection tour of Rakhine State on June 1 to visit camps housing internally displaced persons, meet with community leaders, and take stock of the infrastructure and living conditions across the state. Approximately 1 million self-identified Muslim Rohingya live in the impoverished state in western Myanmar.
The committee is organized into four working groups focused on security, peace, stability, and rule of law; immigration and citizenship verification; resettlement and socioeconomic development; and cooperation with the United Nations and other international organizations.
The press conference with Kerry marked the first time Aung San Suu Kyi had used the word “Rohingya” in public. She had been the target of human rights groups, which have long criticized the democracy icon for not coming out in support of the disenfranchised group. In Aung San Suu Kyi’s own words, “Emotive terms make it very difficult for us to find a peaceful and sensible resolution to our problems.” Many Buddhists in Myanmar see the Muslim Rohingya as a threat to the country’s mainstream identity and call them Bengalis, suggesting they descended from illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
At the same time, Aung San Suu Kyi publicly said that her government recognizes the need to address the problem of citizenship for Muslims in Rakhine State, and to do so without forcing them to self-identify as “Bengali.”
By contrast, the previous government insisted that Rohingya do not exist in Myanmar, and it required undocumented Muslims in Rakhine State to identify themselves as Bengalis if they wanted to undergo citizenship verification or be counted in the national census.
Yet, like its predecessor, the new Myanmar government has refused to include the Muslims in Rakhine in its list of 135 official ethnic groups, or “national races,” in the country, as laid out in the 1982 citizenship law. Not being listed as a national race means they have fewer rights and less access to government-provided services, and are often widely discriminated against. After communal riots erupted in Rakhine in 2012, during which more than 100 people died, about 125,000 Muslims were forced out of their villages into tightly controlled camps, where they depend on international aid for food and health care. Rakhine Muslim communities have looked to Aung San Suu Kyi to improve their bleak situation by allowing them freedom to move and leave the camps for their old homes.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to prioritize the difficult Rakhine issue—in addition to putting an end to decades-long conflicts with armed ethnic groups—as part of her national reconciliation agenda deserves to be recognized.
In the midst of rising Buddhist nationalism and a climate of distrust among different ethnic and religious groups despite recent democratic reforms, the new committee will have to proceed very carefully to make sure that any economic development projects in Rakhine will deliver for both local Muslim and local Buddhist communities, and that moves toward providing citizenship to Rakhine Muslims will not result in a widespread nationwide backlash spearheaded by nationalist elements.
According to the 1982 citizenship law, residents whose forefathers lived in Myanmar in 1824 qualify as full citizens if they are part of the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. Those who came after 1824 qualify as associate citizens with fewer rights than full citizens. Herein lies the muddled controversy surrounding the issue: while many Rohingya claim ancestry that dates back at least to a 15th-century kingdom in Rakhine State, most of Myanmar’s Buddhists regard them as foreigners brought over from Bangladesh when British rule over parts of then-Burma began in 1824. An unknown number of Muslims who had come from Bangladesh under British rule also settled in Myanmar for successive generations.
Rights groups have long called on Myanmar to amend its laws, which create different categories of citizenship and exclude groups like the Rakhine Muslims from full citizenship. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has not said whether it will try to amend the country’s citizenship law and bring it more into line with international practices. A fair number of Muslims in Rakhine State who had undergone citizenship verification under the previous government had trouble producing documentation dating back or prior to 1824. This same problem is expected to confront the new government’s Rakhine efforts.
For Aung San Suu Kyi and the international community, addressing the plight of the Rakhine Muslims would need to involve, as she put it, “practical solutions” in Rakhine State. The NLD government has allocated an initial $5.9 million to develop and address communal tensions in Rakhine State. Minister of Border Affairs Lt. Gen. Ye Aung, who also sits on the committee, said the government is ready to mobilize more resources to go toward improving the situation in Rakhine in the future if necessary.
To be sure, a lot could still go wrong in an environment fraught with decades of violence and animus. As a supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratic efforts and Myanmar’s ongoing reform process, the U.S. government should find ways to support this process.
A first step might be to look beyond the terminology, whether “Rohingya” or “Bengali.”
Use of the word “Rohingya” in Myanmar sets off Buddhist nationalist sentiment, distracts from rational conversations about solutions, and does little to improve the plight of people in Rakhine State. Likewise, describing the situation with inflammatory descriptions such as “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” does nothing more than fan emotions on the ground against Muslim communities. Avoiding emotive words, of course, does not mean that the United States tolerate abuse.
Just as importantly, the international community has a role in helping the poor among the Rakhine Buddhist population in the country’s least-developed state as a confidence-building measure to demonstrate that the outside world does not pick one side over the other in this conflict.
Aung San Suu Kyi leads new government committee on Rakhine State. The President’s Office on May 30 announced that State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi will lead the newly created Central Committee for Implementation of Peace, Stability and Development of Rakhine State. The 27-member committee, which includes ministers at both the union and state levels, is tasked with promoting economic development in the strife-torn state and verifying citizenship for Muslim communities living in Rakhine. Committee members on June 1 arrived in the state capital, Sittwe, to inspect living conditions across the state. The government will allocate an initial $5.9 million to address development and communal problems in Rakhine State.
Chinese ambassador pushes restart of Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State. China’s ambassador to Myanmar, Hong Lang, on June 3 called for the restart of the controversial Chinese-backed Myitsone hydropower project during meetings with local government representatives in Myitkina, the capital of Kachin State. Hong also met with local villagers displaced by the project. Former president Thein Sein ordered the suspension of the $3.6-billion project in 2011 in response to protests by local residents and civil society groups over the dam’s environmental impact. The new government has not decided whether to allow China to resume the project.
Controversy over missing gems fund shines spotlight on previous government. Eighty-one members of the Myanmar Gems Traders Association on June 2 accused the organization’s chairman, Yone Mu, of embezzling around $104 million from the association’s account and giving at least $1.1 million of that to former president Thein Sein. The members called on the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment and the state-run Myanmar Gems Enterprise to provide an account of how the funds were spent. The opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party, which Thein Sein currently chairs, has threatened to sue local newspapers that reported the accusations for defamation.
Thai military wants Wa army to quit its bases in Thailand. Thai authorities on May 30 asked the Myanmar military to persuade the United Wa State Army (UWSA) to move its bases away from the Thai-Myanmar border area during a meeting between the two countries’ border affairs officials. The UWSA, which is headquartered in northern Myanmar’s Shan State, operates bases in Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son provinces in northern Thailand. The Myanmar military has reportedly made the request of the UWSA several times in the past.
Government peace negotiator meets with non-signatory armed groups in Chiang Mai. The government’s peace envoy, Dr. Tin Myo Win, on June 3 met in Chiang Mai with the United Nationalities Federal Council’s Delegation for Political Negotiation, a group of armed ethnic groups that took part in the negotiations of but did not sign a cease-fire agreement last October. Tin Myo Win asked the groups to participate in the 21st Century Panglong Conference, which State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi plans to hold with ethnic groups in late July. Tin Myo Win will meet separately with two armed groups based in Shan State, the United Wa State Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, to gauge their interest in the peace process.
Indonesian navy intercepts Chinese, Philippine, Vietnamese vessels. The Indonesian navy on May 27 apprehended a Chinese fishing vessel and its crew off the coast of Natuna Islands for suspected illegal fishing. A Chinese Coast Guard vessel present at the scene to escort the ship did not intervene, as had happened earlier this year when a Chinese Coast Guard vessel rammed a Chinese fishing ship being towed away to free it from an Indonesian civilian law enforcement vessel. Indonesia on May 31 also reportedly detained Philippine and Vietnamese vessels over suspected illegal fishing off West Papua Province.
Pertamina, Russia’s Rosneft announce $13.8 billion oil refinery deal. State-owned oil and gas company Pertamina on May 26 signed a framework agreement with Russia’s Rosneft Oil Company to build a new oil refinery in Tuban in East Java Province. Pertamina will hold a minimum 55 percent stake in the joint venture, and aims to process 300,000 barrels of oil each day. The refinery is expected to be operational by the end of 2021 and will be Russia’s first foray into Indonesia’s energy market.
Indonesia denies companies new palm oil permits. San Afri Awang, a senior official from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, on May 25 said Indonesia has refused to issue permits for new palm oil operations to 61 companies. The government has encouraged companies to use better seeds instead of expanding into new areas. The clearing of land for palm oil plantations has contributed to Indonesia’s annual forest fires. Environmental activists have called on the government to ensure that local authorities abide by this decision.
Jokowi introduces death penalty, chemical castration for crimes against children. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on May 25 signed a presidential regulation introducing harsher punishments for sexual violence against children, calling it an “extraordinary crime.” Under the new regulation, offenders can receive the death penalty as a maximum sentence or have their movements tracked by an electronic chip and face chemical castration. The change follows public outcry after the brutal gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in April.
Indonesia, Japan in talks for port and rail projects. Cabinet Secretary Pramono Anung on May 26 said the Indonesian and Japanese governments have been in talks on two potential infrastructure projects in Indonesia. According to Pramono, the two sides are in the advanced stages of discussions over a port in Patimban in West Java Province, while Indonesia is hoping to speed up talks over a medium-speed rail project connecting Jakarta to Surabaya.
Congress officially proclaims Duterte and Robredo victories; Duterte unveils cabinet. The Philippine Congress on May 30 officially proclaimed Rodrigo Duterte and Leni Robredo as president-elect and vice president-elect, respectively. Duterte revealed his handpicked cabinet, largely chosen from his inner circle, the following day. Despite earlier pledges to assemble a diverse and representative cabinet, almost all of Duterte’s appointees are older males. Only three of the 35 appointed cabinet members are women. Duterte said he had no plans to offer Robredo a cabinet post, as is customary in the Philippine political system.
Xi congratulates Duterte, says wants to get Philippines ties back on track. Chinese president Xi Jinping on May 30 sent a message congratulating Rodrigo Duterte on his election victory, and expressed hopes that the two sides can work together to get China-Philippines relations back on a “healthy track.” In response, Duterte on May 31 called Xi a “great” leader. Duterte did not rule out bilateral negotiations with Beijing on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, although he said his government will not surrender Philippine sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal.
Duterte asks China to follow arbitration ruling, allow Philippine fishermen to continue fishing in Scarborough Shoal. Philippine officials on May 24 said they have not received any complaints from local fishermen over Chinese harassment near Scarborough Shoal for weeks. President-elect Rodrigo Duterte had previously asked Chinese ambassador Zhao Jianhua to allow Filipino fishermen to fish near the shoal. Duterte also asked China to respect the arbitration ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague expected within weeks.
Liberal Party members defect to Duterte’s PDP-Laban. Numerous members of the Liberal Party (LP) loyal to outgoing Philippine president Benigno Aquino have defected to Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), the party of incoming president Rodrigo Duterte. Notable defectors include Jerry Treñas, chair of LP’s membership and organizing panel, and Reynaldo Umali and Cesar Sarmiento, who chair, respectively, the transportation and energy committees in the Philippine House of Representatives. PDP-Laban’s secretary general said on June 2 he expected more lawmakers to join the party in the days ahead.
Duterte pledges to pursue Sabah claim. President-elect Rodrigo Duterte on May 25 vowed to pursue the Philippines’ claim over Sabah in eastern Malaysia, which Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs quickly dismissed. Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak on May 30 urged Duterte to focus on reining in the insurgency in the southern Philippines instead of reigniting claims over Sabah. Duterte said he would pursue the claim peacefully through bilateral negotiations.
Police kill drug suspects, deny links to Duterte’s campaign promises. Philippine police on May 29 killed three drug suspects in a shootout, the latest in a string of over a dozen killings of criminals following Rodrigo Duterte’s election victory. The mayor-elect of Cebu on June 2 announced he has paid police officers more than $3,000 for the killing of drug traffickers, following Duterte’s earlier offer of bounties for drug criminals. The police dismissed links between the killings and Duterte’s campaign promises, citing self-defense instead.
McCain suggests ideas for U.S.-Vietnam security cooperation in letter to party chief. U.S. senator John McCain on May 20 sent a letter to the Vietnamese Communist Party’s general-secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, advocating increased defense cooperation between the United States and Vietnam. He affirmed the two states’ shared strategic interests and his personal commitment to helping Vietnam build its maritime capacity. He also proposed a U.S.-Vietnam Maritime Initiative to include military exchanges and training, as well as Vietnam’s inclusion in the biannual Rim of the Pacific Exercise in Hawaii.
U.S. ends catfish inspections criticized by Vietnam as trade barrier. The U.S. Senate on May 27 voted to eliminate a set of controversial regulations mandating the inspection of catfish imports that Vietnam and other states had criticized as a nontariff trade barrier. Supporters of the inspections argued that they protected against potential health problems, while critics called them wasteful and unnecessary. The resolution must still be approved by the House of Representatives and signed by President Barack Obama.
Vietnam strengthens defense, economic ties with Japan on sidelines of G7. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on May 28 agreed with his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, to enhance economic and strategic relations between the two countries during a meeting on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Japan. The two sides agreed to continue high-level meetings and to cooperate in United Nations peacekeeping operations. Japan also pledged to continue its development assistance to Vietnam, increase investment, and assist with recovery from the recent drought in the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam.
Australian, Indian warships visit Vietnam. An Australian and two Indian warships on May 30 stopped in Vietnam on separate visits to bolster their respective nations’ defense relations with Vietnam. The Australian frigate HMAS Anzac docked at Ho Chi Minh City for three days, while the Indian frigate INS Satpura and corvette INS Kirch stayed for five days at Cam Ranh Bay in central Vietnam. The Australian ship participated in a naval exercise with a Vietnam counterpart.
Vietnamese police remove protesters against mass fish deaths. Vietnamese police on June 5 forcibly bused away several dozen demonstrators marching against the government’s response to massive fish deaths in central Vietnam that began in April. The removal occurred just eight days after U.S. president Barack Obama concluded his visit to Vietnam, during which he spoke about the importance of respect for human rights during an address to the Vietnamese people. Numerous protests have occurred across the country since the fish deaths began.
King Bhumibol undergoes heart surgery. King Bhumipol Adulyadej on June 7 underwent heart surgery after a medical team performing a scan of his heart discovered it was receiving an inadequate blood supply. Doctors successfully widened a narrowed artery and embedded a stent. The health of the 88-year-old king, who celebrated 70 years on the throne on June 7, has been closely watched through several scares in recent years and has contributed to political turmoil surrounding Thailand’s future.
China and Thailand agree to strengthen security ties. Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan on May 26 met with China’s Defense Minister and State Councilor Gen Chang Wanquan during the 10th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting in Laos. The two ministers agreed to improve joint efforts including military drills, education, technological development, and sharing best practices and experiences. China agreed to send officers to attend ASEAN’s disaster relief and military medicine exercise, which will be held in Thailand in September.
Government lifts travel ban on politicians, activists. Critics on May 28 praised the Thai government’s plan to lift travel bans for a select group of politicians and activists who were barred from international travel following the May 2014 coup. The government said the ban was lifted to reflect improved political conditions in the country. The ban will still apply to those facing criminal trials, such as former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Thailand tiger temple linked to wildlife trade. Thai police on June 4 charged 22, including three monks, with suspected wildlife trafficking in connection with a temple in Kanchanaburi Province popular with tourists. The temple, known as Wat Pa Luangta Maha Bua Yannasampanno, was shut down and 137 tigers were removed last week. Over 50 jars containing pickled stillborn tiger cubs were discovered in the temple. The deputy national police commissioner, Police General Chalermkiat Srivorakan, is overseeing the investigation into the temple’s alleged links with the international wildlife trade.
Government fast-tracks bill on Islamic law. The ruling United Malays National Organization on May 26 helped fast-track a bill proposed by the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party that, if passed, would pave the way for an Islamic penal code in northern Kelantan State. The move was met with opposition from two other parties in the ruling Barisan National coalition, the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress. Non-Muslim ministers have pledged to resign from the cabinet should the bill pass.
Malaysia, China to enhance security cooperation. Malaysia and China on May 24 agreed to enhance their cooperation in defense and security, after a meeting between the vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, Xu Qiliang, and Malaysia’s navy chief, Ahmad Kamarulzaman Ahmad Badaruddin. China said it is willing to deepen military exchanges with Malaysia. Prime Minister Najib Razak on May 25 told a visiting Chinese delegation that Malaysia and China should further explore cooperation on counterterrorism, according to a statement by the Prime Minister’s Office.
U.S., Malaysia hold air and sea exercises in annual CARAT. The annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises between the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, and nine partner countries in Southeast and South Asia kicked off its first phase in Malaysia on June 1. This year’s CARAT Malaysia took place on the ground in Sandakan in eastern Malaysia’s Sabah State and in the waters and airspace of the Sulu Sea. It featured an amphibious landing and coordinated gunnery drills. The U.S. contingent on June 6 moved on to the next phase of this year’s CARAT in the Philippines.
Immigration system sabotage raises security fears. Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi on May 23 publicized a massive security breach in Malaysia’s immigration system, which allowed some passengers to slip through Kuala Lumpur International Airport unchecked. Immigration director-general Sakib Kusmi said parts of the system were sabotaged back to 2010. The government announced on May 31 it will fire 15 officials for allegedly working with an outside criminal syndicate.
1MDB pays central bank fine, announces new three-member board of directors. State investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) on May 25 confirmed it had fully paid a fine imposed by the central bank for failing to comply with its rules. The Ministry of Finance on May 31 also revealed 1MDB’s new board of directors, chaired by Mohd Irwan Serigar Abdullah, the ministry’s secretary-general of treasury. The other two members are Norazman Ayob and Kamal Mohd Ali. Arul Kanda will remain as 1MDB’s president.
Singapore launches mobile app for countering violent extremism. The Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), a volunteer group focused on rehabilitating detained Jemaah Islamiyah members and their families, on May 31 launched a mobile app designed to prevent the spread of radical ideology. The app, which is available on both Apple and Android platforms, will give users the ability to speak with clerics, schedule visits to the RRG center, and review frequently asked questions regarding jihad, terrorism, and extremism.
Singapore and Thailand leaders meet, discuss strengthening bilateral ties. Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean on May 30 visited Thailand to discuss bilateral cooperation on counterterrorism, security, and cyber security. During his visit, Teo met with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, and Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda. Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said both sides welcomed greater defense cooperation through bilateral, regional, and multinational platforms.
Singapore begins neighborhood terrorist response drills. Singapore on May 28 launched Emergency Preparedness Day in the neighborhood of Chong Pang as part of SG Secure, a national movement intended to prepare the public against terrorist attacks. It will include multiple terrorist attack scenarios, which will be acted out by the Singapore Police Force and the Singapore Civil Defense Force. Civilian volunteers who have been trained in first aid and terrorist response will also participate. SG Secure intends to conduct exercises across all constituencies of Singapore within two years.
Four Bangladeshi workers found guilty of financing terrorism in Singapore. Four Bangladeshi guest workers on May 31 pleaded guilty to financing terrorism. The men are part of a group of eight workers that called themselves the Islamic State in Bangladesh, which reportedly planned to carry out attacks in Bangladesh to topple the government. All of the men were detained under the Internal Security Act and six were charged under the Terrorism (Suppression of Financing) Act, the first time the act was used in a prosecution. The remaining two have not yet been charged. The group raised $1,360 before their arrest.
South China Sea
Secretary Carter warns China against “Great Wall of self-isolation.” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter on June 4 warned Chinese defense officials that their actions in the South China Sea risked creating a “Great Wall of self-isolation” that would harm regional relations. Carter, speaking at the 15th annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, also underlined the need for a “principled security network” in the region. The head of the Chinese delegation, Admiral Sun Jianguo, countered that countries clinging to “Cold War mentalities” might be isolating themselves.
French defense minister pushes for EU navy patrols in South China Sea. French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on June 5 said he would push for European Union navies to coordinate joint patrols in the South China Sea. Le Drian told attendees at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that freedom of the seas was a “critical” economic need, and loss of navigational freedoms in the South China Sea might lead to similar problems in the Arctic Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea. According to the defense minister, France sent ships through the South China Sea three times in the first half of 2016 to support freedom of navigation.
China “ready to declare ADIZ” in South China Sea. Beijing is prepared to declare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea, according to a June 1 article in the South China Morning Post. The report cited sources close to the People’s Liberation Army as saying the establishment of the ADIZ, which would require prior notification and approval for all air traffic over the zone, would depend on “security conditions” in the South China Sea. Taiwanese and U.S. officials immediately denounced such a plan, with Secretary of State John Kerry on June 5 calling it a “provocative and destabilizing act.”
New Taiwanese president embraces South China Sea stance of predecessor. The government of Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, which was inaugurated on May 20, on May 31 declared that it would maintain Taiwan’s expansive claim over the South China Sea. Eleanor Wang of the Foreign Ministry confirmed the continuation of previous president Ma Ying-jeou’s maritime policies of claiming almost the entire South China Sea. Taiwan administers Taiping Island, the largest feature in the Spratly Islands, and has pursued an outspoken campaign to have the feature recognized as an island entitled to a full exclusive economic zone with a 200-nautical-mile radius.
Thailand “ready to join TPP.” Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak on May 31 said Thailand was prepared to join the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement as soon as it is open for new membership. Speaking before a gathering of business leaders in Tokyo, Somkid said the Thai government has set up a committee to prepare for Thai membership in the TPP, chaired by Commerce Minister Apiradi Tantraporn.
ASEAN defense ministers sign joint declaration at ADMM. Defense ministers from the 10 ASEAN countries on May 25 signed a joint declaration at the conclusion of the 10th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) in Vientiane, reaffirming ASEAN centrality as the key driver of strategic cooperation in the region. This year’s ADMM largely revolved around the growing threats of terrorism in Southeast Asia and tensions in the South China Sea. The ministers agreed to strengthen information and intelligence-sharing platforms among ASEAN countries, and set up a new working group under ADMM on cyber security issues.
Prime Minister presses for bilateral talks on South China Sea disputes. Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith on May 28 said in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review that he would ask South China Sea claimants to hold dialogues among themselves to resolve the disputes. He said that as this year’s ASEAN chair, Laos would press for countries to cease activities that could increase tensions in the region. He said ASEAN countries will carefully consider whether to issue a joint declaration in response to the upcoming Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling.
Bus explosion kills eight Vietnamese nationals. A bus explosion on June 2 killed eight Vietnamese passengers and seriously injured others in Khammuan Province in eastern Laos. The cause of the accident is still unknown but government officials found timber and boxes of fireworks in the bus’s baggage compartment. Authorities believe that smugglers may have been using the bus to illegally transport timber from Laos to Vietnam. Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith banned the export of timber on May 13.
Laos deploys patrols after string of road shootings. Officials sent out special forces units throughout the country to deter unrest and crime after a series of attacks by militants earlier in the year, according to a May 23 report on Radio Free Asia. The government has ramped up police patrols in the Kasy district in northern Vientiane Province, the site of recent attacks on public buses. It will continue its increased security presence in major cities when it hosts the East Asia Summit in September.
Kem Sokha evades arrest as parliament votes to ignore immunity. Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) acting president Kem Sokha on May 26 evaded arrest after failing to appear in court over an ongoing sex scandal. A team of armed police entered the CNRP headquarters in a bid to find Sokha but left after being asked to show a warrant. Sokha was accused of an extramarital affair after audio recordings allegedly between him and a mistress were released in February. Sokha’s representatives asserted his constitutional immunity as a sitting legislator, but the ruling Cambodian People’s Party on May 30 voted unanimously to ignore his immunity.
Black Monday protests enter fifth week. The “Black Monday” antigovernment demonstrations in Phnom Penh that began on May 9 continued for a fifth week, with seven protesters arrested in front of Prey Sar prison. The protests began after the arrest of four human-rights activists and an election official over charges deemed politically motivated. The government had accused those five and a United Nations official of bribery in connection with acting opposition leader Kem Sokha’s ongoing sex scandal.
Cambodia ranked third worldwide for slavery prevalence. Cambodia ranked third-highest in the world for prevalence of modern slavery, according to the Walk Free Foundation’s Global Slavery Index 2016 released on May 31. The report estimates that over 250,000 Cambodians are subjected to some form of slavery, including forced labor and marriages. One of the report’s authors, Katherine Bryant, attributed this high prevalence primarily to limited economic opportunity for many Cambodians. Cambodia ranked behind only North Korea and Uzbekistan.
Brunei to continue peacekeeping operations in the Philippines. The commander of Brunei’s armed forces on May 31 said that Brunei will maintain its peacekeeping operations on the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao, where a separatist conflict has simmered for decades. He also suggested that Brunei might send additional permanent representatives to the independent body overseeing the decommissioning of weaponry and soldiers belonging to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has been negotiating a peace deal with the government since 2011. Brunei currently sends one envoy to the oversight body.
Timor-Leste set to join ASEAN in 2017. Rahmat Pramono, the Indonesian ambassador to ASEAN, on May 27 said that Timor-Leste will become a member of ASEAN in 2017. Timor-Leste submitted its membership application in 2011, when Indonesia was the chair of ASEAN. ASEAN member states are conducting a feasibility study to evaluate Timor-Leste’s qualifications for entry under three “pillars”—politics and security, economics, and socio-culture. The feasibility study is expected to be completed by the end of 2016.
Timor-Leste invited to join Pacific Island Development Forum. Francois Martel, the secretary general of the Pacific Island Development Forum (PIDF), on May 26 invited Timor-Leste to join the PIDF as a full member. The PIDF is a forum for Pacific Island countries to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Timor-Leste has participated in all PIDF summits since the establishment of the forum in 2013.
TPP’s Transformative Digital Trade Rules. The American Enterprise Institute on June 10 will hold a conversation on whether the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s provisions for regulating digital trade will become the global standard, and whether this template will impact other U.S. trade agreements. Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Robert Holleyman will speak. The event will take place from 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.,12th floor, 1150 17th Street, NW. Click here to RSVP.
The Future of Trade and Economic Integration in the Asia Pacific. The Asia Society Policy Institute on June 15 will host a breakfast discussion on developments in regional trade, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The panel will include former senior trade officials from South Korea, Australia, Japan, and Indonesia. The event will take place from 8:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. at the Mayflower Hotel, 1127 Connecticut Ave. NW. To RSVP, please email AsiaDC@asiasociety.org.
The South China Sea Arbitration: Anticipating the Next Moves and Countermoves. CSIS on June 20 will host a discussion on the implications of the expected ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on the Philippines’ case against China in the South China Sea dispute. Panelists include Ernest Z. Bower, nonresident senior adviser and chair of the CSIS Southeast Asia Program advisory board; Dr. Amy Searight, senior adviser and director, CSIS Southeast Asia Program; and Andrew Shearer, senior adviser on Asia-Pacific security, CSIS. The event will take place from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Click here to RSVP.