Southeast Asia from Scott Circle: Washington Needs a Plan for Lifting Its Weapons Sales Ban on Vietnam

Volume V | Issue 16 | August 7, 2014

The warming ties between Washington and Hanoi in recent years have prompted the questions whether and when the United States should remove its ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam. The two countries have developed what could be called a common strategic foundation, and relations between the two militaries have become increasingly cooperative in that context. But the United States maintains the ban due to concerns about the human rights situation in Vietnam, and in Hanoi some members of the ruling Communist Party Politburo worry about provoking China by enhancing military ties with the United States. Despite each country’s concerns, however, their interests make it clear that it is time to take another look at the issue.

Vietnamese defense officials would like the ban relaxed and eventually lifted. In recent years they have raised the issue in high-level meetings with their U.S. counterparts. Former secretary of defense Leon Panetta was reportedly presented with a “wish list” by the Vietnamese during his historic visit to the country in 2012, when he was invited to tour Cam Ranh Bay, a major U.S. naval and air base during the Vietnam War. From the Vietnamese perspective, bilateral defense ties cannot be considered fully normalized as long as the ban remains in place. But Washington has long reiterated that removal of the ban cannot happen until Hanoi significantly improves its human rights record.

The debate has shifted over the past year, partly as a result of upgraded overall ties through the establishment of the U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership in July 2013 and partly due to progress on the human rights front in Vietnam.

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Biweekly Update

  • Jokowi launches online survey to select cabinet
  • Thai junta announces legislative appointments
  • Aquino delivers fifth State of the Nation Address

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Looking Ahead

  • Performance of Filipino opera
  • Panel discussion on Indonesia’s election
  • Interactive simulation on the South China Sea

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Washington Needs a Plan for Lifting Its Weapons Sales Ban on Vietnam

By Murray Hiebert, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director (@MurrayHiebert1), and Phuong Nguyen (@PNguyen_DC), Research Associate, Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS

The warming ties between Washington and Hanoi in recent years have prompted the questions whether and when the United States should remove its ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam. The two countries have developed what could be called a common strategic foundation, and relations between the two militaries have become increasingly cooperative in that context. But the United States maintains the ban due to concerns about the human rights situation in Vietnam, and in Hanoi some members of the ruling Communist Party Politburo worry about provoking China by enhancing military ties with the United States. Despite each country’s concerns, however, their interests make it clear that it is time to take another look at the issue.

Vietnamese defense officials would like the ban relaxed and eventually lifted. In recent years they have raised the issue in high-level meetings with their U.S. counterparts. Former secretary of defense Leon Panetta was reportedly presented with a “wish list” by the Vietnamese during his historic visit to the country in 2012, when he was invited to tour Cam Ranh Bay, a major U.S. naval and air base during the Vietnam War. From the Vietnamese perspective, bilateral defense ties cannot be considered fully normalized as long as the ban remains in place. But Washington has long reiterated that removal of the ban cannot happen until Hanoi significantly improves its human rights record.

The debate has shifted over the past year, partly as a result of upgraded overall ties through the establishment of the U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership in July 2013 and partly due to progress on the human rights front in Vietnam.

The issue gained a higher profile in June, when Ted Osius, a veteran diplomat and nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that continuing human rights improvements on Hanoi’s part “may mean it's time to begin exploring the possibility of lifting the ban.” Lifting the ban would carry significant implications for both the U.S.-Vietnam defense and bilateral relationship and the U.S. strategic position in the region.

In fact, next year could offer a good target for relaxing the anachronistic ban as the two countries celebrate the 20th anniversary of the normalization of relations.

Vietnam is an increasingly important U.S. partner in the region, yet the relationship cannot reach its full potential unless it is built on mutual trust. For Vietnamese officials, retaining the ban while military-to-military ties are expanding implies a lack of trust from the U.S. side and goes against the spirit of the comprehensive partnership. In Hanoi’s view, its military has been a constructive actor for regional peace and stability since the early 1990s—after Vietnam withdrew its troops from Cambodia—and has not perpetrated human rights violations like some of its counterparts in the region that are subject to the same ban.

Against the backdrop of growing Chinese assertiveness and rising maritime tensions in the South China Sea, the U.S. and Vietnamese governments have been working more closely to help Vietnam bolster its maritime domain awareness and patrol capabilities. The Vietnamese government is acutely aware of the need to upgrade its military capability by cooperating closely with the United States and other able foreign partners. And for the United States, this is in line with its broader policy of strengthening the defense posture of Southeast Asian states and maintaining peace, stability, and the freedom of navigation in the region.

The two countries have also found common interests in strengthening ASEAN and its defense institutions, especially the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus—which includes the defense ministers of the ten ASEAN states and their eight major dialogue partners—and the multilateral exercises under its aegis.

Washington has long been unenthusiastic about lifting the weapons sales ban because officials thought Vietnam wanted this merely as a “good housekeeping seal of approval” and was not really interested in buying military equipment from the United States. In recent months, though, Hanoi has indicated it is interested, for starters, in acquiring U.S.-made radar and surveillance equipment. It announced in May it would participate in the U.S.-backed Proliferation Security Initiative, a decision that potentially opens the door for the two countries to conduct joint maritime surveillance in the future.

The Vietnam Coast Guard is due to receive five to six new patrol vessels each year from the United States for the next several years. Vietnam will possibly receive a number of used U.S. Coast Guard cutters in addition to an $18 million assistance package announced by Secretary of State John Kerry when he visited Vietnam in late 2013. U.S. ally Japan is also supporting the strengthening of Vietnamese maritime security and domain awareness, and announced last week it will provide Vietnam with six ships.

In the long run, a successful defense partnership with Vietnam’s coast guard will not only affirm the U.S. security role on the eastern flank of the South China Sea—where a recent two-month-long standoff between China and Vietnam took place after Beijing deployed a massive oil rig in disputed waters—but will also go a long way toward proving that the United States remains the security partner of choice for non-treaty ally countries in the Asia Pacific.

Nonetheless, many in the U.S. government, particularly in Congress, are concerned that by lifting the arms sales ban, Washington risks losing its leverage with Hanoi on human rights. Some say that doing so would require tremendous political capital on the part of the Barack Obama administration, which has also been trying to garner support in Congress for Vietnam’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement currently being negotiated.

Yet, as Osius pointed out, the United States now has an unprecedented opportunity to press Vietnam for significant human rights improvements, especially because Vietnamese leaders are determined, perhaps more so than at any time in the past 15 years, to steer their country toward another round of economic reforms and greater strategic autonomy vis-à-vis China, on whom Vietnam has long depended ideologically and economically.

It is critical that U.S. officials start by providing Vietnam with a clear plan that explicitly defines the criteria that Washington, and especially Congress, expect Hanoi to meet in the near to medium term before the United States will relax, and eventually remove, the ban against Vietnam.

Those criteria should include, first and foremost, measurable actions by Vietnamese authorities to address concerns in the areas of freedom of expression and the treatment of bloggers, peaceful activists, and dissidents; freedom of religion; ethnic minority rights; and labor rights.
In addition, Vietnam should honor its commitment to deepen bilateral defense cooperation with the United States, particularly in the areas of maritime security, search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and peacekeeping, as laid out in the two countries’ 2011 Memorandum of Understanding on Advancing Bilateral Defense Cooperation.

While Hanoi recognizes the value and added leverage that working more closely with Washington offers, U.S. officials and diplomats often still receive a guarded response from their Vietnamese counterparts when they suggest new initiatives that would deepen bilateral security cooperation. This is due to Hanoi’s desire to remain independent in its foreign policy, mainly as a result of the country’s long history of entanglement in great power competition. The United States should respect Vietnam’s concerns in this area, but should point out that closer cooperation with Washington need not tie Hanoi’s hands in engaging other security partners.

The United States should demand that Vietnam be clear and unambiguous in its commitment to work together more closely. For instance, the United States should spell out that in return for lifting the ban on lethal weapons sales and/or offering greater technical support, it expects Vietnam to allow U.S. military ships to make more frequent stops and visits, including at the strategic deep-sea port at Cam Ranh Bay, and to commit to expanding the scope of bilateral military exchanges during the annual U.S.-Vietnam naval engagement activity.

Maintaining the U.S. ban on lethal weapons sales for too long could limit the depth of bilateral U.S.-Vietnam security cooperation, leaving Vietnam exposed and the United States at a disadvantage compared to others in areas such as military engineering and technology transfer with an increasingly important country in the region.

U.S. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will visit Vietnam in mid-August, followed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel most likely in November. Their visits will provide an ideal opportunity for U.S. officials to start talking with their Vietnamese counterparts about what elements Washington would like to see in a roadmap before taking steps to lift the lethal weapons ban on Vietnam.

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Biweekly Update


Jokowi launches online survey to select cabinet. President-elect Joko “Jokowi” Widodo published an online poll titled “People’s Choice for an Alternative Cabinet” on July 24 to solicit public opinion on the selection of his cabinet. The survey puts forth three names for each post in the 34-member cabinet, including the names of intellectuals, activists, journalists, and politicians, and gives respondents the option to write in a name. Analysts regard the move as partly political—an attempt to reinforce Jokowi’s man-of-the-people credentials—and partly pragmatic—giving him additional leverage in attempting to build a cabinet without resorting to political horse trading.

Jokowi extends hand to Prabowo’s coalition partners. President-elect Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on July 29 reached out to defeated rival Prabowo Subianto’s coalition partners, asking them to join his government. Jokowi currently leads a coalition with just 37 percent of the seats in the parliament, and faces a sharply divided legislature if he cannot win the support of some of the larger parties allied with Prabowo. Jokowi’s plea comes as several prominent Prabowo supporters, including the United Development Party’s Hamzah Haz and the Democratic Party’s Hayono Isman, have indicated they are jumping ship to join Jokowi’s team.

Government, Freeport sign deal, ending months-long stalemate. Outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration signed a deal with U.S.-based mining giant Freeport McMoRan on July 25, ending a six-month stalemate. The deal will allow Freeport to resume copper-concentrate exports based on new regulations that include higher royalties. The company is expected to begin building an expensive smelting facility to eventually meet Indonesia’s ban on the export of unprocessed ore and low-quality concentrates. Under the agreement, Freeport’s license will expire in 2021, and president-elect Joko Widodo, who was not consulted ahead of the deal, will decide whether to extend it.

Police clash with protestors at closed red-light district. Security officials fired tear gas at hundreds of protestors in Surabaya assembled at Southeast Asia’s largest red-light district, popularly called “Dolly,” on July 27, the last day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The demonstrators are refusing to accept the government’s June 18 closure of the district. They clashed with police after setting fire to a sign installed by the local administration that read, “This area is free from brothels and prostitution.” Several hard-line Muslim groups have threatened violence should the district continue to operate beyond Ramadan.

Government failures to protect religious freedom cited in State Department report. The U.S. State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report, released on July 28, lists Indonesia under the “Discrimination, Impunity and Displacement of Religious Minorities” section. It cites the Indonesian government’s failure to adequately prosecute instances of violence, abuse, and discrimination, especially against minority Shi‘a and Ahmadi Muslim communities. The report further notes cases of officially encouraged conversion, the denial of identity cards to minority groups, and refusal to register interreligious marriages.


Junta announces legislative appointments; Prayuth expected to serve as prime minister. The Thai junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) on August 1 announced the appointment of 200 lawmakers to the new National Legislative Assembly, which has replaced Thailand’s bicameral parliament. The appointees include former senators, businessmen, and 105 current or former military officers. Meanwhile, junta chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha is expected to serve as prime minister in a new cabinet while maintaining his leadership of the NCPO, according to a source quoted in the July 9 Bangkok Post.

Finance Ministry slashes growth target to 2 percent. Thailand’s Finance Ministry on July 30 released a new economic forecast for 2014, revising the country’s growth estimate down to 2 percent from 2.6 percent following news that the economy unexpectedly contracted in the first quarter. Thailand’s auto industry was hit hardest, with a 40 percent drop in auto sales compared to 2013. Kritsada Jinavijarana, director general of the ministry's Fiscal Policy Office, said more public spending and better promotion of exports and tourism should help Thailand’s economy exceed 2 percent growth.

Authorities move political prisoners to worse prisons. The Department of Corrections announced on July 28 that 22 red-shirt prisoners arrested during the violent Bangkok protests in 2010 were being transferred from Laksi Prison, a temporary facility set up under former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra to house political prisoners, to more crowded prisons with harsher restrictions. According to authorities, the prisoners were being transferred because they were not in fact political prisoners, but ordinary criminals.

Cambodian, Thai delegations discuss Preah Vihear temple dispute. Representatives from Thailand’s military government met with Cambodian defense minister Gen. Tea Banh and a delegation of senior military officials in Thailand on July 28 to discuss settling the ongoing territorial dispute over land near the Preah Vihear temple. The meeting also focused on strengthening ties between the two countries. The International Court of Justice in November ruled that Cambodia has sovereignty over the temple, but asked the two countries to settle their disagreement over a 1.8-square-mile strip of land near the complex.

Authorities announce 10-year travel ban for overstaying visa. Thailand’s Immigration Bureau on July 29 released new regulations that include a 10-year travel ban for foreigners caught overstaying their visas. Current regulations carry a penalty of $620 and up to two years in prison. Authorities said the new regulations are intended to keep illegal migrant workers from taking advantage of lax tourist visa restrictions to enter the country and stay for a prolonged period. The new guidelines will go into effect on August 25.


Aquino delivers fifth State of the Nation Address. President Benigno Aquino on July 28 gave his second-to-last State of the Nation Address, touting his administration’s accomplishments amid recent controversies. The president’s speech included multiple references to the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), which the Supreme Court on July 1 ruled partially unconstitutional. The ruling against the DAP—a special fund earmarked for rapid disbursement by the executive for infrastructure and other projects—has spawned two impeachment complaints against Aquino. Aquino also lauded economic growth under his administration and his successful negotiation of an initial peace agreement with Moro separatists.

Philippine population reaches 100 million. The population of the Philippines officially reached 100 million on July 26, according to a government announcement. The Philippines has the second-highest fertility rate in Asia, with 3.15 births for every woman of childbearing age, and the 12th largest population in the world. The Philippine Congress passed the Reproductive Health Act in 2012, which guarantees universal access to contraception and other family planning resources. The government hopes the law, combined with economic growth, will lower the country’s population growth in the coming decades.

Abu Sayyaf attacks Idul Fitri travelers, killing at least 16. About 40–50 members of the Abu Sayyaf extremist group attacked a convoy of civilians in the southern province of Sulu on July 28, killing at least 16, including several children. The group was traveling to an Idul Fitri celebration marking the end of the Muslim fasting month. The motive for the attack remains unclear, but a senior military official said it seemed to be part of an ongoing clan feud. At least four of the dead were members of a civilian security force that has been fighting Abu Sayyaf.

Communist rebels release captured soldiers. The New People’s Army, which is the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, on July 29 released four police officers who had been abducted from a police station in Southern Mindanao on July 10. Their safe release was facilitated by a cease-fire organized by the National Democratic Front, another Communist-affiliated political organization, in order to pave the way for peace talks between the rebels and the government. All four officers were in good condition.

Court finds 12 Chinese fishermen guilty of illegal fishing. A Philippine court on August 5 found 12 Chinese fishermen guilty of poaching in Philippine waters at Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea in April 2013. The court sentenced the men to between 6 and 12 years in prison. Their vessel ran aground on the protected reef, at which point it was found to be carrying pangolins, an endangered species heavily trafficked in Southeast Asia. Beijing has not publicly commented on the fishermen’s sentencing.


Information, health ministers resign. President Thein Sein on August 1 named Ye Htut Myanmar’s new information minister and Than Aung its new minister of health. Both were previously deputy ministers, and Ye Htut also served as presidential spokesperson. They replaced former information minister Aung Kyi and former health minister Pe Thet Khin, who state media reported had retired “of their own volition”—a term that generally indicates a dismissal from government. Myanmar greatly relaxed press restrictions under Aung Kyi, but has faced criticism for recent crackdowns on journalists. Pe Thet Khin, meanwhile, oversaw the banishment of Médicins Sans Frontières from western Myanmar’s Rakhine State in February, and the Health Ministry during his tenure was frequently criticized for poor delivery of services.

Myanmar workers flock to Thailand under new registration scheme. Thailand’s Ministry of Labor said on July 30 that nearly 400,000 migrant workers, mostly from Myanmar and Cambodia, have registered under a new scheme initiated by the junta in Bangkok. Unregistered migrant workers in Thailand face deportation, fines, and jail sentences if they did not sign up for the new temporary worker program by the end of July. The Thai economy relies heavily on migrant workers, the majority of whom are from Myanmar. But hundreds of thousands of migrants fled for fear of a crackdown after the military took control on May 22.

Four journalists face charges under Emergency Provisions Act. Proceedings against four reporters from Myanmar’s Bi Mon Te Nay journal opened in a southern Yangon court on July 22. The four have been charged with publishing false information and threatening state security in a July 7 article that incorrectly claimed that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic party leaders planned to form an interim government. The journalists face up to 14 years in prison under the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act.

State Department report cites concern over religious freedom in Myanmar. The U.S. State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report, released July 28, renewed Myanmar’s designation as a “Country of Particular Concern” regarding religious freedom—a status it has held since 1999. The report highlighted state-sanctioned discrimination toward the country’s Muslim and Christian populations, and especially the Rohingya in western Myanmar. The State Department singled out the Buddhist, ultra-nationalist 969 movement as an instigator of violence.


Police, investigators access Malaysian Airlines crash site as Najib arrives in Netherlands. Australian and Dutch police finally secured access to the crash site of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 for Malaysian and international investigators on July 31, the same day that Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak arrived in the Netherlands for meetings with Dutch officials. The joint police detachment had attempted to reach the site on July 28 and 29, but was forced to turn back by ongoing fighting between Ukrainian government and separatist forces. Separatists shot down MH17 on July 17, killing all 298 passengers and crew, including 189 Dutch and 29 Malaysian citizens and up to 39 Australian residents.

Malaysian Airlines might be privatized to help with restructuring. The government fund that owns a majority stake in Malaysian Airlines is considering taking the company private as part of efforts to restructure and rebrand the troubled airline, according to a July 20 Wall Street Journal report. The loss of flights 370 and 17 in four months has caused Malaysian Airlines stock to tumble 35 percent in 2014, lowering the company’s value to just over $1 billion. The airline was already in trouble before the two tragedies after posting three consecutive years of losses.

Opposition coalition parties fight over key state leadership position. Malaysia’s three-party opposition coalition is squabbling over replacing the chief minister of Selangor, Malaysia’s richest state, after key members broke ranks with party leaders on July 27 and refused to support the incumbent minister’s ouster. The Democratic Action and People’s Justice (PKR) parties want to replace current chief minister Abdul Khalid Ibrahim with Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the wife of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim—a move that the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party opposes. Both Khalid and Wan Azizah are members of PKR.


Hanoi Party Committee secretary visits the United States. Politburo member and Hanoi Party Committee secretary Pham Quang Nghi visited Washington on July 21 for meetings with several senators and members of President Barack Obama’s cabinet. Nghi hailed the U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership and asked that the United State recognize Vietnam’s status as a market economy. Because of Vietnam’s current non-market economy status, it is easier for foreign governments to bring anti-dumping cases against the country’s exporters. Nghi then traveled to New York from July 23 to July 28 for discussions with UN deputy secretary-general Jan Eliasson on UN agencies’ work in Vietnam and recent developments in the South China Sea.

Vietnam kicks off metro station construction in southern hub. The Urban Railway Management Board of Ho Chi Minh City on July 28 commenced the construction of Vietnam’s first aboveground metro station in Thu Duc district. The station, which will be completed in December 2016, is part of a 12-mile metro line project. Japanese contractor Sumitomo and Vietnam’s Traffic Works Construction Corporation 6 began building the aboveground portion of the metro line in August 2012.

Intel to shift majority of chip production to Vietnam by 2015. General director of Intel Products Vietnam Sherry Boger said on July 29 that Intel plans to produce 80 percent of its chipsets in Vietnam by July 2015. Boger made the announcement at a presentation of Intel’s fourth-generation central processing unit (CPU), made at a factory in Ho Chi Minh City’s Saigon Hi-Tech Park. The company is increasing imports of equipment and sending Vietnamese engineers overseas for training in an effort to ramp up its CPU production in Vietnam.

State Department report, UN official comment on Vietnam’s religious freedom. The U.S. State Department, in its annual International Religious Freedom Report released on July 28, criticized instances of religious oppression in Vietnam in 2013 but noted that the government has continued to ease restrictions placed on most religious groups. UN special rapporteur Heiner Bielefeldt said on July 31, after a trip to Vietnam, that he found serious violations of religious freedom. He said security agents closely monitored his actions and intimidated the people he wanted to meet.

Communist Party members call for democracy, action against China. Sixty-one influential members of the Communist Party of Vietnam sent an open letter to the party’s Central Committee on July 28 calling for democratic reforms and firm action to protect Vietnam’s sovereignty in the South China Sea. The letter criticized government corruption, lack of transparency, and mistakes in handling the economy. Some signatories also expressed disappointment at the party’s dependence on China and urged Hanoi to take Beijing to an international court.

South China Sea

Philippines to propose South China Sea moratorium during ASEAN Regional Forum. The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said on August 1 that the country will propose a “triple action plan” on the South China Sea during the August 5–11 ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and ASEAN Regional Forum in Myanmar. The plan includes a moratorium on activities that could escalate tensions, the full implementation of the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration of Conduct on Parties in the South China Sea and conclusion of a code of conduct, and the use of arbitration to resolve disputes. China’s Foreign Ministry has dismissed the proposal, while the U.S. State Department has said it will support a moratorium.

European Union supports Philippines’ approach to maritime disputes. EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton on July 30 addressed maritime security issues during a meeting with Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario in Manila. Ashton reiterated the European Union’s call for peaceful solutions to maritime disputes in the South China Sea in accordance with international law, in particular the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and voiced support for the Philippines’ approach. EU ministers shared concerns over developments in the South China Sea with their Southeast Asian counterparts during the July 23 ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting in Brussels.

China holds navy drills in East and South China seas. China on July 29 launched a five-day military drill in the East China Sea, which overlapped with live-fire exercises that wrapped up on August 1 in the South China Sea near the Gulf of Tonkin and the Bohai Strait. The Chinese navy’s South Sea Fleet on July 28 reported that it had conducted a mine clearance drill in formation in the South China Sea for the first time.

China boosting number of offshore rigs, coast guard ships. The state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation ordered a 30,000-ton deep-water drilling rig in 2013 and plans to purchase two more for operations in the South China Sea, according to an August 1 Wall Street Journal article. The three rigs will be as large as the one China deployed on May 2 in waters off the Paracel Islands, sparking a two-month standoff with Vietnam. China’s coast guard, meanwhile, has placed orders for 40 ships in addition to the more than 100 it currently operates. It will receive the first 15 by the end of 2014.


Opposition lawmakers take seats in parliament. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy and 54 other members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) took their oaths of office at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh on August 4, officially filling their seats in the parliament and ending a nearly yearlong boycott. Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen reached a deal on July 22 to end the political standoff that started when the opposition contested the results of the July 2013 national elections in which the ruling party won 68 of the 123 parliamentary seats. . As part of that deal, CNRP lawmakers will take up the deputy speaker position and lead several committees in the legislature.

Activist chosen as final member of election committee. Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy on July 28 selected human rights activist Pung Chhiv Kek as the ninth member of the newly reformed National Election Committee. Kek founded the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. She will serve as the officially neutral member of the new committee, whose other members will be evenly split between the ruling and opposition parties.

Khmer Rouge tribunal to tackle charges against Khieu Samphan, Noun Chea. The joint UN-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia on August 7 sentenced former Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan, 83, and Nuon Chea, 88, to life in prison for crimes against humanity after a nearly three-year trial. The verdict came a week after the start of a second trial against the two men, this time for genocide. One of their codefendants in their first trial, Ieng Sary, died before those proceedings could conclude, and a second codefendant, Ieng Thirith, was deemed unfit to appear in court. Observers are increasingly concerned that Samphan and Chea will not survive this new trial.

Cambodian armed forces kill teenager in land dispute. A Cambodian soldier on July 27 shot and killed a 19-year-old farmer in Preah Vihear province amid a dispute over land. The teenager was reportedly planting soybeans along with fellow villagers when soldiers began cutting down a tree on a neighbor’s plot of land, which the soldiers said belonged to their military superior. The soldier shot the 19-year-old when he tried to intervene. Land disputes are increasingly common in Cambodia, where 70 percent of all arable land has been leased to private investors since 2008, according to Global Witness.

Recruitment agency employees face charges of human trafficking. Two Taiwanese nationals employed by a recruitment company in Cambodia appeared in the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on July 28 to face charges of human trafficking. The two promised to find Cambodian victims work in nearby Malaysia but instead sent them to South Africa, where they were forced to work 24 hours a day without pay, according to a plaintiff. The duo had already been convicted in April for selling Cambodians as forced labor and may face an additional 7 to 15 years in prison for trafficking.


Singapore Airlines profit falls for third consecutive quarter. Singapore Airlines announced on July 30 that its net profits fell 71 percent in the first quarter of 2014, marking the third consecutive quarter of losses in a trend that has been attributed to stiff regional and global competition. Aggressive competition from regional discount airlines, such as Malaysia’s AirAsia, and global airlines, such as Emirates and Qatar Airways, has led to increased capacity and lower prices on key routes.

Singapore fights haze by imposing heftier fines on overseas polluters. Singaporean lawmakers on August 5 passed a law to impose stiff fines of up to $1.6 million on domestic and foreign companies that cause unhealthy levels of trans-boundary smog, according to a July 30 Bloomberg report. Indonesia is the source of most of the smog that affects Singapore, and incoming Indonesian president Joko Widodo has voiced support for the plan as long as his nation’s sovereignty is respected. Indonesia has not ratified ASEAN’s 2002 smog treaty, which requires members to take action against forest fires and to cooperate with neighbors. Fire is often used to clear land for palm oil plantations in Indonesia.

Singaporean, U.S. navies hold annual joint exercises. The Singaporean and the U.S. navies began their 20th annual joint naval exercises in the South China Sea on July 29. The 11-day exercises involve 1,400 personnel, nine ships, two submarines, five naval helicopters, and eight aircraft, and cover surface gunnery, search and rescue operations, and maritime interdiction. They are being held as disputes over maritime boundaries in the South China Sea continue to raise tensions in the region.

Singapore to become founding member of China’s new infrastructure bank. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean announced on July 28 during a visit to Beijing that Singapore will become a founding member of China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). China will be the main shareholder in the AIIB, with media reports suggesting the bank will start with $50 billion in funding. The bank is expected to expand China’s influence in Asia and will seek to compete with the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, where China has less influence compared to that of the United States and Japan.

Trans-Pacific Partnership

U.S. negotiators see progress after Japan holds agriculture market talks with other TPP members. Acting deputy U.S. trade representative Wendy Cutler on July 23 said that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks have made progress thanks to Japan’s agricultural market access talks with other TPP members. Bilateral TPP discussions between U.S. and Japanese leaders in April allowed Japan to begin agricultural market access talks with other TPP members for the first time. The stalemate with Japan over agricultural issues had stymied progress in other areas of TPP negotiations.

U.S. lawmakers urge President Obama to push Japan to improve market access offer. One-hundred forty Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives sent a joint letter to President Barack Obama on July 30 urging him to push for an improved market access offer from Japan as part of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. Lawmakers see Japan’s refusal to eliminate tariffs completely, especially on agricultural goods, as a breach of commitments Tokyo had made when it joined the TPP talks. The lawmakers raised this as another potential barrier to getting Congressional approval for a final deal.


Laos signs anti-crime declaration with Vietnam, Cambodia. Ministers of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam signed an anti-crime joint statement at a July 29 conference in Dalat, central Vietnam. The joint statement emphasized the three countries’ cooperation in combating transnational crime, cyber-attacks, terrorism, and drug and human trafficking. The three ministers also agreed to enhance intelligence exchanges and ensure security along their common borders, especially in the Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam Development Triangle Area.

Lao president meets Chinese counterpart, pledges to boost bilateral ties. Lao president Choummaly Sayasone met with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in Beijing on July 28 for discussions on the two countries’ all-around strategic partnership. Xi lauded the mutual trust, assistance, and reciprocity between the two ruling Communist parties despite changes in the international and regional environments. The two leaders signed seven agreements that will allow Laos to receive Chinese loans for power grid construction, hydropower projects, and cybercrime prevention.


Brunei invited to join group overseeing the peace agreement in the southern Philippines. The Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on July 24 asked Brunei to join an international team to oversee the disarmament and reintegration of MILF fighters in the southern Philippines. Norway and Turkey were also asked to join. The initial invitation was discussed during Royal Brunei Armed Forces chief Tawih Abdullah’s July 10 visit to MILF headquarters in Maguindanao province. The three outside countries will help implement the peace agreement agreed to between Manila and the MILF.

Mekong River

South Korea agrees to boost cooperation with Mekong Basin nations. South Korean officials hosted ministers from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam for the July 29 Mekong–Republic of Korea Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Seoul and agreed to boost cooperation in the Mekong Basin. The officials agreed to a three-year action plan covering infrastructure, green growth, and information and communications technology cooperation. Seoul will also increase official development assistance and establish a research center in the area to help the Mekong countries learn about South Korean traffic policy.

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Looking Ahead

Performance of Filipino opera. The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater will host two performances, on August 8 and 9, of the Filipino opera “Noli Me Tangere.” The show, which translates to “Touch Me Not,” is set in the Philippines during Spanish colonial rule and will be performed in Tagalog with English subtitles. The production recently had successful runs in Chicago and New York. Tickets can be purchased from the Kennedy Center Box Office or by phone, (202) 247-0117.

Panel discussion on Indonesia’s election. The U.S.-Indonesia Society will host a panel discussion August 12 on Indonesia’s recent presidential election. Stanford University’s Donald Emmerson, Ohio State University’s William Liddle, and Cornell University’s Thomas Pepinsky will discuss the outcome and significance of the July 22 polls and the decisions and challenges facing president-elect Joko Widodo. The event will take place from 2:30 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. at the Cosmos Club, 2121 Massachusetts Ave., NW. To RSVP, click here.

Interactive simulation on the South China Sea. The International Peace and Security Institute will host an interactive simulation on August 12 exploring negotiations during a potential crisis in the South China Sea. The event will take place from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ Bernstein-Offit Building, Room 500, 1717 Massachusetts Ave., NW. To RSVP, click here.

Discussion on Taiwan’s maritime security. The Heritage Foundation will host a panel discussion August 13 on Taiwan’s maritime security. The Naval War College’s Bernard Cole, Heritage’s Dean Cheng, and RAND’s Cortez Cooper will analyze how Taiwan’s maritime security affects disputes in the East China and South China seas and U.S. naval strategy in the wider Asia Pacific. The discussion will take place from 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. at the Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Ave., NE. For more information and to RSVP, click here.

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Murray Hiebert
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program

Phuong Nguyen