An Asian situation

It is eyes on Asia and eyes on those who are thinking about Asia

On Sunday 4 September, China will host its first G20 summit of leading nations (and only the second to be held in Asia) and the spotlight will fall across the region.

President Xi Jinping will want to make a good show of it. The worries over China’s volatile markets that sent jitters across the world earlier in the year remain. The fears over slowing growth in the world’s second-biggest economy have not gone away.

The start of next week will also see legislative elections in Hong Kong amid bubbling unease in the special administrative region over Beijing’s influence and oversight.

There will be lots of Asian leaders at the G20 summit from South Korea’s female president Park Geun-hye to Indonesia’s charismatic Joki Widodo. Someone who has been feeling the pressure is Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, whose latest economic stimuli are failing to impress the markets.

China has also invited the Thai and Singaporean prime ministers and Bounnhang Vorachith, the Laotian president, who is the current head of the Association of South East Asian Nations.

Outgoing US president Barack Obama will be saying his farewells at his last G20 get-together. During his tenure he made much of what he called his “pivot to Asia”. Will this ‘pivot’ survive after the November presidential election in the United States?

If she wins, will Obama’s Democrat colleague Hillary Clinton row back from this position, maintain the policy or enhance it? If Republican challenger Donald Trump takes the White House, how will or should Asian countries react?

When it comes to hardline leaders – and going by much of his recent rhetoric around illegal immigrants, many Americans expect Mr Trump to be exactly that sort of commander-in-chief – the new president of the Philippines appears to be heading up the Asian contenders at the moment.

Rodrigo Duterte revels in the high bombast of fiery speeches – take his threat to pull out of the United Nations, for example – but he is delivering on a promise to crack down on drug gangs. In fact, more than 700 people have died in police operations this summer, and the public are roaring their approval in high ratings for the new leader.

There are also continuing tensions between several countries over who owns which reefs and islets in the South China Sea but Beijing will want to avoid such cartographical arguments as the cream of international leaders touch down on Sunday.


A hard tusk

Thai politicians and companies are on the move abroad…as illegal ivory is on the move to Thailand

On Monday, the World Wide Fund for Nature published its ‘Wildlife Crime Scorecard’, showing the worst global offenders in the illegal trade in animals. Thailand didn’t exactly record a chart-topping performance. Nor did its Asian neighbours. The WWF said “tens of thousands of African elephants are being killed by poachers each year for their tusks, and China and Thailand are top destinations for illegal African ivory.” The Fund said the main Thai problem was a unique law that allowed the legal trade in ivory from domesticated elephants. This internal issue complicates the problems over buying illegal African elephant and rhino tusks and horns for the domestic markets.

Bangkok has a long-standing interest in African products. Thai state-controlled company PTT wants to get involved in continent’s resources market and looks set to buy Cove Energy, which has a stake in Mozambique’s huge Rovuma gas field. This is a new move, but the overall picture has already been established; PTT’s likely purchase of Cove just reinforces the links that Thailand has already built across Africa. From Liberia to Kenya, Thailand and African nations are working together, in industries as varied as poultry businesses (such as Charoen Pokphard Foods) to web ventures (such as

China recently pledged $20bn in loans for nations across Africa, to support infrastructural and agricultural development. Thailand is keen to follow Beijing into the resources market in the African forests and cities, whipping out the chequebook in return for shiploads of oil and other resources back across the Indian Ocean. But the export of illegal ivory is a real problem and one which is a sure way to make enemies back in Africa – as well as in other regions of the world. Getting oil out of Africa is all well and good but the amount of ivory that follows it – destined for the markets of Bangkok and Beijing – must be dealt with at home swiftly if Thailand is to continue to be a regional leader.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has just got back from her first official visit to Europe as her country’s premier. She was in Germany from 18-19 July and then went across the French border for a visit to the other major EU nation at the end of last week. There were quite a few dishes on the menu for discussion with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Francois Hollande, the French president. But among the nudges about the uneasy political situation back home in South East Asia, the Thais were keen to get chatting about the economy.

There is much to boast about on a trip to the embattled eurozone. The World Bank estimates Thailand’s GDP at around $345bn and the IMF has forecast a tasty 7.5% rate of growth for 2013 in the Asian state. 73 business leaders were on Ms Shinawatra’s European tour, hoping to cash in on any hints of investment from Berlin and Paris.

PM Shinawatra was back in her home country yesterday (Monday 23) in time for a meeting with Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, whose awakening nation will also witness a $3bn investment from PTT, as sanctions begin to ease. Thailand is a major player at home in the Association of South East Asian Nations as well, and, along with its African ambitions and recent European promotion, is showing itself to be one of the focus countries for the immediate future. But, as the WWF report demonstrates, there are still problems at home which can translate out onto the world stage and draw frowns from abroad where open hands might have been expected.

BURMA ELECTION VIII – As-Live Report from Yangon

The people of Myanmar have voted in a by-election for 45 parliamentary seats. This blog is covering the election live from Yangon

Residents of Myangone township in north of Yangon hold community meetings in open houses to air their frustrations to the Association of South East Asian Nations observers at not being able to vote in the election

BURMA ELECTION V – Watching and waiting

Tomorrow, on Sunday 1 April, Myanmar will hold a by-election for 45 parliamentary seatsThis blog is covering the vote live from Yangon.

Monitors from across the world have descended on the country to observe the voting process. They are in place noting the run-up to tomorrow, how the voting actually goes in practice and checking any irregularities that emerge afterwards.

Speaking to a UN observer about the vote, he reiterated the simple desire, first and foremost, to see a free and fair election. Aung San Suu Kyi is not so sure that this aim can be achieved. But even as recently as yesterday the government’s English-language mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, once again reassured readers that the voting process would not fall down and would be found by the observers to have complied with all the international recommendations.

The monitor admitted that not all the scientific tools used in other electoral missions will be at hand here. He also said that the global observers had been in a bit of rush to organise the monitoring as the government in Naypyidaw only published the guest-list last week.

The observers will try to make it to all the townships where votes are taking place, for although there are several constituencies in Yangon, the voting will reach across the country, up to Mandalay and down to the Irrawaddy delta area. The UN, EU, US and ASEAN will not accept electoral fraud from any angle and the National League for Democracy and other opposition parties, such as the Democratic Party and the National Democratic Force, have to ensure they play by the rules as well.

BURMA ELECTION III – From tiny acorns

On 1 April Myanmar will hold a by-election for 45 parliamentary seatsThis blog will cover it live from Yangon. This is the third preview post on the crucial vote. (For the first build-up article, click here, and for the second, click here

There are many ways to rig an election. Falsified ballots, stuffed boxes, lost votes, added votes, removing opponents…the blacklist is long and Burma has experienced most of the tricks in the past. In 1990, the people of Myanmar overwhelmingly voted for the opposition, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Sadly for the voters, this was not exactly the result that the government had expected. And so the officials declared the election null and void, slotted themselves into the Amyotha Hluttaw, the upper house and the Pytithu Hluttaw, the lower house, and put Suu Kyi under house arrest for twenty years.

Millions of people believe that this time will be different. This is not 1990 again – that was a general election and this is a vote for just 45 parliamentary seats – but a democratic oak could spring from this by-election acorn.

There are three major reasons why there is a more optimistic aroma in the air this time round. Firstly, the democratic activists have been allowed to campaign at a level of freedom not previously experienced. Aung San Suu Kyi has been leading the charge and drawing large sympathetic crowds. Despite this she has been taken ill with exhaustion and is, at the moment, having a few days off to recover before the big push at the end of the week. Secondly, the government seems to have changed for the better. The military still has around 160 reserved seats in both houses of parliament but this is now a country where the civilians are starting to wield the power. Finally, there has been welcome international engagement with the vote.

The government has done the right thing by agreeing to have the vote monitored. There is a long list of outsiders making their way to Burma at the moment with sharpened pencils and clipboards. The presence of the EU and US should not be dismissed but it is more important that observers from the regional bloc attend. Myanmar is in line to assume the chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014 and the support and advice from its neighbours is of greatest use at the moment.

Where the officials from Washington and Brussels come in is that they have still got punitive sanctions slapped on Naypyidaw. They will be anxious for the Burmese to run a smooth vote that can be lauded loudly so that they can get rid of some of the restrictions. But most of all, and most significantly, there is agreement amongst journalists that the Burmese must monitor themselves. The public must be able to feel that they can walk proudly to the ballot boxes. The government must keep order and must respect the result.

President Thein Sein has recently come back from an official trip to Vietnam, a long-time investor in Myanmar. His country is opening up and reforming itself and will be looking for foreign investors to help re-build its economy and re-establish its place in the region and world. But there is a by-election to hold first and nothing will be certain until that passes positively and the parliament has democratic voices resounding inside.

This blog will cover the by-election live from Burma on 1 April

Getting rough in the South China Sea

Tensions are rising across the region and politicians must keep their heads

On Saturday 30 April seven Thai soldiers were killed in a double bombing by suspected rebels. A day later insurgents shot dead two Buddhists in a drive-by in the southern region of Yala. In total, more than 4,500 people have died in the last seven years in the south of Thailand, as suspected Malay Muslim militants fight for greater autonomy. It is a number that has gone unnoticed across much of the world, in a region quietly infamous for violent but sporadic insurgency and politico-religious strains. Also calling for more devolution are Vietnam’s Hmong ethnic minority, from a mostly Christian area up in the far north-west of the country and very close to the border with Laos. A recent protest was fiercely quashed by soldiers.

Another worrying situation that has been brewing for decades between Thailand and Cambodia had its most recent twist in the story at a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Sunday 8 May. The area up for debate was the Preah Vihear temple which stands in the Dangrek mountain range that straddles the Thai-Cambodia border. In 1954, Thai troops stormed the temple but withdrew eight years later. The ancient Hindu complex then fell into the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. And this year forces from both sides have exchanged fire, with reports suggesting that two Thai soldiers died in the incidents.

An unhelpful sideshow to the event is the fact that Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister who is wanted back in Bangkok on corruption charges, has been appointed as an economic adviser to the Cambodian government. Because of their reluctance to tell member-states how to run domestic affairs, the ASEAN leaders failed to come to an agreement on what to do about the temple issue. This is not surprising, however, seeing as the matter has been simmering away since France left as colonial power at the turn of the last century.

There are some positives. The ASEAN hopes to form a single economic community by 2015 and already has lots of free trade agreements in place. Indonesia is growing in stature and is taking up the role of the region’s mover and shaker on the world stage. Late last year Burma held its first national elections for 20 years.

But the Philippines is wobbling: corruption is rife and political assassinations continue. Malaysia has to take the lead on the other Indo-China nations’ religious shoot-outs. A regional stand-off would heavily affect the commercial arrangements the ASEAN has fought hard to secure. India and China stand quietly in the background and the region must be careful not to split along superpower allegiance lines. But for now, the tourists still have faith in the Thai beaches and the Indonesian surf and they must not be dissuaded from visiting the temples in the mountains as well.

Getting away from it all in Asia

At a time of problematic politics on both sides of the pond, what will the impact be of Obama’s visit to South Asia and David Cameron’s trip to the Far East?

The coalition government in the UK has spent much of the last few weeks swinging the cutting axe at nearly every government department and it appears that now Cameron and his Liberal Democrat allies are for now, at least, having a change of scene. The one facing them at home is hostile and on 10 November thousands of students demonstrated violently in central London against the proposed rise in university tuition fees. Public reaction has also been negative to funding slashing of child benefit, housing benefit and the defence budget. The Church of England has raised concern over the impact on the poor from the specific benefit reduction and reorganisation that has been planned.

But Cameron and his coalition colleagues have been sipping wine and trying to secure trade deals on the other side of the world. They are not running away directly but the change of scene at a time of political unrest may well allow them a period of reflection to consider their changes. They can also catch their breath; the Government’s reforms have been rolled out continuously since the general election.

A couple of countries to the south, this week Barack Obama has chosen to spend the aftermath of the Democrats’ painful losses at the mid-term elections on 2 November meeting his old school-teachers in Indonesia. As the Tea Party basks in the glow of election success, Obama has been wooing Indonesia in a similar way to the way he courted the Muslim world in 2009.

Indonesia stands at a crossroads, geopolitically: it is the largest Muslim majority nation in the world and a massive regional player for ASEAN. It has large sway in its region through its seat on the G20 and in that sense is similar to Brazil as the most important partner in a regional club. The administration in Jakarta needs to ensure that its leadership does not become confused or stall as other local players look up to the major power and faltering on its part could lead to introversion and a failure to keep up with the interchanging pace of foreign policy discussion.

This latest outreach to the Muslim world by the US President seems to be an attempt to move policy discussion into the international sphere after such devastation domestically. Cameron and Obama are now moving on to the G20 and with the Cancun climate change summit coming up next month, both leaders will probably be quietly hopeful that they can ride out the current waves of protest and election defeat overseas.