80-second Asia round-up

Indian railways. Malaysian planes. Hong Kong tycoons. Afghan banks.

It’s all in this 80-second round-up of some of the main business news from Asia today, on Thursday 26 February. Hit the link below to listen.

80-second Asia business round-up

Kazakh cure

What can we expect from Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation?

Kazakhstan is about to complete its first month in the hotseat of the OIC – one of the most important Islamic blocs along with the Arab League and the World Islamic Economic Forum. The OIC, (the ‘C’ recently changed from ‘Conference’ to ‘Co-operation’), aims to promote common understanding, ambition and to foster goodwill and unity between member-states.

When one calls to mind Islamic countries, Kazakhstan does not often roll off the tongue naturally. It is true that there are bigger voices in the Islamic world, namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia and Turkey, and their reach goes beyond the borders of the Muslim world. But other, smaller members are beginning to show a bit more bite to their roles. The African Francophone members of the organisation are starting to grow in confidence but it is probably the Central Asian nations that are set to be the most significant group in the bloc. Kazakhstan embodies the image of a modern, political driver-nation that many countries, both within and outside the OIC, aspire to be.

Kazakhstan has said it wants to advance the OIC’s aim of continuing peaceful development with the rest of the world. It also wants to address the economic imbalances that exist within the organisation: Somalia and Benin are minnows compared to Malaysia and the UAE. The Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, outlined his proposals ‘to switch [the Islamic world] from commodity development to industrial innovation’, to develop a joint plan of actions in the energy sector and to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, an idea which he hopes could kick-start international de-nuclearisation.

Kazakhstan comes into the chairmanship in the right frame of mind and at the right time. From a global point-of-view, it is a nation well-positioned in the main pack chasing the front-runners – it is a forward-looking and forward-thinking country. From an Islamic perspective, it will be a reassuring but not tranquilising influence on a bloc still rocking from recent challenges. Arab uprisings in the Maghreb and Middle East, (notably the ongoing conflict in Libya and violence in Syria), ethnic unrest in Kyrgyzstan, political violence in Ivory Coast and the war in Afghanistan are some of the issues confronting Astana.

But secularism is written into the constitution and Kazakhstan underlines the right to freedom of religion, although more than 70% of the population is Muslim. It has successfully modelled itself as a bridge-state: between Europe and Asia; between ex-Soviet nations and the West; and now, hopefully, between hardline Islamic nations and more open members of OIC. It is a time for a safe pair of hands. Kazakhstan has the perfect platform to press on with social, industrial and economic ambitions, backed up by a significant but not overbearing Muslim tradition.

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.

A universal throne

How monarchies cross religious and political boundaries

All you have to do is glance at the guest list for the British royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton on 29 April.

45 different members of foreign royal families were invited; from 25 different countries. There were representatives from absolute monarchies (Swaziland, Saudi Arabia), constitutional monarchies (Sweden, Spain) and excommunicated monarchies (Yugoslavia, Romania). Different European Christian denominations were on show: Lutheran (Queen Margrethe II of Denmark) and Eastern Orthodox (King Simeon II of Bulgaria). From Africa, there were Muslim (Moroccan Princess Lalla Salma) and Christian (Prince Seeiso of Lesotho) royals. And as for Asia, there were the Muslims from absolutist nations (Emir of Qatar) and Muslims from democracies (the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and Raja Permaisuri Agong of Malaysia), along with the Buddhist Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand and Christian King of Tonga.

Far more countries have scrapped their palaces, tiaras and curtseys. But what can we learn from the ones who haven’t?

They span a broad politico-cultural spectrum, showing us that the monarchical system can be applied to differing extents across separate countries (think of the differences between Malaysia’s take on Islam and the Sunni teachings of Saudi Arabia: both Muslim monarchies, but with very different political agendas).

Monarchies can be a stabilising force for good in restive nations but this stability needs to be tempered by a willingness not to tamper with a country’s politics. Despite this, at times they can be wonderful mediators – think of the steady hand Spain’s King Juan Carlos provided during the rocky transition to democracy following the death of Franco in 1975. But sometimes the stability can become an overriding control and this is where the absolutist regimes suffer to maintain international credibility.

More trustworthiness is vested in those families which have taken a constitutional step-back. One area where they generally succeed is on the global stage. They act as patriotic symbols of their nation and can negotiate interests, discuss deals, or, seeing as many countries are more than ready to don rose-tinted glasses and think back to a former age, simply try to whip up attention for the oft-lampooned idea of a monarchy.

European monarchies have survived in more recent times by branching out from their inter-regal and cross-crown breeding. Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby, a single mother, met Norwegian Prince Haako at a rock concert before marrying him in 2001. In 2004 Australian Mary Donaldson married Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik. And last week’s British royal wedding continued a tradition kicked-off in style by Grace Kelly’s marriage to Monaco’s Prince Rainier III in 1956.

Royal families have shown they can cross international political and religious boundaries. They also seem to have realised that they truly need to modernise and to understand and break down the remaining boundaries that still exist at home.