Southeast Asia Theater
The White House has announced a partial lifting of sanctions on Burma in recognition of progress in its democratic transition. Restrictions are to be dropped on state-owned banks and businesses, although some 100 companies and individuals linked to the armed forces will remain iced. This relaxation comes at the request of longtime democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, who although barred from holding the presidency is effectively the country’s leader following November's elections. But human rights concerns remain—especially around the fate of the Rohingya Muslims, persecuted and made stateless by the military junta that has now (mostly) surrendered power. And the multiple ethnic insurgencies in Burma's opium-producing northern mountains, while receiving less world media attention lately, continue to vex the country.
Presidential election results in the Philippines came in May 10, with bombastic anti-crime hardliner Rodrigo Duterte emerging the victor. Ruling-party candidate Mar Roxas quickly conceded defeat. Duterte is the mayor of Davao City in the conflicted southern island of Mindanao—which has been hit by a wave of death-squad terror in recent years. The paramilitaries are ostensibly a response to crime and narco networks on the island, but ecology activists and peasant leaders have also been targeted. Duterte has been named as a mastermind of the paramilitaries, and certainly makes no bones about his intolerant position on drug use. "All of you who are into drugs, you sons of bitches, I will really kill you," he Duterte told a huge cheering crowd in his final campaign rally in Manila. "I have no patience, I have no middle ground, either you kill me or I will kill you idiots."
Hanoi saw a rare public protest on May 1, as hundreds demonstrated against a Taiwanese firm they accuse of causing mass fish deaths along 120 miles of Vietnam's central coast. A steel plant run by a subsidiary of Taiwan's Formosa Plastics is believed to be the source of a massive toxic release into the ocean that has killed tons of fish and affected thousands of families in fishing villages along the coast. The company released a statement saying it was "deeply shocked and sorry" for the fish deaths, without accepting culpability. Suspicions were heightened in late April when two divers contracted for construction at the plant on Vung Ang Bay were mysteriously hospitalized, and a third died. The Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Steel plant, still under construction, is slated to be the biggest steel mill in Asia.
Nearly 2,000 people were arrested by security forces over the past week in Indonesia's Papua province for "illegal" pro-independence demonstrations, activists report. Over 1,000 were detained in the provincial capital, Jayapura, and hundreds more elsewhere in the territory. Victor Yeimo, chairman of the West Papua National Committee, said many people were assaulted during the arrests. "There's no room for democracy in West Papua, so they came suddenly to the place where we wanted to prepare for demonstration," he said. "And they arrested the people, they beat the people. This is peaceful action, we are the peaceful resistance... but Indonesians give us the torture." The protests mark the anniversary of the end of Dutch colonial rule over the territory in 1963, and a weekend visit to the province by Indonesian President Joko Widodo. (SBS, Al Jazeera, May 3)
At least 18 soldiers and five militants were killed in a fierce 10-hour fire-fight between Philippine government forces and the Abu Sayyaf group in Basilan province, on the southern island of Mindanao April 10. More than 50 soldiers were wounded in the clash at the barangay (village) of Baguindan, Tipo Tipo municipality. Local media report that an entire platoon was "wiped out," and that four of the soldiers were beheaded. The fighting began when an army patrol found a camp of some 100 Abu Sayyaf fighters. Patrols had been hunting Abu Sayyaf across across Basilan and the nearby Joso islands for weeks, hoping to free at least 18 foreigners being held by the group. Abu Sayyaf has recently joined the ISIS franchise, with leader Isnilon Hapilon pledging to make Southeast Asia a "wilayat" or province of the Islamic State. (Straits Times, Singapore, April 10)
Three were killed when security forces opened fire on farmers and lumad (indigenous people) who were blockading a highway in Kidapawan City, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, April 1. At least 116 were injured, with 18 hospitalized, and 88 missing, including minors, according to local rights workers, according to Ariel Casilao of the Anakpawis political party. "Most of the injured suffered minor wounds and are here at the church compound," she said, refering to a local Methodist church that was supporting the protesters. The day after the repression, the church sheltering the wounded survivors was searched by police, ostensibly looking for weapons.
With the harvest season just weeks away, tensions are high in Burma's opium-producing Kachin state following a series of clashes between opium-growing peasants and a local citizen anti-drug movement. Pat Jasan, a patrol established two years ago by the Kachin Baptist Church, has been in repeated confrontations over the past weeks at Kachin's Waingmaw township. The most recent, on Feb. 25, resulted in at least 20 Pat Jasan followers wounded in gunfire and grenade blasts. The vigilantes were apparently set upon by a heavily-armed force while clearing poppy fields.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the coordinated bomb blasts and armed attacks that left at least seven dead—including five assailants—in the Indonesian capital Jakarta Jan. 14. Security forces battled militants for hours in the city's central business and shopping district. The online statement said the attack was carried out by "soldiers of the Caliphate," targeting "citizens of the Crusader coalition" against ISIS. Indonesia is not actually part of the coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It has been invited to join the new Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance, but last month announced that it had not reached a decision to do so. (BBC News, SCD, Australia, Jan. 14; DNK, Pakistan, Dec. 18)