Southeast Asia Theater
A bomb blast at the tourist-packed Erawan Shrine in downtown Bangkok killed at least 20 and injured some 80 more Aug. 17. The following day, with the city still on edge, a small explosive device was thrown from a bridge towards a crowded river pier, sending a plume of water into the air but causing no casualties. No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, and Thai authorities have been circumspect in assigning blame. Police say they have not ruled out any group, including elements opposed to the military government, which took power in a coup last year. But officials said the attack did not match the tactics of Muslim insurgents in the south. (Al Jazeera, Reuters, Aug. 18) Despite peace talks with the southern separatists, the insurgency continues at a low level. On July 20, a shoot-out with security forces left two presumed militants wounded in Nong Chik district of Pattani province. (Bangkok Post, July 20) Graffiti rejecting the peace talks was earlier this month spray-painted on roads in Khok Pho and Nong Chik districts of Pattani. The message written in Thai read, "What do we get from negotiating with the army?" Talks between the government and separatists, facilitated by Malaysia, are set to resume by the end of the year. (Bangkok Post, Aug. 2)
Here's another one to file under "Life's little ironies." Vietnam's Communist Party boss Nguyen Phu Trong (the country's "paramount leader") meets with Obama at the White House—a first, coming exactly 20 years after US-Hanoi diplomatic relations were restored. Why now? The Washington Post flatly states that Obama "is seeking to reconfigure a historically difficult relationship with Vietnam into a strategic partnership against China." White House officials "said Hanoi has been signaling interest in forging deeper economic and military ties with the United States," and also emphasized that Vietnam "is among the 12 nations involved in an expansive Pacific Rim trade pact." That's the Trans-Pacific Partnership—which is nearly openly conceived as a counter-measure to China's economic rise.
Environmentalists and indigenous leaders in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao are hailing the exit of Anglo-Swiss mining giant Glencore from the $5.9 billion Tampakan mega-project as a "victory for the people." Said Clemente Bautista of Kalikasan People's Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE): "Glencore, potentially the largest mining project in the country to date, ultimately failed in the face of massive people's resistance against foreign and large-scale mining." The project area covers 10,000 hectares in the provinces of South Cotabato, Sarangani, Sultan Kudarat and Davao del Sur. But Glencore is accused of "grabbing" a further 24,000 hectares of adjacent lands, including forest and farms, causing the displacement of some 5,000 residents—with the complicity of the central government.
The Dalai Lama has appealed to Burma's Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to speak up for the country's persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority amid a worsening refugee crisis according to a May 28 report in The Australian. The Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader said he is alarmed and saddened by the predicament of thousands still believed to be stranded at sea after weeks of being turned away by nations in the region. "It's not sufficient to say: 'How to help these people?'," he said from his office in the Indian Himalayan hill station of McLeod Ganj, where he has lived in exile since his escape from Chinese-occupied Tibet in 1959. "This is not sufficient. There's something wrong with humanity's way of thinking. Ultimately we are lacking concern for others' lives, others' wellbeing." He said there could be no justification for violence against the estimated 1.3 million Rohingya in Burma, who have been denied citizenship and subject to persecution by the state and Buddhist extremists. He appealed to his Burmese co-religionists to "remember the face of the Buddha" when dealing with the minority, sometimes referred to as the world's "least-wanted" population.
Burma's President Thein Sein on May 23 signed into law a bill requiring some mothers to space the births of their children three years apart. The Population Control Health Care bill, passed by parliament last month, allows authorities the power to implement "birth-spacing" in areas with high rates of population growth. Though the bill has no punitive measures, US deputy secretary of state Anthony Blinken and rights activists worry it will be used to repress women's rights as well as religious and ethnic minority rights. Speaking on the matter, Blinken stated: "We shared the concerns that these bills can exacerbate ethnic and religious divisions and undermine the country's efforts to promote tolerance and diversity." The government claims the bill and three others like it were aimed at bringing down maternal and infant mortality rates and protecting women and minorities, but activists argue that there are better ways to accomplish this goal.
After weeks of escalating tensions along the remote mountain border, a Burmese MiG-29 fighter jet carried out an air-strike on Chinese territory March 13, killing four people working in a sugar-cane field in Yunnan province. Chinese authorities stepped up security along the border and registered a diplomatic protest. Burma, after initially denying everything, issued a statement expressing "deep sorrow" over the deaths. But Beijing says there have been at least three similar incidents of bombs from Burmese government forces falling in Chinese territory in recent weeks, and warned of "decisive" measures if there were any more. This all concerns the fast-escalating war in Burma's northern Shan state, where the rebel army of the Kokang ethnicity has again taken up arms against the government. More than 50,000 people—mostly Kokang—have fled the fighting into Chinese territory since the war was re-ignited earlier this year, and Burma accuses local military commanders in China of allowing the rebels to establish a staging ground in the border zone. (BBC News, March 16; Al Jazeera, March 15; Reuters, IBT, March 14)
In another grim signal of a widening war in northern Burma's opium zones, last week saw an outbreak of intense fighting between government forces and ethnic rebels, prompting some 50,000 Kokang civilians to flee across the border to China. The clashes at the town of Laukkai (also rendered Laogai), Shan state, saw government air-strikes and helicopter strafing on villages controlled by the Kokang rebel group, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and two allied militias. Some 50 government troops have been killed in the fighting, and soliders have recovered the bodies of several rebels. A line of refugees 10 kilometers long has reportedly piled up at the Chinese border crossing of Nansan. (AP, Feb. 14; Democratic Voice of Burma, Feb. 12; The Irrawady, Feb. 11)
Well, the interminable cartoon wars have now hit Malaysia. On Feb. 10, the Malaysian Federal Court upheld a "sodomy" conviction and five-year prison term of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a decision clearly as politicized as it is reactionary. That same day, cartoonist Zulkiflee Awar Ulhaque, popularly known as Zunar, was arrested at his home—charged under the country's draconian "sedition" law for tweeting a cartoon critical of the ruling, and portraying the judge in the case as Prime Minister Najib Razak. (BBC News, The Malaysian Online, Jurist) Said Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists: "We call on authorities to release Zunar immediately, drop all charges against him, and get to work reforming the sedition law that Prime Minister Najib Razak once acknowledged has no place in Malaysian society." Not all voices have been so forthright, however...