Southeast Asia Theater

Vietnam: protests over massive fish deaths

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.

Mass arrests in West Papua independence protests

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. (SBSAl Jazeera, May 3)

Mindanao: deadly clash with ISIS forces

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)

Bloody repression of peasant protests in Mindanao

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.

Anti-drug vigilantes heat up Burma's opium zone

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.

Jakarta: ISIS franchise exploited sectarian tensions

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)

Mindanao: toward sectarian war

In a series of Christmas eve attacks, a breakaway rebel group killed nine civilians in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao. Army troops killed four members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) after they attacked a farming community in Sultan Kudarat province. Miriam Ferrer, the government's chief negotiator in peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), said seven were shot at close range while working in their rice paddies. A coordinated attack targeted Christians, with two civilians were killed in a grenade attack on a chapel in nearby North Cotabato province. (Reuters, Dec. 26) MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Q. Iqbal blamed the failure of the government to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law, instating a local autonomous region, for radicalizing breakaway factions like the BIFF and Abu Sayyaf. "[G]iven that frustrations can be contagious and toxic like poison, no one can really tell how wide it would spread if lawmakers would not be able to pass the BBL,” he said. (Business World, Philippines, Dec. 20)

Thai constitution would grant military immunity

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Nov. 24 that a proposed provision in Thailand's constitution would permit the nation's military to commit human rights abuses without fear of punishment, in violation of international treaties. A new constitutional provision before Thailand's legislative body, known as the the junta, or the National Council for Peace and Order, would exculpate the use of force by military personnel if the conduct is "carried out with honest intention" in the interest of national security. HRW referred to the constitutional amendment as a "license to kill." HRW acknowledged that Thailand's military forces have acted with impunity for decades, but stated: "International human rights treaties ratified by Thailand make clear that status as a government official does not permit immunity for serious rights violations. In addition, Thailand has international legal obligations to ensure the right to an effective remedy for victims of serious violations, including unlawful killings."

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