Southeast Asia Theater
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in its newly released annual Southeast Asia Opium Survey (PDF) finds that opium production in Burma continued to increase in 2013—up 26% to an estimated 870 metric tons. This is the highest amount since the UN began keeping track in 2002. In 1999, the Burmese regime promised to eradicate opium production by 2014, but production has increased every year since 2006. The UNODC report acknowledges that eradication efforts have failed to address the political and economic factors that drive farmers to grow opium in the first place. With poppy fetching 19 times more than rice, struggling peasants have few other options to make a living.
An in-depth Sept. 29 Reuters report on the multi-billion-dollar but very murky jade trade in Burma raises the specter of "blood jade"—without actually using the phrase. Almost half of all jade exports are "unofficial"—apparently spirited over the border into China with little or no formal taxation, representing billions of dollars in lost revenues. Official statistics are said to indicate that Burma produced more than 43 million kilograms of jade in fiscal year 2011-12, worth a low-balled $4.3 billion. Yet official exports of jade that year stood at only $34 million. (It isn't explained how all that "unofficial" jade made it into the production stats in the first place.) China doesn't publicly report how much jade it imports from Burma, but jade is included in official imports of precious stones and metals, which in 2012 were worth $293 million—a figure too small to account for billions of dollars in Burmese jade.
A three-vessel Freedom Flotilla carrying some 50 West Papuan and indigenous Australian protesters bound for the restive Indonesian territory of West Papua began its voyage from Queensland, Australia, this past week—to the dismay of both Austrailian and Indonesian authorities. The protestors, who hope "to reconnect two ancient cultures and to reveal the barriers that keep human rights abuses in West Papua from the attention of the international community," expect to make landfall in early September. "The initiative of Indigenous Elders of Australia and West Papua will build global solidarity and highlight the abuses of human rights and land rights carried out under the occupations of their lands on an international stage," the statement on the Flotilla's website reads.
Public commemorations are taking place in Burma to mark the 25th anniversary of the uprisings which launched the country's pro-democracy movement—the first time the anniversary has been openly commemorated in Rangoon. Hundreds of thousands took part in the "8888" protests, which began on Aug. 8, 1988. But six weeks later, at least 3,000 protesters were dead, thousands more imprisoned, and the military firmly in control. Aung San Suu Kyi, who emerged as the leader of the pro-democracy movement and is now the opposition leader, participated in the commemorations. A new activist formation, 88 Generation, has emerged to coordinate the remembrance. The current reformist government has tacitly approved the commemoration, even though some of the former generals serving in it are implicated in the violence. (BBC News, AAP, Aug. 8)
The Supreme Court of the Philippines on July 23 issued a "temporary environment protection order" against 94 "small-scale mines" that extract nickel in Zambales, Central Luzon region. Activists who brought the petition claim that among the "small" mines are at least five fronts for giant nickel miners from China. The mines are operating under small-scale mining permits (SSMPs) that can be granted by provincial authorities in special minahang bayan, or People's Mining Areas, under a new policy instated by the Benigno Aquino administration. But local peasants charge that the mines are operating outside the designated areas, and go essentially unregulated, causing grave pollution to local waters. The Chinese parent companies, said to really be a single coordinated venture, are identified as Jiangxi Rare Earth & Metals Tungsten Group, Wei-Wei Group, and Nihao Mineral Resources Inc. They set up the five "small mines" through Filipino dummy companies, bribing officials to look the other way. The SSMP policy, enacted by executive order last year, has sparked a new mineral rush in the Philippines. (Philippine Star, July 24; Inquirer Mindanao, July 15, 2012)
The Obama administration is finalizing an agreement with the Philippines that will allow the US to deploy more troops and weapons in the archipelago nation. The deal avoids the contentious issue of establishing permanent bases and instead will have more US troops using Philippine bases. Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, the head of Pacific Command, said the US is seeking access that will enable it to help the Philippines in its defense as well as to aid in responding to disasters. The US maintained large military bases in the Philippines for nearly a century, but the last one, Subic Bay, closed in 1992. Subic Bay is today a "special economic zone," but the former base is still used by US military ships. The deal comes as President Obama has publicly weighed in for the Philippines in its maritime border dispute with China. (NYT, Digital Journal, July 13; NYT, June 8)
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced a new peace initiative in Burma's eastern Shan state June 28, aimed at facilitating poppy eradication in the world's second largest opium producer. The government has pledged to cooperate with the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), whose Shan State Army (SSA) fought for regional autonomy from 1964 until a 2011 ceasefire. Both parties and the UNODC agreed to help destitute farmers with alternative development programs. The anticipated multi-million dollar four-year plan seeks to improve the state's infrastructure, health and education. "There are increasing rates of poverty and food insecurity," said UNODC country coordinator Jason Eligh. "Opium farmers are not bad people, they are just poor and hungry."
Burma's persecuted Muslim Rohingya people were in the news again over the weekend with the Thai navy's denial that its forces opened fire on a group of refugees off the country's southwestern coast last month, killing at least two. Survivors said that Thai naval troops fired a boat of around 20 refugees off Thailand's Phang Nga province on Feb. 22, as they jumped into the water to escape custody. "Navy personnel fired into the air three times and told us not to move," a refugee told Human Rights Watch (HRW). "But we were panicking and jumped off the boat, and then they opened fire at us in the water." More than 100,000 Rohingyas have been displaced since ethnic violence broke out in western Burma last year. Burma refuses to recognize the Rohingya as citizens and labels the minority of about 800,000 as "illegal" immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh—which in turn disavows them as nationals. (BBC News, March 15; Press TV, March 13)