Why Go to Myanmar?

  • Volume II | Issue 20 | 23rd November, 2011
    Nov 23, 2011

    Why should Hillary Clinton go to Myanmar? The short answer is to encourage the best chance at real political change in a country that effectively cloistered itself under harsh military rule for nearly five decades. Myanmar, or Burma, has been the virtual political ball and chain of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which it joined in 1997. Secretary Clinton plans to visit on December 1–2, becoming the first U.S. secretary of state to do so since John Foster Dulles 50 years ago.

    The plan is essentially to “take them up on it” and proactively encourage what could be a historic opportunity for reform. Thein Sein, Myanmar’s president, has signaled that the government is opening the door to political reform and he says he won’t go back. History advises caution, however, as the generals have cynically initiated numerous false starts in the past, only to slam the door shut with determined violence. It is likely that the junta’s former leader, Than Shwe, has allowed what he sees as a calculated gamble on reform. Whether and at what point he could pull it back remains to be seen.

    While analysts will quibble over intent, there is no argument that this time feels different. The Obama administration is seizing the opportunity to encourage change. The approach makes sense for several reasons.

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    The Week That Was

    • East Asia Summit tackles the South China Sea dispute
    • Third U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting fosters closer ties
    • ASEAN leaders support Myanmar’s 2014 ASEAN chairmanship

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    Looking Ahead

    • Launch of the new USAID Global Health Strategy at CSIS
    • Banyan Tree Forum with Ambassador Dino Patti Djalal
    • Open forum with Aburizal Bakrie

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    WHY GO TO MYANMAR?

    By Ernest Bower, Senior Adviser & Director, Southeast Asia Program, CSIS

    Why should Hillary Clinton go to Myanmar? The short answer is to encourage the best chance at real political change in a country that effectively cloistered itself under harsh military rule for nearly five decades. Myanmar, or Burma, has been the virtual political ball and chain of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which it joined in 1997. Secretary Clinton plans to visit on December 1–2, becoming the first U.S. secretary of state to do so since John Foster Dulles 50 years ago.

    The plan is essentially to “take them up on it” and proactively encourage what could be a historic opportunity for reform. Thein Sein, Myanmar’s president, has signaled that the government is opening the door to political reform and he says he won’t go back. History advises caution, however, as the generals have cynically initiated numerous false starts in the past, only to slam the door shut with determined violence. It is likely that the junta’s former leader, Than Shwe, has allowed what he sees as a calculated gamble on reform. Whether and at what point he could pull it back remains to be seen.

    While analysts will quibble over intent, there is no argument that this time feels different. The Obama administration is seizing the opportunity to encourage change. The approach makes sense for several reasons.

    One is that the motivation for change is credible. There are three parts to the answer of why Myanmar is changing now. The first is nationalism and an existential sense of needing options to balance perceived Chinese dominance of the economy, military acquisition, and infrastructure. Myanmar’s leaders privately describe tacit Chinese control of their economy as suffocating and encroaching on sovereignty. Local business leaders complain of Chinese companies’ ability to virtually flood their market at will with inexpensive goods. Unsurprisingly, Myanmar wants options and space.

    Second, Than Shwe is reported to have realized that the system he used to rule with an iron fist was bound to be inherited by the next-strongest and most ruthless general. He knew from experience that this might not augur well for him and his family, much less burnish his legacy. By allowing power to be diffused via political reform, he may be relieved of the potentially damaging ramifications of a military succession. He is willing to take his chances with the legacy of a leader who stepped aside to open the doors to reform.

    Finally, there is a quiet but indisputable trend toward empowerment of the people in Southeast Asia. This has been the year of the voter in the region. The “ASEAN Spring” has been a quieter and more peaceful version of what has been happening in the Middle East, but in many ways is no less significant. Governments around the region are scrambling to retain power by pursuing reform—from Malaysia where Prime Minister Najib Razak is unfolding historic reforms to save his ruling coalition, to Vietnam where the Communist Party works incessantly to distribute authority in an effort to survive, to Singapore where the incumbent People’s Action Party was shocked in May elections, and to the Philippines where an unexpected reformer was essentially conscripted to run for president based on his mother’s legacy.

    Indonesia moved earlier and is now coping with the chaotic traits of being a new democracy. Thailand’s voters are in the midst of deciding how their country will be governed. In fact, this trend may be compelling. It is more than possible that in the next 10 years political reform in Southeast Asia will affect China more than Chinese economic dominance will change ASEAN.

    The decision to send Secretary Clinton to Myanmar to support reform is also consistent with the outlines of a developing U.S. strategy generally and for Southeast Asia specifically. The goal is to strengthen ASEAN as a foundation for new regional security and trade architecture, and thereby create frameworks capable of allowing China to grow and be secure but not use its new economic might to force neighbors’ hands on issues related to sovereignty. To be successful, this plan must also allow China to save face in the process.

    To achieve this goal, the administration has decided to invest in a significantly more granular engagement and understanding of each of the ASEAN member countries—to fortify the whole by solidifying ties with its parts. This is a labor- and time-intensive approach, and not without risks, but it is the only way to go.

    The keystone of America’s new Burma policy is that the administration has the support of Aung San Suu Kyi, a woman who personifies her country’s struggle for political reform. Through U.S. special envoy Derek Mitchell and others, the United States now has daily communications and access to Suu Kyi. She has announced she will run for parliament in the coming by-elections (believed to be slated for December, but not officially announced yet). She has also signaled that she trusts President Thein Sein and believes there is no choice but to test how far he can go with reforms.

    Actions have backed up words thus far. Thein Sein has followed through on commitments to open up the media, changed the electoral laws to allow Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) to participate in elections, passed a new labor law that allows for the formation of unions and collective bargaining, and started to release political prisoners. More needs to be done, and urgently, but these steps demonstrate credible commitment to change. Harder steps will be resolving disputes with the ethnic minorities and implementing much-needed economic reforms.

    The U.S. response to these steps forward is likely to be measured. Don’t look for U.S. sanctions to be unwound anytime soon. In fact, even if the Obama administration wanted to, it couldn’t move too quickly to unwind and revoke the multiple layers of legal sanctions preventing U.S. companies and the U.S. government from engaging Myanmar. The process will be to verify and consolidate gains on reform and respond with appropriate steps toward reengagement. The process will look similar to normalizing relations with Vietnam, if Myanmar is serious about following through. Steps are incremental and take years, as trust is built and progress confirmed.

    Secretary Clinton’s trip is a strong statement of intent by the United States. Additional near-term measures by the United States could include naming an ambassador, recognizing the country’s name as “Myanmar” rather than calling it “Burma,” and working to revise the Tier 3 rating for Myanmar on the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report, which automatically prevents the United States from supporting assessment visits by multilateral development institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Asian Development Bank.

    Clinton’s trip is well timed and well advised. It is true that Than Shwe and retrograde forces could try to turn back the political clock in Myanmar. Yet even in this worst-case scenario, the U.S. effort would not have been in vain.

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    The Week That Was

    East Asia Summit

    President Obama advances closer ties between the United States and ASEAN at the EAS. Maritime security, nuclear nonproliferation, and disaster response and humanitarian assistance took center stage during the sixth East Asia Summit in Bali on November 19. In his address to the summit, President Barack Obama reiterated U.S. support for the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, encouraged parties to reach agreement on a binding Code of Conduct, and enunciated his desire for the South China Sea dispute and maritime security to be addressed in ASEAN-led multilateral forums. He also welcomed progress on ASEAN’s Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty and proposed an ASEAN Rapid Disaster Response Agreement to facilitate the rapid deployment of humanitarian assistance in the event of future natural disasters.

    East Asia Summit tackles South China Sea despite Chinese reluctance. In a departure from previous years, participants at the East Asia Summit on November 19 chose to discuss disputes in the South China Sea despite Chinese objections. Of the 18 participating countries, most directly addressed recent Chinese actions in the South China Sea, and the only countries not to raise the issue of maritime security were Cambodia and Myanmar. In response, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao said, "I don't want to discuss this issue at the summit. However…I am willing to reiterate China's stance.” He indicated that China shares the desire to cooperatively reach an agreement on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.

    South China Sea

    Manila rejects Beijing’s recent claims off Philippine coast. The Philippines on November 14 dismissed recent Chinese claims to two areas of water 50 miles northwest of Palawan province. The Philippines began encouraging about 50 foreign investors to bid on oil and natural gas exploration rights in the disputed areas in July, prompting the Chinese objection and claim. Philippine Energy Undersecretary Jose Layug said, “The areas that we’re offering for bidding are all within Philippine territory.”

    Pressure growing to ratify UNCLOS. The Obama administration’s emphasis on international law as the basis for resolving disputes in the South China Sea has renewed U.S. interest in ratifying the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Manila on November 16 that the administration wants “the Law of the Sea used as the overriding framework for handling territorial disputes.” Although the United States signed and complies with provisions of the international treaty, the Senate has yet to ratify the convention.

    Presidents of Vietnam and China meet on sidelines of APEC. Vietnam’s president Truong Tan Sang and China’s president Hu Jintao met on November 12 on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Honolulu and released a warm statement on the vibrancy of bilateral ties between the two countries. Vietnamese news organizations reported that the talks included discussions reaffirming the two countries’ intention to peacefully settle their dispute in the South China Sea, but Chinese news outlets were less specific in describing the meeting’s content. The meeting comes a month after an agreement establishing a hotline between Hanoi and Beijing to address flare-ups in the disputed territory.

    ASEAN

    Third U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting fosters closer ties. President Obama met with ASEAN heads of state in Bali on November 18 for the third U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting. During the meeting, ASEAN leaders praised the United States for its increased engagement with the group. Leaders also announced an agreement for Boeing to sell 230 jetliners to Indonesia’s Lion Air for $21.7 billion, Boeing’s largest deal ever, and President Obama revealed the U.S. representatives to the U.S.-ASEAN Eminent Persons Group—Charlene Barshefsky, U.S. Trade Representative from 1997-2001; Muhtar Kent, CEO and chairman of the board of Coca-Cola; and J. Stapleton Roy, who was previously U.S. ambassador to Singapore, China, and Indonesia.

    Three key documents emerge from the ASEAN Summit. ASEAN heads of state signed into action three key documents during the 19th ASEAN Summit on November 17–18. The first document, the Bali Concord III, establishes a roadmap for strengthening the security, economic, and sociocultural pillars of the ASEAN Community by 2015. The second sets up an ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management. The third, the ASEAN Declaration on Unity in Diversity, seeks to preserve the region’s cultural and artistic heritage.

    South Korea, China, and Japan strengthen ties with ASEAN through new initiatives. South Korea, Japan, and China signed an Emergency Rice Reserve Agreement with their ASEAN counterparts and inaugurated the ASEAN Plus Three Macroeconomic Research Office during the 14th ASEAN Plus Three Summit in Bali on November 18. During individual ASEAN Plus One meetings, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak announced a permanent diplomatic mission to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta; China and ASEAN launched the ASEAN-China center in Beijing to facilitate closer business and people-to-people ties and discussed the implementation of the ASEAN-China Trade in Services package; and Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda pledged $26 billion dollars to help fund infrastructure and associated projects for ASEAN’s 2015 Master Plans on Connectivity.

    Seven ASEAN countries to conduct trial of Customs Single Window system. Seven ASEAN members will conduct a trial of the ASEAN Single Window (ASW) customs data system in 2012, the director of ASEAN trade in Indonesia’s Ministry of Trade, Iman Pambagyo, said on November 15. The ASW aims to establish identical customs procedures across ASEAN countries to facilitate trade and is part of the larger ASEAN Economic Community blueprint scheduled to be implemented in 2015. The seven participating countries will be Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Brunei.

    ASEAN seeks to unite nuclear powers in agreeing to the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty. Representatives of five nuclear weapon states recognized under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons—China, France, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom—agreed at a meeting with ASEAN officials on November 15 to consider acceding to the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) Treaty. The Director General of ASEAN Affairs in Indonesia’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Djauhari Oramangun, said, “The approval marks a significant development, as it could be the start towards the signing of the SEANWFZ Treaty by the nuclear weapon states.” While this is a significant step toward implementing SEANWFZ, the treaty is nonbinding until all five nuclear weapon states have signed on.

    India seeking an FTA with ASEAN by 2012. ASEAN hosted India for the ninth India-ASEAN Summit in Bali on November 19, at which Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh expressed his desire to see India and ASEAN build on their 2003 Comprehensive Economic Agreement and conclude a free trade agreement by March 2012. India-ASEAN trade grew by 30 percent in 2010–2011, totaling more than $50 billion. In addition to seeking to conclude an FTA with ASEAN, India has pledged $50 million for an India-ASEAN Cooperation Fund to help finance the ASEAN Secretariat.

    APEC

    APEC leaders agree to highlight green growth, pledge to fight protectionism. The 21 leaders attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders Meeting on November 12 and 13 agreed to cut tariffs on environmental goods and services to 5 percent by 2015 and to reduce energy intensity (energy use / GDP) and fossil fuel subsidies that reduce incentives to create energy savings, according to the Honolulu Declaration released at the end of the meeting. The declaration also stated APEC members had agreed to fight protectionism generally and reduce trade barriers.

    Japan announces desire to join TPP negotiations. Japan's prime minister Yoshihiko Noda announced on November 11 that he would seek to bring Japan into the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed free trade agreement currently involving the United States and eight other members of APEC. Canada's prime minister Stephen Harper and Mexico's economic minister Bruno Ferrari also said on November 13 that they would like to join the talks. Japan will now need to negotiate the terms of its entry into the talks with the nine existing members. The U.S. administration will need to begin a 90-day consultation period with Congress on Japan’s application.

    Philippines

    Clinton celebrates 60-year security alliance in Manila, signs declaration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Philippines on November 16 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Mutual Defense Treaty. Aboard the destroyer USS Fitzgerald, she underscored U.S. military and diplomatic support for the Philippines by signing the Manila Declaration, which calls for “maintaining freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful commerce, and transit of people across seas,” a reference to the South China Sea disputed by China and other claimants including the Philippines. Clinton also announced that the United States would provide a second warship to the Philippine navy next year.

    The United States and Philippines move to strengthen diplomatic, economic ties. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed a new Partnership for Growth (PFG) agreement with the Philippines during her November 16 visit. The PFG seeks to combine the resources and technical capabilities of both governments to boost Philippine economic growth. Separately, President Obama, during a bilateral meeting in Bali with Philippine president Benigno Aquino, invited the leader to visit Washington in 2012.

    United States and Philippines sign customs agreement to facilitate trade. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and his Philippine counterpart, Secretary of Trade and Industry Gregory Domingo, signed an agreement on November 13 on the margins of the APEC summit committing the two countries to easing trade barriers, simplifying customs processes, and increasing transparency. The customs administration and trade facilitation agreement was described as a “stepping stone” toward eventual Philippine membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Trade between the United States and the Philippines was valued at $20 billion in 2010.

    Arroyo arrested in hospital. Police confined former Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to her hospital room shortly after a lower court issued a warrant for her arrest on November 18. Arroyo had been in the hospital after she and her husband were blocked from boarding a November 15 flight to Hong Kong in violation of a Supreme Court decision that overturned their travel ban. President Aquino had appealed the high court ruling to prevent the former Philippine president from seeking spine ailment treatment abroad. The Arroyos are under investigation for corruption and vote rigging in the 2004 and 2007 elections.

    Myanmar

    ASEAN leaders support Myanmar’s ASEAN chairmanship in 2014. ASEAN foreign ministers at a meeting on November 15 agreed to support Myanmar’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014, and ASEAN heads of state approved the decision on November 17. Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa, who visited Myanmar late last month, asserted that the recent reforms in Myanmar had created an environment making it possible for the other ASEAN members to support Myanmar’s 2014 chairmanship. This would be the first time Myanmar has chaired the grouping; it relinquished its last turn in 2005 due to international pressures regarding charges of human rights abuses.

    Clinton to visit Myanmar in December. President Obama announced on November 18 on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Bali that he is going to send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to visit Myanmar in December. The visit will be the first by a U.S. secretary of state in more than 50 years. The president made the announcement after he spoke by phone with Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. President Obama described Myanmar’s recent reforms as “flickers of progress.” Secretary Clinton said that while Myanmar has made progress toward democracy, the United States is not yet ready to make ”any abrupt changes” in policy such as lifting economic sanctions. Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political adviser to Myanmar president Thein Sein, said on November 19 that his government is preparing to address the United States’ remaining concerns, including releasing political prisoners and achieving peace with ethnic minorities.

    Aung San Suu Kyi’s party reentering politics. The National League for Democracy (NLD), Myanmar’s major opposition party, announced on November 18 that it will re-register as a formal political party. Party spokesperson Nyan Win said that the party is going to file registration papers with the government’s Election Commission as soon as possible. He also announced on November 21 that Aung San Suu Kyi will run for a seat in parliament in a bi-election expected later this year. The NLD was legally disbanded after boycotting Myanmar’s 2010 elections because Suu Kyi was not permitted to run for office. The government amended the political party registration law in October 2011 to remove restrictions on former prisoners, including Suu Kyi, serving as party members.

    Thai companies invest in electricity generating projects in Myanmar. Two Thai electricity generating companies have partnered to develop several coal power plants in southern Myanmar, which could produce almost 4,000 megawatts of electricity. Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding and Italian-Thai Development signed an agreement with the Myanmar government for a 10-year $58 billion project in Dawei, located on Myanmar’s border with Thailand. Most of the electricity produced will power infrastructure development projects, including a deep-sea port to be built in Dawei. Surplus energy from the plants will be sent to Thailand.

    Thailand

    Clinton visits Thailand, promises aid while urging end to political infighting. U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton pledged $10 million in flood assistance for Thailand during a trip to Bangkok on November 9 and called for an end to the political infighting that has distracted the government from mounting relief efforts. Clinton met with Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and reaffirmed U.S. support for its long-time ally, saying, "We are proud to stand with you now, in this time of challenge, as you contend with the worst floods of your nation's history."

    Thai government considers controversial royal amnesty to pardon Thaksin. Thai government officials discussed the possibility of a royal amnesty that, by including those convicted of corruption, would effectively pardon ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the older brother of current prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The discussion took place during a cabinet meeting November 7. However, Thaksin himself wrote a letter on November 20 that was published in the Thai press saying he did not want to benefit from the amnesty, and Justice Minister Pracha Promnok said later that day that the amnesty would not be modified to include those convicted of corruption. Thaksin, who has been sentenced to two years in prison for corruption, is living in exile in Dubai.

    Majority believe other politicians would not have fared better than Yingluck in flood crisis.

    Some 75 percent of respondents to a November 5–12 poll by ABAC Poll Research Center said they do not think that other politicians would have handled the recent flood situation any better than Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Although more than half of the people polled believed there were malpractices, corruption, and discrimination in the distribution of flood relief items, a majority did not think a cabinet reshuffle or the prime minister's resignation would solve the problem.

    Thailand initiates ASEAN efforts to increase cooperation in managing floods. At the urging of Thailand, ASEAN members issued a statement during the group’s annual summit in Bali November 17 committing countries to increase cooperation in flood mitigation and recovery efforts. They agreed to strengthen the role of the ASEAN secretary-general as the region's humanitarian assistance coordinator and to enhance the capacity of the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance. Recent flooding across the region has had far-reaching humanitarian and economic consequences, highlighting the need for better coordination.

    Vietnam

    Government drafts new economic plans to reform banking, state-owned enterprises. After several years of economic instability and double-digit inflation, leaders of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party are speaking openly about taking steps to fix the economy’s structural problems. Both foreign direct investment and the country's credit rating have slipped in the last year. The government has not yet detailed specific new policies, but officials have mentioned that corporate governance for state-owned enterprises (SOEs) could be brought up to OECD standards and that at least some SOEs could be privatized. The governor of the State Bank spoke recently to the National Assembly about steps that could be taken to strengthen the financial sector.

    National Assembly considers draft law on money anti-laundering. Vietnam’s National Assembly took up a draft law on November 15 that would improve the country's safeguards against money laundering and strengthen international crime fighting and counterterrorism measures. The move came three weeks after signatories to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption met in Morocco, where Vietnam discussed the money laundering bill and several anti-corruption measures that will be unveiled soon. 

    Two sentenced for broadcasting Falun Gong messages into China. A judge in Vietnam sentenced two Vietnamese men to two and three years in prison on November 10 for broadcasting messages about the Falun Gong spiritual movement into China. (China has banned the Falun Gong from operating in China.) In anticipation of the sentencing, more than 40 Vietnamese Falun Gong adherents protested at China's embassy in Hanoi but they were arrested and forcibly removed. Human Rights Watch protested both the trial and the arrests and accused Vietnam of caving in to Chinese pressure. 

    Myanmar general makes trip to Vietnam, skipping traditional stop in China. Myanmar’s new military chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, met with Vietnam's defense minister, General Phung Quang Thanh, in Vietnam on November 14. The Myanmar general's choice of Vietnam for his first trip abroad seemed to signal an effort by the government to distance itself from China, its traditional ally and benefactor. In September, Myanmar's president Thein Sein halted work on the China-financed Myitsone Dam, a move protested by Beijing.

    Indonesia

    Freeport strike drags on as miners reject latest offer. U.S.-owned Freeport-McMoRan has failed to come to an agreement on pay increases with workers who have been on strike since September at its Grasberg gold and copper mine, one of the world’s largest. At least nine individuals have been killed under various circumstances related to the strike. The mine is located in Indonesia’s restive Papua province, where thousands were violently dispersed at a Papuan independence rally in Jayapura on October 19 and thousands more marched through the city demanding independence on November 14. Indonesia refused to discuss the violence in Papua at the recent East Asia Summit and at the ASEAN summit, declaring it an "internal problem."

    F-16 transfer and MCC aid announced in Obama-Yudhoyono meeting in Bali. President Barack Obama met Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Bali November 18 and announced that the United States would provide 24 F-16 jet fighters to Indonesia and give $600 million in aid through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) to support environmentally sustainable economic development. The F-16s, which signal closer defense cooperation, will be provided at no cost, but Indonesia will pay $750 million to upgrade the planes. The MCC aid will result in "increased productivity, reduced energy costs, and improved provision of public . . . goods and services," according to an official U.S. statement.

    Caterpillar announces facility and GM breaks ground on plant. Caterpillar, the world’s largest truck and mining equipment manufacturer, announced on November 10 that it would invest $150 million in a new factory in Batam. The plant will produce some parts in 2012 and complete trucks in 2013. The factory is part of an $800 million global expansion plan by Caterpillar for manufacturing mining vehicles. On the same day, GM broke ground on a $150 million renovation of its automobile plant at Bekasi. 

    Indonesia joins ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand FTA. Indonesia passed domestic legislation on November 15 enabling it to join an ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand free trade agreement, which the nine other ASEAN members have already joined. Under the agreement, 90 percent of Australian and New Zealand goods will be exported to Indonesia tariff-free by 2015. The trade agreement marks Australia's closer economic and diplomatic integration into the region. 

    Indonesian counterterrorism unit arrests seven connected to smuggling network. Seven suspects in Indonesia and another 12 in Malaysia were arrested November 12–15 for weapons smuggling and ties to the Abu Omar smuggling network. Police claim that they would have been the main targets of any attacks using the weapons. The weapons smuggling network, which is based in the Philippines, supplies extremist groups with weapons and ammunition. Abu Omar and a dozen members were arrested earlier this year. 

    Malaysia

    Petronas discovers new oil reserves off eastern Malaysia. Malaysian state-owned oil company Petronas announced on November 15 that it has discovered significant oil reserves 62 miles off the northwest coast of Kota Kinabalu, Borneo. Preliminary estimates of Petronas’s find put the well’s reserves at 227 million barrels of oil. The new findings are expected to reverse Malaysia’s 2011 decline in crude oil output and potentially increase output by 3.3 percent in 2012.

    Prime minister’s office introduces Peaceful Assembly bill. The office of Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak introduced on November 18 a new Peaceful Assembly bill that the government claims is part of the prime minister’s “progressive package of social and political reforms.” Opposition lawmakers, however, have decried the proposed bill, which is expected to pass the legislature in December, as a ploy to stifle free speech. While the bill would reform current law to allow public gatherings without a police permit, it would place a number of restrictions on freedom of assembly, including a ban on street protests and a requirement that police receive 30 days’ notice of all gatherings. .

    Overseas Malaysian voting rights receive support from prime minister’s office. Nazri Aziz, a minister in the prime minister’s office, came out on November 16 in support of allowing overseas Malaysians to vote in the country’s expected 2012 elections. “As long as they comply with the Federal Constitution’s requirements . . . they should be allowed to exercise their right to vote,” said Nazri. He said that the voting could be handled by Malaysian embassies overseas. His statement came in response to a lawsuit filed by six Malaysians living in the United Kingdom who are suing the Malaysian Election Commission for the right to vote as absentee voters.

    Two Malaysian states push for harsher laws for homosexual Muslims. The Malaysian states of Pahang and Malacca have proposed harsher laws for Muslim homosexuals. Homosexuality is already illegal in Malaysia at the federal level and is punishable by caning and up to 20 years in jail. If the new laws pass, homosexual Muslims could be punished under both federal and state law and, in turn, serve prison sentences that could run consecutively and potentially last longer. The proposals follow on the heels of the Malaysian police’s closure of an annual sexual rights festival in Kuala Lumpur in early November.

    Cambodia

    Cambodian anticorruption unit overwhelmed by volume of complaints. The head of Cambodia’s anticorruption unit, Om Yentieng, recently said that the unit lacks the capacity to investigate all the complaints received in its first year, causing the investigation process to slow. The unit currently has about 200 officers, and an additional 74 national police officers are set to join later this year to speed up the investigations. Yentieng said that the unit is focusing its efforts on cases related to drug trafficking. Earlier this year, the unit’s investigations led to the arrest of Moek Dara, former secretary-general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, for involvement in bribe taking and drug dealing.

    Judges release Khmer Rouge defendant with dementia as trial opens. Judges of the UN-Cambodia joint tribunal tasked with prosecuting former Khmer Rouge officials declared Ieng Thirith, sister-in-law of former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, unfit to stand trial on November 17 due to dementia. The judges said she “lacks capacity to understand [the] proceedings against her or to meaningfully participate in her own defense.” Ieng Thirith, 79, served as the Khmer Rouge social welfare minister. The trial of the three remaining defendants—Khmer Rouge chief ideologist and number two leader Nuon Chea, 85, ex-head of state Khieu Samphan, 80, and former foreign minister Ieng Sary, 86—opened November 21 on charges of crimes against humanity for the deaths of 1.7 million people during the 1970s.

    Japan donates landmine detectors to Cambodia. The first shipment of 405 landmine detectors donated by the Japanese government will arrive in Cambodia in late November. The Japanese government signed a $2 million contract with Codan, an Australian mine detector manufacturing company, to provide landmine detectors to Cambodia Mind Action Center (CMAC). According to estimates by CMAC, Cambodia may have between 4 million  and 6 million mines and pieces of unexploded ordnance dating back to the wars that engulfed the country in the 1970s and 1980s.

    Mekong River

    Mekong River Commission to make decision on Laos’s Xayaburi dam. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) will meet in Cambodia in early December to decide whether to allow the Lao government to continue construction of its controversial Xayaburi hydropower project. Environmental group International Rivers on November 9 accused Laos of commissioning a “biased and incompetent” report to support the project. Laos’s deputy prime minister, Thongloun Sisoulith, responded to the concerns on November 18, saying “any construction activity will take place only if positive signals are given by the experts.” The MRC includes Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand.

    China to send armed boats to police the Mekong River. China’s state-run media reported on November 9 that China will deploy nearly 1,000 armed police on five patrol boats along the Mekong River to protect cargo vessels. The deployment follows the murder of 11 Chinese sailors last month, which highlighted the dangers of commercial travel along the river. University of New South Wales’ Carlyle Thayer said that while leaders of other Mekong River countries understand China’s desire to protect its ships, they will object to an outsized force.

    Singapore

    Singapore to contribute $50 million to new ASEAN members. Singapore pledged on November 17 to contribute $50 million over the next four years to spur growth in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s announcement at the ASEAN summit reaffirmed Singapore’s commitment to bridge the gap among ASEAN economies by providing funds to the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI), which was launched in 2000. The initiative now has training centers in Phnom Penh, Vientiane, Yangon, and Hanoi.

    Flash floods hit Singapore. Western Singapore was battered with flash floods on November 12. Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said Singapore needs to develop a long-term plan for flood prevention mechanisms. He encouraged the public to report real-time updates of floods through a smartphone app that was released November 10. He added, “This is actually a model for how Singapore and Singaporeans have to solve problems in the future – through transparency, through sharing, through collaborating.”

    Singapore faces lowest exports in two and a half years. Singapore on November 17 reported the worst drop in electronics exports since January 2009. Electronics exports tumbled 31.2 percent while overall non-oil domestic exports fell 16.2 percent, two times higher than economists had expected. The report followed a Philippine announcement a week earlier that its September exports fell 27.4 percent from last year. Asian countries have been lauded for weathering the recent financial crisis better than most, but continued economic stress in the region highlights the weakness of the global economy heading into the holiday season.

    Timor-Leste

    UN Special Rapporteur calls for more equitable growth in Timor-Leste. UN Special Rapporteur Magdalena Sepúlveda concluded her first visit to Timor-Leste November 18 by noting that despite double-digit growth, there appears to be a “two-track development approach” that is benefitting the residents of Dili while the country’s rural population languishes in poverty. She recommended more spending on education, health care, and agriculture to try to expand the base of people enjoying the benefits of economic gains.

    Timor Leste plans to have aid collected online to coordinate organizations and donors. Timor-Leste announced November 14 that its aid programs would be managed online to allow the government, local and donor communities, and nongovernmental organizations access to comprehensive data on aid flows and program implementation, to reduce redundancy and waste, and to improve equality in the distribution of funds. Secretary of State Ágio Pereira said, “If knowledge is power, then we, as a government, have the responsibility to empower our citizens so they may contribute as active players in the development process.”

    Brunei Darussalam

    Brunei hopes to join top 20 economies in ease of doing business by 2013. Brunei’s minister of industry and primary resources, Pehin Dato Hj Yahya, said that the country is aiming to join the ranks of the top 20 economies in the World Bank’s annual Ease of Doing Business index by 2013. The minister said that the government will collaborate with the private sector to improve agency rules and regulations that are detrimental to the country’s economic growth. Brunei currently ranks 83 on the index of 183 economies.

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    Looking Ahead

    Launch of the new USAID Global Health Strategy at CSIS. CSIS will host a public launch of the new USAID Global Health Strategy on November 28 from12:00-2:00 p.m. Dr. Ariel Pablos-Méndez, USAID Assistant Administrator for Global Health, will give a presentation on the strategy’s development, components, and expected impact. The launch will take place in the B1 Conference center at CSIS. Please RSVP here.

    Banyan Tree Forum with Ambassador Dino Patti Djalal. CSIS will host Indonesia’s Ambassador to the United States, H.E. Dr. Dino Patti Djalal, for a prestigious Banyan Tree Leadership Forum on November 30 from 10:00-11:00 a.m. Dr. Djalal will review President Obama’s recent trip to Asia, with a particular focus on his first East Asia Summit November 19-20. The event will take place in the B1B Conference Center at CSIS. For more information or to RSVP, please email southeastasiaprogram@csis.org.

    Behind-the-Scenes Review of the East Asia Summit. The Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA will host a “Behind-the-Scenes Review of the East Asia Summit” with Matthew Goodman, White House Coordinator for APEC and EAS, on December 1 from 12:00-1:30 p.m. Mr. Goodman will discuss the results of President Obama’s first East Asia Summit and the various bilateral meetings with Asian leaders in Bali, Indonesia. The event will be off-the-record and by invitation only.

    Open forum with Aburizal Bakrie. The U.S.-Indonesia Society will host an open forum and luncheon with Golkar’s 2014 presidential candidate, Aburizal Bakrie, on December 7 from 12:00-2:00 p.m. The event, titled “Indonesia Toward 2014: the View from Golkar,” will seek to present Golkar’s vision for the future of Indonesian democracy and the party’s role within it. The event will take place at the Cosmos Club, 2121 Massachusetts Ave., NW. Please RSVP by November 28 here.

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Ernest Z. Bower