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Regaining Thailand: An Inevitable Challenge for US Policymakers

This article focuses on the political situation in Thailand and the current state of U.S.-Thai relations. Due to the recent Thai military coup in 2014, the relationship between the United States and Thailand has deteriorated in various aspects to the extent that the ex-ASEAN frontrunner seems to have lost its position as a vibrant democracy and human right advocate and a relatively strong U.S. ally in the Asia-Pacific region. Although it will be an inevitable challenge for U.S. policymakers, to assist Thailand in regaining such position, it is believed that the United States must reverse its policy on the cutbacks in cooperation with Thailand and work with Thai authorities in an attempt to stabilize the political situation and consequently restore democracy to the country.

In elaboration of the above standpoint, this article is divided into three sections. The first section provides background to how the Thai military coup has come to power and of the present state of U.S.-Thai relations followed by a section which describes the significance of Thai political situation to the United States. The last section will be an illustration on a step-by-step procedure recommended to be taken by the United States in order to take Thailand back to its former self as a democratic nation and a U.S. ally.

Background Information

In May 2014, General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power in what is now Thailand’s fifth military coup under its current monarch of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Although coups have been frequent in Thailand’s turbulent modern history, the crucial timing and the severity of the junta’s subsequent actions suggest a subterranean ratcheting up of tensions. The backdrop of the coup was six months of street protests by “yellow shirts” which paralyzed the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, the youngest sister of the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin Shinawatra is undoubtedly considered a controversial figure in Thailand. During his administration, his populist policies worked in favor of his supporters mostly the lower-class who make up the majority of the Thai population. Despite various attempts by the elites to rid Thaksin of his influence, it was him and his allies that had always won elections on consecutive occasions over the past. Coming with the party’s gain in its popularity among the destitutes was the ascending despite from the the urban middle class, elites and especially the royalists who saw the party and its leader’s popularity and policies as cunning approaches to consolidating power. For the royalists, Thaksin’s legacy and influence was also seen as a threat to the monarchy, who has always maintained outright supremacy in modern times.

A loose group comprising royalists, ultra-nationalists and the urban middle class who disliked Thaksin is known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) or the “yellow shirts”. It is well known for its constant rallies of political movements against Thaksin and his allies in politics including his own sister the last democratically elected prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. They were behind the huge street protests that led up to both the 2006 military coup, which ousted Thaksin and sent him into exile overseas, as well as the recent one, which deposed his sister from the state’s premiership in similar ways. They are renowned for opposing stance against the “red shirts,” who sided with Thaksin and protested against unelected governments that toppled over him and his successors. For the “yellow shirts” and royalists, the coup was therefore seen as  a showcase of their own achievement after repeated prolonged efforts to eliminate prospects of Thaksin and his successors’ repeat victories in general elections and their returns to political power.

Upon taking power, Prayuth promised to Thai people in what described as return of “sustainable happiness” and laid a “roadmap” to returning the country the democratic ruling

whilst in reality all he and the junta has been committing seems to be of undemocratic nature and against its originally proclaimed plan. To name a few, Prayuth has suspended the democratic constitution, imposed martial law, and dialed back civil liberties such as freedom of speech and assembly. Over the past year, more than 1,000 politicians, academics, and journalists have been detained or sent to Thai military facilities for what is called “viewpoint adjustments”, while Yingluck has been put on trial for criminal negligence over alleged graft in a rice subsidy scheme. In April 2015, the junta released the first draft of its new constitution, the real aim of which was branded undemocratic in that it appeared to work against return of  electoral power once wielded by Thaksin Shinawatra to the Thai population. The draft was so unpopular and untrustworthy that it was rejected by the National Reform Council and surprisingly faced opposition from both the Phua Thai and Democrat Parties, the longstanding rivals in Thai politics. In January 2016, the second constitutional draft was launched to the public amidst fear of Meechai Ruchupuan, the official in charge of drawing it up, that it might not resolve long-running troubles and even produce weak civilian governments under the hidden influence of the military. Criticism of the new draft has demonstrated significant flaws in its content which once again bleak the potential of real democracy being returned to the nation. Notwithstanding masses of criticisms, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha remained adamant that the referendum for the draft constitution be held in mid-2017 even without solid guarantee.

As the United States’ oldest ally and a strategic hub to U.S.’ interests in the Asia-Pacific, Thailand’s regressive path cannot be ignored. Thailand is at present a military regime that lacks guarantee of when it will return to civilian rule. Further, it must be noted that elite interests are divergent from the United States’. While the United States, in collaboration with the Asia Pacific region, are expected to strive for bringing back the democratic state in Thailand, the royalists are dreading return of an electoral democracy that brought Thaksin and his successors into power over the past decade. Moreover, they become increasingly hostile with the United States’ signs of growing disapprovals and reactions shown in their curtailment of cooperation with Thai authorities. After Kristie Kenney, the US Ambassador to Thailand, criticized the coup, Thai royalists began a social media campaign calling for the ambassador to be recalled to Washington. Khunying Songsuda Yodmani, the daughter of former pro-US military dictator Thanom Kittikachorn, blasted the United States for ‘meddling’ in Thailand’s affairs and called on the U.S. State Department to “respect its allies and treat them as equals rather than its colonies.”

In the areas of defense and security, the Obama administration suspended more than $4.7 million worth of the unspent FMF and IMET assistance for Thailand. It cancelled high-level engagements, exercises, and a number of training programs with the military and police. Every year, the United States participate in the Cobra Gold, the largest Asia-Pacific military exercise held in Thailand. In the past, the exercise involved many thousands of U.S. and Thai troops and included high-end military operations. In 2015, however, the U.S. military scaled down the Cobra Gold, reducing U.S. troops to just 3,600 and cancelling a large-scale, live-fire exercise associated with amphibious landing. This is not surprising as under prohibitions in U.S. laws, American forces are limited in what exercises they are permitted to conduct with a nation that had overthrown a democratically elected government.

Nevertheless, Thailand, trying to prove its prevailing independence from Western sanctions is embarking on its journey to pursuing bilateral ties with China. To begin with, Thailand’s military junta favors China’s stance on the country’s internal situation. According to the conservative Thai newspaper Naew Na, sources in the Ministry of Defence noted that, “China regarded Thailand’s political problems as an internal issue, and that China would not interfere.” Due to the lack of ideological differences between Thailand and China’s current regimes, Thailand has been working more closely with China. On June 6, 2015, General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced that Thailand was now a “partner of China at every level.” Moreover, in January 2015, China’s Defense Minister Chang Wanquan embarked on a visit to Thailand aimed at boosting Sino-Thai defense relations. For Thailand, securing relations with China is the ruling junta’s way to show Washington that there are alternate partners who are willing to do business with, without fretting about the legitimacy of its rule.

Economically, Thailand’s ruling junta is boosting ties with China as a way to reverse its sluggish growth. In December, Thailand welcomed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, the most prominent foreign leader to visit the country since the military seized power on May 22. It was a good opportunity for Thailand to show that Thailand’s political problems are not obstacles to trade, especially since the West has reduced trade ties with Thailand following the coup.

Why Does This Matter?

As the oldest ally to the United States in the Asia-Pacific, Thailand acts as a crucial determinant to the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. While U.S. relations with most countries in Southeast Asia are warming, the United States’ ties with its oldest partner in the region are a critical outlier.

Although it is true that the military junta purposefully took control of Thailand, it must be understood that there is a looming royal succession coming up due to the ailing 87-year-old Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s ill-health. For now, the Thai military has assumed political control to ensure it manages the royal succession, whenever that takes place. King Bhumibol guided his people through the tumult that was the second half of the 20th century until today. His death will shake Thailand like nothing has in its modern history, and the Thai military wants to be firmly in charge when that happens, and it is that simple.

In responding to Thailand’s political crisis, the United States must walk a tightrope, balancing consistency in U.S. foreign-policy tenets supporting democracy, human rights and freedom of speech with readiness to deal with deep-rooted consequences of Thailand’s political transition that may arise in the near future. It risks losing serious geopolitical ground if it fails to manage this difficult chapter in Thailand’s political evolution.

Whether or not the junta succeeds in this aim, Prayuth’s “democracy with Thai characteristics” may struggle to bridge his country’s deep political and social divides. American academic David Streckfuss has described his rule as a throwback to Thailand’s “golden age of military dictatorship” during the Cold War. Particularly, it overlooks the rising political expectations of the Thai people. “This is not the same Thailand as 1958, 1976, or 1991,” Streckfuss writes. “And neither are the Thai people the same. Democracy in Thailand may not be inevitable, but its chances are considerably higher than successfully putting the genie of political consciousness back in the bottle.” In other words, Prayuth may find the Thai people growing restless provided that not much has been done to bridge the divides. Meanwhile, the United States has an interest in seeing democracy return to Thailand as rapidly as possible. The U.S. must therefore act as a mediator ready to handle the consequences that may arise from Thailand’s political crisis.

What Should The United States Do?

For now, it is unlikely that Thailand will have real elections until the succession has taken place, which could be several years from now. Moreover, the draft constitution currently being circulated falls short of what would be considered as democratic. The presented charter contains provisions for a new senate where the junta would appoint all 250 members and leave six seats open for the heads of the armed forces. This appointed senate would also check the power of lawmakers during the five-year transitional phase, which allows the junta, and not civilians, to both determine both the senate body and the laws. Further, the new prime minister could be selected if over 250 members of parliament support the motion and if it subsequently approved by a joint session of the lower house and the appointed senate. This would allow the junta-controlled senate, and not the citizens to choose their leader, and would arguably allow junta leaders like Prayuth to prolong his premiership. In addition, the revamped constitution may allow a planned National Strategic Reform and Reconciliation Committee – nicknamed the “crisis panel” – to seize all executive and legislative power from the government and parliament in an emergency. An unelected “outsider” could become prime minister, endorsed by parliament, if a “crisis” arises, and critics fear that pro-junta outsiders will be boosted to become premier. Additionally, the Constitutional Court will continue to decide the fates of politicians who fall afoul of the charter’s laws or if a “crisis” remains unresolved. During the past decade, that Constitutional Court ruled against several elected politicians, effectively ending their careers. Essentially, this constitution will provide the junta a supreme right to prevent the sort of electoral democracy that brought Thaksin and his allies to power, contrary to popular 1997 constitution that the junta canceled after a 2006 coup.

The U.S. government must be strategic. Taking lesson from the hostilities that the Americans faced after the previous U.S. ambassador Kristie Kenney staked out hardline against the coup, Washington must urge the current ambassador to Thailand Glyn Davies to be cautious, moderate and take a more nuanced approach towards protecting U.S. interests. Meanwhile, Davies must be urged to continue negotiating with Thai authorities. His team should consult with the military and various stakeholders, in order to deepen understanding of U.S. concerns and listen to perspectives of the key players in the political drama that has engulfed the kingdom. Further, to restore democratic hopes, Davies’ team must also pressure the junta to amend the new draft through diplomatic pressures and negotiations. It must uphold the principle that the constitution follows international guidelines, respects the choice of citizens and not the military officials over their premier. At this point, there were numerous politicians and civilians who were detained over their criticisms of the new draft; the U.S. government must assert the fact that their opinions must be respected. Beyond that, it should pressure the Thai government to end the use of military tribunals to try civilians, and amend or revoke the penal code article 112 on lese-majeste and release those who are convicted under that article.

Thailand’s relations with China have long been strong and it seems that Beijing incrementally steps up its ties with the Thai military every time Washington pulls back. Washington must therefore find ways to demonstrate that it remains a friend of Thailand and not turn its back on the country when politics enters a rough patch. One idea would be to establish a private eminent persons’ group of senior former U.S. foreign-policy officials, experts and business leaders that could meet influential Thais on a regular basis to discuss the future of Thai-U.S. relations, for example, five years down the road.

In the areas of defense and security, Washington can reverse its cuts to military cooperation, but with limits. First, it can continue its full complement of joint military exercises. Second, the U.S. should prepare to hit the ground running with resumption of full military-to-military contact, to include the doubling of IMET assistance. Nonetheless, Washington should also condition that Thailand will only receive full military cooperation if it is progressing towards the democratic path and take into account the human rights of its citizens, through Ambassador Davies’ use of continued diplomatic pressure and negotiations. This way, the U.S. will be able to both improve its ties with Thailand and at the same time ensure that Thailand is walking the right way.

Bangkok hosts one of the largest U.S. embassies in the region, and this serves as the base for a raft of U.S. activities in Southeast Asia including regional headquarters for narcotics addiction, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. If the military continues to delay elections and tighten control on civil society, it would not be safe for these institutions and operations to be solely based in Bangkok, as it would allow the junta to jeopardize U.S. interests, institutions and operations. However, rather than completely relocating these activities, which would strain U.S.-Thai relations even further, a good option will be to disperse these interests throughout Southeast Asia, which would not only protect U.S. interests, but would also allow it to better deal with Thailand. For example, the U.S. could enlarge its embassies throughout the region and establish second offices for these activities in countries such as Vietnam and Singapore, for a different set of reasons. U.S.-Vietnam relations in recent times have been improving and strategic; establishing offices in Vietnam will not only allow the U.S. to handle more closely mainland Southeast Asian issues, but will also increase its leverage over the ongoing disputes with China in the South China Sea, a sea crucial to maritime trade. As for Singapore, the island nation’s political stability, development and hub location in Southeast Asia allows it to serve as a haven for U.S. interests to be well-maintained and not be threatened.

Moreover, an important way to regain Thailand is by increasing engagement with nearby countries, which has already been happening. For example, the U.S. could work towards the development and democratization of Thailand’s neighboring countries Lao, Cambodia and Myanmar, in case it will have any spillover effects to Thailand in the future. Having recently gone through a dramatic political transition from a military dictatorship to a democratic regime, working with Myanmar will give hope. Another very important country the U.S. should work very closely with is Indonesia, a regional leader, stable democracy and home to the headquarters of ASEAN, the political and economic organization of ten Southeast Asian countries. First, more diplomatic activities in Indonesia will allow the United States increased presence over ASEAN regional institutions to influence the dynamics and affairs of Southeast Asia as a region. Second, with Indonesia on its side, the U.S. will be able to utilize Indonesia’s power in Southeast Asia to push Thailand and other countries in the region to embrace democratic transitions and human rights. It would not be a quick process, but working with neighboring countries will gradually press Thailand to democratize in the long-run.

After all it is worth noting that there exists remarkable prospect of Thai’s current political status being overlooked by the United States amidst the rising of some neighboring countries on the ASEAN political and diplomatic platform. There also arises a concern that this may steer away the United States’ attention from assisting Thailand in gaining back democracy and basic human rights. Among a few countries is Myanmar which has recently gone through a massive political upheaval from the dictatorship to democratic regime and coming with their newly-acquired democracy is evidence of China’s attempt to secure the top alliance position via its economic collaboration plan and policies with the country. Confining its attention to a small group of the Asia Pacific countries may do the United States more harms than goods. Hence it is crucial that the United States never loses sight of maintaining a good balance of power through its public relations and diplomatic exercises throughout the Asia Pacific region.

This op-ed, written by a concerned Thai citizen, is posted anonymously.

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Filed under ASEAN, SLIDER, Thailand, Uncategorized

What’s Old is New Again: Predictions for Southeast Asia 2016

Will there be more skirmishes in the South China Sea in 2016? Photo: Getty Images

Will there be more skirmishes in the South China Sea in 2016? Photo: Getty Images

Much can change in a year’s time. In January 2015, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew was still alive, Aung San Suu Kyi’s future as leader of Myanmar was quite uncertain and East by Southeast was not making any predictions about international affairs in Southeast Asia. But again, much can change in a year’s time.

2016 will be a critical period for geopolitics in the region, as new strategic relationships are formed and existing ones strengthened. Many experts talk of a growing polarization of the region as countries position themselves between the US and China, a trend due in large part to rising tensions in the South China Sea. The conflict will take center stage in 2016. Look for the the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration to publish its initial findings on the Philippines’ case against China in the first half of 2016. Despite not ruling on sovereignty issues, the outcome of this case will likely anger China and lead to a more aggressive stance towards the Philippines and other claimants. As the Philippines and Vietnam rely more heavily on the US for security guarantees in the South China Sea, more US flyovers and naval patrols in the contested waters are to be expected. Look for the US Navy to begin to use Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay for “maintenance” purposes and to park its ships on a somewhat permanent basis  in the Philippines’ Subic Bay after joint military exercises finish in April 2016.

Conversely, look for the emerging Sino-Thai regional axis to be solidified in 2016. This relationship, despite not bringing much to the languishing Thai economy, will tighten the ruling junta’s grip on power. Thailand’s long drift towards authoritarianism will add further strains on ties with the US, its long-term external security power. Of course, the permanent white elephant in the room in Thailand is the king’s health. With his majesty in poor health, lese majeste cases will continue to multiply as the junta’s concern grows.  His death and the subsequent succession struggle would likely send the country into chaos, even with the army in control. Such a collapse of the Thai political structure would have major repercussions for the region’s stability.

Laos is also in for a tough year ahead. Its chairing of ASEAN will do more to highlight its shortcomings than celebrate its successes. With the opening of Xayaburi Dam, Don Sahong Dam scheduled to break ground in 2016 and preliminary studies beginning on a third Mekong dam at Pak Beng, there will be renewed calls from the international community for Laos to reconsider its hydropower plans for the Mekong River. The landlocked country’s lack of finesse in dealing with the South China Sea conflict will also draw criticism, all punctuated by continuing questions about the kidnapping of Lao activist Sombath Somphone.

In Cambodia, the political impasse between the ruling Cambodia People’s Party and the Cambodia National Rescue Party will continue through the first half of 2016. Expect strongman Hun Sen to find an 11th hour solution paving the way for opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return from self-imposed exile to begin preparing for the 2017 parliamentary elections.

Barring another major fracture in Thai politics, Vietnam’s National Party Congress will mark the region’s most significant political transition in 2016. Nguyen Tan Dung is likely to be selected as Vietnamese Communist Party chairman, with Truong Tan Sang staying on as president or similar role to balance Dung’s reformist tendencies. Dung’s leadership will be key as Vietnam implements the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a painful process that will force Vietnam to learn to run and walk at the same time. Dung’s princeling son, Nguyen Thanh Nhgi, will also be elevated to the Central Committee and has a bright path ahead if his father can lead the country into a new era of high economic growth and balanced relations between the US, China and Russia.

Corruption scandals will continue to keep a stranglehold on Indonesian and Malaysian politics. In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo’s efforts to prop up a sagging economy will be hampered by an unstable cabinet and nagging questions relating to 2015’s Freeport corruption scandal. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak will continue to face intense public scrutiny over the 1MDB scandal. It is possible that Najib will use a new national security law to muffle Malaysian civil society’s calls for his resignation.

After refreshingly open elections in 2015, 2016 will be a year of political posturing for Myanmar. As Aung San Suu Kyi and her victorious National League for Democracy take power in early 2016, the military will position itself to retain many of its past privileges. Look for Than Shwe and the other generals to create a formal post in the government for Aung San Suu Kyi, who is legally barred from the presidency, in a bid to define and contain her power as head of the NLD. Those expecting radical change from the NLD government will be disappointed – there will be little structural political reform, the NLD’s foreign policy will be largely similar to Thein Sein’s, and the ethnic reconciliation process will still muddle along. However, look for the new ruling party to permanently shut down the Myitsone hydropower project and consider suspending the Salween river’s cascade of dams in order to push along the ethnic peace process.

Like 2015, this year will see a further intensification of the Rohingya refugee crisis. However, with the world’s eyes adjusted to seeing the plight of refugees, there will be more attention paid to the issue and Aung San Suu Kyi will receive pressure from both Western and Muslim-majority countries to solve the problem of Rohingya persecution in Myanmar. Another ethnic group that came to the forefront last year, China’s Uighur population will also stay in the news in 2016. Increased crackdowns in their home Xinjiang province will force more refugees into Southeast Asia, and lead to a handful of Uighur-related terrorist attacks, both foiled and executed, in Thailand and Indonesia.

The regional economy will see decreased growth in 2016 as a result of slowing growth and structural issues in the Chinese economy. Chinese money will still flow south as the One Belt One Road strategy is rolled out and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank officially opens for business. Contrary to some expectations, the AIIB’s first loan recipient will not be Myanmar, but either Laos or Cambodia.

On the other side of the coin, the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership will begin the ratification process in a number of regional countries this year. Our bets on order of approval are Singapore first, followed by Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. Indonesia will likely commit to the TPP by the end of the year while Thailand’s economic struggles under the military junta will push it closer to joining. Much of the US-ASEAN Sunnylands conference in February will be centered on TPP ratification, along with South China Sea issues and counter-terrorism cooperation, and will serve to solidify relations between the US and the bloc. ASEAN leaders will be looking for assurances of American commitment to the region during the next administration and they will likely receive them. Of course the future of the TPP and the US Rebalance to Asia lies in the fate of the US Presidential elections and our prediction is that America’s first woman president will keep the Rebalance at the forefront of her foreign policy – after all it was her idea.

Last but not least, the Asian Economic Community will be the same on January 1, 2017 as it was at the head of this year – a half-baked dream with little hope of success.

To all of the East by Southeast readers and their families, we wish a you happy new year and much joy and success in 2016!

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Filed under ASEAN, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Economic development, Foreign policy, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Mekong River, Myanmar/Burma, Philippines, Regional Relations, SLIDER, South China Seas, Thailand, USA, Vietnam

Solving Southeast Asia’s drug problem

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Image of the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet.

The Obama administration has once again named Myanmar and Laos to its list of twenty-two countries determined to be major drug trafficking countries or major drug transit countries. The White House memo, issued on Monday, noted that Myanmar “failed demonstrably during the last twelve months to make sufficient or meaningful efforts to adhere to their obligations under international counternarcotics agreements.” The United States, however, did extend Myanmar a National Interest Waiver to promote democracy and avoid reduction of aid to Burma as a result of the designation.

The Golden Triangle, an area formed roughly by the upland frontier areas of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and China, was the world’s leading opium producer from the 1960s to the 1980s. But just less than ten years ago, it was moving toward opium free status as deepening economic ties with a rising China brought new investment and governments supported crop substitution programs in the region. Now, opium, methamphetamines, and other drugs from the Golden Triangle are once again flooding regional and global markets.

In just the past two months alone, 26mn methamphetamine tablets were seized in Yangon, Myanmar and 1.5 tons of marijuana packed into coffee shipments from Laos were seized in Cambodia. Earlier this year The New York Times ran a series of exposes on opium production and heroin addiction in Myanmar’s conflict-ridden Shan and Kachin states. The United Nations estimates that Myanmar’s poppy cultivation has tripled since 2006 and takes up almost 150,000 acres.

Despite recent spurts of economic growth in Myanmar and Laos, flagging economic conditions on the countries’ peripheries and civil war in Myanmar are pushing marginal peoples toward the production of opium. Lucrative cash crops like opium won’t make farmers rich, but hired labor on an illegal opium farm in Kachin state will earn $8 per hour compared with $2.50 working on a legal farm.

A new push factor for upland drug production in Laos and Myanmar is the arrival of small-scale agricultural investors from China’s neighboring Yunnan province. Their projects, often set up on lowland concessions granted by national or local governments, utilize less local labor and thus create a landless poor classes that literally ‘head for the hills’ to cultivate opium. Another new addition to the landscape is recently built highways and other infrastructure development projects that link urban centers but often ignore the periphery. Poor road conditions in upland areas cannot facilitate logistical support or encourage investment that could promote legal and productive agricultural activities in upland areas. And once the opium makes its way down narrow trails to the lowland areas, the highway serve as quick conduits for global distribution networks.

Being out of reach from state security and legal institutions – which typically underperform at any rate in Laos and Myanmar – permits opium farmers and trafficking middlemen to operate with impunity. Upland Southeast Asia is not the only place affected. Evidence shows drug use is on the rise in China and within Southeast Asia’s growing urban and rural middle classes. Moreover, crackdown efforts in lowland areas of these countries has only pushed production further into upland areas which are harder to reach.

Efforts to control and stem opiate production in Laos and Myanmar are often focused on identification and eradication. Government agencies locate productive areas and destroy illegal crops. This often forces rural peoples into poverty or drives villagers to new, more remote areas ripe for opium production. The UN and China have introduced crop substitution as a solution in Myanmar and Laos. But this “big state solution” often fails in its implementation because it neglects the needs of upland agriculture and flounders in its long term commitment to solving the problem.

In 2007, China’s crop substitution programs looked to be succeeding in reducing opium production. However, poor investment in infrastructure and low commitment to technical assistance created a situation where alternative cash crops could not compete on a global market and upland farmers were left high and dry.

Investments in coffee and rubber – often seen as more lucrative cash crops – take three to seven years to yield a harvest. This, coupled with falling global food prices and high transportation costs due to lack of infrastructure, discourages alternative investment. As a result, crop substitution investments in sugar, buckwheat, coffee, and rubber have consistently failed or are currently flagging in upland Southeast Asia.

To effectively curb the production of opium and other illegal drugs in upland areas of Myanmar and Laos, expenditure on agricultural extension programs and infrastructure such as paved roads and logistical facilities must increase to attract suitable investment into these areas. Advances in the peace process in Myanmar and resultant spurts of legitimate economic growth in the country’s ethnic autonomous states will do much to curb opium and methamphetamine production. Laos, however, is a different story. Even peace cannot stem opiate production, with its current set of weak institutions dictated by the fiat of a few powerful families with strong ties to China. Counter-narcotic efforts are vital to stop the flow of opium and methamphetamines in Southeast Asia. But they must be paired with viable economic solutions for the upland farmers involved in drug production.

This article was first published here on The Diplomat website on September 17. 

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SMEC’ed About the Head

What is it about No that SMEC doesn’t understand?

SMEC, an Australian based services company that morphed out of the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation, was recently handed a petition containing 23,7171 signatures opposing a dam that would effectively divide war-shocked Shan state in Myanmar in half.

They are the  public face of a consortium planning a giant dam on the Upper Salween river at Mong Ton in Myanmar.  It’s not the first time they have been told the idea stinks.  Maybe they are heroically taking one for the gang; the disaster prone Three Gorges Corporation,  the very shonky Sino Hydro, the Myanmar Electricity Power  Enterprise,  and state energy monopsony  Thai Electricity Generating Authority (EGAT).  Then there is a UK team of engineers Malcolm Dunstan and Associates, involved in dam building in Myanmar in the past and, because of human right violations on the sites, placed on UK’s Burma Campaign’s ‘Dirty Company’ list. SMEC might well soon be down there with them.

SMEC has been meeting the people of Shan state, seeking agreement for the Mong Ton dam to be built on the upper Salween in Shan State. They have faced serial rejection. Meetings have been cancelled due to local hostility. Old Shan women have risen to their feet, their voices rich and challenging, telling the SMEC representatives that having survived years of war, they refuse to let their ancestral lands be drowned to produce unneeded electricity for China and Thailand.

SMEC’s habit of giving gifts of cloth bags, bottled drinks and snacks to people they interview has as angered local villagers, who view these as bribes. They report SMEC repeatedly pushes the ‘positive’ impacts of the dam, appearing deaf to protests, while attempting to persuade them to sign documents they don’t understand.

On July 22nd, a group of villagers returned the bags they had been given by SMEC surveyors, and instead presented them with anti-dam posters. A Shan joint statement calls SMEC’s assessments process “simply a sham, aimed to rubber-stamp the Mong Ton dam plans, rather than objectively assess (sic)  the project’s actual impacts.”

In April this year the Australian Federal Police raided SMEC’s international’s headquarters in New South Wales ‘as part of an investigation into allegations of foreign bribery – it was unclear if this was associated with the Myanmar project.

‘Many of our highly respected stupas and pagodas, such as Ho Leung temple, will be destroyed.’ said Hkyaw Seng, whose village is close to the construction site. The 700 years old Ho Leung Temple, on the eastern bank of the Salween is famous throughout Shan State, with tens of thousands of pilgrims travelling there every March.

In the Australian context, this might be compared to submerging St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne  to power New Zealand.

Burma Battlers

Along with other ethnic states of Myanmar, Shan state suffered intense warfare for over 20 years and sporadic clashes since. It is the biggest of Myanmar’s seven ethnic states with population of around 8 million people, half of whom are  Shan.

During that long war many abuses were committed by the Burmese Army, include arbitrary execution and detention, torture, looting, rape, forced relocation and forced labour.

Shan and Karen representatives reported to this correspondent that SMEC’s work has been obstructed by political instability, increasing military presence and growing community resistance. In May Burmese Army tanks were photographed in Kunhing, whose renowned ‘thousand islands’ in the Pang tributary will be submerged by the dam reservoir. They fear opposition to the dam will trigger military violence.

Four SMEC officials went to the Wa capital in early July this year, seeking to survey the Wa Special Administrative Region. They were ‘advised’ to return at a later date by leaders of the China-backed United Wa State Army, possibly due to growing political and military tension between UWSA (notoriously linked with cross border drug trade) and Burmese government; tensions that erupted into fighting in Mong Ton township in early June 2015. SMEC is now effectively unable to carry out surveys in a large swathe of Wa-controlled territory along the eastern bank of the Salween above the planned Mong Ton dam.

The US$10 billion (2015 estimate) hydropower dam will flood an area nearly the size of Singapore, virtually bisecting  Shan state and destroying around a hundred communities. You can replace houses but not communities which are organic social structures built on trust mutual support and shared histories. It is the very strength of these communities that enabled their people to endure the hardships of war. Locals report that tanks are returning, as are armed guards. A Chiang Mai lawyer with connections to the Shan, told this correspondent recently ‘local media report that the project has started, and in a conversation we had… a few weeks ago, there is a camp of mostly Chinese engineers doing testing near the site. They said that the river near that area is off limits to all people and that warning shots were fired at a boat that got too close. The contact was not sure who fired the shots.’

The Burma river network (BRN) asserts that large dams are being constructed on all of Burma’s major rivers and tributaries by Chinese, Thai and Indian companies. The dams are causing displacement, militarization, human rights abuses, and irreversible environmental damage – threatening the livelihoods and food security of millions. The power and revenues generated are going to the military regime and neighbouring countries.

Role Play

So what is an Aussie company doing there?

‘It is not SMEC’s role to provide recommendations as to whether the Project should proceed. The findings of the EIA/SIA will be presented to the Government of Myanmar, who will decide (with other sources of information) whether to proceed with the Project.’ (Pro forma response from SMEC).

SMEC’s role has been to complete the Environmental and Social Impact Assessments. The general idea is for both these studies to be submitted to the government to be signed-off (or, as happens too often, paid off) and plans for mitigation put to the villagers and agreed to before work can start. However a local council member in Mong Ton, seconding the lawyer’s report, said that despite the local people’s disapproval, earthworks were already underway along the ridge of the mountain, as was confirmed by Kai Khur Hseng, a spokesperson for the Shan by phone from the Thai-Myanmar border.

‘Well you would expect that,’ said environmental consultant Dr Sean Foley in neighbouring Laos. ‘They borrow lots of money to build the dam and no doubt to pay off officials. The longer they delay, the more interest they have to pay, so it’s in their interest to get moving, and pay the necessary fees to ensure the EIA is agreed to. The ‘soft’ items like compensation to villagers and relocation construction are usually where all the cost savings are made.’

As for the social impacts, it should be obvious, when confronted with a room full of people who are largely farmers and whose land is about to be flooded, wearing ‘No Dams’ headbands, that maybe, just maybe, these people think the social and economic costs are not worth it. Despite SMEC’s claims to hold free and fair consultations the presence of local militias and pro-government representatives in meetings inhibited villagers from asking questions.

A message sent to SMEC’s local senior manager, Michael Holics, which asked how much forest was going to be destroyed, how many tonnes of concrete to be used was met with a pro forma response  (see above), the same response given to questions related to resettlement, land allocation, livelihoods, and fish stocks. Tropical dams are under scrutiny, found to emit as much greenhouse gas as coal fired power plants with similar energy output, while devastating huge areas of land.

SMEC’s job has already been done by International Rivers (IR) and other local groups who have listed the environmental and social factors mitigating against building the dam. Pianporn Deetes of IR told this correspondent that tens of thousands of ethnic people living on the floodplains near the dam site have already been forcibly relocated. ‘All dams planned on the Salween River will greatly disrupt the riverine ecosystem and destroy the livelihoods of peoples living along the river.’

SMEC could hardly avoid the fact that in 2007, the dam consortium was given land on which to build an office, land confiscated from Wan Mai village. In the way of the then-incumbent military junta, landless villagers were forced to attend the ground-breaking ceremony for the dam. Further north, the Mekong, Salween and Yangtze rivers flow in parallel for at least 300 kms, creating a World Heritage listed biodiversity area that is being destroyed by megaprojects like hydropower dams. In short, SMEC whose office centred CSR principles would have this project in Australia booed off the field, seem undeterred.

Sai Khur Hseng reported that wars and forest destruction had taken its toll on mega-fauna like elephants but that  ‘Survivors habitat will be drowned by the dam.’ Myanmar’s laws have not been reformed in keeping with global standards and do not provide for compensation or relocation.

Paul Sein Twa, reported that business cronies of the regime have already been clear-felling formerly dense teak forests around the dam site. Director of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), Twa told Mongabay that proposed multiple dams would do irreparable damage to the Salween Basin extending across, China, Myanmar and Thailand. The basin is “home to the world’s last great teak forest, to dry-season islands rich with crops, and to healthy fisheries upon which many people depend. This river is of vast ecological and cultural value, and it is worth preserving for present and future generations.’

Did the Earth Move for You

The Mong Ton dam wall, some 241 meters high, would be one of the highest in the region. The area is very prone to earthquakes and warning has been issued about impending risk of a serious movement of the nearby Sagaing fault after the Nepal ‘adjustment’. The collapse of such a dam would be disastrous.  Scientists have warned of additional  +7 scale adjustments in the next decade and have clearly advised against dam building. A dam this size could itself cause a seismic event, as happened in Sichuan China.

The Himalayan and Tibetan glaciers appear to be melting faster than earlier predicted, offering increased flows in the short-term but ‘dry ice’ in the future.

Twa agreed the dam also poses a threat of catastrophic flooding, should the region’s seismic activity lead to an earthquake-induced dam failure.

Asia is engaged in a orgy of dam building, pushed heavily by China and Thailand, whose urban elites stand to profit mightily from such investments. In this part of the world rivers are integral to life, providing food, transport and irrigation to countless communities.

Myanmar’s government has not publicly addressed villager’s complaints, but have praised the Salween dam projects as benefiting local populations, securing critically-needed electricity for Myanmar and leading to peace. But the opposite appears to be true, with the poor losing hard-won security and military build ups occurring daily. Maybe SMEC’s shareholders should understand the implications of the company’s activities and make their discontent clear.

The author of this article has chosen to publish anonymously.

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Filed under Current Events, Economic development, Energy, ethnic policy, Governance, Myanmar/Burma, SLIDER

John Kerry’s 2015 ASEAN Summit Speech 8.6.15

Transcript of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech and Q&A at 2015 ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  August 6.2015

SECRETARY KERRY: Good afternoon, everybody. So let me begin, if I may, by thanking our Malaysian hosts for their very warm welcome and for having really put together an exemplary ASEAN and regional forum as well as the entertainment and gathering us. We really appreciate the generous hospitality and quality of their chairmanship for the past year.

I think all of you know that ASEAN has really long been the centerpiece of the Asia Pacific’s multilateral architecture and it’s really also a key of the United States’ ongoing focus on the initiative to rebalance our resources, our time, our energy, our effort with respect to the region.

In my remarks at Singapore Management University earlier this week, I spoke about how we seek a region in which countries come to each other’s aid when natural disasters strike or human emergencies occur. In that spirit, I want to express my personal and my country’s condolences to all those affected by the flooding and the very heavy rains in Myanmar. The United States – I said there would be additional assistance. The United States will provide $600,000 of immediate relief through USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. And we have a team on the ground now working with local officials in order to meet the most urgent needs. We will continue to follow the situation and we’re going to work with our partners in order to help those in the most affected areas.

I also want to express my condolences to the folks who have experienced an extraordinary tragic loss of life on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. While we were here during the course of this journey with the discovery of the flap on Reunion Island, all the wounds have been opened again, all of the sorrow is felt even more intensely, and there are no words to express adequately our sense of loss and our sense of heartbreak to the families of the victims. Obviously, we hope very much that the debris that was discovered on the Reunion Island, if it is found to be conclusively from the aircraft, that this will help to bring some sense of closure about what happened and perhaps even more reliable information that can be tracked from the currents that may even narrow the area of search, which we would hope for.

I want to commend the French authorities and other international experts for their diligence both in the analysis of this wing but also in their overall investigation as well as in the ongoing search.

Over the last two days here, we reviewed a number of challenges that are related to the security and quality of life of this region that require the kind of cooperative thought and action that ASEAN was specifically designed to achieve. We are, for example, all of us – all of us at this meeting – united in our desire to counter and mitigate the harmful impacts of climate change, one of the most acute and potentially devastating threats to our shared future. And those countries that have not yet announced their independent – nationally designed contributions – defined contributions, all stepped up and said they intend to do so, some of them very shortly. Australia, for instance, has a big meeting in the next couple of days.

So people are pushing towards the target date of the Paris negotiations, and we welcome that. I was able to report to our colleagues that the United States has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions to the lowest levels in two decades and that we have set a goal for even more ambitious reductions by the year 2025. At the ASEAN-U.S. ministerial meeting, we discussed the importance of every single country going into this effort, each of them putting forward their own targets for the post-2020 period. And I would remind everybody that was actually agreed to at the ASEAN-U.S. summit last fall.

Following the Lower Mekong Initiative meeting – the ministerial meeting – we issued a statement on building a sustainable future for the Mekong. I think it’s an important document because it lays out a plan of action for the next five years and the statement reiterates our goal of supporting a smart and responsible development along the Mekong River. And the Mekong River, as everybody in this part of the world knows, is one of the great rivers of the world and millions of people rely on that river as their source of livelihood, their source – protein, of food. It is critical.

At the ASEAN regional forum, ministers endorsed a statement committing everyone to tackle illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing. And I was proud to announce a new multiyear Oceans and Fisheries Partnership with the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center in order to develop a system for documenting and tracing illegal fishing with an initial commitment by the United States of 4.3 million for the first year as it gets going.

On the security side, I expressed our serious concerns over the developments in the South China Sea, including a massive land reclamation and the potential militarization of land features. I reiterated America’s strong support of freedom of navigation, overflight, and other lawful uses of the sea. These rights, I would remind everybody, are universal rights and they must be respected by every nation, large and small. To that end, I made clear our belief that the claimants to some of these reefs, islands, to some of these areas, should – all of them, every one of them – take concrete steps in order to try to lower the tensions by refraining from further land reclamation, militarization, and construction projects. A number of the claimants today made clear their willingness to refrain from those very actions.

So this is an important step forward, but obviously there’s work left to be done since no claimant is going to be expected to stop if others are disregarding this call and continuing to proceed with their work. So a policy of restraint will create the diplomatic space that is required for a meaningful code of conduct to emerge. And we will work very hard with all of our partners in order to try to help that code of conduct come into being. It is vital that claimants refrain from provocative unilateral actions, that they pursue their claims according to international law, and that they settle their differences peacefully through rule of law.

I also reaffirm that the United States has very strong interests itself in the South China Sea and we have a strong interest in the way that disputes are addressed. The United States will continue to take steps to support peace and stability in this region, to uphold international law, and protect our interests throughout this arena as we have, in fact, for decades.

In the East Asia Summit ministerial, we tackled a wide array of pressing political and security challenges from maritime security to cyber security to countering violent extremism. And I’m very pleased to report that the – excuse me – that the East Asia Summit foreign ministers endorsed the Vienna P5+1 plan for the reduction of Iran’s – the reduction – the elimination of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon and I think that the endorsement that came from all of the countries there today this morning really underscores the interest that people on a global basis have in the success of this agreement.

I also had an opportunity to meet with the prime minister and the foreign minister in bilateral meetings. In addition to global and regional issues, we discussed our shared interest in wrapping up successfully the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and especially, cooperating to combat violent extremism. I also raised concerns about freedom of expression and I spoke with the prime minister about Anwar Ibrahim’s situation.

We also talked about accelerating progress in the fight against human trafficking. This was a very significant part of my message at a number of the meetings that we had publicly with all of my colleagues as well as privately with each of my bilaterals. Human trafficking is too prevalent in places where people who are migrants or who are simply poor and without and recourse or refugees are preyed on. And it is intolerable that in the year 2015 anyone should be content to live with what amounts to modern day slavery – people who are pressed into any number of types of work from sexual exploitation to the labor market exploitation and put into positions they can’t escape from, and some of them, even literally, very much imprisoned in those positions.

The Government of Malaysia, I’m pleased to say, has made significant efforts to comply with the minimum standards of the elimination of trafficking. And in my conversation with the prime minister, we talked about the ways in which we can cooperate to do more, and the prime minister welcomed that opportunity, particularly in the field of law enforcement. I made it clear in my meetings with both the prime minister and the foreign minister that this is a priority for the United States and that they need to continue to show leadership, as they did in the passing with their laws, now with the full implementation of those laws.

And let me just say – I’m sure all of you feel this inherently, viscerally – that there is perhaps no greater threat to human dignity and no greater assault on basic freedom and no greater detraction from the values that we are espousing and trying to lift people up with, no greater evil alive today in many ways than human trafficking. We all need to be true to the principle that although money may be used for many things, we must never, ever allow a price tag to be attached to the heart and soul and the mind and freedom of a fellow human being. That is the standard that we need to set for all nations, and this will remain a main priority of both the State Department and the Obama Administration for the remainder his time in office.

So as always, when representatives of the United States of America and ASEAN nations get together, we really had a very full plate of challenges to discuss. And I can assure you, as I made it clear to my colleagues, the United States will remain deeply committed to the security of this region, deeply committed to the prosperity of Southeast Asia, and of the Asia Pacific more generally.

I was thrilled to meet with young students and recent graduates, all members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders effort that President Obama has started – YSEALI, as it’s called. The energy and excitement that they feel about the possibilities of the future is really what defines not just Malaysia but this entire region. And we’re fully engaged and confident because we believe in those young people and in the possibilities that they believe in. And we will do everything in our power to work with the governments of this region to help deliver to their people.

So on that note, I’d be delighted to try to take a few questions.

 

MR KIRBY: First question will come from Matt Lee, Associated Press.

SECRETARY KERRY: Yes, Matt.

QUESTION: Ready?

SECRETARY KERRY: Yes, sir.

 

QUESTION: Okay. I want to take you a little bit further afield and ask you about your meeting last night with Foreign Minister Lavrov (inaudible), because the word is that you two signed off on or made some significant progress on the new UN Security Council resolution that would, in fact, create a mechanism to investigate the use or alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, and that that resolution could be presented for a vote as early as tomorrow, I guess. So I’m wondering if you could tell us what the details are of this mechanism and if you’re at all concerned that Russia’s apparent willingness to do this while still holding to its friendship to Assad will string out or delay actual bringing to justice of any perpetrators that are found or whether you’re convinced that this is actually going to do the trick. Thank you.

 

SECRETARY KERRY: Thanks, Matt. Let me comment on the meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov. We discussed a number of issues. We talked about Ukraine and the need to fully implement Minsk and what seems to be the difference of opinion with respect to what Minsk means relative to the elections and the modalities for the elections and the constitutional reform. There is a meeting tomorrow that will take place by video and we will both instruct our teams to try to dig in and make some suggestions for each of them as to how we might be able to try to move forward, because we both agree that these working groups are the best mechanism for the full implementation of the Minsk agreement and the defusing of the crisis in Ukraine.

We’re not far away now from having an agreement for the flow of (inaudible), for some rail – resumption of rail track, for the OSCE to be able to have greater oversight and understanding of what weapons will be pulled back from the line of contact. All of these issues are very much on the table and part of the discussion at this point. And I think that Foreign Minister Lavrov is anxious, as I am, to try to see as much progress be made as rapidly as possible as we come to the end of summer and beginning of fall and obviously other kinds of challenges that may come forward.

But yes, we also talked about the UN resolution, and indeed, I believe, reached an agreement that should try to see that resolution voted on shortly, which will create a process of accountability which has been missing. What happens is the inspection process produces evidence of use of some kind of weapon. By the way, so we’re clear, all declared chemical weapons – mustard and sarin and other declared that are illegal – were removed. The allegations that exist today are almost exclusively – not – not exclusively, there’s one – maybe one instance of some or two instances of something else – about chlorine. And chlorine by itself is not one of the required declaration items that has to be removed. But when mixed in a certain way, chlorine can be become a toxic agent and a illegal chemical.

So what we are trying to do is get beyond the mere finding of the fact that it may have been used and actually find out who used it and designate accountability for its use. And what we will achieve, we believe, with this resolution is the creation of a mechanism which will actually enable us to do that. That’s our hope. So I think it was a worthwhile meeting and hopefully the UN will be able to proceed forward with an agreement unless there is some last-minute glitch, which I hope there will not be.

MR KIRBY: Next question. (Inaudible).

 

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, the U.S. Government’s decision to upgrade Malaysia to Tier 2 in the human trafficking watch list has been criticized by those who feel that Malaysia has not done enough to merit such a rating. Do you think Malaysia has done enough? And what do you have to say about accusations that the rating has just been given to pave the way for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement with Malaysia?

 

SECRETARY KERRY: Not – let me just be crystal clear, because I am the person who approved this. I personally signed off on it. And I had zero conversation with anybody in the Administration about the Trans-Pacific Partnership relative to this decision – zero. The reason I made this decision was based on the recommendation of my team, because Malaysia has passed additional legislation in 2014, they’ve consulted with civil society, they drafted amendments to Malaysia’s anti-trafficking law in order to allow the country’s flawed victim protection regime to change.

Now, let me make this clear: Tier 2 Watch List ranking actually indicates there’s still a lot of room for improvement. It’s not a gold seal of approval by any means. It is a sign of movement in the right direction, but it also means there’s a lot of way to go. And that’s the discussion that I had yesterday with the foreign minister and with the prime minister. In the last year, Malaysian authorities increased the number of trafficking investigations, they increased the number of prosecutions relative to 2013, and they adopted a pilot project in order to allow a limited number of trafficking victims to leave government facilities in order to go work.

Now, we still are concerned about the comparison of the number of investigations and prosecutions to the number of the convictions. It’s not good enough yet. But we felt that because the law just passed, because it’s being implemented, that this gives us an opportunity to work with the government, which is exactly what I got commitments to do yesterday and now we will do in order to up the number of convictions. And one of the reasons for that disparity is the difficultly of getting evidence. It’s very complicated. It’s very hard to do. We believe that we can be very helpful through Federal Bureau of Investigation and through other entities that work at this to help Malaysian authorities be able to develop greater capacity to gather the evidence that will produce the convictions that we want to see so we can end impunity for this crime.

So our – my judgment was I want a country that we can work with and improve that has already indicated its willingness to start down that road in a significant way. Malaysia has done that, and this year will be a very important year of truth. If they don’t advance, if there isn’t sufficient cooperation, if there isn’t a genuine effort to improve the gathering of evidence and to have better prosecutions, and if the pilot project isn’t built on and so forth, then next year, obviously, I have the distinct ability to be able to make a different decision. But I’m confident it was the right decision and I can guarantee you it was made without regard to any other issue.

MR KIRBY: Last question from Pam Dockins, Voice of America.

 

QUESTION: Thank you. As you mentioned, the South China Sea has been a focal point here. First of all, what is the U.S. view on China’s statement that it has stopped reclamation work in the South China Sea?

And then secondly, a follow-up on the last question regarding human trafficking, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today has a hearing on the State Department’s human trafficking report. How do you feel about the hearing to look into how the final report was compiled? Do you feel that the hearing is justified?

 

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think any hearing on a report of the – of any agency of the government is justified. I mean, obviously, the Congress has a right to – I mean, the Congress are the ones who mandate these reports and they have every right in the world to take a look to see whether or not it’s being implemented in the way that Congress intended. So I don’t have any problem with that at all, and I’m absolutely confident about the work that our TIP team does which literally takes an entire year to do; it is extremely thorough. There’s an enormous amount of input from our embassies, from our consulates, from people in the field, and I think that that will come out in the course of the hearing.

So frankly, I look forward to the members of Congress learning more about exactly how in depth our efforts are, how professional they are, and how exhausting the effort is that they have joined with us in engaging.

Now, with respect to the South China Sea, first of all, let me remind everybody that the United States doesn’t take a position on the competing claims. We’re not choosing between claimants, and that’s for the legal process or the diplomatic process to do. What we do urge is all the claimants to refrain from unilateral actions that create tension or the potential of conflict, or frankly, the potential of a mistake that could then become an international incident. And it’s our sense that the Chinese have indicated that they have stopped. I hope it’s true. I don’t know yet. What’s really needed, though, is an agreement to stop not just the reclamation but the large-scale construction and militarization. So it’s not just an issue of reclamation. And our hope is we put forward a proposal that people stop all three and that they step back and work the process of the code of conduct and whatever other legal process to try to resolve these issues.

I did find, and I will say this openly, that in my meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, he indicated a – I think a different readiness of China to try to resolve some of this, though I think it still was not as fulsome as many of us would like to see, but it’s a beginning. And it may open up some opportunity for conversation on this in the months ahead; we’ll have to wait and see. But the easiest thing of all would be for everybody to adopt a position of we’re not going to do anything except routine maintenance – no new buildings, no new facilities, no militarization, no more reclamation – while the legal process is resolved in order to give certainty to everybody, which is what is required here.

MR KIRBY: Thank you, sir.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all very much.

MR KIRBY: Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Appreciate it.

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Filed under ASEAN, Current Events, Regional Relations, SLIDER, South China Seas, USA

Regional roundup for week of 8.3.2015

The same week that the US and Vietnam celebrated its 20th year of bilateral normalization, China conducts massive live fire drills in the South China Sea.  None of this orchestration is coincidental and the moves of this grand chess game are becoming more apparent.  But where is it leading us and should we trust the chess masters to steer us all in the right direction.  Next month’s visit of Xi Jinping to Washington will be a test and further revealing of intentions – at least we hope.  

EXSE FOCUS 

 

 China Blames U.S. Military Actions for Tensions in the South China Sea – NYT The dispute over one of the world’s busiest trade routes has emerged as a serious point of contention between the two countries ahead of several crucial meetings.//History will show clearly that China started the new normal of one-upsmanship here.  While China’s capabilities manifest in front of our eyes via satellite image and new combat drills, the important issue to focus on is China’s intent and searching for an answer to why China is willing to risk its relationship with smaller neighbors over upsetting the status quo – and bringing the US more deeply into the dispute.  The fall conclusion to the Philippine arbitration case at the Hague will be a true litmus test for China’s adherence to the UNCLOS treaty of which it is a signatory and Xi’s promotion of rule of law.  

Related: Beijing Strikes Back: U.S. ‘Militarizing’ South China Sea – The Diplomat

 China conducts South China Sea live drill ‘to improve at-sea combat ability’ – The Guardian Xinhua news agency says dozens of missiles and torpedoes, as well as thousands of shells and jamming bombs, were fired during the drill.  China’s navy has carried out a “live firing drill” in the South China Sea to improve its maritime combat ability, state media has reported as tensions flare over the disputed waters.

Related: China’s Navy Tests ‘Maritime Combat Ability’ in the South China Sea – The Diplomat

Related: China Is Building a New South China Sea Fleet for its Maritime Militia – The Diplomat

Related: Vietnam Slams Chinese Naval Drill in South China Sea – The Diplomat

Related: For the ASEAN-China South China Sea Code of Conduct, Ninth Time Isn’t the Charm – The Diplomat

Related: Cambodia: A New South China Sea Mediator Between China and ASEAN? – The Diplomat

Related: The Philippines-China Arbitration: What Next? – The Diplomat

 Myanmar Frees Loggers From China Amid a Broader Amnesty – NYT After a strong pushback from Beijing, more than 150 citizens who were sentenced to life in prison were suddenly released.//Hidden inside a general amnesty of more than 6000 prisoners, the illegal loggers get out of jail free.  This happened on the first day of work for China’s new ambassador to Myanmar.  Not a coincidence.  The amnesty plays nicely to show the central government’s benevolence prior to November elections.  

Related: Release of Chinese loggers a welcome step in right direction by Myanmar – South China Morning Post

Related: Myanmar jails scores of Chinese loggers, Beijing incensed – GoKunming

Related: Trial of Chinese loggers in Myanmar raises questions about bilateral relations – East by Southeast

At the 2022 Winter Olympics, No Snow Is No Problem for the I.O.C. – NYT It’s a sad day when the International Olympic Committee cannot even meet one of the lowest bars for a potential Winter Games host city: snow.//If the Chinese government can shoot silver nitrate into the sky to make it rain, it can also produce snow. Foreign tourism to China has plummeted more than 70% at key tourist areas since the airpocalypse newsfest began a few years ago.  I think some good news coming out of China and news that focuses on hard working athletes is useful.  Now if I go to cover the Olympics in 2022, will I still need a VPN to get me onto my @aikunming Twitter account?  

Related: The Observer view on the future of the Olympics | Observer editorial – The Guardian

Related: Beijing promises to overcome lack of snow for 2022 Winter Olympics – The Guardian

Related: 2022 Olympics Leave China Beaming From Its Growing Clout – NYT

Related: Rights Advocates, and a Monk, Oppose Beijing’s Winter Olympics Bid – NYT

How the International Community Changed China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – The Diplomat The AIIB today is very different from the AIIB China envisioned before March 2015.  This is reflected in a series of issues including the membership, capital contribution, veto power, and the linkage between AIIB and China’s own economic agenda, as well as its governance and standard issues.//Keep watching – too early to tell.  (aren’t we getting tired of saying this about Xi’s China? 

  

REGIONAL RELATIONS

Issues Mount as Negotiators Gather to Wrap Up Trans-Pacific Trade Pact – NYT The challenges make the prospect of closing a deal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership by the end of the week highly uncertain.//Vietnam at this point is in full support of the TPP.  Just a matter of timing.  

Related: US Upgrades Malaysia in Trafficking Report: Boost for TPP, Blow to Rights? – The Diplomat

Related: How the TPP Will Protect the United States’ ‘Third Offset’ Strategy – The Diplomat

Related: What the Trans-Pacific Partnership Means for Southeast Asia – The Diplomat

Related: Final push for Pacific trade pact – Thanh Nien Daily

 Burmese Consulate Opens in Chiang Mai – The Irawaddy The new Burmese consulate in Chiang Mai officially opened on Wednesday, with Burma’s foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin and ambassador to Thailand Win Maung in attendance.//Good move.  Passing through Mae Sot will be much easier now and after AEC begins at the end of the year the consulate will help to facilitate increases in people flows.  Remember most of traffic coming through Kachin State and Shan State pass through Chiang Mai. 

Thailand, Myanmar agree on mutual visa-free travel – Investvine Thailand and Myanmar signed an agreement on July 28 to allow citizens with ordinary passports to make visa-free visits of up to 14 days, provided they arrive on an international flight. // Another step on the path towards increased economic opportunity and freedom of travel for Southeast Asia, another step for ASEAN.

 John Kerry to visit Vietnam next month – Thanh Nien Daily He will meet with senior Vietnamese officials to discuss bilateral and regional issues, a release said.//The US State department is working much harder on the US-Vietnam relationship and other regional bilateral relationships (Indonesia and Philippines to be exact) than it is on the US-China relationship. 

 Thai boats caught smuggling oil in Vietnam waters – Thanh Nien Daily They said they had sold diesel oil illegally to Vietnamese boats many times.

 

SUSTAINABILITY AND RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

 Climate change threatens China’s booming coastal cities, says expert – The Guardian With an ageing society and more people living by the coast, China faces a challenge coping with climate change, reports China Daily.  A recent study led by Georgina Mace, ecosystem professor at University College London, indicated that governments across the world have failed to grasp the risk that population booms in coastal cities pose as climate change continues to cause rises in sea levels and extreme weather events. // Glad to see the importance of sustainable development and infrastructure is making the news, but this study’s conclusion shouldn’t come as a surprise…  Other news states China’s continued struggle with smog in many cities, especially on the east coast.  This alone affects the health of millions annually.

Related: Climate change threatens major building projects, says Chinese expert – The Guardian

Related: China’s climate migrants – Chinadialogue

Related: Financing for resilient development: how to deal with the rising costs of climate change – Chinadialogue

 The Hidden Costs of China’s Shift to Hydropower – The Diplomat Beijing hopes hydropower can wean China off dirty fossil fuels, but new dams will mean a big environmental toll.//Especially since anecdotal evidence suggest for every dam built in Southwest China a back-up coal thermal plant is built to help with peak demand.  

Related: China’s shift from coal to hydro comes at a heavy price – The Third Pole

Need a weatherman – The Economist ROW after giant row of wind turbines marches towards the snowy peaks of the Tian Shan range, harvesting energy from the air.  If it can integrate large-scale wind generation into its electricity network, China will be an example for other countries.

Related: China’s Green Leap Forward – The Diplomat

Former deputy environmental protection minister accused of corruption in China – South China Morning Post A former deputy environmental protection minister in China is under investigation for alleged corruption.

 Talks stall on gas line between China and Russia – South China Morning Post Talks on a new deal to supply natural gas from Russia to China have stalled due to differences on pricing and disagreements over the construction of a pipeline, according to Russian media.

 ADB, Experts Discuss Ways to Protect Groundwater Resources in PRC – ADB  – The Asian Development Bank sponsored a 2-day forum in Beijing to discuss various innovative measures and technologies to protect groundwater resources in the country.

 Vietnam’s rush to develop risks damaging its natural attractions – The Guardian New resorts, cable cars and casinos threaten unspoiled landscapes as tourism sector struggles to balance modernisation and development with conservation.  Worst of all is the destruction of the thing that makes Vietnam’s towns and cities interesting to many foreign visitors.

 Vietnam Floods Kill 17 and Threaten to Pollute Ha Long Bay – NYT Environmental groups said that waste from coal mines could damage the northern bay, a Unesco World Heritage site famous for its steep limestone islands.//Are Vietnam’s EIAs considering seasonal changes in weather patterns and how strong rains/flooding impact a site and surrounding area?

Related: Deadly rains deluge Vietnam mines, spark contamination fears – Thanh Nien Daily

PM tells officials to keep saving water despite easing drought – The Nation PRIME MINISTER Prayut Chan-o-cha has instructed officials working on solving the water shortage to keep sticking with water-saving measures, even though more water has been flowing into major dams, Deputy Government Spokesman Maj-General Sansern Kaewkamnerd said yesterday.

 

CHINA

Ethnic Tensions in Xinjiang Complicate China-Turkey Ties – NYT Bilateral trade is growing between Beijing and Ankara, but anti-Chinese sentiment in Turkey appears to be growing as well.//This is the sleeper movie of the year folks. Keep watching. 

Related: Can China-Turkey Relations Move On? – The Diplomat

Tibetan Who Called for Dalai Lama’s Return Is Said to Be Freed From Chinese Prison – NYT Runggye Adak was jailed for eight years after calling for the spiritual leader’s return to Tibet in a speech at a major festival.

Related: China Releases Tibetan Nomad Jailed For Eight Years For Lithang Protest – Radio Free Asia

 U.S. Decides to Retaliate Against China’s Hacking – NYT The Obama administration decided a response was needed after the Chinese stole data on 20 million Americans from the Office of Personnel Management.//What’s the response?   

Related: United Airlines hacked by China-linked group believed to responsible for previous US attacks – South China Morning Post

Related: Spying claims denied by China – The Jakarta Post

 China vs. Its Human Rights Lawyers – NYT The current crackdown shows how the Communist Party fears its legitimacy to rule could crumble.

Related: How the US Outplayed China in the South China Sea – The Diplomat

Related: Pro-Beijing lawyer Kennedy Wong faces ICAC bribery charges – South China Morning Post

Shares in Mainland China End Worst Month in 6 Years – NYT The main indexes in Shanghai and Shenzhen finished July with declines of 14.3 percent each, despite government intervention in the markets.

Related: Chinese shares are falling, but the real fear is that the economy itself is slowing – The Guardian

Related: China’s large manufacturers stall as demand weakens at home and abroad – The Guardian

Related: Can Xi Jinping Turn China’s Economy Around? – ChinaFile

 Letting China’s Bubble Burst – Project Syndicate As China’s capital markets expand, they are outstripping policymakers’ capacity to manage prices and valuations. The only practical way forward is for the authorities to focus on regulatory and institutional development, while following through on their commitment to permit markets to self-correct.

Related: Xi Jinping’s Greatest Challenge – The Diplomat

Related: Q. and A.: Christopher K. Johnson on the Heavy Thumb of Xi Jinping – NYT

Ex-Military Leader in China Is Subject of Graft Inquiry – NYT Gen. Guo Boxiong was placed under investigation, becoming the most senior military official brought down in President Xi Jinping’s campaign against corruption.

Related: With Latest Ouster, China Steps Up Fight Against Military Corruption – The Diplomat

Related: China’s President Xi Jinping promotes 10 senior military officials to full general – South China Morning Post

 ‘The China Challenge,’ by Thomas J. Christensen – NYT A former State Department official urges Americans to accept China’s rise to power.

Related: Debating China Policy: High Stakes, Hard Choices – The Diplomat

 Will China Have a Mini US Navy By 2020? – The Diplomat Much has been written about China’s ongoing efforts to become what President Xi Jinping called a “great maritime power” and how the United States should respond. In light of this, it is useful to think about the future trajectory of the of the increasingly modern and powerful People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which has been charged with both defending China’s sovereignty in ‘near seas’ (eg. Taiwan) and protecting Chinese interests in the ‘far seas’.//The rhetoric on this is shaky.  In DC, it’s often said that by 2020 or 2030 China could have a military that qualitatively could compete or outshine the US.  And those comments are said by congressmen who have big navy yards in their bailiwicks.  

 

SOUTHEAST ASIA

 Thailand Charges 72 With Human Trafficking Crimes Ahead of U.S. Report – NYT The indictments come days before the State Department is expected to release an analysis of international efforts to fight such smuggling networks.

Related: Thailand dismisses US criticism over human trafficking and slavery – The Guardian

The Trouble with Thailand’s Economy – The Diplomat Anemic performance is denting confidence in the ruling junta.  When Thailand’s coup-makers quickly disbursed over $3 billion owed to farmers from the ousted government’s politically hamstrung rice price subsidy scheme, it appeared that the country’s new military rulers had the will and means to break the bureaucratic inertia that had stalled fiscal spending under successive elected administrations.

More than 26m stimulant pills seized in Burma, police say – The Guardian Counter-narcotics officers said amphetamine hydrochloride tablets worth £68m have been found in 89 bags in a vehicle in Rangoon.  Myint Aung, a counter-narcotics officer, said police discovered 26.7m stimulant tablets on Sunday after inspecting a parked vehicle in the northern suburbs of Burma’s largest city.

The Future of Democracy and Human Rights in Myanmar – The Diplomat The Diplomat talks with Delphine Schrank about Myanmar’s trajectory. She recently spoke with The Diplomat’s associate editor Prashanth Parameswaran about the future of democracy and human rights in Myanmar ahead of upcoming historic elections expected this November. // Would democracy be enough and effective in improving Burma’s ethnic conflicts?  With the state’s shaky election history, it will be interesting to see whether power is passed according to the vote or if corruption or incumbent interruption will pollute results.

Related: Myanmar Ruling Party Expects Tough Fight in Coming Elections – Radio Free Asia

Related: Human Rights Defenders Continue to Suffer in Burma – The Irawaddy

Related: Visions of Myanmar, old and new – New Mandala

Related: The Dangerous Rise of Buddhist Chauvinism – Project Syndicate

 Ethnic Leaders Renew Push for All-Inclusive Ceasefire Ahead of Early August Talks – The Irawaddy Ethnic leaders will not sign on to a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) if it excludes certain armed groups, senior ethnic representatives reiterated Wednesday after four days of talks on the draft text in northern Thailand.

 Kuala Lumpur’s budget passenger terminal is sinking, airline says – South China Morning Post Kuala Lumpur International Airport’s new budget passenger terminal is sinking, with cracks appearing in the taxiway and water forming pools that planes must drive through.

 Cambodian Authorities Assist 14 Montagnards Who Requested Return to Vietnam – Radio Free Asia Officials in northeastern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province on Friday assisted 14 ethnic Montagnards who asked to be repatriated across the border to Vietnam after they left Thailand, citing financial hardship because they were unable to find work.

 Cambodia’s Armed Forces ‘Belong’ to The Ruling Party: Four-Star General – Radio Free Asia Cambodia’s armed forces belong to the country’s ruling party and must prevent a “color revolution” from overtaking the Southeast Asian nation, a four-star general said Wednesday, drawing criticism from an opposition official who called his understanding of the military’s role “limited.”

This week’s news digest was compiled by Julia Zielinski with analysis by Julia Zielinski and Brian Eyler.

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Gold Diggers

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A major Geographical investigation looks at the devastating environmental and debilitating health effects a Thai gold mine is having on a village in Loei, and at how a group of determined villagers are fighting back

 

It’s a truly idyllic valley, thumbs of karst rising from rice fields, a glowing sunset tempered by cumulo nimbus. Women bend at the waist planting rice seedlings, their movements reflected in the water. The set for a painter or poet.

Instead it’s the stage for the violent suppression of popular protests in the northern Thai province of Loei. For eight years, the embattled villagers have been fighting the owners of an adjacent gold mine. This lovely valley and the determined villagers are at the intersection of human, physical and political geography writ small and very mean.

To the villagers, the environment itself has become the enemy. The water in which the women stand plunging seedlings into mud is contaminated with arsenic, manganese and chromium. Below the overburden dumps, the rice fields hold arsenic, cyanide, mercury and cadmium.

Under trees, an unusual number of people sit in wheelchairs. Changma, 65, suffering debilitating peripheral neuropathy in her legs and hands (‘stocking/glove syndrome’) sits in her basic kitchen, cleaning pots. She is barely able to walk. Her doctor diagnosed the cumulative effects of arsenic. Cham, 84, who lives 300 metres away, has worse symptoms. A bowl of water nearby soothes the pain and persistent tingling associated with damaged nerves. Her 86-year-old husband with degenerative spinal condition is unable to care for her. We see cases of skin rashes. All signs of chronic arsenic poisoning.

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Daniel Russel: Remarks at the 5th Annual South China Sea Conference

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On July 21, 2015 at the 5th Annual South China Sea Conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Daniel R. Russel, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs for the US State Department delivered a keynote speech clearly outlining the US position on China’s recent land reclamation action in the South China Sea and its implications for US-China relations.  Given the timeliness and relevance of this speech, we’ve posted it in its entirety below.  
Good afternoon. Thank you, Murray, for the kind introduction. It’s always a pleasure to be back at CSIS.

Let me start by laying out the essential context.

The United States has always had interests in Asia. These interests have only grown stronger as our economies have become more interconnected, and as our people have grown closer through travel and the Internet.

For the last seven decades, we’ve worked with allies and partners in the region to build shared prosperity and shared security. In the last six-and-a-half years, in particular, we’ve invested in building cooperative relations with every country in the region. This is the rebalance.

There are many types of investment the world, and Asia, needs in order to grow—investment in people, first and foremost; investment in business; in physical infrastructure, and just as important; investment in “cooperative capital” – the international law and order infrastructure that facilitates the interactions between countries, that advances regional economic integration, and helps states peacefully manage and settle disputes.

The U.S. makes balanced investments in all of these areas.

The last one, the international rules-based system, has been the ‘essential but underappreciated underpinning’ of global growth over the last 70 years. That’s especially true in Asia, where many countries have grown – and continue to grow – their economies through international trade, especially trade with the U.S.

Asia’s nations have achieved so much in recent decades—reducing poverty, raising living standards, and creating opportunities for their people. They’ve done it through hard work, cooperation with each other, partnership with the U.S., and by jointly developing and operating within a rules-based system.

And we are helping them to do even more:

We’re taking broad-based, sustainable economic growth to a new level with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The TPP embraces a future that reaches beyond trade and investment to include high standards for environmental protection, for labor rights.

TPP’s provisions will support a thriving, growing, entrepreneurial middle class that is able to connect with the world and do business through a free, open Internet.

We’re taking the security architecture that underpins this brighter future to a new level by investing in regional institutions like the East Asia Summit and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in addition to our longstanding work with global ones like the U.N.

These institutions uphold norms and tackle tough challenges; they can help bring parties together to hash out disagreements, or when bilateral diplomacy doesn’t succeed, help to have those disputes resolved peacefully in a fair, impartial manner.

Standing behind and supporting these institutions is our system of alliances and partnerships.

This network has helped keep the peace in the region since World War II. And through a series of important agreements with key security partners over the last few years, we’ve refreshed them so they’ll last for decades to come.

We’re taking environmental protection to a new level, through our work on ocean preservation, on combatting climate change and its effects, and through programs like the Lower Mekong Initiative that help make economic growth environmentally sustainable.

As we pursue this broad, forward-looking vision for the region, we’ve worked constructively with China—a lot.

We’ve built greater understanding through President Obama’s 20 some-odd meetings with the Chinese President or Premier; and through the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and an alphabet soup of other consultations.

We’ve put a floor under the relationship so it can withstand tensions or even a crisis.

And in the last couple years, all of this work has paid off—we’ve made measurable progress in a range of cooperative efforts: in low-carbon policies; countering piracy at sea; in stemming the Ebola crisis; supporting a better future for Afghanistan; and much more.

But unfortunately, the situation in the South China Sea does not fit this cooperative pattern.

Now, the U.S. is not a claimant. As I’ve said here at CSIS, these maritime and territorial disputes are not intrinsically a US-China issue. The issue is between China and its neighbors and – ultimately – it’s an issue of what kind of power China will become. But for a variety of reasons, the competing claims and problematic behavior in the South China Sea have emerged as a serious area of friction in the U.S.-China relationship.

Let’s take a step back and recall, as I’m sure you discussed this morning, that there is a history of competing assertions of sovereignty and jurisdiction in the South China Sea, and even violent conflicts in 1974 and 1988.

There are no angels here. The occupation of land features in this contested space over the years looked a lot like “squatters’ rights.” But that is something that in 2002 the claimants agreed to stop doing.

In that year, all the claimants (and the ASEAN states) signed a Declaration of Conduct. In it, and on other occasions, they have committed “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from … inhabiting the presently uninhabited… features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner”.

In the Declaration of Conduct, they also committed to negotiate a Code of Conduct that would lay out and lock in responsible behavior. But in the ensuing 13 years, work on the Code has stalled, and the Declaration has not been sufficient to prevent confrontations or to help claimants resolve these disputes peacefully.

Recently, the level of concern in the region has escalated as the scale and speed of China’s reclamation work has become public. The Chairman’s statement at the ASEAN leaders’ summit in April was unusually blunt, speaking of “serious concerns” about “land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea, which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability….”

While China’s statement on June 16 that it would stop reclamation work “soon” was presumably intended to reassure, its effect was in fact alarming since the statement went on to warn that China would construct military facilities on these reclaimed outposts.

So we are pushing the parties to revive the spirit of cooperation embodied in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct.

We see a broad consensus within ASEAN on a path forward to reduce tensions and promote peaceful handling of these disputes. And we support ASEAN’s efforts to expeditiously conclude an effective, rigorous Code of Conduct that builds on the Declaration by translating its cooperative spirit into specific “do’s and don’ts.”

But to make this happen, the parties need to create room for diplomacy.

In the famous words of Rich Armitage’s Dictum Number 1, “when you find yourself in a hole – stop digging.” That is the advice we are giving to all the claimants: lower the temperature and create breathing room by: stopping land reclamation on South China Sea features; stopping construction of new facilities; and stopping militarization of existing facilities.

These are steps the parties could commit to immediately; steps that would cost them nothing; steps that would significantly reduce risks; steps that would open the door to eventual resolution of the disputes.

Secretary Kerry has made this point to Chinese leaders and to the other claimants, and will be meeting with his counterparts early next month in Malaysia at the ASEAN Regional Forum, or ARF, to push for progress on this important priority.

Now, steps to exercise restraint through a moratorium and a Code of Conduct will create diplomatic space and help keep the peace, but they won’t address the question of maritime boundaries or sovereignty over land features.

So what’s the way forward?

When it comes to competing claims, two of the main peaceful paths available to claimants are negotiations and arbitration.

Countries across the region in fact have resolved maritime and territorial disputes peacefully and cooperatively, whether through direct negotiations or through third-party dispute settlement mechanisms.

Just a few examples: Indonesia and the Philippines recently agreed on their maritime boundary;

Malaysia and Singapore used international court and tribunal proceedings to resolve disputes concerning the Singapore Strait; and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea delimited the maritime boundary between Bangladesh and Burma.

A common thread runs through the maritime boundary disputes that have been resolved peacefully: the parties asserted maritime claims based on land features, and were prepared to resolve those disputes in accordance with international law.

This is why we’ve consistently called on all claimants to clarify the scope of their claims in the South China Sea, in accordance with international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention. Doing so would narrow the differences and offer the basis for negotiations and cooperative solutions.

Regrettably, I don’t know anyone in the region who believes that a negotiated settlement between China and other claimants is attainable in the current atmosphere.

And the multiple competing claims in some parts of the South China Sea make negotiations that much more difficult.

And then there is the absolutist political position taken by some claimants who insist that their own claims are “indisputable” and represent territory – however distant from their shores – that was “entrusted to them by ancestors” and who vow never to relinquish “one inch.”

What about arbitration? As this audience knows, there currently is an arbitration case pending under the Law of the Sea Convention between the Philippines and China.

At the heart of the case is the question of the so-called “Nine Dash Line” and whether that has a legal basis under the international law of the sea. It also asks what maritime entitlements, if any, are generated by features that China occupies? In other words, regardless of whose jurisdiction it may fall under, would Mischief Reef, for example, be entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea? A 200nm exclusive economic zone? A continental shelf?

Now, it’s important to note that the Tribunal is not being asked – and is not authorized to rule – on the question of sovereignty over disputed land features. Everyone recognizes that the sovereignty issue is beyond the Tribunal’s jurisdiction. Claimants would need to agree to bring that sort of sovereignty dispute before a court or tribunal, typically the ICJ.

But under the Law of the Sea Convention, the Tribunal is authorized to first determine whether it has jurisdiction under the Convention over any of the Philippines’ claims in the case and, if it does, whether the Philippines’ arguments have merit.

The United States, of course, is not a party to this arbitration and does not take a position on the merits of the case. But when they became parties to the Convention, both the Philippines and China agreed to its compulsory dispute settlement regime.

Under this regime, the decision of the arbitral tribunal is legally binding on the parties to the dispute. It’s a treaty. In keeping with the rule of law, both the Philippines and China are obligated to abide by whatever decision may be rendered in the case, whether they like it or not.

Now China has argued that the tribunal lacks jurisdiction, and the tribunal has specifically considered this issue in recent hearings in The Hague, looking very carefully at a position paper published by China. But if the Tribunal concludes that it in fact has jurisdiction in this case, it will proceed to the merits, including potentially the question of the legality of China’s “Nine-Dash Line.”

Should it then rule that the “Nine-Dash Line” is not consistent with the Law of the Sea Convention, and particularly if the Tribunal ruled that the features cited in the case do not generate EEZ or continental shelf entitlements, the scope of the overlapping maritime claims – and hopefully the points of friction – would be significantly reduced.

But it’s also important to recognize that even in this outcome, important sovereignty and boundary issues would remain unresolved.

This is as good a time as any to acknowledge (as China has often pointed out) that the United States has not acceded to the Law of the Sea Convention, although accession has been supported by every Republican and Democratic administration since the Convention was signed and sent to the Senate in 1994. It is supported by the U.S. military, by industry, environmental groups, and other stakeholders.

For the United States to secure the benefits of accession, the Senate has to provide its advice and consent, as I hope it ultimately will.

But even as we encourage the parties to work for long term solutions, we are obligated to protect U.S. interests. Let me take a moment to examine what some of those interests are:

  • Protecting unimpeded freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea by all, not just the U.S. Navy;
  • Honoring our alliance and security commitments, and retaining the full confidence of our partners and the region in the United States;
  • Aiding the development of effective regional institutions, including a unified ASEAN;
  • Promoting responsible marine environmental practices;
  • Fostering China’s peaceful rise in a manner that promotes economic growth and regional stability, including through consistency with international law and standards.
  • And more generally, an international order based on compliance with international law and the peaceful of disputes without the threat or use of force.

As a practical matter, in addition to our support for principles such as the rule of law, we are taking steps to help all countries in the region cooperate on maritime issues. For example, we’re investing in the maritime domain awareness capabilities of coastal states in the region.

This allows countries to protect safety at sea and respond to threats such as piracy, marine pollution and illegal trafficking. Maritime awareness also advances transparency, in line with our call to all claimants to be more open and transparent about their capabilities, actions, and intentions at sea.

The U.S. military’s freedom of navigation operations are another element of a global policy to promote compliance with the international law of the sea.

Our goal is to ensure that not only can the U.S. Navy or Air Force exercise their navigational rights and freedoms, but ships and planes from even the smallest countries are also able to enjoy those rights without risk. The principles underlying unimpeded lawful commerce apply to vessels from countries around the globe.

And under international law, all countries—not just the United States—enjoy the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea that our diplomacy and the U.S. military’s freedom of navigation operations help protect.

For us, it’s not about the rocks and shoals in the South China Sea or the resources in and under it, it’s about rules and it’s about the kind of neighborhood we all want to live in. So we will continue to defend the rules, and encourage others to do so as well. We will also encourage all countries to apply principles of good neighborliness to avoid dangerous confrontations.

Let me close by mentioning that we have a host of cooperative initiatives we’re working on for the upcoming ASEAN Regional Forum meeting, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and the East Asia Summit—all of which will advance much more quickly and effectively when tensions in the South China Sea are lower.

President Obama and Secretary Kerry have shown that they are not afraid to tackle the biggest challenges facing US foreign policy and the world. And we’re energized, here in the fourth quarter of this administration to do much more in partnership with our Allies, with ASEAN and with China.

For us, for the region, and for China – finding a peaceful, lawful and responsible way forward on the South China Sea is a prerequisite to achieving our longer term goals.

Thank you.

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The best of Thailand’s PM Prayuth Chan-Ocha, a true April Fool

Gen. Prayuth: Taking aim at the haters

Gen. Prayuth: Taking aim at the haters

Yesterday, Thai government officials announced that starting next month, officials other than Thailand’s Prime Minister, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, would be giving weekly press conferences to make sure the media “accurately” covers the government’s actions.

Gen. Prayuth commented: “We want to explain to media, and we want to create understanding between the state and the media to avoid any mistakes.” The mistakes and verbal gaffes indeed have been many and if the military junta wasn’t so repressive, he actually might be a funny PM. In honor of April Fool’s Day (we didn’t want to scare anyone with fake news of PLA jets bombing Naypidaw or something of that sort), we’re giving you a list of ExSE’s favorite quotes from a true April Fool, Gen. Prayuth. Without further ado…

Letting you know that he’s hip with the youth and a proponent of culture, Gen. Prayuth even has ideas on how to improve Thai soap operas:

“I have ordered that scripts be written, including plays on reconciliation, on tourism and on Thai culture,” Prayuth told reporters. “They are writing plots at the moment and if they can’t finish it I will write it myself,” he said of a team of government-appointed writers.

Thai PM bemoans divisive soap operas, offers to write better ones“, Reuters, September 26, 2014

To make sure Thailand remains the ‘Land of a Million Smiles’, the junta has cracked down on political dissent and discussion. In giving his reasoning for the crackdown, Gen. Prayuth quipped:

“Please understand that I don’t come from an election. I’m well aware of that. So please put on hold all political criticism and forums on politics,” said the prime minister, who came to administrative power through a military coup on May 22.

‘Unelected’ Prayut warns against political forums“, Bangkok Post, September 19, 2014

After two British tourists were murdered, Gen. Prayuth wanted to make sure that the Thai authorities were taking the case seriously, or at least make it look like they did. But you can guess what happened…

“There are always problems with tourist safety. They think our country is beautiful and is safe so they can do whatever they want, they can wear bikinis and walk everywhere,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is also the army chief, told government officials. But “can they be safe in bikinis… unless they are not beautiful?” he said, addressing the issue of tourist safety in a speech broadcast live on television.

Thai PM questions if ‘tourists in bikinis’ safe after murders“, AFP, September 17, 2014

In one of his most notorious statements, Gen. Prayuth admits that there may be more than one of him:

“He was referring to the media’s suggestions for him to try to improve his personality. “I would like to thank [the media] for warning and suggestions. I won’t change my personality because I am a person with multiple personalities,” Prayut said.

Prayut admits he has ‘multiple personalities’“, The Nation, November 3, 2014

Last but not least, it looks like the good ole General has some thoughts about truth and journalism. When asked by reporters what the government would do with journalists who didn’t support the official line, Prayuth, without smiling, replied:

“We’ll probably just execute them

We’ll probably kill journalists who don’t report the truth, says Thai leader, Reuters, March 25, 2015

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Qiu He, top Yunnan official, ousted for corrupt land deals

Qiu He

Qiu He, Former Vice Party Secretary of Yunnan Province Photo: GoKunming

The Ides of March did not bode well for Yunnan province’s most controversial official.  Qiu He, Yunnan’s Vice Party Secretary  is being investigated for alleged corruption by the government’s corruption watchdog agency for “serious violations of discipline and law”, a common euphemism for graft.

State media reported the opening of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) investigation into Qiu on Sunday March, 15.

Qiu He was in Beijing at the time of the announcement, attending the yearly National People’s Congress there, along with the rest of the Party leadership from Yunnan.

He is the latest in a number of top Yunnan officials to have been nabbed for corruption in the past year. Following the investigation of former vice governor of the province, Shen Peiping, in March 2014, former Kunming Party Secretary Zhang Tianxin and former Yunnan Party Secretary Bai Enpei were all taken down for graft.

Before taking up the position of deputy Party secretary of Yunnan in 2011, Qiu He was the Party secretary of the provincial capital, Kunming, starting in late 2007.

A controversial city-builder 

Originally from Jiangsu province, Qiu was known as an anti-graft crusader and free market reformer. He began his meteoric rise in politics as the Party secretary of northern Jiangsu’s Suqian city, where he privatized local hospitals and schools and reformed the city’s infrastructure.

In Kunming, Qiu began his tenure by organizing a taskforce to ensure city officials arrived to work on time and limited their lunch breaks to thirty minutes.  Within a week of taking office in 2007 he instituted a policy linking local political futures of local officials to waste water pollution into the feeder rivers of Kunming’s Lake Dianchi, one of China’s most polluted bodies of water.   His passionate speeches on Yunnan’s development often highlighted the need to turn Yunnan from a backwater frontier province into a fast-developing regional hub.

He was the catalyst for a swath of controversial infrastructure projects in Kunming, including a new international airport finished in 2012 and an expansive subway system, still under construction and over budget.  The fog-stricken location of Kunming’s Changshui international airport, 40km outside of the city is a common source of frustration for Kunming’s citizens.  During the winter months, the airport will often close unexpectedly, stranding thousands of passengers and costing airlines millions.

Among Kunmingers, Qiu He is also known for demolishing a majority of Kunming’s 300-plus “urban villages” – poorly-constructed, low-income neighborhoods that dotted the city’s modern landscape. Many of these villages were replaced by housing developments built by businessmen from Jiangsu, Qiu He’s home province.  While Qiu He’s economic polices are often attributed to the skyrocketing rates of growth in Yunnan province (average 12% over last 5 years), now that China’s real estate market is cooling off, the Spring City’s blue skies are marred by dense and unsightly high-rise housing projects, many of which have completely stopped construction.  During Qiu He’s tenure, this pattern of unfettered real estate development was also copied in scenic and popular tourist regions such as Dali and Xishuangbanna, greatly decreasing their natural and cultural values.

 Attracting outside investment proves fatal 

While rumor and speculation are bound to follow the announcement of Qiu’s takedown, many cite deals made with his Jiangsu and Zhejiang business connections as reason for the investigation.

The New Luosiwan International Trade Center, with an area of more than 3 million square meters, is one of the world’s largest warehouse distribution centers and the final stop before Chinese-made goods are shipped onto destinations in Southeast Asia. It was built with an investment of more than 3 billion renminbi ($500 million) from Liu Weigao, a Jiangsu businessman most famous for establishing Yiwu’s China Commodity City, the world’s largest small commodities market, in Zhejiang province. Qiu He knows Liu, a National People’s Congress representative to Jiangsu’s Suqian city, from his time as Party secretary there. Once in Kunming, Qiu He recruited Liu to invest in New Luosiwan as part of his economic development policy. When the CCDI announced an investigation into Liu Weigao in February 2015, speculation circulated that Qiu He’s downfall was imminent.

According to one source at a local bank who wished to remain anonymous, Qiu’s demise was a popular topic of discussion at the office. Liu Weigao had millions in savings seized after he was investigated in February, along with a number of business loans associated with New Luosiwan that have yet to be paid back. The source and the source’s colleagues knew of Qiu He’s connection to Liu Weigao and openly speculated prior to Sunday whether Qiu would be investigated himself.

In fact, Qiu was scheduled to visit the bank’s local offices in downtown Kunming this week for an investigation of the bank’s performance. The source and colleagues spent the weekend at the office preparing for the Vice Party Secretary’s visit. However, the work appears to be all for naught, after Qiu did not come back from Beijing Sunday.

An even bigger target

Despite his controversial track record in Yunnan, Qiu He was known as an official who cared more about his promising political path rather than benefiting financially from his position. Qiu was an extremely cautious politician who is known only to have met with supplicants during office hours, and not in decadent KTV parlors or in exclusive social clubs.

Whereas 2014 saw a raft of top Yunnanese officials taken down for their connections to the disgraced Zhou Yongkang, Qiu He’s investigation appears unrelated. Instead it may mark a shift in focus from the Sichuan-based clique that formed under Zhou to an even bigger target.

Qiu He is associated with a political faction related to Li Yuanchao, current vice president of China. Li, the former Jiangsu Party Secretary from 2003 to 2007, is a major power broker in the province and likely oversaw Qiu He’s rise. Behind Li Yuanchao however, stands former President Jiang Zemin, who oversaw the country’s development in the 1990s. Jiang’s clique includes officials from Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu.

Qiu He could be the first top official from the Jiang clique to be taken down during Xi Jinping’s current anti-corruption campaign. Further fueling speculation of a crackdown on the Jiang clique, the Governor and Provincial Party Secretary of Jiangsu province were nowhere to be found at this year’s recently concluded “two sessions” (lianghui). Some analysts see current President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption as serving the dual purpose of restoring the public’s confidence in the Party and eliminating Xi’s political rivals.

Many Kunmingers welcomed news of the downfall of former top Yunnanese officials Bai Enpai, Shen Peiping, and Zhang Tianxin with support and expressed satisfaction; however reactions to Qiu He’s ousting are mixed, particularly among investment groups from outside of Yunnan.  A source close to the situation remarked that many of Kunming’s Jiangsu businessmen left the city after hearing about Qiu’s investigation. His friends with connections to Qiu, many of whom are responsible for large chunks of Yunnan’s commerce, have all cancelled their cell phone subscriptions and are currently unreachable.  Their fears, understandably justified, lie in speculation that once Xi’s political rivals are eliminated, those businessmen connected to them will soon come under the gun.

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