Author Archives: William Feinberg

About William Feinberg

William Feinberg is a budding Southeast Asia scholar based in Kunming, Yunnan. His focus is on issues of human migration in Southeast Asia, but writes on everything from agriculture to infrastructure. Outside of East by Southeast, his hobbies include hiking, piano and Northern Thai cuisine.

A More Comprehensive Partnership: What the US should seek from Jokowi’s visit

This is Indonesian President Joko Widodo's first visit to the US since taking office more than a year ago. Photo used under Wikimedia commons license.

This is Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s first visit to the US since taking office more than a year ago. Photo used under Wikimedia commons license.

For leaders of large Asian countries, the United States is the focus for fall 2016. After India’s Narendra Modi and China’s Xi Jinping both visited the US in September, Indonesian President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo landed on US soil this week, for the first time since he took office a little more than a year ago. Today, Indonesia sits at an important crossroads as it engages with the US and China, all while forging its own identity in Southeast Asia. During Jokowi’s visit, the US should build on its existing comprehensive partnership with Indonesia by strengthening bilateral security and defense ties and continuing to court Indonesia economically, specifically in light of the newly-agreed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Washington should also push Jakarta to use its perennial leadership role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to advocate for democratic and human rights norms in the region.
Since the Suharto era, the US and Indonesia have maintained close security ties. This facet of the bilateral relationship should be augmented during this month’s visit. Jokowi aims to make Indonesia a maritime power that serves as a strategic and economic link between the Indian and Pacific oceans. The US should help Jokowi realize this goal by providing assistance as Indonesia plans to create a coast guard independent of its navy. This assistance could come in the form of the US Coast Guard training its Indonesian counterpart and possible joint exercises in 2016. Moreover, as the world’s maritime superpower, the US has much to offer Indonesia as it looks to upgrade its own capabilities. A new strategic dialogue focused on maritime security would serve to strengthen bilateral ties and help Jakarta attain its maritime goals.
Additionally, Indonesia has struggled with piracy throughout the archipelago and is host to a low-level insurgency in its western islands. Recently, more than 500 Indonesians have traveled to the Middle East to join the Islamic State (IS). The US should offer to assist Indonesia in combating both off-shore piracy and terrorism through an agreement for enhanced cooperation on terrorism and intelligence sharing.
In Jokowi’s visit, the US also has an opportunity to enhance economic ties with Indonesia. The country of 250 million has great economic potential; however the first year of the Jokowi presidency has been marked by low growth rates and disappointing economic stimulus packages. Jokowi desires to attract investment from US businesses, however regulatory red-tape and a penchant for economic nationalism has scared away foreign enterprises in the past. To solve this issue and benefit both sides, Washington and Jakarta should lay the groundwork for a new bilateral investment agreement.
In addition, the US should continue to court Indonesia to join the TPP. With negotiations recently concluding in Atlanta, now is the perfect time to remind Indonesia of the economic benefits of joining the trade pact. In the past, the Indonesian response to the TPP has been lukewarm, though fears of falling behind its neighbors in attracting foreign direct investment could spur Jakarta to reconsider the treaty.
Lastly, Washington should not miss this chance to encourage Indonesia to continue its leadership role in ASEAN. As the regional bloc’s largest country and strongest democracy, Indonesia holds a special place among the member states and its past efforts have shaped political transitions in places like Cambodia and Myanmar. The US should push Jokowi to continue to advocate for democratic and human rights norms in the region, especially at a time when these institutions are under renewed peril in Thailand and Myanmar. Additionally, ASEAN member states face a threat from Chinese
expansion in the South China Sea. A strong Indonesia is necessary if ASEAN is able to stand-up to its northern neighbor’s provocations.

 

After more than five years, the US-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership could use a refresher and Jokowi’s visit to the US provides the perfect opportunity. By enhancing military-to-military ties, pushing for a new bilateral investment treaty and encouraging Indonesia to continue its leadership in ASEAN, the US can develop Indonesia into a robust regional partner capable of supporting the United States’ interests in Southeast Asia.

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Filed under ASEAN, Foreign policy, Indonesia, Regional Relations, SLIDER, USA

Why Beijing isn’t using the Erawan Shrine bombing to its advantage

A statue of Brahma at the Erawan shrine in Bangkok. The Hindu shrine is popular with people of Chinese descent, including Thais.

An image of Brahma at the Erawan shrine in Bangkok. The Hindu shrine is popular with Chinese tourists, who were among the victims of the attack.

A connection between Uyghur militants from China’s northwest and the August 17th bombing of Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine has been confirmed. Thailand’s police chief made the link explicit during a news conference Tuesday. While the geopolitical consequences of the connection remain to be seen, Beijing could still stand to benefit from the Erawan bombing. However, fears over domestic implications may keep China from using the attack to their advantage.

Two men who have been taken into custody in connection with the case are Yusufu Mieraili and Adem Karadag. Mieraili was arrested in late August with a Chinese passport that listed his birthplace as Xinjiang province – the homeland for the oppressed Muslim-Turkic Uyghur minority. The second suspect was found in an apartment outside Bangkok along with bomb-making materials and dozens of fake Turkish passports.

Thai police issued an arrest warrant for another suspect from Xinjiang, Abudusataer Abudureheman, on Saturday. The 27 year-old Chinese national goes by the name ‘Ishan’ and is the suspected mastermind of the operation. The wanted poster for Ishan first reported that he was of Uyghur ethnicity, though a second version removed the reference and Thai authorities subsequently asked media to “drop the word”.

Observers, both international and Thai made early connections  between the Erawan bombing and the forced repatriation of 109 Chinese Uyghur refugees in July, though it is only now that Thai authorities have acknowledged the Uyghur links to the case. On Tuesday, Thai’s chief of police, Gen. Somyot Poompanmoung blamed the attack on human traffickers who aided Uyghurs refugees, angry that their network had been disrupted by Thai authorities. “Put simply, we destroyed their business.”

Combating domestic terrorism

While the connection between the controversial deportation and the bombing is seemingly bad news for China, there are a number of ways in which the PRC could benefit from this situation. First, the bombing legitimizes China’s domestic anti-terrorism efforts.

The Uyghur struggle for autonomy and Beijing’s efforts to contain it has been anything but peaceful. Systematic state-sponsored economic and physical violence in Xinjiang has been met with repeated attacks on police stations, government buildings, markets and train stations, both in Xinjiang and elsewhere. Beijing has long claimed that many of the terror attacks were coordinated by the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), a shadowy separatist organization allegedly linked to al-Qaeda. The very existence of ETIM, let alone its potency, has long been debated among experts and China has struggled to receive widespread recognition for its fight against domestic terrorism. This is largely due to doubts over ETIM and opposition to China’s repressive policies in Xinjiang.

The Erawan attack could change this. Now Beijing can point to the Erawan bombing as credible evidence that Uyghur terrorism is a threat that deserves attention outside of China. By internationalizing the issue, the Chinese government can rationalize its repeated crackdowns on Uyghurs to an international community which has been critical of its past policies. Now, Uyghur terrorism is an international issue that affects everyone – Bangkok was the world’s most visited city in 2014, after all.

Cross-border cooperation

Additionally, with an internationalization of Uyghur terrorism comes more opportunities for cross-border cooperation. Sino-Thai relations, already made closer by new trans-boundary infrastructure projects, will undoubtedly be strengthened by the Erawan attack. In February 2015, a counter-terrorism cooperation pact was signed between Indonesia and China following the repatriation of four Uyghurs accused of planning the Kunming train station attack. A similar agreement is a likely consequence of the Erawan attack.

International cooperation in combating (and sometimes creating) terror networks has been a lowest-common denominator of sorts for inter-state relations in the 21st century and China should take advantage of this. In the past, China has used links between Uyghur militants and terror cells in northwest Pakistan to strengthen relations with the South Asian state. In light of the Erawan blast, Beijing could coordinate its counter-terrorism efforts with Washington. Sino-US relations have noticeably worsened in recent years, and counter-terrorism, aside from global warming, may be the safest area for increased cooperation between the two regional rivals.

Coordination of border control efforts in Southeast Asia, particularly along China’s southern boundary is another area of possible cooperation. Uyghur migration through southwest China into Southeast Asia is a relatively new trend, and the number of migrants has swelled in recent years. Refugees have been known to use existing smuggling routes out of China and through Southeast Asia, exploiting porous borders and corrupt guards on the way. With the specter of international terrorism looming, China and its southern neighbors could increase cooperation along the margins. This would particularly benefit China’s ties with Myanmar and Vietnam, two countries with strained relations to Beijing.

Historically, Southeast Asian governments have acquiesced to China’s demands for detained Uyghur refugees to be repatriated and many observers presumed that the trend would continue along with China’s rise in regional influence. However, there is wide speculation that the attack at the Erawan Shrine, a site popular with ethnic Chinese, both Thai and tourist alike, was executed in retaliation for Thailand’s deportation of Uyghur refugees. The repatriation of 109 Uyghurs from Thailand in July led to condemnation from human rights groups and protests at China’s consulate in Istanbul, where nationalist Turks see Uyghurs as their pan-Turkic brethren. After Erawan and Turkey’s summer protests, Southeast Asian governments will likely reconsider any future deportations for fear of similar retribution.

Internal Worries

Internal worries over the consequences and implications of the Erawan blast may explain Beijing’s continued silence over the incident. While news of the attack did feature prominently in Chinese media in the days following the blast, there has been scarce coverage of the subsequent investigation, let alone the identity of the alleged attackers. Moreover, Beijing has actively denied Uyghur links to the Erawan attack, calling such speculation “hugely irresponsible” in the days following the explosion. Following the Tuesday statement from Gen. Somyot, there has been no mention of the Uyghur link to Erawan in the Chinese press.

China’s fears are not without merit. First, that the attackers hail from Xinjiang could be a point of embarrassment for the Chinese government. The crisis in northwest China has grown worse by the year – 2014 saw the expansion of Uyghur violence out of Xinjiang to the rest of China – and 2015 has now brought an international attack linked to the Uyghur separatist movement.

In the past, Beijing has refrained from mentioning the ethnicity of suspects in domestic attacks for fear of stoking ethnic tensions. Similar concerns are likely influencing China’s actions post-Erawan. Implicit in China focusing at all on the attack’s connection to Xinjiang is an acknowledgement of failure in solving the country’s ethnic problems and an admission of partial culpability. The government is already having enough trouble convincing its citizenry that it is capable of guiding the country through an economic slowdown – adding more doubts over ethnic and security issues is the last thing Beijing wants.

A Coordinated Response?

The lack of coverage of the investigation in China has been mirrored by Thai authorities’ previous reluctance to link the explosion to Uyghur separatism, and its continued avoidance labeling the attack as terrorism. This, like China’s strategy, is likely targeted at the Chinese public. The number of Chinese visitors to Thailand has exploded in recent years and the money they bring has been a welcome addition to the country’s economy as other sectors have faltered since a military junta took power in 2014. News of a bomb in downtown Bangkok was always going to affect tourism numbers, but connections to Uyghur terrorism will undoubtedly cause many prospective Chinese visitors to think twice before booking flights to the kingdom.

What’s more, Thailand’s handling of the case has raised questions of Chinese involvement in the case. The delayed official announcement of the Uyghur and the offiical waffling over the ethnicity of the suspects signaled to some that China had an affect on the investigation. Further, Thai officials asked media to avoid analysis that might affect “international relationships,” interpreted by many to mean China. A coordinated response by Bangkok and Beijing would make sense. In addition to being the source of millions of tourists each year,  China is Thailand’s largest trade partner and the closest ally of its military government.

Now that Bangkok has shown its hand, Beijing’s response will be critical to watch. Political savvy on the part of China’s foreign ministry could turn an international tragedy into an opportunity for more positive ties with Southeast Asia. However, the domestic implications of publicizing the link between Xinjiang and Erawan shrine will likely keep Beijing silent for now.

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Filed under China, Current Events, Human trafficking, Kunming Train Station Attack, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand

Shwe Mann removal a blow to reform in Myanmar

Shwe Mann's removal represents a step backwards for Myanmar's reform process.

Shwe Mann’s purge represents a step backwards for Myanmar’s reform process.

Less than three months before the country’s highly anticipated parliamentary elections, an internal purge of Myanmar’s ruling party has cast doubts on the prospects of reforms in the Southeast Asian state.

On Wednesday evening, security forces surrounded the headquarters of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), preventing politicians from leaving. Not long after, it was announced that Shwe Mann, chairman of the military-backed USDP was stepping down. The Parliament speaker’s ouster has changed Myanmar’s political landscape ahead of November 8 and has thrown the future of the nascent democracy into uncertainty.

Challenging the status quo

Shwe Mann, who was the third highest ranking official in General Than Shwe’s junta, was expected by many to take over the presidency in this year’s election. His ties to the military and his reputation as a reformer with close connections to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi made him the ideal compromise candidate for a country that is struggling to maintain the pace of political and economic reforms started following the end of military rule in 2011.

It was this image as a reformer that ultimately led to his downfall. Ye Htut, Myanmar’s information minister and President Thein Sein’s spokesman confirmed as much Sunday, saying that Shwe Mann was removed because he challenged the military’s hold on parliamentary power and forged ties with rival party leaders.

Throughout Thein Sein’s tenure, Shwe Mann repeatedly made public overtures to Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Many in Myanmar expected this year’s parliamentary elections to result in a unity government of the USDP and the NLD, with Shwe Mann as president. Both party leaders expressed a desire to alter the junta-backed 2008 constitution, which currently bars Suu Kyi from becoming president and reserves 25 percent of the parliament’s seats for the military.

Announcing his desire to partner with the opposition leader gained him popularity among the reform-minded Burmese public, but it did not endear him to the military elite. Former junta leader Than Shwe has reportedly changed his mind about the series of reforms he ordered five years ago and ultimately ordered Shwe Mann’s removal in order to re-consolidate the military’s hold on power.

Dim prospects for reform

The imagery of Wednesday evening’s intra-party coup certainly suggests that a return to the atmosphere of pre-reform Myanmar is afoot. Using the country’s security forces betrayed the involvement of the Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, likely carrying the blessings of Than Shwe. Despite his large political ambition, it is doubtful that the encirclement of USDP headquarters by soldiers and military police was needed to remove Shwe Mann from power. Instead, the display of military force was symbolic, serving notice to any would-be political challengers and the Burmese public as a whole that the military is ultimately in control. The bloodless coup’s casualties were only political in nature, but the violent signals it sent will have reminded many of past military purges.  Aung San Suu Kyi may be free from house arrest, newspapers may have cautiously restarted their printing presses, but the junta has not yet given up the reins.

The political landscape leading up to this year’s elections has changed considerably following Shwe Mann’s removal. He was Thein Sein’s primary political rival and with Aung San Suu Kyi sidelined by constitutional provisions, the presidency is Thein Sein’s to lose. Whether or not he will take the opportunity is another matter. The former general has waffled in his plans regarding the presidency, alternately saying that poor health will force him to step down and suggesting that his decision depends on the “the country’s situation, the prevailing circumstances, and wishes of the people.” Thein Sein does not need to immediately decide on his political future, however. Even if he chooses to sit out November’s elections, Thein Sein can still be nominated for the presidency by parliament, according to Myanmar’s 2008 constitution.

While Thein Sein’s presidential ambitions may be unclear, the prospects for liberal reform in Myanmar are unquestionably dim. Shwe Mann’s removal likely signals both a slowdown for political reform and crackdowns on Myanmar’s burgeoning civil society and free media.

Following his ouster, the government gagged media organizations linked to Shwe Mann. The Union Daily newspaper and the weekly Leader journal, both known as mouthpieces for Shwe Mann, were ordered to suspend operations by the Ministry of Information. In addition, Cherry FM, a radio station linked to Shwe Mann’s daughter-in-law, was taken off the air Friday.

Despite seemingly bleak prospects for Myanmar’s reform process, Shwe Mann’s removal could have unexpected consequences if the November elections remain free and fair. Shwe Mann represented reform within the country’s military establishment and offered a middle road between the NLD opposition and the hardliners in the USDP. Many Burmese that I have spoken with in recent years knew that Aung San Suu Kyi’s chances of ascending to the presidency were slim and viewed Shwe Mann as an acceptable alternative. That option is gone now.

By deposing Shwe Mann, the USDP might have pushed millions of moderate voters into the arms of their political opponents. However, that all depends on free and fair elections in November – an unlikely event following Wednesday’s intra-party coup.

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Filed under Governance, Myanmar/Burma, Regional Relations, SLIDER

Trial of Chinese loggers in Myanmar raises questions about bilateral relations

burmese logging

Chinese demand for prized woods like teak has led to an illegal logging epidemic in eastern Myanmar.

In Myanmar, the trial of over 150 Chinese workers has sparked yet another diplomatic row and has raised questions about the stability of the Sino-Burmese relationship.

Last week Wednesday, a local court in Myanmar sentenced 153 Chinese nationals to life in prison for illegal logging. In addition, another two Chinese minors were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for the same offense.

The sentences were handed down in the Myitkyina district court, in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state. The 155 Chinese nationals, most from neighboring Yunnan province, were apprehended in January of this year by members of the Myanmar army, along with a number of Burmese citizens. At the time of arrest, the loggers were found with 436 logging trucks, along with drugs and around 12000 Chinese Yuan (around 2000 USD) in currency, according to a report from Phoenix News.

“We tried to make the sentences as fair as possible, but we had to consider the environmental point of view,” district deputy magistrate Myint Swe told Radio Free Asia’s Myanmar Service.

“If you look at the number of vehicles, and machinery and the equipment [they were arrested with], you can imagine the amount of environmental damage they’ve done.”

The criminals were convicted  under a 1963 law carrying a sentence of 10 years to life imprisonment for abusing or stealing public property. However,  life sentences are commonly only served for 20 years under Myanmar’s legal system, according to the Associated Press.

Searching for an explanation

The trial marks a new low in Sino-Burmese relations. Since the suspension of the Chinese-funded Myitsone hydropower project in 2011, the two neighbors’ relations have steadily deteriorated. The relationship was further strained in March when fighting between the Myanmar Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a rebel group based in Myanmar’s Kokang Special Region, spilled over the border and killed five Chinese civilians.

The life sentences in this case could simply be the result of a local magistrate’s decision, however the recent downturn in bilateral relations has led some to wonder if there are ulterior motives behind the verdicts given to the loggers. One explanation is that the sentencing was given in response to Beijing hosting  Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in June. Despite the Burmese opposition leader speaking Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting of political parties (Daw Suu heads the National League for Democracy and Xi is the Chinese Communist Party leader), the significance of the visit was not lost on Naypidaw and the government might have taken offense at Beijing’s meeting with the opposition leader. However, Aung San Suu Kyi has met with world leaders before, including US President Barack Obama and Indian PM Nahendra Modi, and neither visit provoked such a controversial response from Naypidaw. It is unlikely that Daw Suu’s meeting with Xi is an exception.

Another possible explanation for the harsh sentences is that the Myanmar government wants some sort of insurance against aggressive actions from their neighbor. If the current trend in Sino-Burmese relations is to continue, Myanmar may be looking for some sort of bargaining chip in any future interactions with China. One can imagine that a further escalation of the ethnic conflict along the China-Myanmar border prompts the Chinese to send its military into Myanmar. The Burmese could use the release of the Chinese loggers as an incentive for Beijing to withdraw its troops. While Sino-Burmese relations have indeed reached a nadir in 2015, the Burmese would have to have an extremely cynical view of the relationship to make so shrewd a move.

A third view of the trial invokes a discussion of the so-called “Dream of the Golden Land,” one of the popular frameworks of the nation of Myanmar. Like China’s national humiliation discourse or US President Ronald Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill,” the “Dream of the Golden Land” is the Burmese nation’s story about itself, according to Yale University’s Josh Gordon. In the narrative, Myanmar is a land endowed with abundant natural resources, highly desired by foreigners. One has only to look at the colonial period for evidence of this. It is then the duty of the majority ethnic Bamar to protect their “Golden Land” from these covetous outsiders and since independence from the British in 1948 this has been done by expelling Chinese and Indian immigrants from the country in the 1960’s, remaining non-aligned through the Cold War and fighting off a host of ethnic insurgencies for almost six decades. The military junta’s attacks against Daw Suu as a tool of the West, the violent campaign against Rohingya Muslims and the results of this trial could also be interpreted using this narrative. In this view, by sentencing 153 Chinese loggers to life in prison, Myanmar has once again protected itself from the thieving hands of outsiders and is making an example of the offenders to avoid similar incidents in the future.

There are also sovereignty issues at stake in the trial. Kachin state has long been contested by ethnic armed groups, namely the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The KIA has been known to issue permits for resource extraction projects, including logging, in the areas it controls, despite the Myanmar government’s protests. This appears to be the case here.

According to a report from Phoenix News, the workers in question were found with logging permits issued by the KIA. Moreover, the Chinese workers arrested in this case claimed they were unaware that they were breaking the law and believed that their permits were valid.

As parts of Kachin and Shan states have switched hands between rebel groups and central government control over the past decades, Chinese and Thai businessmen have taken advantage by signing shady  logging and mining contracts with insurgent armies and local Myanmar army commanders. In this case, it appears that Myanmar’s long-running civil war may have moved from the battlefield to the court room. By prosecuting Chinese workers for logging with illegal permits issued by the KIA, the Myanmar government is sending a signal that it, not the KIA is the final authority on who gets to extract resources in the country. It is a significant move, especially considering the ongoing ceasefire negotiations between Naypidaw and a number of ethnic armed groups.

“Highly concerned with the verdict”

News of the verdicts last Wednesday provoked protests from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said that Beijing is “highly concerned” with the sentences and urged the Burmese to consider Chinese concerns and “properly” handle the case, according to a report from the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

On Thursday, Xinhua published a commentary on the matter, condemning the sentences and calling for the loggers to be treated in a “reasonable and sensible way.” The piece noted that China “respects laws and customs of other countries,” but also called the mass sentencing “abnormal,” questioning the impartiality of the verdict.

While the Chinese government has been vocal in its displeasure with the sentencing, it has not yet gone to extraordinary lengths to secure the release of its citizens. Following the announcement of the verdict, some analysts wondered whether Beijing would involve itself in the legal process, a move which could challenge China’s existing foreign policy principles. Since its founding, non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs has been a pillar of the PRC’s foreign policy. Intervening  strongly on the Chinese loggers’ behalf could trigger an evolution in China’s non-interference and would mark an important transition in the country’s foreign policy.

Until now, however, it appears that China will not take such extreme measures to see its citizens freed. Officials from China’s Foreign Ministry were in attendance for the reading of the verdict on Wednesday but there was no evidence of any further involvement.

According to a lawyer familiar with the case, the loggers can file an appeal with the Kachin state judiciary and then to the Supreme Court in Myanmar’s capital, Naypidaw.

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Filed under China, Foreign policy, Myanmar/Burma, Regional Relations, SLIDER

Thailand deports Uyghur refugees to China, despite protests

Refugees on the way to a Thai detention center, March 18, 2014. Image used courtesy of VOA News.

Refugees being transported to a Thai detention center, March 18, 2014. Image used courtesy of VOA News.

After more than a year of waiting, almost 300 ethnic Uyghurs are leaving Thailand. On July 1, a group of 173 Uyghur refugees, mostly women and children, left Thailand for Turkey. A week later, another 109 Uyghurs were deported back to their home country of China. The decision on the fate of these refugees, who have remained in Thai custody since their arrests in March 2014, has sparked criticism from human rights groups and protests from the Turkish public.

These 282 Uyghurs are part of a group of almost 300 people taken into custody by Thai authorities in March 2014. Many were found in a human trafficking camp in Songkhla province. Since then, they have waited in detention centers in Songkhla, Trat and Rayong while an intense diplomatic battle over their fates raged between the governments of China, Turkey and Thailand.

The Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim people from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China’s northwest. In the last decade, they have left China in increasingly larger numbers, escaping religious persecution and political and economic repression.

On July 1, Seyit Tumturk, vice president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), confirmed through Radio Free Asia‘s Uyghur language service that the first group of 173 Uyghurs were able to “enter into Turkey safely” after arriving in Istanbul.

“They are mostly women and kids—around 120 kids and about 50 women. Hopefully, the men [still in detention] will be granted this kind of chance in the near future.”

Initial reports of bloodshed

The Uyghur men, however were not given such a chance. On July 8, 109 refugees were forcibly deported to China from Thailand. The group was made up of mostly men, however some women and children were also repatriated.

The World Uyghur Congress first reported that 25 men had been shot dead after resisting their deportation in Bangkok. Thai authorities, however, denied the story.

Thai government deputy spokesman Weerachon Sukhontapatipak told Radio Free Asia in an interview that “there was no such thing as claimed by WUC.” Another, anonymous source in the Thai government confirmed Weerachon’s statement, saying, “It is not true. There was no killing as claimed by the WUC.” He added that video evidence confirming the refugees’ safety could be provided.

In the initial report published on their website, the WUC reported that a first plane of mostly women and children departed without incident. “The second plane, however, was intended to transport around 65 men, but authorities faced some resistance from the men in doing so.”

In the process of subduing the resisters, 25 men were shot and killed, the WUC originally reported. Hours after its publication, however, the paragraph concerning the killings was removed from the report.

Protests and condemnation

The move by Thailand to repatriate the refugees drew intense criticism from Uyghur organizations and human rights groups. The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said it was “shocked” by Thailand’s decision and considered the deportation “a flagrant violation of international law.”

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, head of Thailand’s military government, seemed unconcerned with issues of international law, claiming that the matter did not concern Thailand.

“I’m asking if we don’t do it this way, then how would we do it?” he said. “Or do you want us to keep them for ages until they have children for three generations?”

Rights groups worry that the deported Uyghurs will face harsh penalties once on Chinese soil. Uyghurs that have been repatriated from Southeast Asian countries in the past have received long jail sentences and even capital punishment for illegally leaving China.

In Beijing, Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that the Chinese government would pursue legal action against the repatriated Uyghurs.

“China’s relevant departments will bring those who are suspected of committing serious crimes to justice according to law,” she told reporters. “As for those who are not suspected of committing crimes or who commit lesser offences, we will find proper ways to deal with them.”

The episode has also led to protests in Turkey, where many see Uyghurs as their Turkic-speaking “cousins”. On Thursday, both the Thai consulate in Istanbul and the Thai embassy in Ankara were attacked during pro-Uyghur demonstrations. Police in Ankara used tear gas there to disperse protesters.

Earlier in the week, the Chinese consulate was attacked along with  Chinese restaurants in Istanbul. Protesters were angry after reports emerged that local governments in Xinjiang region were prohibiting Uyghur schoolchildren and civil servants from fasting for Ramadan. Similar Ramadan crackdowns have been reported annually for over a decade In response to the protests, the Chinese government issued a travel warning to Turkey for Chinese tourists on  July 8.

A split decision

Despite closer ties between Turkey and China in recent years, the issues surrounding the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and Turkey’s acceptance of Uyghur refugees have prevented the Sino-Turkish relations from moving forward. This week’s protests certainly marks a low point in the relationship and it will be interesting to see how things develop after this latest deportation episode. It is unlikely that China’s crackdowns nor Turkey’s acceptance of Uyghurs will end anytime soon.

Despite Thai Prime Minister Prayuth’s claims that Thailand was simply a third party actor, its role in the refugees’ deportation to Turkey and repatriation to China was key. How it navigated this tricky diplomatic issue says much about Thailand’s relations with China. Ties between the Southeast Asian state and China have improved in recent years and increased Chinese investment in Thailand’s infrastructure will only make the two countries closer. Therefore, it was never in doubt that Thailand would acquiesce to the PRC’s request to have the Uyghur migrants returned.

However, Thailand, with a proud history of resisting foreign pressures, still wishes to remain independent in the face of a rising China. Its decision to send 173 women and children, likely low-priority targets for China’s internal security forces, to Turkey instead of China is significant. It could be interpreted as a symbol that while China’s clout in the region is growing, it is not yet large enough to wholly influence diplomatic decisions.  Future cases of deportation involving Uyghurs in Southeast Asia will act as a barometer of China’s influence on the foreign affairs ministries in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and other regional capitals. This episode may have reached its conclusion, but it is unlikely to be the last as long as Uyghurs continue to look for a better life outside China’s borders.

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Filed under China, ethnic policy, Human trafficking, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand

The “Indo” in Indochina – How much of Southeast Asian culture derives from the subcontinent?

If there is anything certain about place names, it is that they change. Nowhere is this truer than in Southeast Asia. First it was Burma, now it’s Myanmar. No more Malaya, we call it Malaysia now. Siam? Thailand, thank you very much.

Even the name of the region has changed. The massive peninsula jutting southeast from the Himalayas and its associated archipelagos only got the name “Southeast Asia” during the Second World War. For older students of geography, Indochina might be a more familiar term.

Following the war, decolonization fever spread through the tropics and Indochine, the French name for its colonies in what is now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, became anathema. Now, referring to the region as “Indochina” might get you some nasty glares at conferences. But despite its colonial connotations, “Indochina” is indeed an accurate term to describe the region.

The local cultures in the region are diverse, distinct and vibrantly unique, but the legacy of the Indian and Chinese traders and soldiers that have criss-crossed the area for millennia is undeniable. In this post specifically, I will focus on the Indian traders who imbued the fore bearers of millions of today’s Southeast Asians with the hallmarks of their cultures: written language, cuisine, dance, architecture, religion. Over the past two millennia, these all have combined to create a complete package of high culture that has seeped into today’s popular culture. What’s more, it is the classical culture of southern India that has been most influential. This winding tale of cultural diffusion takes us back more than seventeen-hundred years to the Pallava dynasty.

Map of Southeast Asian kingdoms circa 1000 C.E. Champa Kingdom – Yellow, Khmer Empire – Red, Mon Dvaravati Kingdom – Light Blue, Mon Haripunjaya Kingdom – Bright Green, Dai Viet Kingdom – Dark Blue, Pagan Kingdom – Purple

The Pallava

The Pallava was a line of rulers located in southern India from the 3rd to 9th centuries C.E. They originated as pastoralists on the Deccan plateau and by the 4th century established their capital at Kanci (Kanchipuram in today’s Tamil Nadu state) in the subcontinent’s southeast. After taking power, the Pallava adapted to the local Tamil culture. Throughout their dynasty, they were great patrons of music, art and literature and supported Buddhism, Jainism and the Brahmanical faith, building a number of architecturally innovative temples.

Most significantly for Southeast Asia, the Pallava expanded their influence eastward. Using centuries-old trade routes that linked China to Rome via Southeast Asia, India, the Arabian Peninsula and east Africa, Pallava merchants traded extensively with their Southeast Asian counterparts. This trade system only intensified over time. As the Khmer empire expanded in peninsular Southeast Asia and the Srivijaya empire ruled the archipelagos, the Chola kingdom, successors to the Pallava, exerted a growing economic and cultural influence on the region.

While archaeological digs have unearthed Chinese ceramics in modern-day Cambodia and Khmer pottery in Europe, the cultural effects of this ancient trade system are more readily apparent. Indeed many cultural traits that are today shared by different Southeast Asian nations are in fact derived from the Pallava and Chola expansion eastward and the cultural mixing that happened in the following centuries.

Cuisine

One salient (and delicious) example is cuisine. Curry is a staple in the region – think Thailand’s gang keo warn, Cambodia’s fish amok and Malaysia’s Penang curry. Curry, however, is not endemic to Southeast Asia. The word itself comes from the Tamil kari and its export east is evident not only in the mass consumption of curries but also in the words to describe them. In Indonesian and Malay, curry is also kari and Sumatran cuisine in particular features Indian style curry. In Thai, many curries go by the name gaeng but gaeng gari refers specifically to South Indian style yellow curry while in Cambodia, the kroeung curry makes up the base flavor for a number of commonly consumed dishes. Kroeung -like curry has existed for over a millennium in what is now Cambodia. While ingredients like tumeric and and coconut milk are naturally found there, it was the arrival of Indian traders during and before the Khmer empire that predicated their combination into curry.

Mutton curry and roti from Sumatra.

Language

The Pallava’s greatest influence is arguably their script. The Pallava script, first used in the 6th century, was one of a number of widely-used Brahmic scripts whose descendants are now found throughout the subcontinent. Like curry, the Pallava’s script followed their boats and inspired number of writing systems now used all over Southeast Asia.

There are three older scripts that are direct descendants of Pallava that in turn gave rise to other, later writing systems – Khmer, Mon, and Kawi. A fourth, the script used by the Chams who once ruled much of coastal Vietnam, also descends from Pallava.

The Khmer were the first to adopt the South Indian script. The kings of Angkor also adopted the suffix  –varman (i.e. Suryavarman II, Jayavarman VII), a name that was popular with the Pallava royals and  traced their lineage to a wandering Pallava prince. As their empire expanded to swallow large swaths of peninsular Southeast Asia, their writing system also grew in influence. Today, the modern Khmer script, the Thai script and the Lao script are all prominent derivatives of the writing system used at Angkor.

Pallava script

The Mon people, centered in Lower Burma’s coastal rice-growing heartland, adopted another form of the Pallava script, called Pallava Grantha. Pallava Grantha, also a parent writing system for the modern Indian languages Malayalum and Tamil is characterized by a more rounded look as opposed to the boxier Pallava. Pallava Grantha gave birth to the Mon script in Burma around the 8th century C.E. This writing system in turn inspired the Old Burmese script used at the court of Pagan in Upper Burma and subsequently the modern Burmese script. The Mon script is also the source for the script of the Shan language, the Dai language in China’s Yunnan province and the Lanna script of Northern Thailand.

Unlike the other three, the Kawi writing system was created not in peninsular Southeast Asia, but on the island of Java. It too was derived from the Pallava script and the oldest Kawi texts date to the 8th century. It grew to prominence during the Singhasari Kingdom in the 13th century and was used across the Indonesian archipelago and in what is now the Philippines. Descendants of the Kawi script include Javanese, Balinese, and the Philippine Baybayin script.

Literature

With such a large impact on the region’s writing systems, it is no surprise that the literary traditions of Southeast Asia were also affected by the subcontinent’s culture. The Indian epic Ramayana is the most prominent example. Despite the prevalence of Theravada Buddhism in the region (also an Indian import), local versions of the epic poem, containing many themes and characters from Hindu mythology, can be found almost everywhere.

In Thailand, it appears as the national epic Ramakien, portrayed completely on the walls of the country’s most sacred temple, Wat Phra Keow. The Cambodian version Reamker has been the most famous Khmer story for over a millennium, with bas reliefs depicting scenes from the story on the walls of Angkor Wat. In the former Royal Palace in Luang Prabang, Laos, two lacquered scenes from the epic are displayed prominently on the walls of the king’s reception room.

One of the most unique examples comes from Malaysia, where the story has been adapted over the centuries for the largely Muslim population and substitutes Allah and Adam for the original Hindu deities. There also exist distinct versions of the Ramayana from Myanmar, Java, Bali, and Mindanao, among other places in the region.

The Ramayana’s influence extends past literature and art into dance, as well. In a region whose populace was largely illiterate until the 20th century, local dance theatre has been the most popular non-literary medium for the story. To this day, characters like Rama, Sita, Ravanna and Hanuman the monkey king appear regularly with elaborate costumes in communities all over Southeast Asia.

Rama and Sita, in the Yama Zatdaw, the Burmese retelling of the Ramayana.

Cuisine, written language, literature and dance are only a few examples of areas where India has impacted Southeast Asian cultures. Religion (Hinduism and Buddhism in the classical states and then Islam in the past millennium), the spoken language (many terms relating to politics and religion in the languages of both peninsular and archipelagic Southeast Asia derive from Sanskrit) and architecture (Hindu and Buddhist temples from Myanmar’s Bagan, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, and Indonesia’s Borobudur all display Indian-influenced architectural styles) were all heavily impacted by the classical Indian cultural expansion.

Moreover, the subcontinent’s influence on Southeast Asia did not end with the classical age. Trade between the two regions grew continuously up through the colonial era. During the 19th century, Britain’s colonization of India, Myanmar and Malaya facilitated not only increased trade, but also increased immigration.  Millions of people from all over the Indian subcontinent moved into these other colonies, bringing a wealth of cultural traditions into the existing mix. In the 1920s and 1930s, Yangon (Rangoon) was the largest immigration port in the world, with most arrivals coming from India. Now, biriyani, dhal and roti flatbread are all as easily found on the streets of Yangon and Kuala Lumpur as they are in Delhi.

Southeast Asia, and the diverse cultures of the hundreds of millions of people that live there, is a true melting pot of cultures. While the states of classical India did imbue the Southeast Asian kingdoms with many of its traditions, they were not the only contributors.

As the name Indochina implies, the Han Chinese state also had an impact on the development of the states to its south, most notably the Dai Viet Empire that rose in the Red River valley. However, Chinese and Indian traditions contributed mostly to the high culture of the Southeast Asian states. Oftentimes, the complex cosmologies and exotic ways of faraway empires had little effect on the peasants that made up the bulk of the populace. Local traditions and folk customs made up the core of mass culture and despite the millennia long process of Indian cultural infusion, they still do.

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In China’s hinterlands, a new life for Myanmar’s Rohingya

President of Myanmar Thein Sein. Photo: Wikemedia Commons

President of Myanmar Thein Sein. Photo: Wikemedia Commons

On February 12, 2015 Myanmar President Thein Sein, prompted by protests led by Buddhist monks in Yangon, reversed a decision made ten days earlier to give voting rights to the country’s Rohingya population. The reversal, while surprising to some, was only the latest in a series of events to befall the Muslim minority who call western Myanmar’s Rakhine state home.

The Rohingya of Myanmar (also known as Burma) have lost more than voting rights in the past. Regarded as one of the world’s most oppressed peoples, the Rohingya are a distinct ethnic group that speak a dialect of Bengali and are thought to be descended from Arab and Persian traders.

Persecuted at Home

Under the military junta that ruled Myanmar for most of the latter half of the 20th century and the current, nominally civilian government, Myanmar’s Rohingya have suffered chronic poverty, food insecurity, harassment and forced labor, among other human rights abuses. Following Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were denied citizenship and are still referred to as ‘aliens’ and ‘foreigners’ by government officials. They are neither allowed to travel outside their hometown nor marry without official approval.

Poor relations between the Muslim Rohingya and their neighbors have only made things worse. Tensions between Rakhine state’s Muslim population and the majority Rakhine ethnicity, who are Buddhist, boiled over in 2012, leading to anti-Muslim riots that spread throughout the country. In Rakhine state alone, over 200 people were killed and whole villages were burned to the ground. Conditions have not improved for Myanmar’s Rohingya population since then. The current boat crisis of thousands of Bengali and Rohingya refugees stranded off the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia is a consequence of awful conditions at home.

The Rohingya, however are certainly not the only group struggling in Myanmar. Despite what appears to be a nascent democracy, a civil war between the government and an array of armed ethnic groups along the country’s periphery has flickered continuously since the 1950s. The reasons for the conflicts are many, though issues of ethnic autonomy and control of precious resources like jade and timber loom large.

The conflict’s latest iteration began in February 2015 and is still ongoing. A flare up of tensions between the Myanmar Army and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in Kokang, Shan State, has killed hundreds and forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee across the border into China.

Many Rohingya have also left Burma in the past decades. Tens of thousands of them reside in ill-equipped refugee camps on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, though others have escaped to new lives abroad. Their final destinations vary, but the majority resides in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Thailand and Pakistan. Of these Rohingya living overseas, who may number over one million, most work low-wage jobs in the construction and service industries. There are some, however, that have chosen a different path in a land closer to home.

Abdullah's storefront in Jinghong

Abdullah’s storefront in Jinghong

Eight hundred kilometers east of Rakhine state in Jinghong, China, Abedullah owns a small jewelry shop. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon he hasn’t sold a thing.

Abedullah, like almost one million of his compatriots in Rakhine state, is a Rohingya, but he has not lived there in thirteen years. Instead, he’s settled in Jinghong, the capital of Yunnan Province’s Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, along with almost 600 other Rohingya. All of them sell jade.

According to Abedullah, who only agreed to give his first name, Rohingya merchants first came to Jinghong almost forty years ago. Following the end of the bloody Bangladesh Independence War in 1973, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled into neighboring Burma. Marginalized by the Burmese and eventually disavowed by the Bangladeshi government, tens of thousands of Rohingya fled overseas. A handful made it to southwest China’s Yunnan province.

Stories of Jinghong’s first Rohingya are hard to find and by all accounts, the number of émigrés remained small until the 1990s. It was then that the Chinese economy began to truly open up to the international market. As trade increased and more Chinese became wealthy, the country’s jewelry consumption level grew as well, skyrocketing over 4000% in a decade.

While all gemstones have grown in popularity in recent decades, none hold the place in Chinese culture that jade does. Regarded as a stone of mystical qualities since antiquity, jade is the king of gemstones in China and it is in Myanmar that the world’s highest quality jade is found.

As a result, jade shops are ubiquitous in dozens of towns along the China-Myanmar border. Jinghong is one of the largest. Straddling the Mekong River, this once sleepy town has grown into a city of six hundred-thousand and now hosts millions of tourists each year. Many of these tourists come looking to buy Burmese jade. As travelers have flocked to Jinghong in greater numbers in recent years, Rohingya merchants with connections to the Burmese jade trade have followed to keep up with demand.

A New Life

One of the recent arrivals is Xiao Fei, a 21 year-old who prefers his new Chinese nickname to his given name. Xiao Fei, like many other Rohingya in Jinghong, came at the behest of his family; his grandfather first arrived in the city almost thirty years ago. After saving enough money for a passport, Xiao Fei was able to leave his home in Yangon and help his grandfather set up the family’s second shop.

Xiao Fei had to save up for his passport because getting such a document is often impossible for many Rohingya in Myanmar. Since they are officially considered to be foreigners by the Burmese government, Rohingya can only obtain passports after paying expensive bribes to the right people. That is why, as Xiao Fei explains, “Only rich Rohingya can make it to China.”

Once in Jinghong, new arrivals find an environment altogether strange and inviting. The forest of newly-built apartment complexes and hotels certainly dwarfs anything found in Rakhine state, however the hundreds of established Rohingya businessmen form a tight community that provides everything from religious services to a lunchtime delivery service of halal Burmese cuisine.

It is the mosque that is the heart of the community, says Waynai, a trader living in Jinghong for six years. The Jinghong Mosque, located not far from the banks of the Mekong was first established decades ago by the city’s existing community of Hui, a distinct ethnic group of more than ten million people that practice Islam and speak Mandarin Chinese.

When the Rohingya began to move to Jinghong in greater numbers in the late 1990s, they became a part of the congregation, eventually joined by a small population of Uighurs from China’s northwest. Together, these three groups of Muslims manage the congregation. Despite disparate geographic and cultural backgrounds, the mosque is thriving with a healthy number of members, daily prayers held in Arabic and discussion groups where participants speak in Standard Mandarin.

The Jinghong Mosque

The Jinghong Mosque

However both Waynai and Abedullah agree more with the mosque’s Uighur members on theological questions. When asked whether or not he had any non-Rohingya friends from the congregation, Abedullah answers, “Yes, but not the Hui. They’re fake … they don’t have Allah in their hearts.” Instead, it is the Uighur community that he feels closer too. “[The Rohingya] are similar to the Uighurs because neither of us are free … we both have to struggle to survive.”

This struggle is why Ba Hlaing, a 31 year-old jade dealer, came to Jinghong eight years ago. At the time, his family lived comfortably in a suburb of Yangon but as he came of age, conditions for young Rohingya grew more difficult. “I would’ve liked to stay with my family, but there wasn’t anything to do, no money to make.”

“It’s because of [the government] that we’re so backwards now,” he says in a whirlwind of English, Mandarin and Jinghong dialect, slapping the table after each word.

Just then a Han Chinese couple enters Ba Hlaing’s shop. He greets them using his best Mandarin, standing, “Welcome to Ba Hlaing’s Jewelry! We have the finest jade from Myanmar! Would you like to look at a bracelet?”

After five minutes of browsing, the wife still has not decided on a piece and the husband, fidgeting, suggests heading back to their hotel. The couple leaves and Ba Hlaing sits down to light a cigarette. “That’s how it goes,” he sighs. Just like Abedullah, business is slow for Ba Hlaing, even during tourism’s high season.

Ba Hlaing believes the drop in jade sales is a consequence of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s much-publicized crackdown on corruption. Once-popular ostentatious displays of wealth, like jade pieces worth tens of thousands of dollars are now frowned upon and officials that might frequent jade shops like Ba Hlaing’s are staying away.

Burmese jadeite

Burmese jadeite. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The jade, however, keeps flowing from Myanmar. Most of it is mined in a strip of remote jungle in Kachin State, in the country’s northeast.  Conditions in Myanmar’s jade mines are notoriously dangerous and the towns that spring up around them are known as much for their drugs and guns as they are for their jade. However bad mining conditions are though, the money can be worth it for those who can make it. Official figures from Myanmar’s government put jade exports at $1.4 billion between 2011 and 2014. Analysts from Harvard University’s Ash Center disagree, estimating jade sales – both official and off the books – at $8 billion for 2011 alone.

Once the raw jade has been extracted, it is sent to processing centers. The majority are located within Myanmar, in urban centers like Mandalay and Yangon, where the jade is polished and crafted into a final product. The next step is to get it into China, where the market is.

Most traders interviewed for this article admitted that the majority of the jade they sold was actually smuggled into Yunnan. A few well-placed bribes on both sides of the border can get shipments of jade, transported in trucks, into China reliably. Once the jade is in Yunnan, it usually makes its way to Ruili, a major border crossing between China and Myanmar.

According to Ba Hlaing, many Rohingya traders in Jinghong have a contact in Ruili, usually family, that buys the jade. Others, however, are directly connected to processing centers, most often in Yangon. For more valuable pieces, with sale prices upwards of $50,000, many traders will use air transport to ensure their safe arrival. While import taxes must be paid in these cases, the extra cost is often worth the peace of mind.

 A Tough Decision

Peace of mind, however, is getting harder to come by. With a slowdown in business and mounting issues back in Myanmar, many members of Jinghong’s Rohingya community are facing a tough decision whether or not to return home.

Ba Hlaing, for one, is planning on going back to Myanmar. Sales have decreased for the past two years and he fears that a protracted crackdown on corruption in China will keep jade sales low and prevent his shop in Jinghong from making a profit.

Despite the dire situation for the Rohingya in Myanmar, Ba Hlaing is choosing to remain positive. “I think things will get better for us,” he says guardedly. “We have [this year’s parliamentary] election and the world paying attention to us so democracy is a good thing.”

Abedullah, on the other hand, does not share Ba Hlaing’s optimism. He does not want to return to Myanmar and sees little hope for democracy delivering the Rohingya from oppression.

“Things are a mess in Myanmar right now, everything is a mess,” he says. “The economy is bad and the government and [the armed ethnic groups] are still fighting.”

When asked his thoughts on the country’s armed conflicts, Abedullah pauses before exhaling heavily. “You know, we want to go to war too. At least [the armed ethnic groups] have guns. We don’t have anything,” he laments. “The government even took the knives from our houses … But then they still call us terrorists.”

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Kunming party chief falls to corruption probe; held post for less than 8 months

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Former Kunming party secretary, Gao Jinsong

 

It’s official: there is no government posting more inauspicious than that of Kunming Communist Party Secretary.

On April 10, the Yunnan discipline inspection commission announced that current Kunming party chief Gao Jinsong (高劲松) is being investigated for “serious violations of party discipline and law,” official jargon for corruption. He had served as the Yunnan provincial capital’s party chief for less than eight months.

Gao, 51, is the third consecutive Kunming party chief to have fallen victim to President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. His predecessor, Zhang Tianxin (张田欣) was forced to step down in July 2014 and Qiu He (仇和), who held the post from 2011-2014 was investigated just last month.

Before assuming his post in Kunming, Gao Jinsong was the Communist Party secretary of Yunnan’s Qujing prefecture from 2012 to 2014. Along with Kunming party secretary, Gao was also party secretary of the city’s garrison command. He was not, however a member of Yunnan’s standing committee, the top level of party leadership in the province.

According to a report by Caixin, Gao’s investigation is linked to the case against Bai Enpei (白恩培). The former Yunnan provincial party secretary, Bai was investigated for corruption and in August 2014. Gao reportedly gave Bai Enpei millions of yuan in bribes. “Bai and his wife confessed … regarding the bribes they took, which implicated many officials currently in office,” Caixin cited an anonymous Yunnan official as saying.

Gao’s investigation marks a new direction for the current anti-corruption drive. When Gao was announced as the replacement for the disgraced Zhang Tianxin in August 2014, many locals thought him to be a safe choice. It was assumed that the central government had properly vetted him and that his term as party secretary would last longer than eight months. It’s obvious now that something went wrong.

It is certainly possible that Gao’s investigation is directly related to the Bai Enpei case. However, the investigations and court proceedings in official corruption cases are done behind closed doors, the details of which are only released through state-run media.

Indeed, it would make sense that Gao Jinsong had corrupt dealings with Bai Enpei. Bai, who was the provincial secretary from 2001 to 2011, was a kingmaker of Yunnan’s party leadership and Gao’s political rise coincided with Bai’s tenure.

Regardless of the exact details of Gao’s case, what is becoming clearer with each disgraced official is that the central government is displeased with Yunnan. It is a troubling new face of the province’s relationship with Beijing.

In the early 2000’s provincial leaders took pride in their appointment to serve as China’s chief representatives for carrying out the country’s economic policies and cooperation initiatives with neighboring Southeast Asia.  Now the Yunnan provincial leadership’s role is tarnished and uncertain.

In an action plan for China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative revealed last month at the Bo’ao Forum, Yunnan province was not listed as a key province despite its geographic significance in the current and future development of the South Silk Road.  Furthermore, the future of Luosiwan International Trade City, which acts as a logistics hub for all Chinese goods travelling overland into Southeast Asia, is surrounded by uncertainty after its owner, Liu Weigao, was arrested for corruption earlier this year.

In the past thirteen months, the entire Communist Party leadership of Yunnan has fallen one by one to charges of corruption. That the man chosen to replace one of these fallen leaders has now been investigated himself for graft only reinforces the notion that something is wrong in Yunnan’s politics. Is it that the profits from province’s tin and copper mines are too tempting for these top officials? Is it their connections to the disgraced security czar Zhou Yongkang and his Sichuan-based clique? Or is it something else?

Whatever the reason, Yunnan’s relationship with the center is clearly troubled with no solution in sight. Those next in line for the province’s party leadership will be desperate to find one; their role in China’s development in Southeast Asia depends on it.

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China summons Burmese ambassador after bomb kills four in Yunnan

China has summoned Myanmar’s Ambassador to China following a Burmese air raid that led to the deaths of four Chinese citizens.

The Burmese military is currently engaged in an armed conflict with the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), centered on the Kokang region. Kokang lies on the border of Burma’s Shan State and China’s Yunnan Province.

According to a report from state-run Xinhua News Agency, four villagers from Yunnan’s Gengma County were killed Friday afternoon while working in their sugarcane fields. Nine others were injured.

A Nanchang A-5C Fantan jet fighter commonly used by the Burmese military.

A Nanchang A-5C Fantan jet fighter commonly used by the Burmese military.

China’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin expressed strict condemnation of the incident in a statement. Late Friday night, Liu urged Burmese Ambassador to China Thit Linn Ohn to fully investigate the incident and report the investigation’s outcomes to Beijing.

In addition, the Vice Minister asked for severe punishment for those involved and for the Burmese to take steps to ensure security in its border regions.

The incident on Friday was the second of its kind in just a week. On March 8, an errant shell fired from Burmese territory landed on a house in Gengma County. No one was injured.

While the Chinese press has pointed its finger squarely at the Myanmar Air Force, the question of blame is not so clear cut on the Burmese side.

An official with the office of the Myanmar president claimed that Burmese forces had informed the Chinese side of their air operations, which were carried out “strictly adhering to the information we told them”.

“The targets of all our aerial attacks were inside our territory,” the official, Zaw Htay, told Reuters in an interview.

“It’s possible that those fighting with us purposely created these attacks with the intent of causing misunderstanding between China and us … We plan to explain it to Chinese diplomats after summoning them.”

The 2015 Kokang Conflict began last month when MNDAA forces launched an offensive against the Burmese military. They attacked in an effort to retake territory lost in 2009 during a similar conflict with government forces. Like the 2009 conflict, this latest flare up has caused tens of thousands of refugees to flee across the border into Yunnan.

Before hostilities broke out in 2009, Kokang, a region largely populated by ethnic Han Chinese, had enjoyed a twenty year ceasefire.

MYANMAR-POLITICS-MINORITIES-UNREST

MNDAA soldiers in Kokang region. AFP image, February 13, 2015

Myanmar has repeatedly accused the Chinese government of  aiding the MNDAA with troops and materiel. Beijing has categorically denied such claims.

The MNDAA was formed in 1989 after the breakup of the Communist Party of Burma, an armed group which Beijing supported for decades.

This latest iteration of the Kokang conflict has done much to strain relations between China and Myanmar.  Despite historically close ties between the two governments, Naypidaw’s efforts to defeat simmering rebellions in its border regions have had consequences for bilateral ties. The 2009 Kokang conflict and the refugee crisis it created drew condemnation from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Additionally, Burmese shells landed in Chinese territory during 2012 and 2013 as a result of Myanmar’s ongoing conflict with the Kachin Indepence Army.

Long Myanmar’s only ally in the region, China has had to compete with other countries for Myanmar’s favor following its implementation of reforms starting in 2011. However, whereas many have claimed Myanmar was distancing itself from China, the opposite may be true following this latest iteration of the Kokang conflict.

Additionally, these threats to China’s border security could test its commitment to non-interference, a key part of its foreign policy. Will another incident provoke China to deploy troops to the region? Will China seek to mediate a ceasefire agreement in Kokang? Does this all mark a significant turn in Sino-Burmese relations? China’s response in the coming days and weeks will help to answer these questions and more.

Update 7:07pm, March 14: According to new reports from China Central Television, China Eastern Airlines has decided to cancel six flights to three cities in Myanmar: Yangon, Mandalay and the capital, Naypidaw. In addition , it is now reported that China has deployed fighter jets to the border region opposite Kokang.

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Kunming Train Station Attack Suspects Arrested in Indonesia

Four of the attackers were found guilty following their trial in September 2014.

Four men suspected of planning the 2014 Kunming Train Station attack were arrested this week in Indonesia. According to a report in the Jakarta Post, the Chinese and Indonesian governments agreed to enhance counter-terrorism cooperation in exchange for  information regarding nine Chinese nationals suspected of planning the Kunming terrorist attack. The agreement was signed by the head of the Indonesian  National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) Comr. Gen. Saut Usman and China’s Deputy Public Security Minister Meng Hongwei  in Beijing on Tuesday, February 10.

The terror suspects were reportedly arrested on Monday near Poso, Central Sulawesi Province. Speaking after the signing of the cooperation agreement,Saut, director of the BNPT,  said that only four of the nine suspects were arrested. Of the remaining five, three fled into the Sulawesi jungle, while two others escaped to Malaysia. After being picked up by police, the four suspects initially admitted to being Chinese nationals from Xinjiang, however they later changed their story, saying they were from Turkey. China and Indonesia signed an extradition treaty in 2009 so if it is true that suspects are indeed Chinese nationals, it is likely that they will be soon be sent to China to face charges.

In recent years, more and more Uighurs have fled China through Yunnan and into Southeast Asia. In  March 2014, a group of more than 200 Uighur refugees were found in a Thai human trafficking camp near the Malaysian border and earlier that month more than 60 Uighurs were caught escaping into Malaysia. In both cases, those in question claimed Turkish nationality. In previous cases, Uighurs found immigrating illegally into Cambodia and Malaysia were extradited back to China, where they were imprisoned.

In Chinese media, connections between the suspects and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have been made. According to one story on Sina.com, the four suspects were found with Islamic State paraphernalia, leading some to believe that they have a relation to the terrorist organization.  To date, more than three hundred Chinese nationals have joined the Islamic State, and recent reports say that three Chinese fighters were beheaded earlier this month as punishment for defection.

Though the exact story of their arrival in Sulawesi is murky at the moment,  Saut believes they are indeed from China. “They are believed to have fled to Poso by taking the land route through Myanmar, southern Thailand and Malaysia. From Malaysia, they entered Indonesia through Medan with Turkish passports and they posed as asylum seekers when they were in Medan,” he said as quoted by Antara news agency. According to Saut, the terrorism suspects went to Puncak in Bogor, Java to join a group of people from the Middle East who wanted to go to Poso.

Central Sulawesi has long been one of Indonesia’s most unstable regions. Starting in the late nineties, tensions between the province’s Muslim and Christian communities began to boil over before a spate of violence gripped the province. A series of bus attacks in Poso in 2002 and the beheadings of three teenage girls in 2005 brought a certain notoriety to the region  and to this day it’s known as a hotbed for extremist activity in the Indonesian archipelago.

The timing of the arrests and the signing of the counter terrorism cooperation agreement between the two countries is unlikely to be a coincidence. According to information received from the Indonesian Embassy in Beijing, the suspects’ names were on international terrorist watchlists and it is probable that Indonesian authorities picked them up independent of Chinese involvement. Following their arrests, it is likely that the Indonesian government used the news as a bargaining chip  to get the Chinese to sign the bilateral cooperation agreement. The arrests, being related to such a high-profile case, and the cooperation agreement should be seen as victories for Indonesia, whose relationship with China is growing closer, despite persistent maritime issues.

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