Regional Roundup for Week of 01.18.19

EXSE FOCUS

Thais threaten protest on Jan 19 as government cancels February poll – The Straits Times Hundreds of protesters are expected to gather in Bangkok on Saturday (Jan 19) to demand general elections, after Thailand’s military government postponed a poll scheduled for Feb 24. “If an announcement on the March election is not made by tomorrow (Friday), we will be there on Saturday to demand it,” protest leader Nuttha Mahattana told [Straits Times] on Thursday (Jan 17). The election needs to be held by May 9, according to a law that lays out steps – and timelines – Thailand needs to take to return the country from military rule to democracy.//Spring cleaning: Thailand will want to ensure that elections are completed as early as possible this year. With each delay of the elections, Thailand runs the risk of another international debacle taking place on its soil, as the country is set to host the first of two ASEAN summits in June. Last time, in 2009, pro-democracy protesters broke through the gates into the summit venue in Pattaya and leaders had to be evacuated by helicopters and boats.

Related: Thai coronation expected to temper unrest caused by election delay – The Straits Times

How blockchain could undermine censorship – forever – Southeast Asia Globe Blockchain technology, which supports cryptocurrencies, can disrupt and drastically change the way transactions are made and records kept. Cases of blockchain being used in innovative ways to circumvent traditional information sharing and for political participation have already been achieved in parts of the world, notably Thailand.// ZCoin and blockchain have not just been used for anti-government activism, but have also been used by the Thai government to help store votes for a primary election in Thailand.  The Thai Democrat Party voted for the party leadership using an e-voting system that is considered the world’s first large-scale elections to use blockchain technology.  The use of ZCoin blockchain allowed the party to protect against voter fraud because blocks in a blockchain are unchangeable and open to the public.  As blockchain technology continues to become more mainstream it could have lasting positive impacts on government transparency around the world.

Why Is China In a Hurry to Revive the Myitsone Dam Projects? – The Irrawaddy A statement from the Chinese government on Sunday has renewed concerns among ethnic Kachin over the stalled Myitsone dam project. In the statement, the Chinese Embassy in Yangon claimed that Kachin political leaders and social organizations had a “positive attitude” toward the dam. It added that “local people of Kachin State do not oppose the Myitsone hydropower project; it is some individuals and social organizations from outside that oppose the project.” Three Kachin political parties and community leader Rev. Hkalam Samson immediately issued a statement of their own to insist that China’s claims were false and misleading. //Aung San Suu Kyi has not commented on either claim, but the fact that Myanmar is becoming increasingly reliant upon Chinese foreign investment, as Western sanctions are coming into effect, is a troubling sign for those opposing the dam. So is the fact that in December 2018 Suu Kyi was appointed chairperson of a Myanmar government steering committee tasked with implementing the establishment of the MCEC.

Kong Korm and son return to politics after royal pardonThe Khmer Times King Norodom Sihamoni has lifted the political ban on former opposition party top adviser Kong Korm and his son Kong Bora after the duo submitted requests to the Interior Ministry last week.  According to two separate royal decrees signed by the King on Tuesday, Mr Korm and Mr Bora were among 118 CNRP politicians banned from politics by the Supreme Court in November 2017.

REGIONAL RELATIONS

Why Southeast Asia still bothers with ASEAN – The Diplomat ASEAN leaders came together for the 33rd time between 11 and 15 November 2018. They made statements and agreements and they released declarations. They met with their various dialogue partners and hosted the East Asia Summit, drawing in leaders from the wider Indo-Pacific. They waved for the cameras, the photos of which were dutifully relayed around the region online and in print. Yet, despite the pageantry, nothing much appears to have changed.

How Brexit Is Helping Vietnam in the South China Sea – The Diplomat China offered to bail out Malaysia’s controversial 1MDB fund, according to an investigation made by the Wall Street Journal. The report has Vietnam worried, since it reveals that in 2016, China tried to pour money into Malaysia through infrastructure deals after a discussion on September 22, 2016. In return, that explains why Malaysia’s then-Prime Minister Najib Razak supported Beijing’s stance on the South China Sea during the 28th and 29th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summits in Laos the same year. This kind of offer reflects exactly what many fears about Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative – that China is buying the world. And Vietnam is concerned that it is surrounded by leaders willing to sell. 

How the U.S. Can Step Up in the South China Sea – Foreign Affairs Over the course of his two years in office, U.S. President Donald Trump has been vocal in his disdain for most forms of multilateralism. Yet when it comes to two pressing maritime issues in East Asia, his administration sees the value of friends. First is the problem of stopping illegal transfers of fuel to North Korean tankers in the East China Sea, a tactic that Pyongyang uses to skirt U.S. and UN sanctions. To crack down on the smuggling, the United States and Japan have brought together a coalition of states to identify and report vessels engaged in these illicit ship-to-ship transfers. Then there is the South China Sea, where Beijing continues its military buildup and has doubled down on maritime claims that fly in the face of international law. 

Six-Nation Safe Mekong Operation Project Extended Till 2022 – Chiang Rai Times Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Minister Prajin Juntong has told a press briefing the six-nation Safe Mekong Operation Project will continue anti-drug operations for at least the next four years. The campaign, which began in 2012, has pulled Thailand, Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam together to tackle drug trafficking in the sub-region. Thai authorities will supply a patrol boat to their Lao counterparts with control and maintenance training provided for Lao officials, he said. “There are still various types of narcotics coming out of the Golden Triangle,” ACM Prajin said, referring to the area where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet. “Accordingly, there is a need to seek ways to reduce supply and demand for drugs.”

SUSTAINABILITY AND RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

Plastic polluters launch US$1.5bn waste collection and recycling fund – Eco-Business A coalition of the world’s biggest plastic producers and users has set up a new US$1.5 billion fund to improve waste collection and recycling in developing countries. The fund will focus its spending in Southeast Asia, where waste collection systems are lacking and leakage of plastic into waterways is the most severe. The Alliance to End Plastic Waste is made up of 30 companies including Shell, ExxonMobil, Dow, and Procter & Gamble, along with investment management firm Circulate Capital and New York consultancy SecondMuse. The alliance will invest the fund on waste collection and recycling projects over the next five years.

Riding the Durian Belt and Road: Risky times for Thai agriculture – Mekong Eye Chinese traders are increasingly prevalent in Thailand’s durian producing East, where farmers are abandoning other crops to cash in on the durian bonanza. This dynamic, however, is exposing huge risks fueled by pour foresight in Thailand’s agricultural policy, that in the end may put farmers deeper in debt, and further weaken the country’s agricultural potential as it ebbs and flows with the Chinese market.

Ministry guides oil spill response – Vietnam News More than 200 litres of oil spewed into the world-famous Hạ Long Bay in northern Việt Nam in August, 2017 when a pipe used to transfer the fuel between two tankers ruptured.

Capital fish farms to relocate – The Phnom Penh Post Owners of fish farms in Boeung Samrong lake located in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district have been ordered to leave by the municipal authority. The Phnom Penh authority on Monday issued a notice ordering the owners of fish farms in the lake to move within “10 days from the date of letter issuance”. The district authority said: “In the past, the lake was disrupted by a dam which made it drier and smaller. It could no longer be able to serve its functions.

Bangkok Smog To Cause Economic Damage Of Over $200 Million – Investvine The current severe air pollution crisis in Thailand’s capital Bangkok is expected to cost the country up to 6.6 billion baht ($207.8 million) in additional healthcare costs and losses from tourism as visitors prefer to stay away and go to healthier destinations.

Related: PM searching for haze solution – Bangkok Post

With its $3.85b mine takeover, Indonesia inherits a $13b pollution problem – Conservation News The Indonesian government has acquired a majority stake in the operator of the Grasberg mine, one of the world’s biggest copper and gold mines. The $3.85 billion deal has been lauded as a move toward resource sovereignty, but there’s been little mention of who inherits the massive pollution legacy left from decades of mining waste being dumped in rivers and forests.// The Grasberg Mine sits in one of the most impoverished communities in Indonesia.  Papua Province is home to a large indigenous population that had hoped to see economic gains from the mine that has been operating since 1973.  Instead, very little of the wealth from the mine has trickled down to the indigenous community and the people living in the province have faced conflict with the mine operator and security forces.  With the government of Papua province taking a 10 percent stake in the mine takeover it will be interesting to see if the indigenous communities surrounding the mine will begin to see more economic gains from the operation of the mine. 

Government actively looking into electric vehicles, minister says – The Myanmar Times The Ministry of Industry will encourage the manufacturing of electric vehicles in spite of the difficulties involved, said Minister of Industry U Khin Maung Cho.

CHINA

The Belt and Road Initiative Is a Corruption Bonanza – Foreign Policy Many countries that receive BRI investments suffer from high levels of corruption. On the TRACE Bribery Risk Matrix, most rank in the lower 50 percent, and 10 are among the riskiest 25 countries in the world. They often have opaque legislative processes, weak accountability mechanisms, compliant media organizations, and authoritarian governments that don’t permit dissent. For politicians in these countries, the BRI offers an array of tools for enabling corruption: injections of easily diverted cash, dazzling infrastructure to placate the citizenry, and the imprimatur of a cozy relationship with one of the world’s most powerful nations—all of it wrapped up in a virtual guarantee that their wealthy benefactor will, at the very least, look the other way if any improprieties should surface, so long as the project in question gets built.

Related: China’s Belt And Road Initiative Faces Obstacles in 2019 – Radio Free Asia

8 Ways China Is Encouraging Zero-Subsidy Renewables – Green Tech Media China is aiming to get renewables off of subsidies after capacity additions in 2017 left the administration facing a 110 billion yuan (USD $16.3 billion) payment backlog. The cash shortfall, reported by the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission’s Energy Research Institute, forced the government to suspend all new subsidized solar capacity approvals from May 2018. This month, amid speculation that subsidies will be phased out from the end of 2020, the Chinese National Energy Administration (NEA) released a package of enticements for developers willing to bet on subsidy-free solar and wind projects over the next two years.

China’s Shift to a More Assertive Foreign Policy – ChinaFile To commemorate the fifth anniversary of the China in the World podcast, Paul Haenle is interviewing five of the most respected Chinese international affairs scholars to discuss this important inflection point in U.S.-China relations. For the fourth episode in this series, Haenle spoke with Shi Yinhong, Director of the American Studies Institute at Renmin University and the Academic Committee of the School of International Relations. Shi points to two important turning points in China’s shift to a more assertive foreign policy: the 2008 global financial crisis, which made it clear that China’s economic development was an important engine for global growth; and Xi Jinping’s rise to power, which signaled China’s more ambitious international approach.

SOUTHEAST ASIA

Vietnam prepares for Kim Jong Un visit amid talk of second summit with Trump – The Straits Times Hanoi is preparing to receive North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for a state visit, two sources told Reuters, while officials and diplomats said Vietnam is keen to host a second summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump. A source familiar with the matter said Kim will travel to Vietnam for an official state visit after the Feb 4-8 lunar new year. A separate source confirmed Kim’s visit but did not give any dates. The United States and North Korea are holding high-level talks in Washington this week to discuss a second meeting between Trump and Kim to seek an “interim” deal to revitalize nuclear talks, US and South Korean media have said.

Related: Why Vietnam Should Host the Second Trump-Kim Summit – The Diplomat

VN eyes private investment in infrastructure projects – Vietnam News Việt Nam will focus on attracting private investment in infrastructure to accelerate economic growth, Deputy Minister of Planning and Investment Vũ Đại Thắng said at the Việt Nam Economic Forum (VEF), which opened Wednesday in Hà Nội. Speaking at a workshop on infrastructure development, financing and governance in Asia, Thắng said the Vietnamese Government had paid special attention to promoting private investment, especially via the public-private partnership (PPP) model, in recent years.

EU imposes tariff on rice from Cambodia, Myanmar – The Khmer Times The European Commission has imposed tariff on rice coming from Cambodia and Myanmar by implementing the safeguard measures. The EC said in a press release on Wednesday that a significant increase of imports of Indica rice from Cambodia and Myanmar into the European Union caused economic damage to the EU producers. “Therefore, the EU commission has decided to re-introduce import duties that will be steadily reduced over a period of three years,” it said.

US warned not to interfere despite successful meeting – The Phnom Penh Post A senior Ministry of National Defence official said the Tuesday meeting between the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for South and Southeast Asia Joseph H Felter and General Neang Phat had helped strengthen relations between the two countries’ militaries. However, a senior Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) official hit back at the US’ requests for the release of former opposition leader Kem Sohka and greater democracy in the Kingdom as a violation of Cambodia’s sovereignty and independence.

Chinese Firm Proposes $1.5-bn Elevated Railway for Yangon – The Irrawaddy China is looking to make further inroads into Myanmar’s economy by funding a US$1.5-billion elevated railway project in the country’s commercial capital, Yangon. China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group Co., Ltd (CREEC) made a presentation about its planned project to develop an elevated railway to lawmakers in a media room in the regional parliament on Monday. Under the proposed project, CREEC will build the 37.9 kilometer-long elevated railroad with 24 stations in two to three years. The company said it will fund the project, which is estimated to cost $1.5 billion, but asked for a 50-year contract to operate the service, according to MPs who were at the presentation meeting.

A China Bailout in Malaysia’s 1MDB Scandal? – The Diplomat Earlier this month, new evidence surfaced regarding China’s efforts to strike a deal with the former Malaysian government back in 2016 to bail out the struggling 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund at the center of a billion-dollar scandal allegedly implicating former premier Najib Razak in exchange for deals tied to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The details have once again put the spotlight on the management of Malaysia-China relations under the previous government as well as how such dynamics are dealt with by Beijing and smaller states in the wider Indo-Pacific region.

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