Tag Archives: Southeast Asia

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!


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

New Research: Rubber Expansion Threatens Biodiversity and Livelihoods


Xishuangbanna prefecture in China’s Yunnan province has seen an explosion of rubber cultivation in the past 15 years.

Increasing amounts of environmentally valuable and protected land are being cleared for rubber plantations that are economically unsustainable, new research suggests. More widespread monitoring is vital to design policy that protects livelihoods and environments.

The research was recently published in Global Environmental Change and constitutes a joint effort by scientists at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) East and Central Asia office, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, the University of Singapore and the East-West Center.

Although global natural rubber prices have fluctuated strongly in the last fifteen years, they are likely to continue rising as synthetic alternatives are no match for natural latex. This financial incentive, as well as the expansion of oil palm, an even more lucrative rival, has caused rubber plantations to expand beyond their tropical comfort zone in Indonesia and into the margins of continental south-east Asia.

This has brought wealth to some, but not all, say the researchers. As marginal lands are often too dry, too slanted, too high, too wet, too cold, too windy, or a combination of the above, rubber plantations require increasing amounts of input in the form of fertilizer, pesticides, and labour in order to maintain yield levels – and even then may not be profitable.

The research also suggests that climate change will render 70% of current and another 55% of future plantation areas environmentally poorly suited for rubber. Smallholder farmers’ livelihoods face additional threat from price fluctuations, loss of food security, and the narrowing of income sources.

The environment also suffers. The surge in rubber demand saw valuable and even protected lands being converted into rubber plantations, drastically reducing carbon stocks, soil productivity, water availability, and biodiversity. This is particularly tragic given the high chance of failure.

“There is clear potential for loss-loss scenarios when forest is being cleared for rubber plantations that are not economically sustainable, and that have negative impacts on soils and water balance,” says lead researcher Antje Ahrends from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the World Agroforestry Centre.

Widespread monitoring of rubber expansion and its economic sustainability will prove vital for land-use planning and policy interventions. The team argue that carefully formulated payment for ecosystem services programmes, and a certification scheme for “environmentally friendly rubber” have potential to reduce the environmental impact of rubber expansion while ensuring the supply.

“Oil palm has received much more global attention than rubber, but in fact environmental and social impacts are comparable and the dynamics of the two are related. It may be time for a roundtable on sustainable rubber where the private sector, public parties and scientists can try to bridge the various interests and agree on standards,” says Meine Van Noordwijk, chief science advisor at the World Agroforestry Centre.

This article was authored by Sander Van de Moortel and originally published on the World Agroforestry Centre website. The article is republished, in its entirety, with full permission from the author. 

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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.


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.


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.


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.


Filed under history, Regional Relations, SLIDER

Map of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS)


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