Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

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@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

A look back at some of the top stories from Southeast Asia in 2015:

1. Landslide victory for Myanmar’s National League for Democracy. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi may be constitutionally barred from becoming president of Myanmar but her party secured an historic victory in the general election. A tenth of the new members of the parliament were former political prisoners, including Suu Kyi herself. NLD’s victory was less surprising than the decision of the military and the incumbent military-backed civilian government to recognize the poll results. Will this lead to sweeping reforms in Myanmar next year?

2. Corruption scandal in Malaysia. First, there were allegations that state-run investment firm 1Malaysia Development Bhd lost a large amount of money due to anomalous transactions. Subsequently, Prime Minister Najib Razak was accused of pocketing more than $600 million from 1MDB. Najib denied the charge and insisted that the money was a donation for his political party from a supporter in the Middle East. Some of his influential allies were not convinced and they tried to persuade him to resign. Najib gets to keep his post (for now) but the scandal is expected to undermine his leadership until the end of his term.

3. Indonesian haze. The recurring haze from Indonesia affected residents of Singapore, Malaysia, and some parts of southern Philippines. Caused by forest fires, the haze reflected the inability of Indonesian leaders to stop plantation owners and farmers from clearing the land for palm oil. But responsibility for resolving the problem is not restricted to Indonesia alone, since several plantations in the ‘ground zero’ of the forest fires are owned by Singaporean and Malaysian companies.

4. Lese majeste cases in Thailand. Since grabbing power in 2014, the Thai junta has used the anti-Royal Insult law to silence and harass opposition leaders, activists, and even ordinary citizens. Some lese majeste cases led to convictions with harsh prison terms. The law is meant to protect the monarchy but the junta is using it to justify repression. Diplomats and foreign scholars are urging Thailand to review its strict implementation of the law but the junta responded by threatening to arrest critics — and recently, even began investigating the U.S. ambassador for insulting the king by questioning the application of the lese majeste law.

5. Corruption scandal in Indonesia. House Speaker Setya Novanto resigned his post after he was accused of asking for a 20 percent stake in the mining giant Freeport in exchange for the extension of the company’s contract to operate in Indonesia. The House leader found it difficult to deny the charges, since his conversation with a Freeport executive was secretly recorded but still insisted that he was only joking. He was being probed for ethics violation when he resigned as House speaker. He is still a member of Congress and leader of the powerful Golkar Party.

6. Rohingya refugees. Thousands of Rohingya boat refugees were pushed back into the seas by the governments of Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia early this year. The Rohingya are mostly Muslim but they are treated as illegal residents in Myanmar. The marginalized Rohingya are living in makeshift camps in western Myanmar, forcing many of them to seek refuge in neighboring countries.

7. Trade agreements and economic integration. Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei are included in the United States-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. Meanwhile, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines are also seeking to join the club. Negotiations over the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a regional free trade area including the ten ASEAN countries and those nations with existing free trade agreements (FTAs) with ASEAN – Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea – continued but did not conclude by the end of the year as had been hoped. Aside from TPP and RCEP, the plan to create a single economic community in the Southeast Asian region known as the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) also took off this year.

8. Cambodia’s opposition lawmakers boycott parliament. Last year, Cambodian politicians vowed to pursue a so-called “culture of dialogue,” which ended the decision of the opposition to boycott the parliament. This year, the opposition boycotted the parliament again for two months after some of their members were beaten by a pro-government group. A defamation case against the opposition leader was also revived. The opposition is now back in the parliament but it doesn’t mean the ruling party, which has been in power for more than three decades already, will stop its attacks against its political rivals.

9. Laos assumes leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Laos announced that the theme of ASEAN in 2016 is “Turning Vision into Reality for a Dynamic ASEAN Community.” Its great task is to help build the foundations for establishing the ambitious ASEAN Economic Community.

10. Philippines vs China maritime case. The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague ruled that it has jurisdiction over the case filed by the Philippines against China over the maritime disputes in the South China Sea (known in the Philippines as the West Philippine Sea). The case proceeded to oral arguments. The decision, expected around the middle of 2016, could also affect the similar claims of several countries in the region and China’s behavior with respect to its neighbors.

11. Death of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew passed away this year, an event that saw an entire country mourning his death and paying tribute to Southeast Asia’s most famous statesman. Global leaders also recalled the visionary leadership of Lee Kuan Yew and his success in leading the transformation of a small island state into a prosperous economy in less than three decades. Lee Kuan Yew’s party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), led by his son Lee Hsien Loong, maintained its leadership by clinching a landslide victory in September.

12. Human trafficking in Thailand. International scrutiny over human trafficking in Thailand continued in 2015, as a shocking expose led to several arrests and rescue missions related to slavery in Thailand’s seafood industry. The discovery of mass graves of trafficking victims in the country and the case of a senior police officer seeking asylum in Australia only heightened concerns about the issue in the country.

13. Vietnam passes transgender law. The new law in Vietnam now recognizes the right of transgenders to undergo sex reassignment surgery in the country. In addition, those who have undergone sex surgery can legally change their gender status. The LGBT community inside and outside of Vietnam welcomed the passage of the law but urged the government to improve it by recognizing the right of all transgenders, including those who are unable to undergo a sex surgery.

Corruption Scandals Hound ASEAN Leaders in 2015

Written for The Diplomat

The year 2015 in Southeast Asia will be remembered for two things: the historic election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party and the corruption scandals involving leaders of the ruling parties in the region.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak is accused of pocketing more than $600 million (2.6 billion Ringgit) from state-run investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Najib admitted that this large amount of money was transferred to his personal bank accounts but denied that the funds came from 1MDB. He claimed that a supporter from the Middle East donated the money for the election campaign of the ruling party, the United Malays National Organization.

The issue has affected Najib’s credibility as a leader and some of his influential allies even called for his resignation. But Najib is undeterred and insists he did not steal from public funds. While he is likely to remain prime minister until the end of his term, the mysterious $600 million donation and the anomalous financial transactions of the 1MDB will continue to undermine his leadership.

In Thailand, the junta is embroiled in a corruption mess after reports surfaced that a park it built in 2014 is grossly overpriced. The Rajabhakti Park in Prachuap Khiri Khan Province featured seven giant statues of popular kings which the junta commissioned to honor the monarchy, the country’s most beloved political institution. But there were allegations that large kickbacks were demanded for the construction of the park.

Last month, a former army chief and deputy defense minister confirmed that an “amulet-hawking middleman” took a 10 percent commission from the project. The army immediately announced that it would investigate the issue. This week, the junta ordered the closure of Rajabhakti Park for “maintenance” after activists and opposition groups tried to visit the park in order to conduct a protest against military corruption. When it seized power last year, the junta vowed to stop corruption in government. But the controversy surrounding the Rajabhakti Park today has raised questions about its credibility to follow through on that commitment.

In Indonesia, House Speaker Setya Novanto is under investigation after mining giant PT Freeport Indonesia accused the influential politician of asking for a 20 percent stake in the company which is estimated to be worth $4 billion. The head of Freeport Indonesia released an 80-minute audio recording of a meeting where Novanto allegedly made the demand in exchange for an extension of the company’s permit to operate in the country. Freeport’s mining site in Papua province has the world’s largest gold mine and third largest copper mine. And though Freeport is also the largest taxpayer in Indonesia, activists and nationalist groups believe that the company should remit a bigger share of its revenues and profits to the country’s treasury.

Novanto, a member of the Golkar Party which fielded a losing presidential candidate last year, allegedly claimed in the recorded conversation that the 20 percent stake is made in behalf of the country’s president and vice president. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has vehemently denied this. According to some analysts, this is already the biggest political scandal to hit Indonesia in recent years.

In the Philippines, Vice President Jejomar Binay is facing several plunder charges in connection to alleged anomalous contracts he signed when he was still mayor of Makati City, the country’s financial center. Binay, one of the frontrunners in the 2016 presidential election, described the corruption cases as politically-motivated. He questioned the string of cases filed against him, which he said was made to disqualify him as a candidate in the election.

But public perception is not in favor of the vice president as evidenced by his declining popularity ratings. It does not help that Binay’s alleged lavish lifestyle and properties have been exposed by the media. To be fair Binay could hit back by pointing out that the ruling party has not yet adequately addressed the issue of the presidential pork barrel program which was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. In any case, the fight against corruption is expected to be one of the major election issues next year.

This year was supposed to be a glorious year for Southeast Asia as the region was set to establish a single and united community. Instead, it will be remembered as the year when the region’s elected leaders and army generals were implicated in embarrassing and unprecedented corruption scandals.

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