Asia in Review Archive (2019)


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16 July 2019

UNHCR passes resolution to investigate Philippines’ drug war

(jd) Last week, Iceland submitted a proposal to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) calling for an international probe into Duterte’s drug war. [AiR 9/7/2019] Amnesty International followed, releasing a report urging the UNHRC for an investigation into the “gross human rights violations” and “possible crimes against humanity” committed under the anti-drug campaign. [Amnesty International] The report additionally doubts the credibility of police reports of drug raids, as well as the legitimacy of ‘watch lists’, which lists drug suspects. [Associate Press]

In a vote on Thursday, the UNHRC narrowly passed Iceland’s resolution, authorizing a “comprehensive” report to be submitted within the following year. While not a full-fledged international probe, the report paves the way for greater accountability on the part of the Philippine government as it allows for the international community to implement tougher follow-up actions should abuses continue. This result comes despite the Philippine delegation’s intense lobbying against the resolution, which the local government deems “hostile”. [The New York Times]

The Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Locsin rejected the resolution, calling it “one-sided” and “detached from the truth”. He further hinted at Philippines’ withdrawal from the UNHRC as a protest against the resolution, contradicting an earlier statement promising Philippines’ compliance with the investigation because of its dedication to human rights. [The Philippines Star] [The Guardian

16 July 2019

First Philippine suicide bomber confirmed

(jd) At the end of June, two suspected suicide bombers detonated a bomb in front of a military base in southern Philippines, resulting in at least eight dead. [Manila Bulletin] DNA tests now helped Philippine security forces confirm that the attack was conducted by a Filipino suicide bomber. Being the first case of a suicide attack conducted by a local, the attack marks an escalation in the use of force by Islamic militant groups in the country, revealing the Islamic State’s rising influence in Southeast Asia. [Channel News Asia] [The Straits Times]

16 July 2019

Philippines: Clooney joins international legal team defending Maria Ressa

(ls/jd) As Maria Ressa, the CEO and executive editor of the Philippine independent news website Rappler, faces several lawsuits for cyber libel, security fraud and tax evasion, she was now able to secure international legal counsel from Amal Clooney and a colleague, who specialize in international law and human rights. Clooney also defended two Reuters journalists jailed for more than 16 months in Myanmar and freed in May. [Rappler]

Since the beginning of the year, Ressa has posted bail eight times and has been arrested twice. Her first arrest was on the grounds of cyber libel in relation to a 2012 story linking a Philippine businessman to illegal drug trade and human trafficking. Her second arrest is on the charges of a violation against a ban on foreign media ownership. These arrests have been criticized by the international community to be a part of a broader clampdown on news media under Duterte’s administration. [The New York Times] [Philippine Star]

Illustrating the general level of violence against reporters, gunmen shot dead a radio station manager in Kidapawan City, a day after another station manager from the same network was hit by human waste in nearby Cotabato City. The victim, who anchored a commentary program in the same station, was the 14th journalist killed under the current administration. Since 1992, at least 80 journalists have been killed in the Philippines, with 66 of the victims murdered with impunity. [Inquirer]

Moreover, Indonesian police have arrested a member of the Muslim Cyber Army, a self-proclaimed cyber-jihadist network, for spreading fake news and hate speech via social media. [South China Morning Post]

2 July 2019

Terrorism: Attack at Philippine military base; arrests in Indonesia

(cl/ls) According to the Philippines Army, the bomb that killed eight people at a military base in southern Philippines on Friday was likely a suicide bombing. [Arab News] The prime suspect is Abu Sayyaf, a militant group that President Duterte had vowed to crush after decades of banditry, kidnapping and countless attacks on civilian and military targets. Radical factions of Abu Sayyaf have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, who through its news agency, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying its fighters had infiltrated the base. [Rappler]

If these suspicions are confirmed, this would be the Philippines’ third suicide bombing in a year, which all occurred in Abu Sayyaf’s stronghold and includes a twin bombing of a church in January. In response, the director has stepped up security and policing efforts in Metro Manila, placing the entire region under a “full alert status” despite detecting no threats within the national capital. [Philippine Star]

In Indonesia, a man believed to be the top leader of the Southeast Asia terror group Jemaah Islamiah (JI) was arrested in a West Java province after a 16-year long hunt. [Straits Times] The JI network is affiliated with Al-Qaeda. The network was behind Indonesia’s most deadly attack in Bali in 2002 and the 2009 attacks on the JW Marriot and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta. [The Diplomat]

Although the group was initially believed to have been decimated in Indonesia following a series of operations by security agencies, counter-terrorism experts had warned that young militants were being recruited and hat the JI network in the country may have expanded to become a 200-strong force.

Moreover, Indonesian police have arrested a member of the Muslim Cyber Army, a self-proclaimed cyber-jihadist network, for spreading fake news and hate speech via social media. [South China Morning Post]

2 July 2019

Duterte backtracks on statement that China can fish in Philippines’ exclusive waters

(cl) On Friday, Philippines’ President Duterte walked back statements that China could fish in Philippine waters after he was accused of waiving his country’s rights to its territories, which his critics say exposes him to impeachment. His remarks came as debates raged over the sinking early this month of a small Philippine fishing boat by a steel-hulled Chinese trawler. [Straits Times] The Philippines President has also threatened opponents with prison if they try to impeach him. [Reuters]

Previously on Wednesday, Duterte said that China could fish in parts of the South China Sea where the Philippines holds exclusive rights, claiming that he was giving China this “privilege” out of friendship, and for the funding and trade relations it extended to his government. [Bloomberg]

Despite Duterte’s reassurance that he would not yield his country’s sovereignty, government officials warned that allowing China to fish in Philippines’ exclusive economic zone violates the Constitution. In particular, a top court judge said that Duterte does not have the authority to waive economic rights to areas that can be utilised only by Filipinos under the Constitution. [Inquirer.Net]

Previously, Senators had objected to Duterte’s decision to agree to China’s suggestion for a joint inquiry into the June 9 ramming incident. A presidential spokesperson said Duterte agreed to China’s proposal for a joint inquiry only with the help of a “neutral country”. [Straits Times]

11 June 2019

Philippines assails United Nations rights exports for “unpardonable intrusions”

(cl) On Sunday, the Philippine government assailed UN human rights experts for their “unpardonable intrusions” into the country’s sovereignty after they called for an investigation into alleged unlawful killings brought about by President Duterte’s drug war. UN human rights experts, in a statement released last Friday, said it was time for the UN Human Rights Council to take action against “sustained attacks on people and institutions defending human rights” in the Philippines because the government has failed to address the issue. [New York Times] Since 2016, more than 5,000 suspected drug pushers and addicts have been killed in police operations under the government’s aggressive campaign against illegal drugs. The presidential spokesman stressed that Mr Duterte’s war on drugs was pursuant to the primary duty of the state to protect the people, rejecting the UN human rights experts’ allegations. Mr Duterte added that he never ordered police to kill suspects in his campaign against illegal drugs, but merely called for police to “destroy the apparatus of the drug organisation”. [Aljazeera]

11 June 2019

Gay rights in focus in the Philippines

(cl) President Duterte has a wavering record when it comes to gay rights. While he voiced support for same sex marriage during his campaign for president in 2016, he is notorious for his foul-mouthed speeches that include insults, threats to perceived enemies and references to rape that he casts as jokes. In his subsequent three years as president, he has frequently invoked homosexuality as an insult, using it to describe Communist rebels, Catholic priests and the former United States ambassador to his country. [The Times] However, at the same time, Mr Duterte has expressed other views that have won him support from Filipino gay rights activists, and is also critical of the country’s powerful Roman Catholic Church. The Philippines has a reputation for openness towards homosexuality, but watchdogs warn legal protections are lacking. [New York Times]

In a recent appearance before the Filipino community in Tokyo last week, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte sparked outrage after claiming that he “cured” himself of being gay with the help of beautiful women. [The Sun] The World Health Organisation stopped classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder almost 30 years ago. [South China Morning Post]


4 June 2019

Philippines, Japan urge cool heads to prevail in trade and South China Sea as tensions escalate

(cl) At a recent conference in Japan themed “Seeking a New Global Order – Overcoming the Chaos”, looking at the deepening global uncertainties as well as military and security tensions in technology and the South China Sea, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte voiced his exasperation with China as he urged her to quickly conclude a code of conduct on the South China Sea with ASEAN. He stated that the South China Sea is on the verge of becoming a “flashpoint for trouble”, given the arms race under way with a military build-up of Chinese ships and those from the West. [Channel News Asia] Previously, Beijing and ASEAN had tried to hammer out a code of conduct to govern the disputed waters, however, the process has been slow. [South China Morning Post]

Mr Duterte, aiming to attract trade and investment from the Asian superpower, mostly withheld his early criticism of Beijing’s expansive claims to the sea. However, in April, he had warned Beijing to not intrude on a disputed island in the sea, implying the possibility of military action otherwise. In a major victory for Manila, an international maritime tribunal had ruled that China’s claims to the area have no legal basis. However, he has largely set aside that ruling and backed off on their once tense territorial dispute, prompting criticism at home that he has been soft on China. [Reuters]

28 May 2019

Philippines bans official travels to Canada over garbage spat

(cl) The Philippines government has confirmed on Sunday that it has banned all government officials and employees from making official trips to Canada, a move that the country is serious in diminishing diplomatic relations with Canada over a trash dispute. [Rappler] The memorandum issued by the Executive Secretary further directed heads of Philippines government agencies to reduce official interaction with representatives of the Canadian government. [The Philippine Star]

In an apparent move to avoid the deterioration of diplomatic ties with the Philippines, Canada said last Thursday that it was ready to ship back the trash, which has been rotting for up to six years in two Philippine ports, by end of June, but Manila rejected the offer and declared that the country will ship back the trash immediately by itself. [Canada’s National Observer]

28 May 2019

Militants attack soldiers in southern Philippines, leaving two children dead

(cl) Six Abu Sayyaf militants were killed in a gun battle last Saturday in a remote village in Jolo in the Philippines. Five soldiers and two civilians were wounded. [Benar News] The soldiers had been sent to the area, where local Islamist insurgencies have long battled the state, to discuss development projects with village elders. According to Commander of the Joint Task Force, the militants were trying to keep the government from establishing a stronger presence in the area. [New York Times]

This battle came five months after an Abu Sayyaf faction bombed a cathedral in Jolo, killing 23 people and wounding about 100. The church had been a frequent target of militants, some of whom pledged allegiance to ISIS. President Rodrigo Duterte had since deployed additional forces in the region to search for the perpetrators of the church attack. [BBC News]

19 March 2019

Philippines officially leaves International Criminal Court

(ls/zf) Within two weeks after Malaysia became the 124th country to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Philippines have officially left the institution. The Philippine government had notified the United Nations Secretary General of its withdrawal last year, but it takes a full 12 months to become effective, barring any new developments in the process. This week the Philippine Supreme Court shut the door on any reversal on president Rodrigo Duterte’s decision by refusing to overrule his directive. [New York Times]

With that said, there is little evidence that the withdraw announcement has been a broadly popular move. Indeed, it has been widely condemned by a diverse set of players and institutions, including those who represent both domestic and international interests. Internationally, some organizations urged the U.N. Human Rights Council to intervene in order to keep a spotlight on any suspected abuses and extrajudicial killings that might occur under the guise of anti-drug crackdowns. [Rappler]

The ICC is the only permanent international body with the proper resources, institutional capacity, and clout to investigate such allegations. It had been in the process of making preliminary investigations into claims of crimes against humanity against Duterte and his administration in the run up to the decision. [Amnesty International] [Al Jazeera]

In a CPG video special, Lasse Schuldt and Phongchisanu Sakkiettibutra discuss current issues related to the International Criminal Court in Southeast Asia and beyond. [YouTube]

19 March 2019

Philippines: Rodrigo Duterte announces “Narco List” including several political rivals

(ls) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday publicly named 46 government officials, including three congressmen, he said are involved in illegal drugs, and added that criminal investigations against them are underway. The officials have so far not been found guilty by court verdicts, but Duterte cited his “trust in government agencies”. Coincidentally, many of the officials, including 33 mayors, eight vice mayors and three members of the House of Representatives, are running in mid-term elections in May. Since Duterte became president in 2016, between 5,000 to 20,000 people have been subject to extrajudicial killings in a “war on drugs”. [South China Morning Post]

19 March 2019

Philippines: Senate to investigate water shortages in Manila

(zf) The Philippine Senate is set to investigate severe water shortages that have affected large swaths of Manila and a nearby province. A spokesman for a local water company that is in charge of regulating water-usage in the areas claimed over six million people will be affected until the return of the rainy season in May and June, which should refill water reservoirs. Under current plans, water will be turned off for these populations for six hours each day in order to make attempts to save and properly distribute a weakened supply across the affected areas. As the companies which run the water supply are sanctioned by the government, many residents have laid the blame on official mismanagement. [South China Morning Post] [Bloomberg]

19 March 2019

The role of the Catholic Church in Philippine politics

(ls) Whereas today, the Catholic Church in the Philippines is rather clear about its role in politics – bishops and priests have the moral duty to speak, but they should leave partisan politics to the laity – there have been times in Philippine history, when the Catholic hierarchy flexed political muscles. Rappler takes an exciting look at the past and present role of the Church in Philippine politics. [Rappler]

11 March 2019

Philippines: Changes to Filipino work policy regarding both foreign in-country workers and domestic workers abroad

(zf) According to an official statement made by the Philippine’s Department of Labor and Employment, foreign workers will be required to secure a work visa prior to their employment in-country. The government says the move is intended to help curb high levels of illegal immigration, and especially those who overstay tourist visas and work undocumented. The new requirements will also stipulate that the employer must be able to demonstrate that the potential employee will assume a role unable to be filled by Filipinos. [Philippine Star]

In related news, it was announced that Manila plans to cut back the number of domestic skilled workers that are eligible for foreign employment by as much as 90%. The policy change will be enacted as a move meant to reduce labor-shortage problems in a fast-moving economy, and as a means to promote Duterte Administration “Build, Build, Build” initiatives that look to keep the fast-moving construction boom moving apace. The new rules will especially effect workers in the infrastructure sector, including those in construction, architecture, and engineering. [Gulf News]

11 March 2019

Philippines: Drug war in the spotlight as midterm elections draw near

(zf) As the Filipino midterms slated for May draw near, President Rodrigo Duterte is highlighting his hardline—and often violent—policy against the illegal drug trade. In the latest move, Duterte has vowed to publicly expose elected officials who he alleges are complicit in the trade. The statement, however, has garnered a backlash among some observers who claim that it would be a threat against the basic rights of accused individuals, and especially due to the threat of violence against the accused, irrespective of whether that person might stand trial for alleged crimes. These concerns are not without merit, as three out of the nine mayors and vice mayors murdered by vigilantes in the country last year were accused of participating in the drug trade. Duterte claims that the public’s right to know outweighs concerns over the individual rights of the accused. However, that view doesn’t seem to be the consensus view in Manila, and already there has been some walking-back of the potential announcement, with the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency chief expressing doubt over the utility of divulging the names of suspected persons before thorough investigations are complete. Over the course of his term, Duterte has made the drug scourge a defining issue of his presidency, and has repeatedly vowed to rid the country of those who are a part of it. As the midterms move closer, it is expected that Duterte continue to emphasize what he perceives to be substantial anti-narco accomplishments. [NPR]

11 March 2019

South China Sea tensions: Vietnam, Philippines, US, China

(jk) Tensions have gone up again this past week with regards to the South China Sea. Vietnam is investigating the sinking of a fishing vessel, which according to a local rescue agency was rammed by a Chinese vessel causing it to sink. The incident happened near the Paracel islands, claimed by both Vietnam and China [NewsCorpAustralia]. The reports have not been confirmed by the Chinese side, instead there was a claim that a Chinese vessel had approached the sunken ship after it capsized and issued a distress call. According to some experts, (ramming) incidents like this happen regularly but are rarely reported widely in the international news media [VOA].

In the Philippines, the focus was on US Secretary of State Pompeo’s visit after the Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana has repeatedly said that the mutual defense treaty between the two countries would need to be reviewed. There is not only the questions of whether the US would come to the Philippines defence in the case of a war over South China Sea features, but also vice-versa, so whether it is wise for the Philippines to being bound to come to the US’ help should they be involved in a shooting war in the region. [Stripes]

Pompeo during his visit, gave assurance in Manila on the applicability of the treaty to Philippine forces in the South China Sea. “China’s island building and military activities in the South China Sea threaten sovereignty [of the Philippines], security and therefore economic livelihood, as well as that of the United States”. He went on to say that “as the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our mutual defense treaty”. [Rappler] The Chinese ambassador in the meantime assured that the People’s Republic of China was not out to attack anyone in the South China Sea, stressing that the PRC is seeking peace and stability but they were worried about attacks from “the other side”. [Manila Times]

11 March 2019

Philippines: Extremist foothold remains stubborn scourge in the restive south despite ISIS failures in the Middle East

(zf) As ISIS continues to haemorrhage territory and influence in the Middle East, some areas in the southern Philippines remain stubborn hotspots of extremist ideology. Despite concerns from analysts and observers, however, the government has mostly sought to downplay the issue, claiming that the groups consist of misguided and disillusioned young people, not international terrorists. The reality is much more complicated: reporting has confirmed the existence of international money and personnel flows among the groups, and some openly display the ISIS flag while claiming to be members of ISIS’ East Asia province. This piece gives some background information on these issues, highlighting the different reactions and responses to the scourge of Filipino extremism. [New York Times]

4 March 2019

Philippines: Ressa’s trial postponed after motioned filed to dismiss libel case

(zf) Maria Ressa, an outspoken critic of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte and founder of the independent newspaper Rappler, filed a motion this week to dismiss the controversial libel case that has been brought against her by the Philippines National Bureau of Investigation. As a result of the motion, Ms. Ressa’s court date has been postponed in order to give the prosecution enough time to respond.

Since her arrest last month, Ressa has been consistent that the case is politically motivated, even going as far to say that the government is sending a signal to Rappler because it does not like its reporting. The developments come amid an international spotlight on the state of press freedom, especially as a result of incidents in Myanmar and Saudi Arabia. It could take up to 30 days for the courts to consider Ms. Ressa’s motion. [CNN]

4 March 2019

Philippines: President Duterte vetoes bill on children’s rights

(ls) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has vetoed a bill that would have banned physical, humiliating, or degrading acts of punishment or discipline by parents or teachers on children. The bill took more than ten years to pass in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Duterte said that his country should resist trends in Western nations. Last month, the House passed a controversial bill lowering the minimum age of criminal liability to 12. That bill still awaits approval by the Senate. [Straits Times]


4 March 2019

Philippines: U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo visits Manila, promises support in the South China Sea

(zf) U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a scheduled trip to Manila this week to discuss relations between the two allied nations, and especially concerns over continued Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. In the meeting, it was reported that Secretary Pompeo assured officials that the Trump Administration would provide Manila military support if under attack by Chinese vessels, as well as promising to ensure that the maritime region stayed open for international trade and commercial transit. He emphasized that any forceful aggression toward Philippine assets would result in the triggering of mutual defense treaties.

In response to Mr. Pompeo’s statements, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman reiterated the Chinese view that their vessels are there to maintain territorial sovereignty and that the U.S. and other foreign ships should have no trouble in the region as long as they refrain from starting trouble. [Guardian] [The Hill]

The treaty emphasized by Pompeo is a 68-year old Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries stating that an attack on one of the signatories should be considered an attack on the other. Interestingly, however, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has been openly dismissive of U.S. support on the international stage in the past. Several years ago Duterte announced an intended military and economic separation from the U.S.; he has publicly commented on a loss of faith in America on several occasions. With that said, some analysts emphasize that besides the bluster, Duterte has made little substantive efforts to seriously hurt the relationship.

For example, despite threats to scrap treaties like the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that gives the U.S. authority to construct facilities on Filipino army bases, the status quo largely remains in place. While some have criticized Duterte’s handling of affairs in the South China Sea as too friendly to Chinese interests, others argue that his statements should be seen a balancing act that reflects the changing nature of hegemonic power in the region: as the economic rise of China becomes more alluring and difficult to ignore, it may be in the Philippines’ best interest to try and deflect the wrath of Beijing while being careful not to totally marginalize its relationship with the U.S. for security reasons. [Rappler] [Philippine Star]